When I was just 18 years old, full of the excitement of a kid who’s just left home, I moved into a tiny cottage on the Main Road in Aquebogue. It was dangerous. Even back then, in the mid-90s, the traffic was unrelenting and sidewalks were few and far between. I didn’t have a car but I had a P.O. Box at the old Aquebogue Post Office and a baby in my belly just waiting to get out and taste this big world.
Every day of that year of pregnancy and stroller walks is like a dream memory. I can tell you every storm grate and every gnarled tree that uprooted the brief sections of sidewalk between my house near Route 105 and the bottom of the hill at the corner of Church Lane. I can remember every oversized envelope that I exchanged for a yellow slip in that old post office, each bearing a new selection from the Quality Paperback Book Club, and I can remember every time I walked back up the hill with a new catalog from Edward R. Hamilton’s remainder book sale newsletter. I remember the blooms on the flowers at the farm stands and nurseries and the never-ending new, complicated scents that you can only smell when you take the time to take a walk.
Across from the Aquebogue Veterinary Hospital is another hill that seemed pretty steep to someone who was about to have a baby. Smack dab in the middle of that hill is a big tree whose roots are uprooting the sidewalk. Under that tree, you can sit and stare for hours at the Witch’s Hat.
I didn’t know that the Witch’s Hat was called the Witch’s Hat until I heard last week that some people in Aquebogue are trying to save it. It’s just a little building on the edge of the driveway to the veterinary hospital, with a tall, conical roof and a lot of windows with little panes. I thought it was the most beautiful building of all time.
I thought it would be a good library for all the books I was collecting. I squinted and dreamed that I would some day build an exact replica of that building for a writing studio. I dreamed of the life of a hermit with a Royal Safari typewriter, who goes to town once a week to buy bacon and typewriter ribbons and check the post office for a letter from my editor.
Richard Wines, who knows just about everything about the history of Riverhead’s buildings, sent me what little is known about the history of the building: It was built by Harry Flemming, an English immigrant and machinist, in the early 1920s. It was known in those days as “The Lighthouse.” Estelle Evans told Riverhead’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1983 that there was a gas pump there that served as the primary income at the site, but you could buy candy, tobacco and eventually ice cream in the Lighthouse. In 1986, it was added to Riverhead’s landmark list, with a note that the veterinarian at the time, Dr. Brown, had recently reglazed the windows. The 1930 Census listed Mr. Flemming’s wife, Lena, as the head of the household at the address, after Mr. Flemming died. Lena was listed as the owner of a candy and cigarette store.
Now, the “Save Main Road” group, which has been active in efforts to keep a YMCA from being built just east of Aquebogue and is working to have the highway designated on the national register of historic places, is launching an effort to repair the Witch’s Hat.
It’s still owned by the animal hospital but it’s certainly seen better days. Veterinarian Richard Hanusch had been told in the past by builders that it would cost an arm and a leg to fix. So Save Main Road has set out to do the work themselves.
Volunteers will be needed soon to clean up the building, strip off the rotting shingles, install new shingles and paint. Carpentry skills will be helpful, but all hands are appreciated. More information is available here. If you want to volunteer your efforts, send an email to Mr. Wines at firstname.lastname@example.org. Without a doubt, you’ll see me there helping to restore a piece of all of our past.
Video by Cliff Baldwin for Save Main Road.