|The First Owners: The Kellers
Augustus Ralph Keller was not a typical Heights summer resident; he had no ties to Brooklyn. According to the 1930 Census, both of his parents were born in Germany. He was born in Manhattan.
In 1883 he married his first wife, Annie Louise. In 1897 they separated and were divorced in 1902. However they continued to argue and the New York Times reported on August 13, 1905 that the divorce settlement had been approved by the Supreme Court for $6,250. By this time he was married to his second wife, Florence, who had complained that she was annoyed by the first Mrs. Keller. Keller was forced to move to Plainfield, New Jersey to avoid arrest by the former Mrs. Keller who had sued for alimony. In the fight against the proceedings, Keller had spent $25,000.
By 1892, Keller had formed his own publishing firm in Philadelphia, A. R. Keller Company which that year published The Supreme Court of the United States: It’s History and its Centennial Celebration by Hampton L. Carson, and that same year a book by Willis Fletcher, James Gillespie Blaine, An American Stateman. Three years later his firm published The Mitchell Atlas of the World and Triumphs of Genius by W. Sanford Ramey. In 1895, it published John Swinton’s controversial and influential book, A Momentus Question: The Respective Attitudes of Labor and Capital.
By 1906, Keller was living in New York, but on a visit to Philadelphia, the New York Times reported on April 3, “Augustus Ralph Keller, President of the A.R. Keller Company, with offices in the Fuller Building was arrested yesterday charged with being a fugitive from Justice.” George Gebbie alleged that Keller had misappropriated $10,000 worth of books and other property of the Gebbie Publishing Company of Philadelphia.
In 1907, his firm published the collected works of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). The 15 volume edition was limited to 800 numbered copies.
It was that November 18 that Keller purchased a lot from the Shelter Island Heights Association that was bounded by a line 110 feet from the Prospect House Annex, and further bounded by the Bridle Path, Bevan Place and Bay Avenue. The deed reserved to the Heights Association the right to approve the plans of the house and its “location, materials, and style of architecture.” The December 7 issue of the Suffolk Times reported that “Contractor C. W. Reeve has the building of a large cottage about 45 x 55 feet for Mr. A. R. Keller of New York City. The location is just west of the Prospect House Annex, overlooking the bay east and west. Mr. Keller is a member of the Shelter Island Yacht Club and owner of the yacht Sunbeam.”
A week later, the mason Frank Macomber was pouring the basement, and construction on the house had begun by January 18, 1908, when the Suffolk Times reported: “Contractor Charles W. Reeve with a force of ten men, on Monday last, commenced raising the large cottage for Mr. A. R. Keller, of New York City, located just west of Prospect House Annex. Mr. Charles Brigham, of Boston, Mass., is the architect.”
On May 8, 1908, there were two transactions in which the Kellers deeded the land to the Heights Association and then the Association deeded it back to them, changing the distance from the Annex to the property line to 84.43 feet. On May 28, Keller put the property into Florence’s name.
In 1908, Keller was an enthusiastic new member of the community. The Suffolk Times reported on June 6 that “The first member of the Shelter Island Yacht Club who put his boat in commission on the opening day May 30 was that of Mr. A. R. Keller, owner of the yawl Sunbeam recently put into such fine order in command of Capt. Worthen of Greenport.” He also created a special prize of an open race cup for 1908.
On August 23, 1908, Keller purchased a 7.78 acre lot from John K. and Mary L. Souther of Washington DC. The property was bounded northerly by Winthrop Road, easterly by Gardiners Creek, and the land of Ella Bowditch, westerly by Lucy Farlow, and partly by land of Cochran. This land quickly became know as Florence Park, named after Keller’s wife.
On September 12, the Suffolk Times reported that Keller had purchased about forty acres from the estate of Caleb Smith in the middle of the Island: “Mr. Keller proposes to clear this land with avenues through it and building lots laid out. This land has been used as pasturage for a great many years, and when improved as it is Mr. Keller’s intention, it will enhance the value of other land adjoining.”
