175 Years and Counting for Hildreth’s Home Goods
By Gavin Menu
It was 1842 and John Tyler occupied the White House as the nation’s tenth president when Lewis Hildreth opened a general store on Main Street in Southampton. Life’s basics such as bread, crackers, wheels of cheese, salt, flour, sugar, coffee and tea came by ship to Sag Harbor, and were carted by horse and wagon to the store in Southampton. Hildreth also began selling home goods and so a great tradition — along with America’s oldest department store — was born.
Flash forward 175 years and Hildreth’s Home Goods operates from the same storefront on Main Street — with a second location in Southampton and a third in East Hampton — but in a world changed by technology and with a heightened demand for luxury that comes from being based in a world-class summer resort.
Today, the gatekeeper to the family legacy is Henry Hildreth III, though his support circle is growing by the day with his wife, Colleen, a constant by his side and his children, Kailey, 20, Sayre, 16 and Henry IV, 15, working their way into the business.
“If I was to go back to my father’s day, the population was a ton smaller, there was no such thing as the internet and everyone shopped local and that was all there was to it,” Hildreth said earlier this month. “As I got involved, the world started getting much smaller. And now the world seems teeny, however it opens us up to serving not just our local community from Montauk to Manhattan, but to where we are now all over the place, even all over the world.”
By the early 1900’s, Southampton was becoming a haven for wealthy New Yorkers, and as business increased, the store expanded to double its original size. In 1914, Henry’s grandfather, Leon Pelletreau Hildreth, took over operations of the store and as Americans found increased leisure time at home, the family steered Hildreth’s away from being a general store and catered instead to the growing demand for quality home furnishings. Leon’s son, Henry Hildreth II, married Mary Ann Burnett in 1953 and had two children, Henry III, and his sister, Abbie.
While Henry’s children today seem eager to join the family business, Hildreth himself was slow to come around, growing up with a love for the ocean and working as a lifeguard at Cooper’s Beach, and in landscape and real estate. It was during a trip home from college in 1978 when he realized a piece of furniture had been sitting in the company’s warehouse for 10 years that he realized he had better get more involved.
“My father passed away, but he worked as long as he could, as did my grandfather,” Hildreth said. “They worked until they couldn’t work anymore.”
Hildreth, who turned 61 this year but shows no sign of slowing down, said he is comforted by his children’s work ethic and dedication to the business, especially as America’s oldest department store contends with the ever-changing dynamics of technology and sales through the internet.
“With my family involved full time, it’s can only go up from here,” he said when asked about the current business climate. “They’re really nice to work with and they’re really knowledgeable.
“The next generation is pushing me out the door,” he added with a laugh, alluding to the fact that retirement might suit him just fine.