There was a time when people owned their own street lights, slept on a hay mattress with rope supports, and did their daily chores without any electrical appliances. For those wanting to take a glimpse into the past, Hendricks Hill Museum in Southport is the place for you.
Established in 1988, the museum is at a circa 1810 farmhouse filled with artifacts, exhibits and photos highlighting Southport’s past. Southport Historical Society was established in 1976 during America’s Bicentennial celebration. Volunteers collected old artifacts highlighting life from the turn of the century and displayed them at the town hall. Once the celebration was over, the exhibits had no place to go as a collection until 1988.
The historical society searched for a place and found a 19th century farmhouse slated for destruction. Society Trustee Evelyn Sherman is an original member and recalls how the Society got the farmhouse. “The owner told Society members they could have it, if they moved it,” Sherman said.
So on Feb. 1, 1988, the Society had its museum, and moved it from Ebencook Road to 419 Hendricks Hill. “I remember the day. There was a little bit of snow with fairly nice weather. A company moved the house and granite blocks to the current location,” she said.
Sherman remains as a longtime trustee and can still recount the names and deeds of Southport’s past. Over the years, she has developed a special bond with the museum. “It’s like my second home,” she said. The museum is filled with maps and nautical navigation instruments used in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In the upstairs children’s bedroom, there are books illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren of Sweden (1896-1970) who was also Walt Disney Co.’s chief illustrator in the 1930s. He eventually made his home in Southport.
The bedroom also has symbols of past times. Sherman pointed out a play-sized Noah’s Ark. “This was a Sunday plaything. Children couldn’t play with their regular toys on Sundays, so this replica is what kids played with.”
And the children’s bedroom has an explanation for the saying “Sleep tight.” The wooden bed frame has a hay mattress laying on rope supports. Sherman said the phrase emanated from this bed-style. “People would use a bed key (a wooden instrument) to tighten the bed and that’s where the phrase came from.”
The museum is open on selected days from July through September. In July and August, it is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. In September, the museum is open on Saturdays. For the past four years, Bruce Joule has served as executive director. He replaced longtime director and founding trustee, the late Ronald Orchard. “He was beyond instrumental in the day-to-day operations. I could never fill his shoes,” Joule said.
The museum had an addition built several years ago. One section is the conference room named after Orchard. During tours, guests enter through the kitchen which includes tables, chairs, dishes and cutlery used in the early 19th century. There is also one fireplace for warmth and a couple for cooking. One is a beehive oven used for baking bread. “In those days, you stuck your arm inside, and if the heat burned off your hair, you knew it was hot enough,” Sherman said.
From there, guests enter the parlor which was mostly used for weddings and funeral receptions, according to Sherman. The next stop is a map room with books, maps and navigational devices used in the 18th and 19th centuries. Next is a maritime room filled with artifacts from a gone-by era. One artifact is a kerosene-powered streetlight. “In the 19th century people owned their own streetlights. They would carry around kerosene which used a potato to plug the can,” Sherman said.
The next room is filled with photographs of Southport’s past along with “then and now” photographs of iconic locations from three distinct town sections: East, West and Newagen. The room also has a set of old post office boxes. Joule used one as a kid. “Southport once had three post offices. I still remember the combination of my box,” he said.
The upstairs addition houses bedrooms along with a collection of historical washing machines, irons and winter sleds and skates. In the children’s bedroom is a replica of Dorothy Gale’s ruby shoes from the “Wizard of Oz.” Summer resident Margaret Hamilton, who portrayed the Wicked Witch of the West, donated the shoes.
Joule said visitors can easily spend over 90 minutes reviewing all the stored relics. He remembers one day a New Jersey man stumbled upon the museum. “Word of mouth and passers-by account for the majority of visitors,” he said. “One summer, a guy staying at the Ocean Gate with no ties to the region stopped by. He and his wife had stopped at the store for lunch. He was into history. She was not. He brought her back to stay by the pool. He spent the afternoon here.”
The museum’s collection is so large, the addition and original building cannot hold everything. There is an adjacent boathouse where watercraft from the past are stored. There is Link Webster’s lobster boat, a dory used to fish 40-50 pound cod along with mackerel and tuna out of the Atlantic; a skiff built by Osmond Brewer. “He built it down in Cozy Harbor. He charged $1 per foot when he sold the 16-foot boat,” Sherman said. There is also a schooner used to cut ice out of Sawyer Pond. “The ice was packed in sawdust, and sent to the Caribbean and India,” Joule said.
The boat house also stores 19th century fire apparatus. There is also a scene from the 1950s: Gus Pratt’s store counter where teenagers drank milkshakes and devoured hamburgers and french fries. “This is truly iconic. It’s Smithsonian quality,” Joule said.
The museum also has its own permanent guest. Sherman said a ghost named Wilbur lives there. One day, Sherman and Orchard heard a door slam shut. “We must have a ghost,” Orchard joked. Sherman recalled a time when Orchard told the story during a tour. “Ronnie told the story, and a child began to cry,” she said. “He thought quick enough to comfort the child. ‘It’s a friendly ghost,’ Orchard said. ‘He’s happy we saved his home from being torn down.’”