By early November, Charles W. Reeve had a force of men at work on three cottages in Florence Park. Walter Brigham has confirmed that these cottages were also designed by Charles E. Brigham, the Boston architect.
Keller was equally enthusiastic about the Boys’ Lincoln Brigade of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, a forerunner of the Boy Scouts. The September 29 issue of the Suffolk Times reported: “The Lincoln Boys’ Brigade have been granted the loan of Mr. A. R. Keller’s power boat for a day’s sail and picnic and hope to take a day off very soon.” And, on November 14, it reported, “The Reverend Dr. Foster has just received his Boys’ Club gold medal, the gift of Mr. A. R. Keller, of New York City. Mr. Keller had the medal specially designed and made for the Lincoln Boys’ Brigade and it is to be given as a prize to the member receiving the highest marks for punctuality, obedience and general deportment. The medal is well worth striving for and the boy who wins it may be proud of it. The generosity of the donor is much appreciated by the rector.”
By early January 1909, the house painter Mat Havens was busy “shining up” the cottages in Florence Park, according to the Suffolk Times. In early March it was noted that Keller had been on the Island looking after his business interests, and on July 24 he was said to have rented one of the Florence Park houses to a Mr. Deppeler.
The Suffolk Times reported in late July that “LeRoy Savage, who has been removing eel grass from the lake of Mr. A. R. Keller, the owner of Florence Park, has contracted to clean out the entire lake which has a frontage of some two thousand feet. The improvement will add much to the appearance of the fine property.”
On September 4, the Suffolk Times reported that Charles W. Reeve was building a tenement house at Florence Park for F. W. Simons, superintendent of the grounds. The October 9 issue noted that “Mr. A. R. Keller and family have closed their cottage at the Heights and returned to their town residence Victor Hall, 113th Street and Riverside Drive, New York City.”
In mid-December, the New York Times, the New York Herald, and the Suffolk Times all reported a tragedy concerning John K. Souther. This from the Suffolk Times, “Washington, December 5 -- While his wife and three little children were out walking, John K. Souther, an artist, committed suicide at the Hotel Grafton here about noon today by shooting himself in the head. Mr Souther lived in Erie, PA before he came to Washington 19 years ago. He was 39 years old. In a note left addressed to his wife said that he had lost considerable money in the recent panic and suggested she would get along better without him. He requested that his body be cremated. -- Mr. Souther was very well known by the people of Shelter Island having spent several summers here with his family occupying the Homestead of R. G. Duvall. He was also an owner of real estate situated on Winthrop Road that he sold to A. R. Keller, now known as Florence Park.”
In 1911, A. R. Keller Company published The Aerial Age by Walter Wellman. The book told tales of a thousand miles by airship over the Atlantic Ocean, an airship voyage to the Polar Sea, and discussed the past, the present, and the future of aerial navigation. Keller presented a copy to the Shelter Island Public Library.
On April 11 and 13, 1911, Augustus and Florence sold two Florence Park cottages to the C. N. Shurman Investment Company, 43 Exchange Place, Manhattan, and in December one to C. W. Tabor, also of New York City. On April 29, they sold the land in the center of the Island, in three parts, to the Cantiaque Development Corporation, 185 Madison Avenue, New York.
On February 4, 1913 Keller transferred the remaining land in Florence Park to his wife.
In May 1914, Keller and his wife were involved in some important business dealings in New York which affected both the property at 10 Bay Avenue in the Heights and the remaining property in Florence Park. On May 1, the New York Times reported a new incorporation, “A.R. Keller, Inc. Manhattan realty; $10,000. George Washington Place, Augustus R. and Florence L. Keller; 39 Claremont Avenue.” On May 10, the Times reported, “AR Keller, Inc. is the buyer of the 11 story loft at 41 & 43 West 25th Street sold last Wednesday by the Gray Realty Company. The buyer paid $375,000 for the property, giving Shelter Island residential property in part payment.” Deeds recorded in Riverhead show that on May 6, Florence transferred ownership of the house in the Heights and two lots in Florence Park to the Gray Development Company, 15 Laight Street in New York City.
