A Suffolk County Parks Museum Shop
St. James (631) 854-3740
Directions: Long Island Expressway to exit 56 (Route 111 north, North Country Road); cross Main Street in Smithtown (Route 111 becomes 25A at this point); continue north to Moriches Road and turn left. The General Store is on the right.
Included within the Deepwells Farm Historic Park boundaries is the St. James General Store, the oldest continuously operating general store in the United States. Currently ongoing interpretive programs at the store include popular period craft demonstrations or events held each weekend with special quarterly festivals or holiday celebrations. All such programs are themed to the turn of the century date coinciding with Mayor Gaynor's residency at Deepwells Farm. The store is open year round, and now includes a post office sub-station inside.
HISTORY OF THE ST. JAMES GENERAL STORE
The Early Days
The story of the St. James General Store is rich with the folklore and history found at the very core of Long Island's heritage. The story really begins with the Smith family, a colorful and inventive lot. Legend tells that early settler Richard Smith was known for his habit of riding bulls instead of horses and acquired the nickname "Bull" Smith. In the late 1600's, Richard Smith bought some land from Lyon Gardiner. Later, folklore claims that he added to his holdings by agreeing with the Nesaquake Indians to ride his pet bull around the property he desired to own. As much land as he could cover in a day would belong to him. Well, Richard Smith encircled what is currently the Township of Smithtown.
In the early 1840's, Ebenezer Smith, a descendant of Richard "Bull" Smith, lived within a hamlet of Smithtown known as Sherawogge. One day, Ebenezer left this idyllic, rural community with an assorment of goods packed on horseback. He set off for adventure and properity found by trading with the settlers and Indians in the Mississippi River Valley. As an enterprising young man, when he heard the news of the gold strike in California, Ebenezer headed for the West.
Ebenezer and Everett's Store
Having some success, Ebenezer returned to Long Island to build a General Store in 1857. By that time, the name of Sherawogge was changed to St. James in honor of the local Episcopal Church.
The St. James of the 1860's was located north of North Country Road, where some thirty houses were concentrated, most of them along Moriches Road, Three Sisters Road and Harbor Hill Road.
The heart of the business district was on Moriches Road from its intersection with Three Sisters Road south to North Country Road. At this site, Ebenezer conducted his business until the St. James General Store, now the hub of the community, was inherited by Everett Smith, son of Ebenezer.
Much of the history of St. James during this period is associated with the store. Here, the residents purchased yard goods, kitchen wares, medicine, shoes, horse medicine, tobacco, groceries, hardware, and more. Since the Post Office was located within this store, it became a central meeting place where the townfolk gathered to wait for the mail, to catch up on the local gossip and to keep in touch with the world.
There were parties, dances and seasonal celebrations held in a large room upstairs. When the first telephone in the village was installed in the store, the establishment became even more of a community center.
The Early Residents
Most of the early settlers of St. James were farmers. Their soil was rich in this area and crops thrived in the fields. Some families, however, made their living by cutting cordwood and hauling it down to the dock at the end of Cordwood Path, a site that is still a short distance from the store. Others harvested shellfish, particularly scallops, soft clams and oysters taken from Stony Brook Harbor. They shipped their catch by schooners to New York City.
Many men also served as captains and sailors on various trading vessels. A cargo of shellfish or cordwood was taken to New York City and traded for the City's abundant horse manure brought back to enrich the farmer's fields. There were also some who worked at shipbuilding. Whatever the labor, these families depended upon the General Store for their goods and services.
In 1873, the railroad arrived in St. James. Immediately, there was fear that the area would fall into the hands of land speculators. That dread, however, never materialized. Instead, an assortment of personalities from New York City discovered St. James.
Local history related that Willie Collier, famous slient actor and playwright was enjoying a bicycle trip from New York City with a few friends. They all stopped to rest in St. James and found the area to be charming. Mr. Collier eventually set up a summer estate and many famous personalities followed his lead.
The old store ledgers show the names of William Gaynor, Mayor of New York; Stanford White, world famous architect; Frank McNish, Lionel Barrymore, Virginia Lee and Joe Flynn. Later these early stars and personalities were followed by others such as Ethel and John Barrymore, Lillian Russel, Maud Adams, Buster Keaton, Myrna Loy, Ruth Roman, Irving Berlin and Heavyweight Champion James J. Corbett. These and many other celebrities signed in at the register of the old General Store, mingling with the farmers, fishermen and tradesmen of the town.
As the calendar drifted from the 1800's to the 1900's, Everett Smith, Ebenezer's son, still ran the store. He was a man who could be as colorful a personality as his ancestors. Everett was a prominent Republican and saw to it that all Republican parades commenced from the front porch of the store.
There is also a story that Everett Smith, as a courtesy, stepped outside to deliver mail to women on horseback who did not want to dismount their horses and come into the store. After a while, he tired of dashing in and out of the store. He posted a sign stating "people on horseback must enter store for mail." One day, a women entered the store for her mail - on horseback.
Another old story relates that architect Stanford White frequently used the telephone to conduct his business. One day, a storm arose quickly while he was at the store. He finished his call and stood quietly on the porch to watch the lightning. Soon he walked away and when he was a safe distance from the store, a bolt of lightning struck the phone he had just used.
Into Modern Times
In 1940, Everett Smith passed away and Karl Ericson, father-in-law of Everett Smith assumed the duties of the storekeeper. Mr. Ericson maintained the store until he was ninety years old.
In 1959 Louise and Andrew Havriski saved the store from a fate as a residence. They maintained the integrity of this landmark with business and service to the community mingled with a sense of preserving an establishment destined to become a piece of living history. In 1980, the store was owned by John and Eleanor Oakley who were also aware of its historic nature. They were concerned that this landmark would become destroyed or misused.
In July of 1990 the 133 year-old general store was purchased in a joint preservation effort between Suffolk County and New York State. The state bestowed a $110,000 grant to make the purchase possible.
Today, the store reflects a period between 1880 and 1910. Sales women dressed in Gibson Girl outfits are eager to answer questions about the store's history or to point out the many museum pieces that highlight the rooms. Artifacts from the Victorian time period line the shelves, mingled with the large assortment of merchandise for sale. There are displays of ledgers and old photographs in museum cases. The St. James General Store is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Throughout the years the old store has resisted the changes of progress. It is unchanged structurally since 1894. The original counters and cases, the post office, coffee grinder, tea canisters, pot belly stove, barrels, old checkerboard, and many other items remain to permit visitors to look at the Long Island of the Nineteenth Century.
Into the Future
Just as local craftspeople sold their wares and demonstrated their skills within the store, there are craftspeople today who enjoy sharing traditional crafts with those who pause to watch and learn. Just as news and literature and cultural changes filtered into the community through the store, there are book signings and storybook hours for children and oral historians who share their experiences with today's visitors. Just as the past inventory reflected both treasures and necessities to rural residents, now the store is filled with future heirlooms or with items that offer a special blend of nostalgia and a taste of our local heritage.
Preservation means more than saving the wood and nuts and bolts of a structure, it also means preserving the entire human experience. That effort is obvious at this site. Today as people make their purchases beneath the old portrait of Ebenezer Smith, it's really business as usual at the St. James General Store.