A Long Life: Remembering Weatherman Richard Hendrickson

Richard Hendrickson at his weather station
Richard Hendrickson at his weather station, Photo: Brendan J. O'Reilly

Richard Hendrickson Sr. of Bridgehampton passed away last week. He was the man who kept the weather data for the National Weather Service in this community for 85 years from gauges, barometers and thermometers he kept on his farm. He’d check them twice a day, phone the numbers in to headquarters. And you could call him personally to get data if you wanted to.

No, 85 years is not a misprint. He had the job for 85 years. His granddaughter Sara lived with him at his farm on Lumber Lane for a few of his last years. He was only recently admitted to a Westhampton nursing home, when he was 103 years old.

Richard was born and raised on this farm in Bridgehampton. He’d pick fruit in the orchard, salt the pork in the smokehouse, feed the chickens. There were about 20 cows, corn in the fields; milk sold for 10 cents a quart and eggs for 20 cents a dozen.

When he was 17 years old and a junior at the Southampton High School in 1930, he took this volunteer position with the weather service.

Interestingly, and perhaps scandalously, in 1935, still in the middle of the Depression, he got married to Dorothea Louise Haelig. She was a local schoolteacher 10 years his senior. But it worked out. They had a son, also named Richard. Forty-seven years later, she died of natural causes, making Richard a widower. Subsequently he married Lillian Boldack and that marriage lasted for more than 30 years, until she passed away, making him a widower for the second time.

I came to meet Richard Hendrickson when I started Dan’s Papers in 1960 to get information about the weather for the paper. He was a man of few words when it came to the weather. He’d talk slowly and carefully so you’d be sure to get it right. He behaved as if every number and percentage that he had harvested was correct and important. But there was far more to him than that. He was a great storyteller for example. And people were very fond of him.

At the end of my first conversation with him, he asked if I could run a classified ad for him in the paper. He’d pay for it. I BUY ANTIQUE GUNS it read. He was a collector of these old weapons. In fact, if you drove up the driveway to his farmhouse just north of the railroad tracks, you’d see several large cannons, several hundred years old, out on the front lawn guarding the house for him, their muzzles pointing back at the street, presumably to sort of protect he and his family. He traded or bought antique guns for years.

In 1970, I bought a house on Lumber Lane just south of the tracks from his farm. I’d find reason to drive over there, maybe to repair one of my children’s bicycles—his son Richard Jr. had a business in a barn doing that—or to talk to Janet, his daughter-in-law, who for many years was the newspaper’s bookkeeper, or just to keep up with him and get him to tell me his stories. One thing I was interested in was the Depression. He’d lived it. What he told me I wrote down. It is quite remarkable and here it is.

“It was surely the greatest disaster ever,” he said. “Nobody was lending money. And if you owed money, you either paid what you owed or they repossessed what you were paying on.”

I asked how he’d pay for things.

“Everything was on a cash basis. I’d buy feed and fertilizer and I’d grow corn and raise chickens. I kept my old farm trucks and I took things to market. And with that money, I’d pay my bills, or try to.

“But the fact is that living through a Depression in a community where you could grow vegetables, raise livestock and catch fish was not all that bad. It was mostly farms out here then,” he said. “I can think of only one farmer that went broke during the Depression. Another one almost did. He was from Poland, settled here to potato farm, built a house, married and raised three boys and a girl, but he was still in a precarious financial situation when the Depression hit.

He’d not yet paid off his house loan, and now, trying to take care of his family and then with a little extra, pay the mortgage. And he got it down to just $35 or something. And then the lender just foreclosed. He said get out. And I think some relatives saved the day by ponying up the rest.

“Theft on the farms was a problem then. Farmers would leave out potato bags for the night in a farm field to take them to market in the morning and they’d come back the next day and they’d be gone. I had chickens stolen. Corn. Heads of cabbage. People even swiped field corn, which you raise for the animals. If you’re hungry enough and you cook it enough, it’s mushy but edible.

“And there was no safety net as we have today. We knew many people who could not pay to eat. My wife would load up a truck with vegetables once a week, and she’d drive it around, going from house to house, asking what was needed that we had, dropping it off.”

