Who Is The Baxter Family Of The Historic Baxter House?

(Photo courtesy of Cow Neck Historical Society) The last of the Baxters to live in the house sold it in the late 1890s.

There has been extensive news coverage of the deteriorating condition and the recent fire at the historic Baxter House on the corner of Central Drive and Shore Road in Port Washington. But who were the Baxters?

They are believed to have come from Block Island like their nearby neighbors, the Dodge family, whose house still stands near the Mill Pond. Oliver Baxter and his family settled in what was then Cow Neck in 1748, having purchased the house and property from Robert Hutchings, who built the house in 1673. An early map revealed an Indian wigwam on his land. A large collection of shells uncovered during the Baxter Pond restoration in the 1990s provided further evidence of their presence. Colonists and tribe members, chiefly Matinecocks, lived peacefully together. Some were employed as sailors by the colonists. The Baxters were boat builders, sea captains, whalers and blacksmiths. During the Revolution, the Baxter House was occupied by Hessians, German mercenaries, hired to fight alongside the British. They were feared by the colonists, who were required to house and feed them.

The Baxters were active members of their community. Ida Baxter, wife of Edward Baxter, was one of Port’s first postmasters, a real accomplishment in the days when women rarely held public positions. She was also active in the Republican Party. Her son Allen Baxter operated a general store and pharmacy on lower Main Street near Jackson Street. His widow built the house at 315 Main Street for herself and her son, Captain John J. Bird, an oyster fisherman, and his family. The Birds’ property included the land which is now the PAL athletic field. Harvesting oysters could be a perilous occupation. During a sudden storm, Captain Bird lost half his harvest as it slipped into the Sound. In 1960, the Bird House became the first home of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society; it is now the Baxter Estates Village Hall. The living room of Baxter House was the site of Port’s first library. Wilhelmina Mitchell, the first librarian, was diligent about keeping wood in the stove to ensure a comfortable reading room. Baxter family members lived in the house until it was sold in the 1890s. There were several subsequent owners, one of whom was the famous architect, Addison Mizner, who built many Spanish Colonial-style houses in Palm Beach and Boca Raton. President John F. Kennedy’s Winter White House had been designed by Mizner and Mizner’s own house was once owned by John Lennon. On a visit to Port, Mizner was drawn to the Baxter House by its water view and historical significance and purchased it. Ever respectful of its age and character, he modified it only slightly and added a porch which sadly suffered devastating damage in the Feb. 5 inferno.

In 1910, a surveyor, J. Pinder, was commissioned by a Baxter heir, Percy Baxter, to survey the family’s extensive property, which now makes up the Village of Baxter Estates. Baxter teamed up with the well-known realtor Charles (Buck) Hyde, brother of William Hyde, founder of the Port Washington News, to sell home sites on some of the Baxter land which had been enhanced by the leveling of sand carted across dusty Shore Road to barges on Manhasset Bay. An early sales brochure extolled the beauty of the home sites and desirability of Port Washington as a whole. The Hyde Baxter office at 277 Main Street had one of the few telephones in town, number 72.
Many people associate Baxter Estates with the lovely hilly residential neighborhood branching off Central Drive. It certainly is that but the Village of Baxter Estates incorporated in 1931 actually encompasses a much larger area. It extends west from the Town parking near the Chase Bank along the north side of Main Street to the Bay, north on Shore Road to Harbor Road, east on the south side of Sandy Hollow Road to Sandy Hollow Lane and then south on vacant land between Hillview Avenue and Hilltop Road. The property has seen many changes in its 340-year history. Oliver Baxter would be rightfully proud of the Village, one of the few Nassau County incorporated villages bearing the name of the first settlers.