of the dimon estate
The Dimon family acquired their first property in 1704, a parcel of land that ran from the Sound to the Bay, a little East of Herrick's Lane in what is now Riverhead Town. The Hallockville Museum Farm is located on the northern part of that parcel.
The Dimon's began developing property on Manor Lane in the 1750’s. The second Jonathan Dimon (1727-1787) built the original farmhouse and barns around that time. His son, also named Jonathan (1756-1831), lived in the Manor Lane farmhouse, when he served in the Third Regiment of Minutemen at the beginning of the American Revolution.
Jamesport was a center for the scallop and bunker (menhaden) fisheries, as well as a farming community. The Dimon family farmed their land for many generations. At the time, wheat, rye, barley, oats and corn were the main commercial crops of Eastern Long Island. Early colonial Long Islander's also supplied much-needed hay to New York City. The Dimon's likely farmed livestock such as cattle and pigs.
Restoration work on the Manor House in the early 2000's uncovered the hand-hewn post-and-beam skeleton of the early colonial farmhouse. This discovery was replicated in what is now the brick-and beam wall in bar area of the Dimon Estate restaurant.
About 1810, the third John Dimon to live on Manor Lane property left Jamesport, then still called “Lower Aquebogue,” and went to New York City at the age of 15. In Manhattan, he served as an apprentice in the famous East River shipyard of Henry Eckford. One of his brothers, Daniel S. Dimon, also started out as a ship’s carpenter. Their father was a ship owner in addition to being a farmer.
John missed the local battles during the War of 1812, but his younger brother Daniel encountered a cannonball rolling across the fields as he ran north towards Long Island Sound to watch a battle between two British frigates and the local militia in 1814. The cannonball is now in the collection of the Suffolk County Historical Society, a donation of his son, John M. Dimon.
In 1815, at the end of the War of 1812, when John was about to turn 21 (the end of his apprenticeship), he formed a partnership with two fellow apprentices, Isaac Webb and Stephen Smith. The three young men founded their own shipbuilding firm, which eventually became Smith & Dimon. The firm had a shipyard at the foot of Third and Fourth Streets in Manhattan and became famous as a pioneer builder of fast clipper ships.
Smith and Dimon built two of the earliest and most famous clipper ships, the Rainbow and the Sea Witch. The Rainbow, commissioned in 1843 by Howland and Aspinwall, a leading New York merchant firm, was launched in 1845. The first of the true clipper ships, its long narrow hull, sharply pointed bow and huge rig was so radical in design that the ship was dubbed “Aspinwall’s folly.”
Once launched, the Rainbow quickly proved the merits of her design by sailing some remarkably quick runs between New York and China -- in as few as 84 days -- before being lost at sea in 1848 without a trace.
The Sea Witch
Smith and Dimon then built the even faster Sea Witch which launched in 1846. The Sea Witch went on to set an all-time clipper ship record. John’s younger brother Charles was on board as the owner’s agent for her maiden voyage to China. Howland & Aspinwall gave the command of Sea Witch to Captain Robert Waterman, known in the trade as "Bully Bob" Waterman.
The figurehead was a Chinese dragon with an open mouth and a partly coiled tail. The hull was painted black with a contrasting sheerline strip at deck level.
On her third voyage, the Sea Witch made the passage from China to New York in 74 days – a record never surpassed by a merchant sailing vessel. These records weren’t just bragging rights. The returns from selling the season’s first tea after a single speedy voyage were more than enough to pay for the ship and give its owners a handsome profit.
After the California gold rush in 1849, the Sea Witch was transferred to the around-the-Cape run from New York to San Francisco where Charles Dimon was now serving as agent Howland and Aspinwall. The Sea Witch proceeded to set an all-time record of 100 days on that route.
After a brief return to the China trade, the aging clipper ship was reassigned to serve as a steerage vessel carrying immigrants to the West. In 1856, with approximately 500 immigrants from China on board, she ran aground 12 miles west of Havana.
