To The Manor Born

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The island, however, is his dearest possession. Now and then he consents to open it for nature study or day-long inspections for the benefit of his favorite charities. On these rare occasions, playing the role of the genial and well-informed host, he regales awed visitors with a torrent of tales and a display of family heirlooms. On foot or by jeep one can see the spot where Kidd supposedly buried his loot, the stone walls built by slaves, the eighteenth-century windmill with wooden gears, the family graveyard, and the watchtower from the top of which Gardiner ancestors scanned the sea for blowing whales. “Can you visualize my island becoming a campsite?” Gardiner asks rhetorically. “One public toilet would ruin it.” To him the Gardiners are unique: “Look at what’s happened to those other colonial lords of the manor. Most of them have nothing left. The Pells lost Pelham at the end of the Revolution. The Livingstons? That’s Grossinger’s now. The Rensselaers? Not a — to — in. As for the Du Ponts, Rockefellers, and Fords, they are nouveaux riches. The Du Ponts came in 1800; they’re not even a colonial family.”

In 1972 Congressman Otis Pike, a New York Democrat, sponsored a bill to make Gardiners Island a national recreation area. Conscious of his responsibility for preserving the Gardiner legacy as long as possible, and with something of his ancestors’ fighting spirit, (jardiner went all out to oppose Pike’s attempt to break up what he called “a millionaire’s paradise.” He ran for Congress on the Conservative ticket and lost. Then, appealing to the ecologists and antiquarians, he mounted an intensive public-relations campaign that resulted in more than eighty thousand letters of support being sent to the House Committee on the Interior. Pike withdrew his bill. But although Gardiner won that battle, he has not won the final victory. One way or the other, through government confiscation, voluntary gift, or simply lack of more Gardiners to carry on, the Gardiner family may some day lose their island, and the longest proprietorship in America will have come to an end.