Why did Francis Marion Smith, the Borax King, a farm boy from Walworth County, Wisconsin who made a fortune mining Borax in Death Valley, California, and his wife of 17 years, Mary Rebecca (ne Thompson) come to Shelter Island, New York in 1892 to find a place to build a summer estate?
Was it because Mollie, as Mrs. Smith was known to her family and friends, was from Brooklyn, and Shelter Island had, in the last 20 years, become a major summer resort for the elite upper middle class of Brooklyn? Or was it because his friend and soon to be business partner in the Reality Syndicate in Oakland, California, Frank Colton Havens, a member of one of the founding families of Shelter Island and the son of Wickham Havens of Sag Harbor, had a summer estate in the area? Possibly it was a combination of the two that piqued his curiosity.
Whatever it was, after several summers in the Adirondacks, the Smith family came to Shelter Island in 1892, staying at the Manhanset House on Dering Harbor.
The family legend is that one day while riding across the Island on the State Road, near South Ferry they passed an old 1700s Colonial house and Mollie exclaimed, “That’s the place I want.” On the pretext of seeking a glass of water, they engaged the owner, Hannah W. Cartwright, widow of Captain Maltby P. Cartwright, in conversation. By the end of their visit, the man called Borax Smith -- known to his friends and family as Frank -- had purchased the 42 acre homestead for $8,000. Frank put the property in Mollie’s name. It was on the east side of the state highway (now called South Ferry Road), just north of the Clark property.
Two years later, Frank purchased from Phebe J. Nicoll of San Francisco a stretch of land to the East of his original purchase which gave him complete control of the small cove adjacent to his house.
In 1896, Frank bought a triangle of seven and a half acres across the public highway from his house from Samuel and Elizabeth Clark, David and Adelaide Clark and Lucretia Clark. Frank put this property also into Mollie’s name.
The following year, Frank bought from Gabriel B. Crook two large plots north of his house, 25 acres of land south of the right-of-way into the land of Charles T. Chester and 30 acres north of the right-of-way.
Frank spent the summer of 1899 tracking down owners of land near his house and holdings, and by the end of September he had purchased 13 different plots of land. One group of purchases were of plots from a Cartwright family suit 1898 settlement which were to the west of the Highway. These were Plot “A,” 2 acres, from Clarence C. and Fanny Cartwright, Plot “C,” 5 acres, from Sarah C. Hudson, “Plot D,” 4 8/10 acres, from Hannah and Gilbert Rogers, and “Plot E,” 5 86/100 acres, from A. Terri and Charles M. Griffing. From Julia L. Clyde he purchased an additional 3 1/4 acres on the west side of the public highway from Ella T. and Charles J. Barnes of Brooklyn, 12 1/2 acres, and from Samuel Griffin, a widower living in Riverhead, 3 1/2 acres. From Hattie and Gilbert S. Cartwright, 1 1/4 acres, from Edward H. and Henrietta Conklin, James and Maggie Conklin, and Nellie Conklin of Brooklyn, 9 acres. These were all small pickings, however; he had a plan. From Maria F. Wade and her husband Thomas, he purchased 68 1/2 acres and from Henry and Marion Havens, he purchased an additional 37 acres.
On the east side of the highway, he purchased two small lots, 3/4 acre from E. Sarah Havens, G. Herbert Tindall, Minine E. Tindall and Everett L. Tindall of North Haven, and 3 acres 77 rods from Edgar P. Baldwin and his wife Margaret.
On December 16, 1899, Frank acquired from Herman DeSelding, possibly his agent, 235 acres of land from the estate of Charlotte Nicoll. This land cut through Sachem’s Neck from Clark’s Cove to Coecles Harbor and included Cedar Island.
In 1902, Frank and his neighbor Irving Clark swapped land on the west side of the highway: Frank sold 12 1/2 acres, the land he had purchased from Ella Barnes in 1899, and Irving sold 7 1/2 acres tucked between the lands of Patrick McNamara to the north and Artemas Ward to the west.
In 1906, Frank made one more significant purchase, a total of 48 acres, from Frank P. and Phebe Conklin on either side of the right-of way into the Nicoll family property at Sachem’s Neck, now Mashomack.
By 1906, Frank had acquired enough land to claim an estate of 260 acres, which he called Presdeleau, plus the 235 acres in Sachem’s Neck. His land east of State Road extended south to the Clark family’s holdings and north across the Nicoll family access road. On the west side of State Road, where he established a deer park, his land extended along the highway from Dickerson Road (now Midway) to the present circle at South Ferry Road and Cartwright Road.