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Orient’s mystery manor airs long-buried secrets

While its origins remain elusive, the Terry-Mulford House is believed to have been built in 1640. Now restored and revamped for rental, the stories of this 7,000-square-foot estate include spirit chasers, secret stairwells and more.

While its origins remain elusive, the Terry-Mulford House is believed to have been built in 1640, with Thomas Terry as its original owner. He was succeeded by five more Thomas Terry’s, including a Revolutionary War hero, until 1813, when Elisha Mulford arrived from East Hampton with his wife Damarus, the ancestors of its current owners.

Damarus Mulford’s rocking chair had a mind of its own. No matter where the family moved it — closer to the door, near the bed or even in another room — they would invariably find their ancestor’s favorite seat positioned next to the window in the upstairs bedroom, looking out onto the lush green wetlands that border Long Island Sound. 

The eerie rocking chair is just one of the many mysteries of the Terry-Mulford House, a sprawling, 7,000-square-foot estate tucked behind tall privet hedges in Orient. One of the oldest homes on Long Island, the six-acre property spans five centuries, and has been almost exclusively in the same family for nearly as long. 

Superstitions aside, touring of the property is akin to a stroll through North Fork history. Erected piecemeal over the years, visitors can see an original saltbox structure — a common style in the 1600s, peek behind an enormous 10-foot brick fireplace dating from the 1700s and admire a large open-air porch from the 1800s. There is a ballroom, built in 1914, that features a grand wooden staircase and vintage electric lights, as well as a modern wing, with all the comforts of central air and plumbing. 

The historic property is now being readied for its next incarnation. Following a three-year renovation, it will be offered for rent this coming summer season, allowing a lucky few to experience North Fork life through the ages. 

“We want to keep this special property in our family for future generations,” said Teresa Sullivan, one of the heirs of the estate. “But we are also excited to share it with others who we hope will enjoy it as much as we do.” 

Part 1: an unsolved mystery 

Wandering through the Terry-Mulford House, with its interior stairways, half levels and narrow hallways, is akin to exploring a maze. It consists of three connecting sections, built more than 100 years apart. The easternmost portion, known as the Old House, is thought to be as much as four centuries old. A small doorway off a second-story bedroom in the Old House leads to the Middle House, which was built in the early 1800s. Yet another doorway leads to the so-called Big House, the most recently constructed part of the home, dating to 1914. 

Yet it is the Old House, which has never been outfitted with running water or electricity and largely appears as it did when it was constructed, that has proven a stubborn riddle for historians. 

The historical marker in the road outside declares that the Terry-Mulford House was built by John Peaken in 1656 and served as Peaken’s Tavern. But this is wrong, according to Amy Folk, Southold Town historian, who noted that John Peaken’s Tavern was in Southold hamlet, several miles away. 

Some believe it may have been a barracks built to house laborers who came to harvest the wood used to build England’s large naval vessels, or to make barrel staves that were traded to the Azores. But neither of these theories are likely, experts said. 

In 2006, a team of scientists from the U.K. thought they had cracked the code when they used dendrochronology — a method of studying the comparative thickness of tree rings — to date the house. They declared that it was most certainly from 1716. But this, too, is probably incorrect, historians have said. 

How old is it? The historical marker that states the house was built in 1656 is wrong, said Southold historian Amy Folk. Scientists from Oxford University in England studying tree rings dated it to 1716, but SUNY/Stonybrook retired assistant professor Frank Turano noted its unusual white oak plank cladding, not seen after 1700 on the North Fork. 

In all likelihood, the Terry-Mulford House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in the mid- to late 1600s, near the time of Southold Town’s settlement in 1640. The clue is the home’s unusual white oak plank cladding. 

“No other house is built like that on Long Island,” said Frank Turano, a retired research assistant professor at SUNY/Stony Brook, who spent years studying the property. 

White oak planks — some of them 20 feet long — run from the ground all the way to the roofline, Turano explained. “White oak was the preferred wood for house construction, but we don’t see it after 1700 since it was pretty much harvested out of the North Fork by then.” 

While the date of its construction remains elusive, the Terry- Mulford House’s first known owner was Thomas Terry. Five more Thomas Terry’s followed, including a Revolutionary War hero who died in exile in Connecticut, said Turano. Around 1813, Elisha Mulford arrived from East Hampton and purchased the home, and the Mulfords retained ownership for several generations. 

In 1979, Elinor Latham Williams and her husband, Ralph Williams Jr., purchased the Terry-Mulford House. It was a homecoming of sorts for Williams, who was born at nearby Latham Farm and traced her ancestors to Elisha Mulford and his wife, Damarus. 

Part II: a fateful discovery 

By the time the Williamses came to own it, the Terry-Mulford House had been vacant for decades and was in complete disrepair. Raccoons had moved in, the walls had cracked and the Old House was leaning precariously to the side. To straighten the house, which had sunk as much as 21 inches in some places, Williams, an engineer, ran steel beams through the house and then used hydraulic jacks to lift the entire structure and bring it back to square, said Turano. 