I asked about what happened with the summer people. There were many rich Wall Street industrialists who had big mansions out here, built before the Crash.

“Some of them, the very rich, still came out. I remember the Carly family—they owned the teddy bear business. There were the Quimbys, Pecks, Bradleys. They still came out for the summer. Some even sent their kids to our high school rather than to a school in the city. But other millionaires went broke. They just abandoned their houses. One summer, my wife brought home this young girl from Norway who spoke very little English. She worked for a rich man, but he couldn’t pay her anymore. She was just wandering around. We gave her a bedroom for two years.”

I asked him what downtown Bridgehampton looked like. Seemed to me the buildings and churches “anyway” were pretty much the ones we have today.

“There were two barber shops. There were two butcher shops, Schencks and Sayres. There was Ralston, there was the A&P, the newspaper store with the presses for the weekly Bridgehampton News in the back and there was the Candy Kitchen. There was the Bridgehampton National Bank where Starbucks is today and there was a Chevrolet dealership, called Tucker and Murray, in the building where Pulver used to be.”

“And all survived?”

“Yup. One way or another they all got through. There were people who paid their doctor bills with bushels of clams if they didn’t have any money. As I said, money was scarce. It was there, but scarce.”

“And there were jobs?”

“Some. But lots of people worked with their hands on their own. There were men who were masons, or carpenters, or plumbers or electricians. There was Grayson, who was a great cabinetmaker. There were people who went around trying to sell used cars. Cash. They’d come to the house. I bought a pretty new Ford Model A that way—$200 cash. There were even people who walked along down at the beach to see what washed up. And then there was Mr. Halsey. He worked for some big stationery company in New York and every day, even during the Depression, he’d get dressed in a suit and tie and take the train to New York. They gave him a gold watch when he retired.

“As for us kids, we’d mow lawns or vaccinate chickens or grade eggs or pull weeds or, if we had a father who had a farm as I did, just work for him. Lots of boys back then only went to school half time. They’d work on the farm in the morning. Then go to school in the afternoon. It was not easy, I can tell you that.

“And then there were the young fellows who had come out here to live in the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camp that was set up by the government on Scuttlehole Road. There were about 30 of them, men who came from all over the country, single men who couldn’t make it, married men who just couldn’t support their wives and children and had just walked out. They lived in these wood-and-tarpaper barracks buildings up there and the government paid them a stipend for some job they were supposed to do. It wasn’t much. But they could get enough to eat, and they had a place to stay.

“Once, after church, I met one of them. He was being paid to pick gypsy moths off the trees in the woods. They’d think of everything to get us through.

“Then, about 1936, FDR set up the Federal Land Bank and you could get loans again. Things got better then. Pretty soon we were prospering again and there was credit available.”

I spent time with Richard one afternoon on Lumber Lane, standing by the side of the road. He’d erected a small stand there to sell ears of corn to passersby. This was about 30 years ago, so he was about 70, and I was about 45. We talked about this and that, and for a while on this bright sunny summer afternoon, we acted as a team, he doing the major transactions with the people who pulled over to buy a few ears, and me loading them into a bag and carrying them over. I had fallen easily into doing this, not just to help out, but to spend some time being his assistant while he sold the goods, just to be around him.

Around 4 p.m., someone came by who wanted four dozen ears. But all I could count out were a little over three. That was all there was on the stand.

Hendrickson raised an index finger. “Just a moment,” he said to the woman in the car. “I’ll go off to the warehouse and be right back.”

And he trotted off into the cornfield directly behind the stand, returning a few moments later with the necessary additional ears.

Here’s Richard on the Hurricane of ’38:

“It blew so hard that all our chickens got thrown up into the chicken wire fence at the side of their yard. We found them all there in the morning.”

And global warming:

“There have never been so many days above 90 in the summertime. Back then we’d get maybe one, sometimes not even one. Now we get six or seven. Global warming is certainly here by the numbers. And it’s going to get worse, they say. Never thought I’d live to see this.”

Two years ago, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) created an award for any employee who works for the weather service for 80 years. It’s called the Richard G. Henderson Award.

There may be another one some day. But there will never be another Richard.

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