“…the true collector’s only home is his own museum.”
A collection of squirrel figurines adorned the windowsill of the “Crow’s Nest” — the screened in porch of the Browngardt house on Palmer Terrace. “My family has lived in this house since 1926,” Robert Browngardt explained. “I spend most of my time out here on the porch.”
If you close your eyes and try to picture Robert, I think the first thing you might see is a smile as wide as Gardiner’s Bay and a red pick-up truck pulling up to a yard sale looking for treasures. Or perhaps you think you are seeing double if you catch a glimpse of his identical twin, Richard.
Born in 1939 in that house, Robert was a graduate of Pierson High School. “We had the greatest and most loyal teachers in the world. Miss Gregory was our homeroom teacher, Mr. Westcott taught math, Mr. Daniels-science, Mr. Mahar-shop, Mrs. Muller-history,” he said. “They stayed after school to help you, all of them. I had Mrs. Hildreth in second and third grade. She had me over twice a week to help me with things like spelling. She didn’t want anything for it. She just wanted to help me out. One time I looked out of the classroom window and saw my dog, Rivets, wandering with a bunch of other dogs. I was so worried about him, so Mrs. Hildreth said, ‘Go get him and bring him into the classroom.’ We were all so proud of our band led by Pop Mazzeo. Everyone wanted to be in it. We marched in the Memorial Day parade and at certain home basketball games. I used to play basketball and at half time, while still in our uniforms, we would go up on stage to play with the band.”
One of eight children, Robert grew up in that house on Palmer Terrace. He and Richard, who now lives in Cleveland, Ohio, always had a project going on. “We had more fun together,” said Robert. “We had our own chemistry lab in the basement. We played in the high school band together; he played trombone, and I played the snare drum. We would go picking huckleberries and blueberries up on the old Railroad tracks; everyone went up there. And we would go sledding on Pierson Hill, High Street and Devil’s Hill in the woods. On our birthday, when we were in second grade, my father came home and put paper bags on our heads and led us outside to the barn. He told us he had a surprise for us. And there it was — a pony! We were the talk of the town. Everyone followed us home after school to ride our pony, Rusty.”
Robert’s father died suddenly when Robert was in fourth grade, leaving his mother with eight children to care for. She went to work at Hampton’s Bakery (now where Compass Real Estate is on Main Street) and took in borders in our downstairs bedrooms. “I didn’t realize it then, but the people of Sag Harbor were always there to help us out in any way they could,” said Robert.
Robert’s brother, Arthur, was a World War II pilot who was shot down and killed over the Philippines in a plane christened the ‘Sag Harbor Express’. He was 21 years old. Prior to his death Arthur sent home money from overseas for his mother to buy the house they had rented for all of those years. It sold for $2,100. “He also sent money to Richard and me and cowboy boots from Arizona,” said Robert.
After spending 21 years in the United States Navy, Robert then worked another 26 years as a stationary engineer at Brookhaven Lab. “The summer of 1957, after I graduated from high school, I had a summer job on a bakery truck. That’s where I met Ralph Ranna, and we signed up for the Navy together under the buddy system,” he said. “My ship went to Sydney, Australia with me on it for four years; then four years on a destroyer, and two years on a guided missile cruiser. I went to shore duty in Bay Shore and then was promoted to Warrant Officer and was sent for sea duty to the Vietnam War for two years. Our ship was an amphibian and held 1,000 troops and 25 helicopters that were used to bring the Marines to shore. We were anchored out right off the coast.”
Robert’s great grandfather had come from Germany to Sag Harbor for work in the 1850’s. He and his family ran the tollbooth on Route 114 that stood across from the Jewish cemetery. “My grandmother was born in that toll booth,” remarked Robert. His mother’s family came from Ireland to work in the cotton mill in Sag Harbor.
Now the homestead, some generations later, stands so neat and tidy, and holds treasures collected over a lifetime. Robert married Judy Rulend in 1966 and photos of their five children and 10 grandchildren can be found throughout the house, as well as furniture he has lovingly restored, plaques reflecting dedicated service to the Navy, old photos and many yard sale finds.
Descending the cellar stairs, I felt as if I had entered a wonderland with a train collection worthy of the botanical gardens, a milk bottle collection and ever nail, nut and screw carefully shelved and organized in baby food jars. “That must be my Navy training,” said Robert laughing about the abundance of organization-everything neat and in its place. “At one time there were 37 dairy farms this side of the Shinnecock Canal,” he noted. And he has a collection of milk bottles from almost all of them.
Opening the small wooden door in the basement, Robert turned on a series of lights to reveal one of the most fantastic model train displays I have ever seen. A village of houses and tracks and bridges filled with magic and a passion for the railroad. Extra cars on shelves along the walls were arranged by the company of origin. “When I lived in California someone told me the Salvation Army had some extra trains for sale, and I went and bought three boxes full of cars,” Robert said. “When we moved back to New York, I sent my wife and kids on the airplane, and I drove those boxes of trains all the way back to Sag Harbor.”
Robert remains an active member of the American Legion for 50 years. “It’s a great organization; we follow the preamble and help and support all veterans in any way we can,” he said. “There is a good sense of camaraderie there. You make friends real easy. I drove a fellow veteran to Stony Brook for treatment 47 times. Each trip I got to know him better.”
Family and friends are what keeps Robert in Sag Harbor. From the ‘Crow’s Nest’ he says, “I love Sag Harbor, the people I’ve grown up with and the friends I’ve known. We’ve climbed the Great Wall of China, went down the Amazon River and camped all over the United States together, but this is where I want to stay.” Robert is part of the integrity of our village. He has served his country well. His warm smile and willingness to help others contributes to beauty of his hometown, and we are all blessed that Robert Browngardt calls Sag Harbor, “Home.”