The thirties were years of big changes for the everyone in every corner of the globe. In the tiny little spot on the map called Mastic Beach, The Smadbecks were plowing on. In spite of the depression they were selling land. They had the Hulse Brothers cutting in new roads all around the Knapp estate, to the east, north and west. They were even active on the southern bayfront with dredging of lagoons in sections 1 and 5. From June 1926 through March of 1937, Home Guardian had opened up and developed seven sections. Unlike the Smith, Floyd and Dana estates, that sat on the outer borders of the Smadbecks ever growing development, J. F. Knapp's estate sat right in the middle of everything. Perhaps the land he had purchased off Home Guardian in 1929 over in section 3 was no longer offering the kind of buffer he wanted on the west side of the mansion. It was time for him to do something..... and from a place that looked like paradise he did. While living in Fort Lauderdale Fla , J.F. Knapp starts rapidly selling pieces of his estate off to Home Guardian.
It is not known if the mansion ever served as a full time home for any of the Knapp family. Though it certainly could have easily. I know Joseph Palmer had a NY City residence and it's highly likely that Joseph F. did likewise, for that's where their business' were located. In the twenties, the chief Knapp business ' were, American Lithographic, a conglamorate printer and Crowell-Collier Publishing. Joseph Palmer and his sister Antoinette were also on the board of directors for Metropolitan Life. He also had two estates, one in the Catskill Mountains at Lew Beach and the other one a huge place on Mackey Island N.C. Claire, who had title to the Mastic home and property from 1916 to 1925 could of most certainly lived very comfortably there and had room to spare for her brother J. F. , father, aunts, uncles etc.
Now I have heard from several sources that during prohibition J. F. Knapp was a rum runner. None have been proven. He would certainly not be the first wealthy person involved with that, as many were, if only to supply themselves and their friends and guests. My grandfather Jack Spooner worked for years for one of the most well known rum runners in NYC , Sherman Billingsley who owned a nightclub called The Stork Club. It started out as a speakeasy and it's wealthy patrons were never without a good supply of good liquor. Billingsley hosted everyone that was anyone in New York City or when they came to visit. Kings and Queens of foreign countries, F.D.Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph Kennedy, movie stars,(Cagney, Cooper, Harlow)) athletes, (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jack Dempsey) Broadway,(Ethel Merman, Mary Martin) newspaper columnists ( Ed Sullivan, Walter Winchell had his own table there complete with a phone) bandleaders (Ozzie & Harriet, Dorsey's, Goodman) circus performers (Frank Buck, Clyde Beatty) comedians, (Burns and Allen, Milton Berle,Groucho, Bob Hope) and everyone that was anyone from high society. My grandfather knew all of them and many many more and he didn't serve them Shirley Temples.
If J.F. Knapp was a rumrunner, he certainly had an ideal spot to operate from. He has 160 + acres with waterfront and a cove to a private dock. He has an observation tower near the bay that allows him to see the entire waterfront. Across the bay on Fire Island, he constructs another large dock. This was possibly in collaboration with William "Shep" Dana of The Dana Estate, a huge mansion that sits on Forge River. W.S. was a social and hunting pal. J. F. has barns and outbuildings all over the estate, and an underground tunnel leading from the mansion to the garage. But the most compelling thing of all is, he has a friend named Paul Schulte *
*conversations with Paul's grandaughter
Greta Speiss Tucker have confirmed that her grandfather along
with a prominent Center Moriches physician were bootlegging out
of the Mastic Beach Hotel .
Paul who was known as the Mayor Of Mastic Beach
in 1922, opened the first business in Mastic
Beach , a hotel and tavern. When prohibition was over he receives
several buildings from J. F. Knapp and moves one of them off the
estate, over to section four in what was called "new town"
Mastic Beach. where "Schulte's Tavern" a landmark watering
hole the family operated continuously from 1933 to 1996 is still
located. They sold it for a short time, but now own it again and
are planning to re open it. The Knapp's secretaries house according
to Estelle Schulz, gets placed right behind the stable / tavern
and becomes a residence for either Paul or his son Paul Jr. It
too is still there although heavily restyled on the exterior.
"Schulte's Barn" stayed on the estate property on the
corner of Dogwood and Jefferson. Sometime in the late 50's or
early 60's the barn was torn down by Sam Cole (the same man who
took down the chimnies in the mansion and plowed the remains under).
I recall exploring Schulte's Barn with my friends long before
we were ever brave enough to set foot in the mansion. Being just
an old barn it didn't look as scary and it was just a few feet
in off the road. However when we went up in the hayloft, we discovered
something that we never gave any thought to about why it was there.
What was up there was a whole lot of broadcasting radio equipment.
