On Valentine’s Day in 1995, while most people were buying chocolates and flowers for their loved ones, Richard Wines had a different idea of the perfect gift for his wife – an old, dilapidated house.
“It was a wreck,” recalled Wines. Left unused for years and in the early phase of being demolished, the house – part of which dates to the 1790s – was situated on the Main Road in Laurel.
“They had already ripped off the kitchen wing and all of the wide floorboards had been removed … it was basically just a shell,” he explained. “The owners were getting so much grief from the community for not tearing this house down that they gave it to us for free.”
It was a fitting gift for the pair of historians who share a passion for preserving old things. It was not their first mission to rescue a historic building — and it would not be the last.
Over the last three decades, Richard Wines and his wife, Nancy Gilbert, have moved a series of historic buildings from around the North Fork onto their 15-acre property in Jamesport. This land, Winds Way Farm, has been in Wines’ family since 1661. Its name comes from a 17th-century variant of his family name that was discovered in Southold Town records.
“Understanding the past is important and buildings are physical reminders of that past,” explained Wines. “Besides, old buildings tend to be beautiful.”
For centuries, the property has consisted of sprawling farmlands, wetlands and woodlands that lead to a private shorefront. In 1922, Wines’ grandparents built a little bungalow with Peconic Bay views along the southern border of the property as a getaway from their Sound Avenue farm, presently known as Ty Llwyd Farm.
By the time Wines’ mother and two uncles had inherited the property, they had devised a plan to develop it, hoping to build over 20 homes there. “Nancy and I didn’t want to see that happen,” said Wines, who grew up on Sound Avenue and spent many summers at Winds Way.
Bit by bit, he and his wife began buying shares of land from their family, scraping together any extra money that they could find. By the 1990s, the couple owned all of the property, save for a few private homes that had already been built.
Since then, the couple would trek from their home in Westchester to Jamesport for quiet weekends at the bungalow. They were riding their bikes along Sound Avenue when they spotted what would become the first of the couple’s many restoration projects — the old District 10 Schoolhouse.
Built in 1892, the one-room schoolhouse was once the learning place for about 50 students, including Wines’ own grandmother. In the 1960s, the building was transformed into housing for farm labor, and after that, storage for hay. By the time Gilbert and Wines acquired the old schoolhouse in 1992, it was covered in poison ivy and the roof had caved in. Gilbert, who had just begun planting flowers around Winds Way, saw its potential as an interesting new addition to her gardens. “It’s such an interesting building, I would have hated to see it just disintegrate,” explained Gilbert. “People thought we were out of our minds.”
“And we were,” joked Wines. “In some ways, it’s a midlife crisis to go and restore an old schoolhouse.”
As any historian would, Wines and Gilbert have kept scrapbooks filled with photos and notes that document their restoration journey together. A black and white photo shows the old schoolhouse coming down Peconic Bay Boulevard en route to Winds Way. “We had to cut off the roof,” Wines explained, pointing to a photo of what was left of the building being pushed under a bridge by movers. “It got stuck under the [County Road] 105 bridge.” Once it was safely delivered to their property, the couple restored the schoolhouse back to its original image. “It had been divided into rooms for the hired help on the farm, so we removed all the partitions and false ceilings that were added afterwards,” explained Wines. “I often joke that the schoolhouse is basically an antique garden ornament.”
Several years later, the couple managed to locate and move the schoolhouse’s outhouse, a six-seater that used to have a wall to divide the stalls by gender. It sits on the western side of the property with the schoolhouse, looking out at a garden of raspberries, blackberries and other soft fruits.
Among the couple’s scrapbooks is one that’s labeled “love nest.” Inside are photos of Wines and Gilbert’s second major restoration project — the partially-demolished home that was gifted to Gilbert as a token of Wines’ love. The couple had come across a picture of the dilapidated home on the front page of the Riverhead News-Review, prompting Wines’ idea for a unique Valentine’s Day present. The small Cape, named the Wilbur-Fanning House, had likely been lived in by a member of the Fanning family, who had constructed the humble dwelling in 1762. By 1982, it belonged to a whaling captain named Robert N. Wilbur, who added onto the main part of the home. Looking back, Gilbert and Wines say they were unaware of the major undertaking they were embarking on.
“We were young and foolish,” she explained. “It was quite a project.”
“We had to slice it into pieces to get it under the electric wires,” added Wines.
The couple has since meticulously restored the home to as close to its 1830s appearance as possible, both internally and externally. In the dining room, an opening in the wall reveals the home’s original hand hewn timber frame. Old wavy glass windows surround a Greek Revival style living room, split into two identical rooms facing each other. The inside of their home is a treasure trove of inherited antiques, unintentionally serving as a family archive of sorts. “Stuff just arrives here,” Gilbert explained. “Nobody else wants it, so we incorporate it.” Almost every piece of furniture has a story behind it, like the platform rocker in the kitchen that Wines’ great-grandmother earned the money for by picking potato beetles off the North Fork’s fields in the late 19th century.
Today, the Wilbur-Fanning House is the couple’s full-time residence. Their home — as well as the District 10 Schoolhouse — are designated as historic landmarks.
Winds Way Farm not only serves as a sanctuary for the couple’s collection of historic buildings, but a space to express their love for gardening. The property boasts over a dozen enchanting gardens as well as an orchard of heirloom apples and pears, a pumpkin patch, beehives and farmland where Wines’ nephew grows hay for his herd of cows. It’s a time capsule of the North Fork’s natural beauty and rural charm.
Determined to protect the property from future development, Wines and Gilbert have donated their development rights to the Peconic Land Trust and placed a conservation easement on their property. “We’ve worked hard to save the land and save these buildings, so it’s our way to try and look beyond the grave and make sure that they continue to be preserved,” explained Wines.
Since moving to the North Fork full time in 2001, Wines and Gilbert have not only been dedicated to the preservation of their own property, but the North Fork community at large. Gilbert is the current treasurer of the Peconic Land Trust and has been on the board for years. Wines chairs Riverhead Town’s Landmark Preservation Commission and is the former president and an active member of the Hallockville Museum Farm.
“This is a beautiful place,” said Gilbert. “It’s changing rapidly, and we want to do what we can to maintain it.”
Whenever possible, the couple uses Winds Way to support these preservationist organizations and other community initiatives. They host group meetings at the schoolhouse and have given various groups access to their lands for workshops on topics like growing fruit and building pollinator gardens.
Once a year, Wines and Gilbert open Winds Way Farm to the public as part of an initiative run by the Garden Conservancy. Visitors are given color-coded maps as they meander through the property’s maze of gardens and natural landscapes on a tour.
“You don’t do all this to keep it under wraps,” explained Gilbert. “We think of it as a special place and sharing it is fun,” added Wines.
This year’s “open day” is set for Saturday, July 8, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets for the event will be available starting on May 1 at gardenconservancy.org.