Over the years, the couple carefully outfitted the home with timely artifacts for display, such as antique wooden beds, their thin cotton mattresses resting on old-fashioned rope supports and covered in 200-year-old quilts. There are also a spinning wheel, old baby dolls and a massive cooking fireplace featuring meat hooks and pewter dishware. A rickety stairway dating from the 1700s leads upstairs, where period items include the trunk Elisha Mulford took with him to fight in the Civil War. 

Turano, who carried out several archaeological digs on the property, discovered many of the objects featured in the house. In fact, he unearthed some 64,000 artifacts there, including pottery shards, clay pipes and a pair of gold cufflinks. 

digs unearthed 64,000
artifacts …

including baby dolls …

… and a massive cooking fireplace.

There were also some discoveries that were far more shocking than pottery shards. In 1981, Dr. Jeffrey Williams Sr., an optometrist in Southold and the owners’ son, was digging there with his brother. They uncovered what they thought were two large hearthstones, but after turning them over and reading the inscriptions carved into the white marble oblongs, they realized that they’d stumbled upon Elisha and Damarus Mulford’s tombstones. 

At some point, the Mulfords’ descendants had renovated the family burial plot and had repurposed the tombstones as hearthstones. Smaller tombstones, known as footstones, were also repurposed and can be seen around the property. 

“This is one of the places where we have evidence of early English country ‘magic.'”

Historian Amy Folk

One of the strangest discoveries was a mummified cat, found in the wall next to the fireplace. Harking back to an early Puritan homebuilding tradition, the cat was meant to chase down evil spirits and protect the home’s residents, said Turano. 

A man’s half-boot was also found inside the wall next to the cat, and a pair of children’s shoes was discovered under the floorboards. According to Folk, this practice, common at the time, arose from the story of a rector living in Britain in the early 1300s, who captured the devil in his boots. 

“This is one of the places where we have evidence of early English country ‘magic,’ which people would do in the 1600s to protect themselves from the possibility of witches or evil spirits in the house,” Folk said. 

Part III: roaring into the twenties and beyond 

At the turn of the 20th century, the home was sold to a cousin of the Mulfords, Dr. Henry Heath. He sealed the walls of the Old House and left it largely untouched, helping preserve it. Dr. Heath occupied the Middle House and in 1914 constructed an addition, now known as the Big House, that included an enormous ballroom. The ballroom was reportedly built to host a lavish coming-out party for his daughter. A grand stairway, which is still visible, was where the young debutante made her entrance into society. 

In the 1980s, the ballroom was converted into a private museum to house Williams’ vast collection of antique radios. Dubbed the “Voice of the Twenties,” the room still overflows with rows of speaker horns, boxes of vintage lightbulbs and collections of wires and tubing. On the floor is a maze of large wooden consoles and metal radios and hanging from the ceiling is a mobile made of original cardboard radio boxes. 

Williams died in 2002 and his wife continued living at the home until her death three years ago, at age 97. The couple created a corporation that now owns the home, and 24 of their descendants, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, are its shareholders. The many cousins and relatives, who are spread across the country, make decisions jointly. 

When Ms. Williams died and left the historic property to her descendants, she also provided them with an endowment to help maintain it. The family has since spent nearly $500,000 on renovations, including new plumbing bathrooms, new plumbing and electrical wiring, roof repairs and a new HVAC system, in part to help preserve Williams’ historic radio collection. 

“It is a big responsibility, but it has been a gift, since owning the home has kept us together as a family, and I now have working relationships with many of my cousins,” said Sullivan. 

While the five-bedroom, four-bath home will be offered for rent, much has yet to be decided — including the cost. One thing is for sure: There will be no fire. “We will allow no candles, no firepit, no fire of any kind,” said Sullivan. In addition, the Old House and the ballroom housing the “Voice of the Twenties” radio museum will be sealed off from renters. 

Visitors will be able to view those areas during the Oysterponds Historical Society’s holiday home tour. The owners are unlikely to allow pets, but they are amenable to renting to families with children. The many secret passageways would provide endless fun for kids, but the home is certainly not toddler-proof. 

Despite its recent refurbishment, the Terry-Mulford House remains heavy with history. For instance, in the backyard, beneath a large shady tree, are two stone benches. A closer look reveals that they are the tombstones of Elisha and Damarus Mulford, which had once been used as hearthstones. 

Ever since the family removed their ancestors’ tombstones and placed them outside beneath the tree, Damarus’ rocking chair has stopped moving. The family believes it’s because she is happier in her bucolic resting spot. “We like to say she’s now at peace,” said Sullivan. 

And Damarus’ descendants, having renovated their historic family home and fortified it for the next generation, appear to feel much the same