Seeking, acquiring, displaying and maintaining particular objects characterize Richard Wines and Nancy Gilbert as collectors. It’s not an unusual hobby for people, with popular items running the gamut from antiques to comic books to coins.
What Wines and Gilbert have collected in their more than 25-year venture at Winds Way Farm in South Jamesport is more unusual: historic buildings.
An oddity in itself, it was a somewhat random evolution from a passion for gardening to land preservation. “That’s my wife’s garden ornament,” Wines jokes of a photo that once hung in his office back in his Wall Street days. “All of the buildings make wonderful garden ornaments. It’s an interesting thing to collect. Not a lot of people collect buildings.”
Centuries have now passed since the original band of Puritans settled Southold in the 1640s, claiming their stake in the rural landscape, few parts of which still remain untouched today. Among those settlers was one of the wealthiest: Mr. John Budd who had been granted four allotments totaling more than 1,000 acres by the town in the First Dividend of Aquebogue in 1661. These were ultimately divided and Budd passed down homes and land to his children, who then did the same for their own, and so on for generations.
In 1700, Budd’s two grandsons, Christopher and John Youngs, were among the first inhabitants of what is known today as Riverhead Town. A century and a half later, the southeast corner of the old property was inherited by Christopher’s great grandson, Edward, who is Wines’s great, great grandfather. When it was time for Wines to own the family property, he took a new approach.
“Our first goal was the land,” Wines says, explaining how he and Gilbert bought out the interest of various lots from his uncles and consolidated them to save them from development. “Now that we had acquired the land, we thought we should put something on it. The goal was to preserve most of it.”
Wines and his wife spent weekends gardening on the property overlooking Peconic Bay in the 1980s, staying in the little summer bungalow his grandparents had built in 1922. They planted old-fashioned peonies and heirloom perennials from Gilbert’s family’s gardens in Wisconsin. The garden grew to include fruit, vegetable and flower gardens, all surrounding the various buildings they moved onto the now 15-acre property. They began to build their collection of historic structures almost by accident.
What was considered a “modern” school, the one-room District #10 schoolhouse built in 1872, had few students, including one of Wines’s grandmothers. It was just four miles north of Winds Way in the Northville community where he himself grew up. In 1992, he acquired it and moved it to the property. This was their first garden ornament.
After that came a late 18thcentury home that was to be torn down. It was restored to be as close to its original 1830s appearance both inside and out. Its history includes an addition by whaling captain Robert N. Wilbur. “We had a Potemkin house,” Wines laughs of the building, known as the Wilbur-Fanning house that was moved to Winds Way in 1995, before its restoration.
Next came an old barn whose exact history is unknown, and other structures and antique picket fences. Each was restored to be as authentic to its time period as possible. Complementing this are the surrounding gardens. “Each time we got a building the first thing we did was plant a garden,” Wines said. “We design gardens that have a feel that’s right for Long Island and the historic structures in and around them. We planted what was around in the 19thcentury. We wanted to do something that feels like it belongs on Long Island and the local heritage.”
The informal layout is vast with various plantings around each structure. The schoolhouse’s surrounding borders are lush with sun-drenched flowers like echinacea, rudbeckia, goldenrod and aster. Shrubs and shade-tolerant herbaceous plants line the main home, while 12 varieties of hydrangea are mixed in with dogwoods, roses and other shrubs that are enclosed near the barn. Twenty apple varieties grow in the orchard, including antique types like the Esopus Spitzenburg, which was said to be the favorite of Thomas Jefferson.
With what they had created, Wines and Gilbert ventured to ensure its protection. “We ended up with a complex here,” Wines explains. “When we retired in 2001 we thought, we preserved all of this land and preserved the buildings. We need to do something to make it permanent.”
Farmland, open space, historic homes and natural habitats across the East End and all of Long Island have long been at risk of falling victim to development. In an effort to counter this, the couple donated the development rights and a conservation easement on the property to the Peconic Land Trust. Having protected more than 12,000 acres on Long Island since 1983, the nonprofit organization was the hero needed to protect the parcel, keeping farmland, hedgerows, woodland and shorefront from being altered or destroyed.
“We had a conservation use on these historic buildings and after that we arranged for the schoolhouse and house to be landmarks,” Wines explains. “We are trying to set a preservation example to encourage others in the area to preserve the rich heritage and old buildings on the East End, and preserve what’s left of our agricultural heritage. Folks work very hard to do that.”
Though Winds Way Farm is not generally open to the public, enthusiasts have the opportunity to explore this and other private gardens through the exclusive Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. This year’s tour took place in July, but Wines says his plan is to participate again next year. Until then, the evolving property can be enjoyed through history and images online.
“Whenever possible we sneak in bits of local history and heritage,” Wines confides. “Antique roses, oats and flax are heritage crops around here. It adds to the history.”