Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Turn-of-century general store replica opens at Southampton Historical Museum

Turn-of-century general store replica opens at Southampton Historical Museum

The newest store in Southampton Village swung open its door for the first time on Saturday and undoubtedly offers the lowest prices around: coffee beans for 40 cents a pound, rat poison for 11 cents, and cookie cutters for 30 cents a dozen or 3 cents each.

Hildreth’s General Store, a roughly 300-square-foot shingled building on the grounds of the Southampton Historical Museum, is a 1903 replica of its landmark namesake store on Main Street. Long vacant, the small structure is now outfitted with antiques such as a 244-pound laundry stove, an elaborate, old-fashioned cash register that is likely at least as heavy, a butter churn, a potato cutter, and glass milk bottles bearing the names of past Southampton dairy farmers.

Though handwritten price tags hang from each item, nothing is actually for sale. The shop serves as a permanent display as an extension of the museum and is sponsored by Henry Hildreth, the fifth-generation Hildreth to head the store. It will remain open to visitors through at least October, when the heatless building will close for the winter, and reopen next summer, said Tom Edmonds, executive director of the museum.

Prices were researched by the Hildreth children, Kailey, 14, Sayre, 11, and Henry IV, 9, using a 1902 Sears catalog to be historically accurate, explained Mr. Edmonds. Their mother, Colleen, dressed in period garb on Harvest Day on Saturday to man the counter—an authentic counter from Hildreth’s earlier days. She gave away penny candy, apples and potatoes for free that day. Her historical character would have earned about $8 to $10 a week, Mr. Edmonds estimated.

The year 1903 was selected largely because that marked the year electricity came to Southampton, Mr. Edmonds said, and he wanted to be able to use lights in the shop. Indeed, three bare bulbs hang from the ceiling. “Electricity was a new wonder. There was no reason to put shades on the light,” he reasoned.

The goal in opening the “shop,” he said, is to make use of a once-abandoned building and to provide an educational outlet that he foresees local students visiting.

The dry goods represent a sort of charmed obsolescence: wooden sock “forms” used to reshape drying stockings, and an “apothecary” of early 20th century medicine containers. A great number of the historical objects were dug out of the museum proper, where they had not been on display, Mr. Edmonds said. With their new home in the general store, they are available for viewing and appreciation by the public, he said.

The Hildreth family and some Hildreth’s employees helped set up the store, as did members of the local Savage and Finger families. John Griffin, a member of the museum’s advisory board, donated the shop’s front and only door.

The mom-and-pop general store is flanked by a blacksmith’s shop on the north and a “decoy shed” to the south. Mr. Edmonds said it was foresightful in the 1950s that the nondescript building was preserved, and it now represents a largely lost symbol of local trade stores. Such buildings were once the norm on Main Street and Jobs Lane, he said.

Asked in jest if he views the new store as competition to his Main Street business at a recent interview in the shop, Mr. Hildreth laughed and said he did not, but that he felt relieved about it, and that his children had a good time helping out.

From behind the counter, Judy Rewinski, a Hildreth’s Home Goods employee, smiled when speaking of the positive reaction among children who visited the store on its opening day. The fruits and vegetables handed out that day were just about the only items in the store not dated circa 1903.

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