On December 8, 1914, Lydia B. Gray transferred ownership in the Heights house back to Florence now at 39 Claremont Avenue, Manhattan.
All was not in order in Manhattan, however, as the New York Times reported on August 29, 1916: “25th St 41 and 43 West n.s. 225 e of 6th Av 50x9x9, eleven story lofts; Florence Coleman against A. R. Keller, Inc., et. al.; J. H. Judge, attorney; due $250,700.55; taxes &c., Sold to the plaintiff for $25,000.”
On December 10, 1916, the New York Times reported that the International Historical Society had published a 15 volume History of the German People, edited by Edward M. Ellis and Augustus R. Keller. It was extensively reviewed as World War I was raging, and people were interested in why Germany was an aggressive nation.
On June 19, 1921 Florence Keller, now of 509 West 100th Street, Manhattan, sold to R. C. Farber the eastern portion of Florence Park, 2.5 acres, being on Winthrop Road, a triangle bounded on the west by a private road and by land of R. C. Farber, on the south by Gardiner’s Creek, and on the east by the Bridge.
On December 1, 1922, Florence sold the Heights house and property to Elisabeth P. Stein, 50 Orange Street, Brooklyn. She and her husband, Arthur S. Stein, assumed the Keller’s 1911 mortgage with the Riverhead Savings Bank for $6,000 due on March 19, 1926.
The sale of the Heights house to Elizabeth P. Stein marked the end of the Kellers’ presence on Shelter Island, but not the end of their mention in the New York Times.
By 1929, Keller was the president of Town Topics, a society newspaper that reported the doings of society’s darlings in Manhattan. It was said that any mention was better than no mention at all. He was such a public figure that family tragedy was reported in the New York Times. On August 17 the paper reported that Keller’s sister, Emma Schmidt, had been found wandering in the streets. The headlines tell enough of the story: “Find Doctor’s Wife Begging in Street. Police pick up 72 year old missing sister of Town Topics President in Rain. Left her home Saturday. Extensive search, even by radio, failed -- She is identified after giving false name.”
The 1930 Census showed the Kellers had moved to Park Avenue. He was 66 and she was 54.
Scandal rocked Keller and the newspaper publishing company he owned in December 1931 and January 1932. It appears that salesmen were assiduously selling stock in the company, and if a prospect did not buy sufficient stock, a spurious comment was made in the next edition of the paper. The headlines in the New York Times report the tale. On December 11, 1931, “Tatler Stock Sales $250,000 in 5 years, Editor who pens barbed notes about society folk says public has bought none recently. State Inquiry under way. Davis questions Salesmen for Town Topics also in effort to find if Martin Act was violated.” December 22, “New ‘Scandal’ Data Shown by Inquiry. McCauley discloses notes on prospects used in sale of Town Topic Stock. Head of Company heard, Keller’s testimony not made public in State’s investigation of Publication’s Activity;” [According to The Man Who Robbed the Robber Barons by Andy Logan, 1965, the publication of Town Topics was suspected on January 7, 1932.] On January 22, 1932, the New York Times reported: “Town Topics Case Ends in a Blaze. 500 ‘Prospect” cards flung into [State Office Building] furnace as Periodical agrees to stock sale injunction. Publication to resume. Magazine to change editorial direction -- Bennett satisfied with outcome of drive.” Town Topics was never again published by Keller.
On November 2, 1932, the New York Times reported an Augustus R. Keller renting an apartment at 545 West End Avenue in Manhattan.
On June 7, 1933, the New York Times reported: “The Harriman Bank and Trust Company filed suit in the Supreme Court yesterday against the American Social Registry, Inc. and Town Topics Publishing Company and Augustus R. Keller, officer of the Corporations for $3,076. The suit is based on notes.”