This was shortly following another scandal on board, which was enough to make the front page of the New York Times, when the current Sea Witch Captain Frazier was murdered by the first mate, Sylvanus M. Spencer.
John Franklin Dimon
John F. Dimon must have had an interesting boyhood, growing up in lower Manhattan as the oldest son of one of the city’s leading shipbuilders. He and his brother Charles both attended the grammar school of Columbia College, later becoming a clerk in the “counting house” of Howland & Aspinwall, probably through his father’s connections.
Although they lived in New York City, and circulated in the upper reaches of New York society, the family retained its connections to Jamesport. John F.’s grandfather, Jonathan, was living in the old Manor and running the family farm. John F. apparently spent time there with his grandfather as a 10-year-old boy. Then, after his father built his own “summer seat” in Jamesport, and John F. clearly grew to love the village during his summers there.
Daniel (John F.’s uncle), took over the old Manor house and farm after the death their father in 1831.While his uncle Daniel lived in the old Manor, John F. Dimon continued to travel the world. He apparently made his fortune in Peru, where he was likely engaged in the guano trade that was at its peak in the 1850’s. This trade centered on the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru, where the huge numbers of sea birds and extremely dry climate had resulted in immense deposits of natural bird guano.
This material became the first commercial fertilizer in the United States and helped spark a major revolution in agricultural practices. So intense was the interest in Peruvian guano that dozens of ships often converged on the islands at a time. By the 1870’s, ten million tons of guano had been carried away and the islands were exhausted.
It was in Peru that John F. met and married Rosalie. All of their daughters were born there. According to his obituary, he “sailed all over the world.” Many years later, an elderly Chinese cook living in Riverhead recalled having arrived in this country on the same ship with Dimon in 1861. It is likely, however, that the Chinese cook came back from Peru with Dimon, as there was a large population of Chinese laborers there working the guano fields in the 1850’s.
Sometime in the following decade, Daniel moved to a new farm in Aquebogue and sold the old Manor to John F., his nephew. John F. Dimon remodeled the old house when he acquired it in the 1860’s. Dimon gutted an old family house, leaving nothing but the outside walls standing, and built his stylish Second Empire mansion around the frame. In the process he added considerably more space on the back, nearly doubling the size of the structure.
The Dimon's were generous benefactors to the community. After the old one-room schoolhouse that stood next to the historic meeting house in Jamesport was destroyed by a suspicious fire in 1877, John F. Dimon conveyed an offer to the community from his father, “to erect a new schoolhouse at his own expense.” The citizens of Jamesport quickly accepted the “generous offer” and erected an unusual cross-shaped building with an open floor plan on the site of the old structure.
Generally called “Mr. Dimon’s School,” it was moved to the south side of the street in 1891. Parts of “Mr. Dimon’s school” were incorporated into a house still standing on Washington Avenue when the new Jamesport School, now the Community Center, was built in 1923.
Scandal & Tragedy
In1868, John F Dimon's ten year old daughter Margaret Olivia died tragically after she fell from an Oak tree on the Manor property. The accident plunged her mother into a deep despair from which she never recovered. The column marking her grave was topped by a little bird bath, which no longer survives.
In the years that followed, the family suffered through two scandals, both involving their high-spirited second daughter Laura. The first was announced with breathless headlines in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle typical of the “yellow journalism” of the day: “THEY ELOPED and Outwitted and Unwilling Father.”
The article chronicled Laura’s elopement in 1886 with Dr. Warren Sneden, the Brooklyn-born son of the president of a major New York City bank. It spoke of the “romantic circumstances” of their secret marriage at the Griffing Hotel in Riverhead and the various ruses “the stunningly handsome” lovers used to elude detection by her father. It describes Laura being intercepted on a walk to the Post Office and being spirited away to her secret marriage in her lover's carriage. It includes juicy details, such as the meal the groom ate at the Griffing Hotel while waiting to abduct the bride: wild duck, mince pie and milk.
