Farmer John Lawrence Halsey operates his wood turning business out of a barn, originally built 150 years ago. However, his ancestors go back to 1640 as part of the founding families of Southampton. “I’m 11th generation,” Halsey says proudly.
Halsey was born to Everett Lawrence and Katherine Halsey in 1947, the only year the government made a steel penny. While he may not be a man of steel, he has taken what was given to him, grew it to his specifications and passed that down to his children to make their own, all with pretty solid character in an area notorious for its real estate values—some of the highest on the planet.
“When my father’s parents, Lawrence Halsey and Ellen Halsey, married, two farming families came together,” he says. When Halsey and his brother Tom were growing up, the family farmed properties on Mecox Bay, the south side of Montauk Highway in Water Mill and Deerfield Road, on the northside of Water Mill, totaling 100 acres.
“Dad was a potato grower,” Halsey says. “His generation was the first generation of commercial farmers. His father, and generations before, were farmers growing what they needed.” Once the railroad was built, it was easier to transport goods to New York City.
Then, once his sons were of age, Halsey’s father gave the farm to them and they split the two properties.
“He gave the potato farm to me and my brother Tom and other property to my two sisters,” Halsey says. “Adam, my brother Tom’s son, operates Halsey Farm off Deerfield Road.”
When Halsey took over the farm in Mecox, he decided to follow his childhood passion, and attended the Thompson School of Applied Science in New Hampshire. “I studied dairy science in school for two years,” he says.
“I like cows,” he says. “I raised steers for meat as a kid in high school on this property. I just like animals and still do.”
He began raising dairy cows in 1963 and sold the milk to Charles Schwenk for nine years. “Being 19 and a Halsey I was convinced I could make it work.”
“People say cows give milk. That’s hooey. You have to take it from them,” he says. “I stole it from the cows.”
In the meantime, he met his wife Evelyn, who grew up in Hicksville, New York, when she was a student at Southampton College. “We met at a college hangout that was a bar and restaurant,” he says.
During the week it was a cafeteria for the college students and on the weekends, there was live music and dancing. “I went there to meet folks and the last time I was there I saw Ev come in and I struck up a conversation with her. Rest is history,” he says.
On their honeymoon in Bermuda, Evelyn came up with the idea for a retail store where they could sell their dairy products and so the Milk Pail opened for business in 1969.
To supplement their income, the young couple began selling apples from Evelyn’s family orchard in Vermont, where her parents had moved. The Halseys met Evelyn’s brother who had 75 bushels of McIntosh apples at an exit in New Paltz, New York.
“There’s no way in hell we’re going to sell all these apples,” Halsey said at the time. “We took them to the store and started selling apples and two weeks later went back.”
The Milk Pail was making money but Halsey was using that for the cows, so in 1972 they bought the property where the shop stands today, at 1346 Montauk Highway in Water Mill, sold their 45 dairy cows and planted 30 apple trees behind the shop. The cows moved on but the name stuck.
“Apples are hard to grow. Compared to growing potatoes, it’s more mechanized,” he says.
“I’m a farmer. I ought to be able to grow these things,” he told himself at the time. “The only thing I knew was what end to put in the ground. I learned fast.”
As he’s telling the story, Evelyn walks into the barn looking for a bolt and their short banter is a reminder of their long working partnership.
It seems everyone around the farm is working on something and eventually seeks help from Halsey. Their granddaughter Kay, 10, also makes a visit looking to oil a pair of clippers and Adrian, farm staff, comes in with a handful of grapes to taste.
Grapes are another hobby of Halsey’s. “I never enjoyed the word retire,” he says. “My father had a saying: We never expected to retire, just unwind our spring a little.”
These days, the Halseys’ two daughters, Amy Halsey Cohn and Jennifer Halsey Dupree run the farm, which still revolves around the Milk Pail.
“Evelyn and I were able to gift the farm to them so they wouldn’t have to sell half to pay inheritance tax,” says Halsey. “If they had to do that there wouldn’t be enough farm to support a family. The ability to grow food would be taken out of production.”
The farm has grown from 30 apple trees to 30 varieties of apples, as well as peaches, pumpkins, squashes, gourds, pears and flowers.
Milk Pail is famous for their apple pies. “The recipe was my mother’s,” Halsey says. In fall, customers can pick their own apples and pumpkins and grab an apple cider donut, cider or even a bottle of wine from a local vineyard.
As the farm has changed over the years, so has the barn and it’s where you can find Halsey, on most days, turning wood, or building something just steps from the home he and Evelyn built in the late 1960s.
He doesn’t have to go far to reach one project or another. There’s a tiny orchard and vineyard on the property which he helps tend. “I developed the system we grow apples on,” he says. “The variety of apple is grafted to a size controlling rootstock which restricts growth. My purpose in life is to keep trees small.”
