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Living history on a South Midway Road estate: Legendary ‘Kemah’ is for sale

It’s 23 acres of Shelter Island history, from the time the Native people lived on it and used it as an access point for drinking water from Fresh Pond.

History still lives on the property, literally, with a barrier, or berm, the Native people constructed to keep the freshwater from saltwater intrusion, and which can still be seen today.

In 1750, George Havens built a wood-shingled house on what is now South Midway Road, naming it “Kemah,” a Shinnecock word meaning “in the face of the wind.” The name still applies today, with breezes from the southwest washing over meadows and two waterfront lots with elevated ground looking over Fresh Pond and Peconic Bay.

Kemah is for sale, listed for $14,999,500, said Penelope Moore, a Saunders and Associates broker. “Few properties epitomize the history of the East End amid the backdrop of American history more succinctly than Kemah does,” Ms. Moore said. “When you walk through the grounds, in the barn and in the home, and then gaze out onto the water, there is a palpable feeling that the land has witnessed countless significant events and seen great people over its nearly 300 years.”

George Havens, who arrived on Shelter Island in 1698, took ownership of 1,000 acres of property in the center of Shelter Island from Nathaniel Sylvester in March 1700, according to Ralph Duvall’s “The History of Shelter Island.” Through the years, Kemah has been the home of Tuthill families and others. And now, its current owner, the J.D. Robb family, has put this historical, beautifully restored jewel on the market.

In her research, Ms. Moore found a document in the Shelter Island Historical Society that relates information from a 1924 presentation to the Society by Amy Tuthill Wallace, the great-great granddaughter of John Wickham Tuthill, saying that her father saw a dozen canoes in a “pow-wow” called by the tribal chief, and that there had been “two canals, still in good condition, [that] ran across West Neck from Tuthill’s Creek to Fresh Pond, where the [Native Americans] kept their war canoes.”

The canals and berm that kept fresh drinking water viable were constructed by overcoming severe challenges, since “the Manhasset had only stone and wood tools for digging the canals, they were ingenious constructions,” according to “An Island Sheltered,” by Priscilla Dunhill. “They ran a quarter of a mile from the sea to Fresh Pond, providing an excellent channel for concealing canoes from the view of sea marauders.” That channel, which Ms. Dunhill noted is “about the width of a war canoe,” ends at the protective berm.

The Island’s strong ties to the Revolutionary War is also part of the Kemah saga. In a Reporter story from July 2019, Karen Kiaer, historian of the Shelter Island Daughters of the American Revolution, and Joyce Bowditch-Bausman, the DAR’s honorary regent, spoke about how during the Revolution, when neighbors could be friend or foe, Shelter Island had surprisingly uniform support for independence from the British.

During a particularly harrowing time of the war, many Islanders fled to escape British martial law. “Those who remained faced six years of misery … our Island, with such a small population, could have harbored very few loyalists,” wrote Helen Otis Lamont, in “The Story of Shelter Island in the Revolution.”

Ms. Lamont notes that Obadiah Havens, an officer in the Suffolk County Militia, lived at Kemah in those days before martial law was imposed. He escaped to Middletown, Conn., where he went underground at times to serve the revolutionary cause.

As Ms. Moore has written, “Many of the original details remain intact today including the wood shingles, the grand two-story 1,600-plus-square-foot barn built in 1886, a hand-stacked fieldstone garage built in 1918, a water tower, chicken coop, a central chimney of bricks brought from Holland originally as a ship’s ballast, and exposed beams. The beams were cut and seasoned in saltwater for one year prior to being dried, cut and carved with Roman numerals for construction and possible future dismantling and rebuilding elsewhere. According to Shelter Island Historical Society, ‘Traveling houses are a leitmotif of Shelter Island.’”

The first floor, Ms. Moore noted, “consists of a center-hall foyer, living room with wide brick fireplace and hand carved mantle, dining area with doors to a wide-screened, water view porch, two bedrooms with a full bath, kitchen with vaulted ceilings and exposed beams and a separate butler’s pantry with half bath and laundry area. The second floor features two bedrooms with panoramic water views and two bedrooms with scenic farm views. The unfinished attic has double height ceilings, windows on each end, pegs for storage of horse gear, and a magnificent ladder to reach the very top of the ceilings.”

Brick, stone and mortar remain as testimony to the history of the families who have lived at Kemah. But nature is also an inseparable part of the enduring legacy of the place, with water views and open meadows. There are also markers to remind you of the centuries the place has remained vibrant with change. Ms. Dunhill, in her history of the Island, has written: “An ancient tree still spreads its shade over the 18th-century [front]. A 19th-century barn and 20th-century shed clad in beach rocks are admirable testimony to three centuries of Shelter Island’s vernacular architecture.”

An interior view of Kemah. (Credit: Saunders & Associates)