Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Willets Homestead and Morton Manor

The photo to the left, which appeared in the late 1920s edition of the Brooklyn Eagle, is of Willets Avenue in West Hempstead, looking east, with a row of freshly built homes. The name Willets is one of the earliest and most popular surnames throughout Long Island. Anyone who does a little driving around the Island (or listens to traffic reports) has no doubt come across references to I U Willets Rd, or Old Willets Path or Willets Point in Queens.

Here's what I've been able to uncover about the namesake of West Hempstead's Willets Avenue. We pick up the story with a Platt Willets, who moved to from Huntington to Hempstead in 1805 and established a tannery there. Platt Willets acquired his given name probably to honor his mother's family, Mary (Platt) Willets, whose great, great grandfather, Isaac Platt, was among the very first English settlers of Huntington in the 1660s, and Isaac's father, Richard Platt, was counted among the pioneer settlers of New Haven in 1639.

Platt Willets was a prominent citizen who served as Hempstead Town Clerk in 1817-1818 and was elected Queens County Treasurer in 1836. One of his sons, George Willets, was born in 1820 who went on to become a liquor dealer in Hempstead. George was a defendant in a court case in 1873 that went all the way to the NY State Court of Appeals. The case involved an acquaintance from Hempstead, a scam artist who arranged the sale and delivery of 5 barrels of whiskey from a distillery in Brooklyn. The barrels arrived via the LIRR and, Willets, thinking the acquaintance was an agent of the distillery, met him at the station and paid him for the sale. When the distillery sent Willets a fresh invoice for the goods, George refused to pay, claiming that the agent already collected the payment. By that time, the scam artist skipped town and the distillery promptly sued Willets. The court ultimately held Willets liable for payment, invoking the principle of caveat emptor.

George was married in 1846 to Phoebe Gildersleeve. Some time after he married, he purchased a farm just west of Hempstead Village, on the south side of the Hempstead & Jamaica Plank Road.

In 1852, they had a son, Sylvester Woodbridge, the same year that Platt Willets died. Sylvester was ostensibly named after the Rev. Sylvester Woodbridge Jr. , minister of St. George's church who officiated at his parents' wedding. Sylvester became a stone mason and feed dealer in Hempstead. At one time he was a foreman in the Hempstead Fire Dept. He was also a director in the Hempstead & Jamaica Plank Road Co., as was his father. (The Hempstead & Jamaica Plank Road, now Hempstead Turnpike, was a private toll road until it was purchased by Queens County in the 1895. The easternmost toll house on the road was located in West Hempstead, approximately across the street from when the WH Fire house is now located). He also served as president of the Hempstead Rod & Gun Club.

When George died in 1892, Sylvester inherited the farm in West Hempstead. The farm was bounded by Hempstead Tpke to the North, Hempstead Ave to the south, and Maple Ave (Maplewood) and Westminster Rd. to the west and east, respectively. Some time in the early 20s, Sylvester sold the farm to a developer who laid out streets for a planned community called "Morton Manor". One of the streets would be called Morton Ave. Another street, Willets Ave., paid tribute to the original owner of the property. Shortly after the streets were platted the property went into foreclosure and the plots auctioned in 1925. Preferred Homes, Inc. then built the homes shown in the photo above. In the '30s the depression took a big toll on property values, as homes that were originally built to sell at close to $8,000 were being liquidated at half that amount.

To the left is a "now" shot of the same view at the top of the post. Note the same tree in front of the second home and its growth over an 80 year span. Aside from the trees, as you can see, not much has changed on this block.

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