By Tara Ebrahimian
Published in The Historian, Winter 2019
From the TVHS Archives
“Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time” is perhaps a somewhat hidden treasure of the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS). The nationally recognized exhibit, conceptualized and curated by Dr. Frank Turano, shares, from the American Association for State and Local History, an “Award of Merit” with the 9-11 Museum in New York City. It offers a comprehensive, interactive journey into the history of the Three Village’s working class, multiracial, multi-ethnic community, which existed in three incarnations between 1857 and 1960.
The exhibit is a portal into the past, and the abundance of primary source materials, including personal accounts, pictures, documents, clothing, and other artifacts, enables a visitor to be immersed in the abundant lore of Chicken Hill. A microcosm of the diversity of America, Chicken Hill was only one mile in diameter, but home to many different people, including Native Americans, Eastern and Western European immigrants, and African Americans. At its most robust, hundreds of people lived on Chicken Hill. Throughout its history, Chicken Hill hosted a piano factory, a rubber factory, a public school, and a talking crow. At the center of this community, was the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, a cultural landmark on Christian Avenue.
Brothers Robert and William Nunns were very successful piano manufacturers, who operated a factory in New York City. Robert Nunns moved to Setauket in 1857, and built a factory on Chicken Hill. A relatively small team of employees, including members of the Hawkins and Steinway families, annually produced hundreds of pianos. This operation ran successfully for years, until the start of the Civil War. The biggest market for these pianos was in the South, so the Civil War had an adverse effect on the business; Robert Nunns had to file for bankruptcy, and the factory closed in 1867.
It remained unoccupied until 1876, when the Long Island Rubber Company opened. The rubber factory mainly employed Irish immigrants who came from the Lower East Side; it eventually evolved into the L.B. Smith Company. In 1888, one of the workers decided to form a union; subsequently, the workforce was terminated, and the business filed for bankruptcy. The owners then reincorporated and created the Brookhaven Rubber Company. They repeated this process for the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th century. In 1895, the factory became the largest employer in Suffolk County, employing over 500 people, including many Eastern European Jewish immigrants. It closed in the early 1900s, after a number of damaging fires (at least two of which were of somewhat dubious origin.)
After the fire in 1904, most of the workers left Chicken Hill but the merchants remained. Hymie Golden, the owner of Golden’s General Store, was among other things, a trainer of trotter horses, a racing enthusiast, and the adopted father to a fledgling crow named Jake. Jake imprinted on Hymie, who taught him how to speak. He was such a coveted companion, he was actually kidnapped and spirited away to Brooklyn. Luckily, Jake escaped and flew home to Hymie. The incident was reported in at least one New York City newspaper.
Among the population that resided on Chicken Hill, was Adelaide Sells, a singer at the A.M.E. Church. She won amateur hour twice at the Apollo Theater, and went on tour with an up and coming rhythm and blues singer, Johnny Ace. Carlton “Hub” Edwards, a talented baseball player, pitched for the varsity baseball team as an eighth grader; in eleventh grade, he pitched for both the varsity team and the local semi-pro team. In 1950, his three no-hitters won him the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Shortly thereafter, he and his brother got two draft notices each: one from the Brooklyn Dodgers and one from the United States government.
The occupants of Chicken Hill created and maintained an industrious society, rich in a shared sense of place. Most of the residents rented their houses, however, and following the suburbanization influx of 1960, they had to find new homes. Their departure facilitated the establishment of the commercial district.
Chicken Hill’s three different eras had a lasting effect on the community at large, both culturally and economically, and its impact was felt throughout the Three Village area. The exhibit, curated by Dr. Turano, and Karen Martin, Society archivist, illustrates this influence, featuring a Nunns piano, artifacts from the rubber factory, historic photographs, and recorded interviews with former residents of the diverse community.