It was all broken up (the bakelite panels) but we kids hauled
a whole big chunks of it out of there in wagons and set it up
in my driveway. Then we played airport with it.
I recall my father coming home from work and asking us "Where did you find this stuff?" (He was a Navy radio operator in WWII ) We told him and next day our "airport operation" disappeared and so did the rest of the radio stuff in the hayloft. There was just a few pieces of wire left. We never heard anymore about it. Sometime in the late '50's or early '60's the barn was torn down. Now the fact that Joseph Palmer gave the Navy an airfield in Mastic in 1917 , could explain that equipment. But what happened to it after WWI? ... was it part of a sophisticated rum running operation? It's a known fact the well financed bootleg operations used radio stuff like this to signal their speedboats locations of patrol boats. And the NY Times reported 5 private estates on eastern Long Island that were using wireless bootleging operations that were all raided one night in a sweep. The strange thing was only four estates were named, the 5th one for reasons unexplained by the Times was not.
Well it's fun to wonder, but one thing investigating this story has taught me is you cannot assume anything. One assumption that was perpetuated forever was..... Who gave the mansion away to St. Jude's church, the last owners of it? Everyone in Mastic Beach always said it was the Knapp's...but which Knapp? I wanted to know. I asked St. Jude's and the only thing I got was a short memo from the Diocese in the 1980's when they decided to sell off the vacant property. It states that the Knapp Mansion was conveyed to the Church from a member of the Knapp Family. Don't believe everything you hear or read even from a church unless it's chiseled in stone at the register of deeds. St. Jude's DID NOT get the Knapp mansion from the Knapp's, St. Judes did not get it from Home Guardian either.
To those who took advantage of the wonderful opportunity and purchased land near the mansion, they received an added benefit of landscaping that was not indigenous to Mastic Beach or probably even Long Island. Huge pine trees that may of come from upstate New York or even North Carolina were planted all over, probably by the Knapp's. Ever the conservationist, it is a known fact that Joseph Palmer enjoyed landscaping. It's nice to see most of those trees still flourishing.
The 10 sections of Mastic Beach Map that was published in 1938 still showed a large white square sitting in the middle of all these new roads. The remaining acres were bordered by Dogwood Rd. on the north, Jefferson Dr. on the east, Elm Rd. on the south and Monroe Dr. on the west. A nice 12 acre piece of ground with the home sitting near the northwest corner. By 1940 the only thing remaining of the estate was the mansion, the garage, and 3.055 acres of land around it. Oh and the tunnel. Then on New Years Eve, while holding a mortgage from Home Guardian for $55,000.00, J. F . Knapp signs over the last of it. Of note is the Deed transfer is signed in his own hand rather than most of the property transfers that were signed by power of his attorney Edward A. Kiely. (Perhaps there was some sentiment in saying goodby to the place?) Also this is the only Deed I have found so far that is witnessed by J.F.'s wife Marion.
Home Guardian probably paid more for it than the $55,000.00 that J.F. held the mortgage for, but it really didn't matter for just 8 days later (allowing for New Years Day) on January 9, 1941 there was a new Lord Of The Mansion . A gentleman from New York City named George Sutter. Now besides Dodi there was another new name in the game.
My trip was winding up on some high notes. In the twelve days I was there, I had found out a lot more than I thought I would. Just by chance, I met an old friend of a friend I was with. When he learned about what brought me to town said. "Man the Knapp Mansion....haven't thought about that place since I was a kid ..... say do you remember all the secret compartments behind the paintings in the ballroom? And all the engraved shotguns that were in them?" HOLY COW I THOUGHT...someone who was in the place right after St. Judes bailed out and before it got ransacked. The library's of Patchogue & Center Moriches provided many interesting pieces from the local papers and I learned a lot about St Jude's involvement in this story. And a lot more too about the history of Mastic Beach from the 1930's on through the early '50's...what a place it was!!
Sept 4, 2001 was my last full day on Long Island. It was spent partially back at the Register Of Deeds clearing up a few things. "Bob" the retired attorney from Aquabogue (he goes there to help his daughter who is in Real Estate ) was getting used to seeing me around there and had taken a mild interest in the case. This time I asked him to look at a few deeds and it cleared up a whole lot of gaping holes. He also told me where to get the file maps that have all the lot #s and neat things on them like all the Knapp buildings. Thanks again Bob, I wish I knew your last name.
After that I decided to drive to Hampton Bays, as it was the last place I knew that J.F. Knapp lived. His obit from the NY Times said he lived on Harbor Road. I found the street, it's right on the water and there were two possible houses that could of been his located there.