The reporter may not have been terribly accurate, however, as he called the village “Jamestown,” and ascribes the elopement to “Mary,” Laura’s older sister. The reporter also exaggerates the tenderness of her age, saying she was barely twenty when she was actually closer to thirty.
The second scandal, also reported in delicious detail by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, occurred just seven years later in 1893. Apparently, the marriage was not a happy one. In subsequent litigation over custody of their young daughter, Dr. Sneden alleged that his wife had abandoned him several times without cause and refused to let him even see his daughter, Rosalie. He further alleged that his wife’s behavior was “due solely to the interference of the members of her family.”
Laura in turn accused him of “cruel and inhumane treatment” including threats to kill her by using his medical knowledge to “give her medicine that would put her to sleep forever.” Allegedly, he said he “longed to bury her and threatened to put her in an asylum.” Laura also alleged that her husband threatened to kill himself. She testified that, he once disappeared into an upstairs room and she heard two loud shots – which, as the Eagle put it, she afterwards learned “was not pointed in the doctor’s direction by a long way.”
The judge must have believed Laura’s side of the story, as he awarded her custody of “baby Rosalie” – actually a 6-year-old child at that point. The 1900 and 1910 census manuscript records that Laura and her daughter Rosalie, as well as her still-unmarried sister Mary, were all living with her parents at the Manor.
In an interesting footnote, Dimon family historian Dan Fischer discovered that Warren Sneden married again, and that the second wife “died in a New York hotel under suspicious circumstances involving medication.” Perhaps there was some truth to Laura’s allegations.
John F. Dimon died in 1912, four years after his wife at the age of 92. Three years later, his fancy barn burned down in a mysterious fire – despite the efforts of the Riverhead Fire Department which towed one of their hand-pumpers there behind an automobile. The two daughters continue to live in the old place.
Still another tragedy struck in 1917, when Laura Dimon Sneden’s only daughter, Rosalie, “the center of her affections and the hope of her declining years” died in 1917 at the young age of 29. The mother, “dazed by an immeasurable and uncomprehended grief,” made almost daily pilgrimages to the daughter’s grave until she followed the daughter there four years later, at age 66. Both are buried in the Sound Avenue Cemetery.
Mary Dimon, John F. and Rosalie’s oldest daughter, lived another ten years. When she died in 1931, she was the last of that line of the family. At the time of her death, she had already left the Manor and was living alone on Tuthill’s Path. Like her sister and niece, she is buried in the Sound Avenue Cemetery.
Restaurants & Rebuild
The old Manor became a restaurant in 1947 – named the “Twin Oaks” because of two large oak trees that stood just outside the front door. It had lost its central cupola in a hurricane and along the way acquired a sheathing of asbestos shingles that hid most of its architectural detail. Over the years, the restaurant passed through a series of owners and names. Several generations of North Forkers still fondly remember eating in its paneled dining rooms and enjoying selection of "Imported" and "American" wines.
In 2006, the Manor passed to the Kar and McVeigh families who took on a full restoration of the historic building. Just a week prior to re-opening the Jamesport Manor Inn, a blazing fire levelled the building. Undeterred, the house was rebuilt as much in the spirit of its original design as possible under modern building codes. Original beam and rooftiles that were salvaged remain on view in the upstairs dining room we now call the "John Dimon Study."
This new iteration of the restaurant as the Dimon Estate, seeks to illuminate the interesting lives of the passing generations that called this piece of land on Manor Lane their home. In doing so, we hope to serve a bit of local history, alongside delicious food and handcrafted drink, to everyone who comes to enjoy it's view, gardens, orchard and the peaceful character of this Jamesport sanctuary.
Scroll for photos of Jamesport Manor Inn restoration, fire and rebuild 2005-2006