Being sixty-something years old means I have met a lot of interesting folks, many right out here on the East End. One such person was Richard “Tate” King, a 12th generation East Ender who passed away on June 29, 2016 at his home at his North Sea farm in Southampton. Fate had it that I drove by North Sea Farm that night and could not help but notice so many North Sea/Southampton ambulances in the parking area. In 2005/2006 while doing a yearlong project of the Top Fifty Traditions of the Hamptons, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Mr. King and his wife on their farm. A good part of the talk took place in their kitchen. Earlier, Mr. King proudly put on the hat in the photo above and posed for the photo (actual film back then) next to his produce scale for the farmstand.
His story is so American I am sharing it. For over 65 years, Richard “Tate” King tended to his land, on 1060 Noyac Road in North Sea. The story of North Sea Farm with its farmstand is a story of a post-Depression east end family starting with nothing but grit, determination and an opportunity. Richard “Tate” King’s father, Stanley King, was given the opportunity to work the 27 acres of a farm owned by the Schwenk family of Southampton in 1941. With one cow and some pigs, Tate King’s father was paid $10 a week to work the farm. His workforce was his four boys and wife. Tate remembers, “At first, we were just one step up from being a share cropper. But in 1943 we rented the place for $60 a month – growing lima beans, cucumbers, pickles and so forth … We had a few cows, chickens and some eggs. We had no equipment, everything was done by hand.”
The fact is that even before then Tate milked cows when his was 17, milking, bottling and delivering the milk all by hand. In 1943, Tate and two of his Southampton buddies were drafted off to war in the Army. He served in the Pacific and was one of the first U.S. troops to enter Tokyo. While winding up his 21 months of active duty he received a letter from his dad requesting: first advice, then a commitment should the family buy the 27 acres that is now North Sea Farm for $12,500. In the reply to that letter Tate King made a commitment that shaped his life.
In his kitchen that day he explained how he instructed his dad in a letter from the Philippines to, “Go for it.” He then giggled and explained what they did. With a $1,000 up front loan from the Swanks, Stanley King became eligible for a Farm Credit Loan. When still short of the money needed, Mr. Swank himself floated a note to make up the difference. Then, after Tate came back home from the service, he used the Army money he had saved up to build a barn. Next, in 1948, the Kings bought some dairy cows to go into the dairy business using the Swank Dairy for distribution. That started as Tate recalled, “A 27-year roller coaster ride of being in the dairy business.”
The next part of our conversation was the most magical. He explained how around 1952, he met Millicent, the woman who was to be his wife, or as he recalled so fondly, “The greatest thing ever to happen to me.” He credited Southampton minister John Felmeth, who also was a former U.S. Marine captain, for putting him on the right path for the rest of his life, including encouraging him to marry “Millie.” That marriage blessed the Kings with four children, Richard, Kathleen, Karen and Kevin. Many times that day as we talked Tate King stressed that the income that Millie brought in as a registered nurse was vital to the farm and his family’s success.
At the time of his wedding, Tate’s dad split the farm into three shares. One for Tate, one for his brother Stanley Jr. and one for himself. In 1957, after his dad’s untimely death at 57-years-old, Tate King explained that a young lawyer named Emil DePetris stepped in and sorted things out. Tate King credited Mr. DePetris for organizing and laying down the foundation of what was to be the long-term success of working the farm, saying in fact, “He is the reason why I am still here today.”
Due to market conditions, Mr. King ended his dairy business in 1975 and took the advice of good friend Ray Halsey to create an official “farmstand.” Up to then there was a sort of unofficial business going on of selling some eggs, chickens, milk and other farm products. Listening to Ray, “was the best business thing I ever did,” beamed Tate to me that day.
The kitchen, where I conducted the interview, is the very room that an 11-year-old Kathleen King first baked her first chocolate chip cookie, (now sold all over the world as Tate’s Cookies) as her proud parents looked on. I found myself seeing the dignity of Millie and Tate King as they sat in their modest home, a time capsule of sorts, a piece of the best of Long Island life.
With Millie and Tate King now deceased, the farmstand still has fresh vegetables, eggs, chickens, with turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas, or as Tate said, “a little bit of everything!” Stopping at the North Sea Farm seems to be a ritual for those in the know. Tate arranged for his son Richard, a local farmer also, to keep the farm. The most powerful line of that day came with Tate gazing out the kitchen window just before I left when he said, “Most of my life all I had was the change in my pockets. [He then actually jingled change in his pocket.] It was Millie [gazing at his wife as she gazed lovingly back] and her Southampton Hospital check that held us over, but now they tell me the land is worth millions of dollars but I can never sell, because its true worth is much more to me as my home.”