Cupid’s arrows found both Artie Muller and Irene Corwith one summer in Water Mill in 1939.They were separated by a lake in those days, and, later, by oceans. But the waters that initially kept them apart ultimately brought them together.
Irene Corwith was a true local, spending her formative years canoeing, swimming, ice skating, and fishing on and in Lake Nowedonah, also known as Mill Pond, at the popular access point on Deerfield Road.
Artie Muller’s presence at the lake was less frequent during his childhood and teen years, limited to summer day trips with his family from their Nassau County home in Baldwin to Rose’s Camps, on the opposite side of the lake.
The locals and summer visitors generally didn’t mix. But, one summer night, someone invited Irene to a party at the camps. There, at the age of 15, she met 19-year-old Artie.
They didn’t see each other again until the next summer, and they hadn’t kept in touch—which didn’t sit well with Irene. She gave Artie the cold shoulder, briefly, before he worked his way back into her good graces. He says, with a slight grin, that it didn’t take too long.
By 1942, Artie was an ocean away, stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, serving in the U.S. Navy. In those few short years, their love had grown, in spite of the distance between them.
So Artie wrote home to his father with specific instructions: Take money out of my bank account, pick out an engagement ring—and ask Irene if she’ll marry me.
Despite the unusual way the question was delivered, she said yes.
During their engagement, while Artie was in the Philippines with the Navy, a local real estate agent had spotted Irene on her canoe on the lake, and asked her if she’d like to buy the piece of property overlooking the water on Deerfield Road. The property was owned by an admiral in Washington, D.C., and he was hoping to sell to someone local.
Irene’s parents gave her $300, money they felt they owed her after they had to wipe out their children’s savings accounts to rebuild their chicken farm after the Hurricane of 1938. Irene added money that she’d been saving to buy a fur coat—and, for $500, the land was hers.
Ecstatic, Irene took a clump of dirt from the property and stuffed it into an envelope, which she mailed to the Philippines as a way of telling her fiance the good news.
“I never thought, in the world, that anything like that would happen,” Mr. Muller said last week while sitting in his kitchen, which was flooded with the warmth of sunlight glinting off the lake, which is visible from the wide window.
They were married on April 15, 1945, at Sacred Hearts in Southampton while Artie was on a 30-day leave. He was 24, she was 20.
When the war ended, they began their life on the lake where they’d met, purchasing, for another $500, a tiny bungalow from Irene’s family—Irene had been born in the house—and moving it across the potato fields from its location just up the road, before placing it on the foundation they’d built on the property on Mill Pond.
Their first child, Sandra, was born in 1946; Jeanne came along in 1947; Arthur, better known as “Mosey,” was born in 1954. When Irene was pregnant for the fourth time, they finally put an addition on the home, giving the family the space it needed when Richard—better known as Ricky—was born in 1957.
It was close quarters within the walls, but that wasn’t where the family did most of its living. The lake was home, a never ending source of joy, fun and entertainment—there was swimming, canoeing, sailing, water skiing, fishing for striped bass and pickerel (in the days before the carp took over), and, in the winter, ice skating and ice hockey games, followed by hot chocolate made by Irene on the antique cook stove in the kitchen.
“Our life revolved around the pond,” Mr. Muller said. “We loved it.”
Their home became a natural gathering place for classmates and cousins, aunt, uncles, and friends. Artie built his children a treehouse near the shore of the lake.
Through it all, the couple never forgot how it began, and every year, on the anniversary of the day they met, July 14, they’d set off in the canoe, often with a picnic lunch and a cocktail, and row across the lake to the camps, even in the years when they were no longer in operation. They’d take their time, and reminisce.
After 43 years of marriage, in June 1988, Irene died of brain cancer, at the age of 63. Thirty years later, at the age of 96, Artie is still in the bungalow on Mill Pond, living on his own, with frequent visits from his four children, who are all nearby—with the exception of Ricky, who, as his siblings like to joke, “moved away” to Springs.
Mr. Muller has a bad knee, which slows him down a bit as he walks down the gently sloping backyard toward the shore of the lake. He carries a small wooden cane, used both for balance and to point out areas of interest: the small dirt patch that used to house the stump of a giant willow tree, which was turned into a bench, which, over time, rotted out; the small, two-story garage at the other end of the property where his daughter, Jeanne White, still lives with her husband when they rent out their Southampton home during the summer months. The old treehouse is still there, with clear signs of age, but a newer one, built for the grandchildren, is still operational, complete with electricity, curtains and small furniture.
Mr. Muller looks out across the lake, sunlight dancing on its surface as strong breezes gust through the bare trees, with the satisfied gaze of someone who knows he’s enjoyed an exceptional life there.
He speaks with strong feeling about how he’ll never put up hedges or other vegetative cover to hoard the view to himself, how he believes people driving by, around the near 90-degree turn in the road where his house sits, should be able to see what he’s seen every day for more than 70 years.
He has a calm and quiet demeanor, which he says he’s been in possession of his entire life. He was attracted to Irene because she was different, more talkative, always volunteering in the community, a devoted homemaker finding a way to stretch a dinner no matter how many unexpected guests dropped by.
“She was outgoing and outspoken,” Mr. Muller said. “She loved people and being with people.”
Her outspokeness took many forms, including one moment Mr. Muller remembers well.
The children were grown and had moved out of the house, and she had expressed her desire to take out the wall that separated the tiny kitchen from a bedroom. She made her frustrations known by driving a hatchet through the wall.
Mr. Muller chuckled briefly and smiled as he told the story while sitting in that kitchen, adorned with the antique cook tools and kitchen gadgets his wife had collected over the years.
Mr. Muller has trouble remembering exact dates, natural for someone his age, but those and other memories are ones, it’s clear, that time will never erase.
There’s another one: He recalled rowing the canoe across the pond with his wife on moonlit nights that were so quiet they could hear the sound of water dripping off the paddles.
Ms. White says she cherishes the way her parents raised their family, and the unique place they called home. “We never went to camp, because we had camp right there,” she said.
The connection to that land, that lake, that spot is understandable, particularly for Mr. Muller, who can still look out his kitchen or living room window and set his eyes on where it all began, with the love of his life, so many decades ago. Looking out across the lake, he said exactly what anyone would expect him to say:
“As long as I’m alive, I’ll stay here.”