The Josiah Foster House Speaks…After 157 Years of Silence

Written By: Sharon Azzato

“Where I come from nobody knows and where I’m going everybody goes, the wind blows the sea flows . . .and God Knows.” This mystical statement I had read somewhere over 30 some years ago. I have long forgotten the book or author, but I believe it was about someone who came through time past, to find a person they needed to meet and love. My story today is about a house whose origin I do know. It was born in the little Hamlet of East Quogue. It’s form and structure created from the very trees that were in the orchard where it was conceived in the mind of Captain Josiah Foster, in 1857. Recently I have felt The Josiah Foster House speaking to me, whispering in my dreams, to write it’s story after almost 160 years of silence. Perhaps more than the house itself wishing to speak, are the spirits or their ethereal essence of those who have lived within it’s walls wishing now to be heard. I am but a conduit of these many noble voices who have lived here. The Josiah Foster House lives on the main street next to the Methodist Church in the center of a little hamlet in the Hamptons, called East Quogue. In the 1600’s, when Indian tribes roamed the Island, this area was called Fourth Neck, then around 1852 this sleepy little hamlet became Atlanticville and with more time passing around 1895, became known by the name it carries today; East Quogue. With the advent of the Long Island Railroad, more people came to Long Island and loved the ocean, the beaches, and bays, and the pastoral atmosphere of the many farms. The Josiah Foster House was first built for a local resident and sea captain known as Captain Josiah Foster, in the year 1857. He built this venerable house on 70 acres, to have a farm for his wife and four children. After14 years, he sold the farm to his brother-in-law, Orange Fanning and built a new farm in Sagaponack, where he tragically died four years later, from injuries sustained in a fall in his barn. The next owner of the Josiah Foster house, Orange Fanning, grew up in this quiet little hamlet, in the mid 1800’s and at a young age made his fortune selling cord wood. Shortly after, he and his young wife, settled into their new home, the first shadow of sadness came into the Josiah Foster House. This was the unexpected death of his young wife and infant son, during childbirth. There were no hospitals back then and people were born and died at home with little hope of medical care. Her grave is in the abandoned cemetery next door and next to her grave is a small grave which says “Our Son.” It faces in the direction of the Josiah Foster House and the inscription on the grave reads, “In eternal remembrance. . .” Because of his grief he soon sold the house and farm, and later settled in Port Jefferson. Several other families lived here until the 1880’s when my grandparents bought the house and farm. The house now is now named, “Downs Manor” for the four generations of Downs who have and still live here. My father was born here and lived in this home for 93 years. Having been raised by his grandparents, in this house, he recounted many remembrances of the Hamptons, when there were mainly farmers, sea captains, bay men, and duck hunters. He would speak of the many wedding celebrations and even funerals that took place in the house before the Methodist Church, next to the house, was built in the late 1880’s. The Down’s Manor began to also rent rooms to the summer folks who came to enjoy the sea shore and escape the heat of New York City. I still have a picture of a little girl who boarded here in the 1880’s with her mother and along with another lovely picture of her grown up with her husband and friends in a model T-Ford. My father is pictured on the running board of the car, as a little boy, of six, circa 1912. There were so many tales my father could tell as he lived through so many eras from his birth in 1906 until his passing in the year 2000 at the age of 93. He never knew ill health and used old fashion remedies his grandparents had taught him, and believed honey, cod liver oil, garlic, and apple cider vinegar was the elixir for vibrant health. My Grandfather, Ferdinand Downs, was born in this venerable home, too, in the late 1800’s. He was a constable in the town of Southampton, and was shot and killed in the cross fire between his men and bootleggers, during prohibition, in the 1920’s. He left behind five children; my father being the oldest. The funeral was so massive because an officer of the law had been killed. The Klu Klux Klan arrived to show their respect for my grandfather’s untimely death, and over 600 Klan members with their horses, also wearing capes, followed his coffin to the graveyard, in East Quogue. Beyond this sad but unusual story there were so many other interesting people who lived here in the past 157 years. The first school teacher of East Quogue was my great grandmother, Ida Squires Downs. My grandmother, Selma Hill, was the last one room school teacher on Long Island and she resided here at the end of her life. There were many others such as, ministers, doctors, sea captains, and farmers who lived here as well. Often people pass through their life’s time in relative obscurity, and who they are and how they lived are lost within the collective consciousness of time passing. But for those venerable homes who have endured and the stories of their inhabitants survived, they provide a portal into our past. They are the early roots and the foundation, of the Hamptons we know today. Do you recall Thornton Wilder’s Play, “Our Town,” and the stage manager in the play describing a small town known as Grover’s Corner? It was about a small town and a few of its inhabitants. Remember the character Emily, when having died she is allowed to go back to her 12th birthday and how precious even the most inconsequential day becomes when we look back in time? Little Grover’s Corner then takes on a universal significance as a miniature of every place and every person who has lived. Well then, here is the Josiah Foster House, in the hamlet of East Quogue, in the town of Southampton, in the County of Suffolk, in the State of New York, in the country of the United States, the Northern Hemisphere, the World, the Universe, and all that might lie beyond even that which I call The Mystery. l have provided only some brief glimpses of the Josiah Foster House, alias Downs Manor and some of the people who have lived here these past 157 years. If you pass through little East Quogue on your way to the greater or lesser Hamptons look on the North side of Montauk highway. Just after the Methodist Church, is a white two story farm house with blue shutters and a little historic marker and American flag. It is now called Down’s Manor for the 4 generations of Downs’ who have owned it. Only an acre remains of the 70 acre farm that once flourished here. The many barns and stables are long gone. What was once a sea captains home and farm, now is a shadow of its former glory, but it has been fortunate to survive the course of time. Within it’s walls are the fabric of the many lives of our East End’s historical heritage. For those historic homes that have endured, they offer a wonderful window into our past. Once housed within them were the early settlers who cleared the forests for our first farms and carved the earliest roads we now travel upon. Their ancestors and of course ours, too, came from Europe in the hopes of a new world, religious freedom and independence. They settled here to create their present and ultimately our future in the homes they built so long ago. The homes they built, such as the Josiah Foster home, were built to challenge time and tide, and to house and shelter the many lives who have passed through it’s doors these past 157 years. Hopefully, their structures will always be valued and preserved; the inhabitants remembered. So speaks the Josiah Foster House, alias Downs Manor House through me . . . I am but the messenger.