Then I drove into town and stopped in an "established looking" Real Estate office. The realtor didn't know of the Knapp name, but suggested I try their town library. It was pretty small and they directed me to their Local History shelf which had nothing I was looking for.
I then asked if they had any local papers that went back to the '50's on microfilm. The answer was no, they had the actual local papers that were bound in volumes stored in their basement. They brought up a volume that covered the years 1951 and 52. There on the front page of the Hampton Chronicle from Oct 24th 1952, were two big photos of Ike and Nixon .....the election was but days away. On the lower part of the front page was this very short headline Joseph Fairchild (obviously he was well known in town then) It said Joseph Fairchild Knapp who spent his summers here on Rampasture Road, (not Harbor Rd. as was printed in the N.Y. Times), passed away yesterday at the age of 60. It went on to speak of the survivors, and funeral arrangements, then it told me where he was to be buried and it wasn't in Fort Lauderdale!
Within a half hour, around 4:30 that afternoon, I was pulling through the cemetery gates. I found the office but it was closed. It was not a small cemetery by any means. I saw a cemetery worker and asked if he could help me. He sent me across the way about a 1/4 mile to see "Tom" who was on his tractor cutting grass. I asked Tom and he said follow me. So I did....we drove for a bit, then he stopped at some very tall hedges, got off his tractor and pointed to an opening. It was almost like a secret garden. I walked inside and in the clearing were 5 small headstones. At the far end, nestled in the hedges and trees was an elegant stone monument that simply said KNAPP. I had all types of feelings running wide open as visited this place, for the last 6 months it has been a major focus of mine. J. F. as there as was his sister Claire, and Claire's first husband Willis Penney and two names that were totally new to me, but because of what I was to soon find out, will have to remain nameless here, as will the location of the cemetery.
These were names I had not heard of before, but what was most amazing was one headstone only had a birthdate on it! Was there was someone in the immediate Knapp family I could possibly contact? Even Daniel May the company historian a Metropolitan Life, thought the family had reached the end of the line with Claire and Joseph Fairchild.
The ride back to Kenny Vitellaro's house was intense, as I wanted to share this overload of info I had received that day. When I got there Kenny wasn't home yet. I looked in the phone directory and found that new name, but decided to wait till the next morning to call.
It's not easy to cold call anyone on something like this, but someone has got to do it. I had a lot of practice from my first book. It's also not easy to be on the receiving end of someone like me calling to poke into your personal life and saying they would like to write a book about it. I must have a sincere voice, as no one has ever hung up on me yet. Well I called and a very elderly sounding voice answered. We spoke briefly and she said "I can't tell you ANYTHING about the Knapp's.................Whoa Silence..... ......."other than I know I'm related somehow" Good grief I thought a slight reprieve..... When I asked if she could direct me to anyone, who might be able to, she gave me a name and a town....no phone though. I looked and that person was listed. Good God two cold call's and a plane to catch in bit....
The second voice sounded much younger and receptive. In a few seconds I found out that I was speaking with Claire Antoinette Knapp's Granddaughter!!....
After picking myself off the floor, we had a very nice conversation and I found out it is her, Mother who's in the family plot in name only. And yes she would speak to her about me and my plans for a book.
This woman I'm speaking with turns out to be my age and remembers going to her great grandfathers Joseph Palmer's office in NY City....GOOD GOD I'M THINKING THIS IS INCREDIBLE.... She can probably tell by my voice I'm more than a little enthused. She told me of his huge desk and library. Though she didn't know about the mansion in Mastic Beach, she told me about Joseph Palmer's estate in Lew Beach and Mackey Island and more. Then she told me how someone approached her several years ago about a custom made engraved shotgun he had acquired. (The guns I had just heard about days before in hidden in the ballroom? ) It had a bust of Joseph Fairchild (Sr?) in the stock and a plate that said Made For The Joe Knapp Club. I could tell she knew her firearms ( A true Knapp for sure ). I asked about her grandmother's brother J. F.
(Estelle's words came rushing back..."My father used to go drinking with Dodi Knapp")
I now wished I was staying for a few more days. I told her about what I already had gathered and what info I had online. We exchanged each others postal and e mail address' and she promised to stay in touch. When I got home to Nashville there was an e mail from her waiting.
We have had some further correspondence and phone conversations and she has conveyed that while the family will help me with the history of Joseph Fairchild and Joseph Palmer, the Knapps have always been a very private family, have never seeked publicity and wish to remain so. I told her I had no problem with that as it was the Past & Dodi & Claire & their Mastic Beach Mansion that I was primarily interested in. There is still much to learn about the past, and especially about The Knapp Estate of Mastic Beach, NY... Oct. 2, 1916 - Feb. 15, 1959.