The trees are part of Cornell’s development program. “We’re a cooperating grower.”
Snapdragons, a fairly new apple, looked ready to be harvested. “It’s a fool who talks about his or her crop before it’s harvested,” he says. “But I will be a happy camper if this is a successful harvest.”
Small green apples, previously picked off by Evelyn, dot the ground below, allowing energy to be focused on only the best fruit. “They turn more and more red as it gets colder,” Halsey says. “Now we take a bite to see if it’s good.”
The property backs up to Mecox Bay. In winter when the water freezes over, the family enjoys their favorite pastime of ice sailing. Halsey’s father’s A-class stern steerer with 360 square-feet of sail, goes three times the speed of wind, and needs at least six inches of ice.
In summer, as kids, they raced a 16-foot Comet. At times, the barn was used for boatbuilding, or at least boat maintenance, when they could get the machinery for the potatoes out of the way.
For the last three years, a small farmstand has been attracting people to the property and two years ago, Halsey decided to put out his wares. Various vessels, peppermills and pens sell at a “small breeze rate,” from a display table outside the barn.
A couple saunters over to the display table. The woman, eating apple chips from a mylar bag, circles.
“How are you?” asks the man.
“I’m grateful,” says Halsey.
“Do you have any bowls to make a salad in?” asks the woman as she inspects each bowl carefully. “Every time I toss a salad, it falls out of the bowl.”
Each wooden vessel is a different color, circumference, depth and thickness. Halsey holds one of his creations to show his customer. “What kind of wood is that?” she asks.
“Maple, from a maple tree down the road,” he says. “Some maple trees died and the town took them down. I got quite a bit of wood that way.”
After they chat and the couple decides on a salad bowl, they leave to run errands while Halsey heads to the buffing wheel for some final touches, adding kanubi wax for shine and protection.
“Usually I don’t go so far buffing but this bowl has been outside a lot so I felt I should finish it completely,” he says.
“Maple tends to be a little tame,” he says. It doesn’t have as much character as some other woods, although he points out another maple bowl made as a wedding gift that has two “eyes” created by spalting lines, when fungus eats sugar within the wood.
“I like working with wood and metal, building things for the farm,” he says. “Nothing to do with art.”
Materials for making a cabinet to store bags under the Milk Pail’s donut machine are on his work table. But as he had more time, he started to investigate turning wood, if not for art, then for fun.
“I watched videos and got very discouraged at how simple they made it look,” he says. “No one is going to make a video of making mistakes.”
He attended a weekend-long class at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking and came away encouraged. “It was something I could do and like to do,” he says. “I bought fairly inexpensive equipment three years ago and started in.”
His first medium-sized lathe is made by Robust, the only company in America that makes lathes. He uses carbide-tipped turning tools, which are frowned upon by some but were a game-changer for Halsey.
“Traditional tools take practice and experience. Carbide tools are easier but I don’t like the word ‘easier.’ There’s a learning curve,” he says. “I’m 75. If it’s going to take me five years to have fun, it doesn’t make sense.”
There are three tool shapes: round, square and pointed. “I use the square shape to make the tenon, then round to shape the outside and hollow the inside. This is the basic pattern I use to make a bowl,” he says. “Diamond point tool to make lines and details.”
He joined a woodturners club that meets once a month in Northport, New York to soak up knowledge from 50 other members. “Woodturners are very friendly people,” he says. “Always willing to help.”
Woodworker Tom Matthews of Southampton is an old friend who specializes in Japanese style joinery. “He teaches me about wood,” he says. And will donate small pieces of wood to play with. “He just can’t throw anything away.”
In a back room, larger sections of trees wait their turn on the lathe. Some are covered with plastic to keep the wood moist. “If it gets too dry it cracks,” he says. “If I can’t use it, I put it in the wood stove. It’s only a piece of wood and it grows on trees.”
Pen parts occupy a cabinet as old as the barn. Sanding discs, paper patterns placed on logs to size a vessel, are neatly placed within reach of his lathe, as is the banjo, a metal bar that he uses to hold the 26-inch ergonomically shaped carbide-tipped tools steady as he turns the wood. When he’s done using the tool, he sets it into a holder so it doesn’t move.
“This is the romantic way of doing it,” he says, holding a log. “Generally you have to cut it in half. A bowl is only as big as the log.” Another way is to buy a turning blank that has already been prepared. How long it takes to finish a piece depends on what the wood tells him.
A biker, wearing an outfit that resembles a bumble bee, buys some peaches from the farmstand and starts chatting with Halsey about the deliciousness of the fruit, its juices dripping down his face and arms as he eats. “You can’t get peaches like this anymore,” the biker says.
Halsey looks for a working hose to help wash him off. Not long after, the customer comes back to pick up their new bowl, perfect for tossing a fresh salad.