It looks like just another stately brownstone on a quiet residential block in Bay Ridge. Children are playing next door, and cars line the streets. Aside from the “Estate Sale” sign in its windows, this house looks no different from the others.
Step inside, however, and you’ll find yourself in a residence steeped in American history.
Liberty Antiques, a New Jersey-based business specializing in estate and business sales, has found some historical gems in this old brownstone – all of which will go on sale this weekend.
But beyond that, there is something much less apparent and just as striking about this house in particular: the family tree of the people who lived here.
Starting in 1906, this Brooklyn residence was home to the Stowe family – originally the Stow family, before Lois Elizabeth “Betsy” Stow decided to add an “e” in the early 1900s.
The most famous member of the Stowe family was probably Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the 1852 abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was the great-great-aunt of Sharon Stowe Smith, a surviving relative who now lives in Florida.
Smith relayed much of her family history over the phone to Joseph Karowski, a former history teacher who now conducts historical research for Liberty Antiques.
“The more we look, the more we find,” said Karowski on Saturday afternoon, standing amid piles of photographs, records, and even old swords on the house’s third floor. “You can’t believe the history that’s here.”
Natives of Connecticut, the Stow family bought the Brooklyn house in 1906 for $8,500. Sharon Smith’s aunt Betsy, a treasurer for 45 years of the Daughters of the American Revolution, lived there her whole life with her brother Arthur.
Family records indicate that ancestors of the Brooklyn family include Captain Stephen Stow, who helped rescue 200 prisoners of war after they were thrown off a British ship during the American Revolution. A 35-foot statue of him stands dedicated to his memory in Milford, Connecticut.
Another noteworthy ancestor is John Stow, who recast the Liberty Bell with John Pass in 1753. His name remains engraved on the Liberty Bell today.
The Stow family kept meticulous records of their history – Smith has a 24-page ancestry book dating back to the 1200s. On top of that, the Brooklyn house’s third floor was devoted to storage of family heirlooms for years. Smith spent three years cleaning out the house, and though she mistakenly threw out a lot, she discovered a great deal about her ancestors there.“I wish now that I had documented by video every time I opened a crate or barrel or suitcase and unloaded the merchandise,” she said, “because I believe that the Stowe family always created time capsules. There was always a dated newspaper or magazine enclosed in the boxes as if to tell the story of the time.”
The Liberty Antiques team has spent the week sifting through the house, finding and pricing everything for this weekend’s sale. “And to think she was going to throw all this away,” remarked Sally Wortman, owner of Liberty Antiques.
One of the most prized findings in the house is a High Wheeler bicycle, built around 1887. Experts estimate that there are only about 5,000 of these bikes left in America today.
The bike’s wheel is approximately 54 inches tall. “You’d have to be no torso and all legs to ride it,” said Karowski, noting that the bike also has no brakes – to stop moving, riders had to crash into something.
Though they are an outdated mode of transportation, these bikes are in demand. The Wheelmen, a society dedicated to preserving antique bicycles, are on a constant lookout for bikes like these, hoping to restore and even ride them, despite their dangers. The bike already has prospective bidders.
Other heirlooms include bayonets from World War I, an Edison home cylinder machine, and antique furniture.
“It’s unbelievable that these people lived here,” said Karowski. Something about turn-of-the-century Brooklyn must have drawn them here, he added, “It had to be a vibrant, wonderful community.”