After CVS gave West Islip Historical Society access to La Grange Inn to erect a history center in 2017, the group was faced with the challenge of collecting items and preparing their presentation, as well as finding ways to finance the center’s completion.
“Financially, we were able to get a couple Suffolk County grants which enabled us to expedite [the process],” said Lynn Luttenberger, president of the historical society. “Otherwise, this would not be done yet.”
The West Islip Association was also heavily involved in reaching many of the checkpoints to eventually erect a history center in the estate. Association president Joseph De Carlo was appointed chairperson of the La Grange Inn Task Force in 2008. Task force members shared the end goal of seeking a commemorative use for the estate. De Carlo said that CVS’s role was vital to reaching the goal.
“They are very gracious stewards,” he said, and stressed that multiple organizations and entities were involved all along the way — financially or not. “People made this happen.”
Fast forward a few years, and the West Islip History Center is now open on La Grange’s first floor and features various displays and items that encompass the history of West Islip. A portion of what is on display is specific to the history of La Grange. Uwe and Elka Paulssen, former owners of the estate, contributed a multitude of framed photographs of the property as well as photographs relevant to historical owners, like the Higbies.
Harry Higby, a historical society member, is a relative of Samuel Higbie, who was an owner of the property in the late 1800s and into the 20th century. Samuel Higbie and his family are identified in several of the photographs on display.
He created a compilation of La Grange’s evolution since the 1750s that includes historic photographs, newspaper clippings, legal documents and other documents relevant to the property. The Higby last name had three different spellings, depending on location in the U.S.: Higby, Higbie and Higbee. He said ownership changed hands generationally and occasionally converted (or reverted) the surname’s spelling.
The building has served multiple business-oriented uses in its time, including a restaurant and a hotel. A stable was also present at one time.
Today, one wall is dedicated to West Islip’s evolution, starting with a depiction of a time before European settlement. The Willetts family was one of the first settlers in West Islip, and they introduced patents to the area. Right around the Revolutionary War, settlement in West Islip expanded rapidly. West Islip inherited a considerable amount of Babylon residents, and a railroad was eventually constructed. Development began to peak in the 1950s, and the school-construction craze commenced shortly afterwards.
Lastly, the history center includes a commemoration for the American Legion Post 1738, which is celebrating 70 years in West Islip this year.
Luttenberger, who is also a vice chair on the task force, said she has additional plans in mind for La Grange, aside from the history center.
“We are working on a secondary room which will not be ready for at least another year, but that is going to focus specifically on the estates and the mansions,” Luttenberger said.
Visit the West Islip History Center inside La Grange Inn at the corner of Higbie Lane and Montauk Highway on either Sunday or Tuesday from noon-2 p.m. and check out the vast display.