By Beverly Tyler
In the many years before his death in 1931, Jacob Hart was a familiar figure in Setauket, especially around the mill pond where he lived with his wife Hannah and their children.
Jacob was born in March of 1857. As a young man, following the end of the Civil War, he signed on as a cook, probably on local coasting schooners carrying cargo and occasional passengers around Long Island Sound and up and down the Atlantic coast. Jacob followed the sea for a time but the start of a series of depressions in 1873 may have ended his career as a ships cook.
Two years later Jacob married 19 year old Hannah Eliza Taylor, who at the young age of 14, arrived in Port Jefferson from her home in Virginia. She had been sent north by her father to escape a “nasty-mean” stepmother, as told by her daughter Lucy Hart Keyes, “. . .her father said, ‘I’ll send you somewheres where you can get your education and you’ll be treated nice.’”
Despite the recessions, the opening of the rubber factory in Setauket gave Jacob the opportunity to have employment close to home. Work at the five-story, former piano factory, however was not easy nor did it provide steady employment for Jacob or the other local men, women and children who worked there. The rubber factory, opened, closed, reorganized, and failed frequently, so less skilled workers like Jacob found themselves unemployed one month and working eleven-hour days, six days a week the next month.
By the time the rubber factory opened in 1877, on what became known as Chicken Hill, Jacob and Hannah’s first two children, Daniel and Rebecca, had been born. Regarded as one of the best workmen at the factory on Chicken Hill, Jacob worked there until the factory closed for the last time, probably in June of 1898.
Jacob and his family lived most of their married life in a Cape Cod-style house at the intersection of Lake and Main Streets in Setauket close by the stream that becomes the Setauket Mill Pond after it passes under Christian Avenue. Their daughter Lucy, born in February 1899, spoke about growing up in Setauket. “Papa always had pigs. We raised chickens, we had ducks . . .Papa had a garden and he always raised his own potatoes, cabbage, yellow turnips, a lot of white beans, and then we had what you call samp. That was a Long Island dish, everybody ate it.” Lucy also talked about how her father used his boat to keep the stream behind the house and the ponds clear of debris. “Papa loved that pond and he loved them people and he kept it cleared out.” In the first decades of the 20th century Jacob Hart, like many local “day laborers” (1900 census), had many jobs and he was well-known and well-liked around town.
The story of Jacob’s wife, Hannah Eliza Taylor Hart, and her trip back to her first home in Virginia, was told by Lucy Hart Keyes as a part of the Eel Catching oral history project by Professor Glenda Dickerson and her SUNY/Stony Brook students in 1988. Lucy remembered, “I wish I could remember the name of that minister. He came to Setauket to preach and Mama was telling him she never knew after her mother. She was sold from her. This minister got in touch with different people and he found Mama’s mother . . .and Mama was married then, had several children. Papa got enough money together and she went down to Richmond to her mother. She stayed down with her, I guess a whole month. She said, ‘after my mother was sold from my father she married another man and had all these other children.’ And her father married again and he had children by another woman. But she never found her father, he died.”
Lucy, when she was six or seven, used to stop at the Tyler post office and general store on her way home from school on the Setauket Village Green. “They were such nice ladies. Miss Annie took care of the mail. . .Miss Corinne took care of the store. Momma and Papa bought all their groceries there. We bought canned goods, salt pork, potatoes, bread and even bananas in later years. We were a big family and we was always down there. Sometimes Papa paid once a week. They kept track of it and I could get anything. They never asked no questions, . . There was a glass case in the store which contained a number of selections of sweets. . . You would get four or five round things for a penny. jaw breakers, three or four for a penny; and stick candy was a penny a stick.”
Lucy Hart Keyes’ remembrances are a part of the collection of the Three Village Historical Society. The home she grew up in no longer exists, but it was the subject of a three-year archaeological dig that will continue to provide clues to the life of one Setauket African American family. The day book from the Tyler General Store featuring entries for Jacob Hart and his family is also featured in the seventh Founders Day virtual video exploration of the Town of Brookhaven’s Original Settlement on the Three Village Historical Society website https://www.tvhs.org/foundersday2020.