The lives we've lost

DeWitt Warner

DeWitt Warner was an impressive man in many ways: his devotion to his wife and church, his involvement in a potato chip factory, his passion for music, his love for the rich soil that he toiled on for much of his life as a potato farmer. His life story paints a portrait of steadiness and reliability.

That story sadly concluded May 4 when Mr. Warner’s 96 years on this earth came to an end. His stepson, Edward Cheslak of Baiting Hollow, said he died of complications from COVID-19.

Mr. Warner, a lifelong Baiting Hollow resident, was buried May 23 next to his wife at a family plot at the same Baiting Hollow Cemetery he had been involved in maintaining for several decades.

Over the course of his life, Mr. Warner saw so many changes. At the time of his birth, Sound Avenue was a one-lane dirt road people traveled on by horse and buggy. He lived to see the space age. In his lifetime, 16 American presidents served in the White House. He saw changes to his beloved community.

Rev. Stanley Knavel of Baiting Hollow Congregational Church said Mr. Warner once alluded to those changes by telling him, “You know, Stan, we’re growing houses now where we used to grow potatoes here.”

That was the crop Mr. Warner was so well associated with. He was a potato farmer until 1952 when he and other family members formed the Warner Potato Chip Co., which was renamed Treat Potato Chip Co. in 1962 and existed until 1972, according to Mr. Cheslak.

People still have fond memories of those tasty potato chips, packaged in blue and orange bags marked “Treat Potato Chips by Warner.” The factory on Sound Avenue that produced those chips and other snacks was a popular school-trip destination for youngsters, a treat in itself.

An advertisement in the Islip Bulletin, dated Aug. 30, 1962, and titled, “Pop Warner Chips In,” detailed some history of that potato chip business. (Mr. Warner’s daughter, Holly Ramey, identified “Pop Warner” as Austin Warner Sr., DeWitt’s father, by his photo atop the ad).

“We got to like potato chips so much I figured out I could save money by building a potato chip plant,” read the advertisement.

“That’s what we did. Built it right in the middle of our potato fields in Riverhead 10 years ago.”

The advertorial continued: “The thriving towns of Nassau and Suffolk Counties have sprung up, deeply rooted among Long Island’s potato fields. Spuds became our middle name and a lot of folks hereabouts won’t look an Idaho potato in the eye … This past spring we enlarged our family circle by inviting the Treat Potato Chip folks to join us. Right when we were celebrating the marriage of the Warner and Treat names, our Riverhead plant burned to the ground. (You never saw so many roast potatoes in your life!)

“Takes more than that to keep a potato man down! We’ve rebuilt the plant … It’s now the most modern in the whole potato chip world.”

Following the sale of the business, DeWitt Warner farmed briefly before retiring for six years, according to a family history. He un-retired in 1979 to work in his brother Austin’s nursery business before retiring for good in 1990.

The man behind the potato chips was part of the bedrock of Baiting Hollow Congregational Church, the same church he was carried into in his mother’s arms 96 years ago. Mr. Warner was a church trustee for eight years, president of the Baiting Hollow Cemetery Association for several decades and ran the annual church barbecue for 21 years.

A handyman, Mr. Warner had a gift for repairing items, mechanical, electrical or otherwise. “If he put his mind to it, he could do just about anything,” said his brother, Austin Warner Jr. of Baiting Hollow, owner of Warner Nursery in Calverton.

DeWitt Warner also shared his passion for music with the church, twice installing the church organ, the second time after a carpet was put in.

What’s really remarkable, though, is he could also play the organ. What was so remarkable about that?

“He didn’t read music,” Rev. Knavel said. “He just played by ear. Phenomenal.”

DeWitt Warner had an ear for music, if not an eye for it.

Mr. Cheslak said DeWitt Warner not only had an organ installed at his home, but he even hollowed out part of the attic so he could run speakers up to it and use it as a reverberation chamber.

DeWitt Warner had musical talent, according to Rev. Knavel, who said, “He could play at the Riverhead Theater, trust me.”

DeWitt Warner was remembered for the loving devotion and care he showed to his wife, Esther, after she was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. Cheslak, Esther’s son, said DeWitt Warner “put in a massive amount of time and effort while already in his 90s himself to provide a really genuine, loving, constant care … He was wonderful with her.”

Rev. Knavel witnessed some of those tender moments himself, whether it was DeWitt Warner hugging and consoling Esther or giving her ice chips out of a cup to wet her mouth.

Esther died Sept. 14, 2018.

Less than two years later, they are once again side by side.

Said Rev. Knavel, “His music has stopped, but the melody still lingers.”