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© 2019 COW NECK PENINSULA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

336 Port Washington Blvd., Port Washington, New York 11050
www.cowneck.org         516.365.9074          info@cowneck.org

The Baxter House, before...

by Christopher Bain

In early April, 1904, local photographer John Witmer set up his view camera in the middle of Shore Road.  A large dark cloth covered both his head and the back of the camera, blocking out unwanted light.  Now he could carefully frame and focus his lens on the old Baxter Homestead, their family farm, and the edge of Baxter’s Ice Pond.  A couple was approaching, walking up Shore Road, about to enter the left edge of the carefully composed scene, so Witmer had no time to lose.  Once the couple walked into his frame, John Witmer clicked the shutter, and captured this scene for us to view more than 111 years later.  

To truly enjoy John Witmer’s photograph greatly enlarged, click here!

 

John Witmer was well aware of the rich history surrounding the Baxter property. Long before the Baxter family purchased the property. In the mid 1600’s, this had been the site of a thriving Matinecock Indian village. Then a home had been built on the property by Robert Hutchings and John Betts in the late 1600’s, and in approximately 1742 the property was purchased by Oliver Baxter who established a fullering business to serve the few hundred people who lived in town, then known as Cow Neck. 

During the American Revolution, the British hired more than 18,000 Hessian soliders from Germany, posting them throughout the American colonies, eventually to fight alongside the Brits against the American colonists. The Hessian mercenaries often occupied rooms in local homes, including the Baxter House and the Dodge House, both situated near the water and the center of town. Most American, those loyal to King George and those favoring independence, feared the Hessian soldiers, who had reputations for brutality second only to actual British soldiers.  Having them living in your home in 1776 was not a welcome circumstance, to put it mildly.

John Witmer had heard these distant stories of early Cow Neck. The Baxter family had been been involved in many trades over the previous century, as whalers, shipbuilders, fullers, blacksmiths and other trades of the era.  Ida Baxter had been the village’s third postmaster, working out of the nearby McKee’s General Store, at the Mill Pond.  Just a decade before, in 1895, the State of New York had chartered the town’s first library, where townspeople could meet, read, take out books, all in the parlor of the Baxter house. A few years after Witmer took these photographs the house was purchased by noted American architect Addison Mizner (1872 - 1933) who created homes and resorts in a Spanish Colonial Revival style as well as Mediterranean Revival style largely in Florida. He realized the importance of historic tradition, and thus left the Baxter home largely unchanged. 

Witmer photographed the Baxter house and property many time in April, May and June of 1904.  He focused on the house, on the rolling farmland, and on the ice pond. Here are some of his most arresting images (all of which can be enlarged by clicking on them).

Below is a view of the Baxter Ice Pond, which had been formed in the mid 1800’s by damming up the stream that ran down through the property to the bay. “Baxter Estates” was still a few years in the future.

A rare view of the house from the north.

The last of the Baxters to live in the house sold it in the late 1890’s, before Witmer began photographing the area. Although the owner’s names in 1904 have been lost to history, Witmer was friendly with whomever he met, and captured more intimate views of the home and its inhabitants, including an exceptionally rare interior, shown below.

This photograph hints at the magnificent sunsets seen daily.

A rare interior photograph of the dining room of the Baxter House, April 1904.

Many other photographers photographed the area, of course, some of them with the intent to make postcards, which were extremely popular in the early 1900’s.  Wherever people traveled, they often sent postcards off to family and friends, showing off their travels.  Here is the most beautiful of the Baxter Pond cards, showing the rolling hills and farmland, before the 1910 development of Baxter Estates.

Here is a view of the newly created Baxter Estates, circa 1910, showing off the beautiful stone wall which survives into 2019.

In our final views of the developing hills of Baxter Estates, you can see children enjoying the frozen pond, which the people of Port Washington did until the early 1970’s, often referring to it as “The Duck Pond”.  Central Drive appears to be in place, and additional roads are probably under development.

An enlarged section from the image above.  The two houses on Central Drive are still there today!