The Hildreth name is imbued with American history. When family members arrived in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1635 they became sheep and cattle ranchers. The family came to the East End of Long Island in the 1700s to find better grazing for their livestock. In 1842, Lewis Hildreth opened up a general store called Hildreth’s, and a tradition of service, quality goods and friendliness was born. Believe it or not, the store located on 51 Main Street in Southampton is the original. A walk inside feels like walking into an art exhibit at any big city museum.
Before the Long Island Rail Road came to the East End in 1872, the merchandise in Hildreth’s came by horse-driven wagons after being unloaded from merchant ships in Sag Harbor. On regular shifts, goods were transported on the muddy roads into town to be unloaded in the back. Since the train service began, the trip has been shorter but the work is still done with a certain diligence. Today, according to Marketing Director Martin Haley, Hildreth’s has over 100,000 items for sale daily, and is currently celebrating their 165th anniversary as America’s oldest department store.
The store is still family owned and operated with Henry Hildreth III at the helm. The wooden floors of the store are the originals and the showcase windows are also the original design. Also, the same front door that was used in 1842 is still there.
In 1844 Hildreth’s went high-tech using a telegraph to place and receive orders in a more timely fashion. The history of the store truly reflects the charm of the items for sale at Hildreth’s, as they still sell many of the same housewares and dry goods that they did back then. Years ago, I bought my mother a charming hand-painted watering pail that she still uses today.
I heard one shopper say that she first went to Hildreth’s with her dad to buy a bed right after the war. “I had grown and was no longer able to share a bed with my baby sister.” So many Southampton residents have similar memories.
Hildreth’s is open every day except Christmas, Thanksgiving and Labor Day, as the Hildreth family honors their employees on Labor Day, bypassing a potentially profitable day. Perhaps that alone is a reflection of the commitment and makeup of the Hildreth philosophy.
With all the changes happening on the Main Streets in the Hamptons, it’s comforting to see a store with such a rich tradition thrive. Hildreth’s currently has three stores and a warehouse located throughout the Hamptons and their loyal customers know that there is something special about having Hildreth’s Home Goods in their Hamptons home. Today, one does not even have to go to the stores to purchase their merchandise. One can visit www.hildreths.com to view the many items the store has to offer. The Hildreth’s staff is old-time-style friendly and helpful to any needs you may have and also have wonderful suggestions for gifts or home needs.
Time marches on and so many things change. So many wonderful stores of the past are gone. But when you turn down Main Street in Southampton, Hildreth’s is where it always was. The lifetime work of Lewis Hildreth, Henry Halsey Hildreth, Leon Hildreth, Henry Halsey Hildreth II and now Henry Halsey Hildreth III is not to be ignored. This store, the first of its kind in America, has won the battle to remain relevant, timely and, most of all, revered.