By Annette Hinkle
Throughout the 19th century when young men left the East End for the first time in their lives, they most often boarded whaling ships out of Sag Harbor for a stint at sea.
That was especially true for Bridgehampton boys. Farmers by trade, some took their chances on a single voyage with hopes of earning enough to return and buy a small plot of land to work. Others saw the sea as an escape from small town living and left seeking world-wide adventure and perhaps a fortune.
Both types of men are represented in “Bridgehampton Whalers – A Farmer’s Life at Sea,” an exhibit on view now at the Bridgehampton Historical Society’s William Corwith House Museum on Main Street in Bridgehampton.
The exhibit offers insight into the lives of those who left the East End to hunt whales, and later returned to a life of farming (if they returned at all). Curator Julie Greene has set up the Corwith House as if a whaling captain has just arrived home from sea. There’s the front parlor, decorated with historic furnishings where the newly arrived captain might have received visitors eager to hear of his adventures, as well as displays that document the whaler’s life and occupation at sea. These include excerpts from the whaling logs of Bridgehampton captains along with “souvenirs” from the voyage — Scrimshaw carved aboard ship or exotic mementos brought back from a foreign land.
Though the exhibit opened last summer, it has been extended throughout the winter months to highlight the addition of several paintings by the late East Hampton artist Claus Hoie who died in 2007.
The paintings — 13 in all — were recently gifted to the museum by the Helen and Claus Hoie Charitable Foundation and are now part of the historical society’s permanent collection — most appropriate given that whaling is the subject matter of many of Hoie’s watercolors.
“Hoie loved the ledgers, the handwriting and the calligraphy was fascinating to him,” says Greene. “He portrays not just whaling, but so many pieces in his collection show the captain and his wife, the ship and the whale, the crews and they’re fantastic.”
While Hoie’s paintings were based on actual local whaling captains and their logs, his artistic renditions were creative composites inspired largely by historical portraiture and imagery of the day.
“He used real ships and real captains, and he imagined a story,” explains Greene who notes that initially, the historical society had been given two Hoie paintings by the foundation. “When we decided to do this exhibit, we asked if we could borrow more to compliment it — paintings of captains, ones that featured fish, there’s one that features the stars since those were navigational tools, one that showed what the whalers did.”
The additional 11 borrowed watercolors were displayed alongside the two gifted to the society, and Greene notes that when a group of board members from the Hoie Foundation came to see the exhibit, they decided to give the additional 11 paintings to the historical society as well.
“Now that we have 13, it’s a whole new part of the exhibit,” says Greene. “Hoie’s ancestors were whaling captains — he was born in Norway and settled on the East End. His art has a whole scrapbook feel to it, there might be writing on one corner, an inset of whaling captain in a gold frame. It’s just a super homage to the whalers.”
In many ways, Hoie’s imagery itself is a modern take on the life of a whaler. For most sailors, the artistic medium of the day (and one taken up to relief tedium at sea) was scrimshaw — whalebone which was etched with imagery or carved into fanciful objects. The exhibit has many examples of that on view as well.
“Whalebone is great stuff, it was the plastic of the day and used for everything — parasols, inlaid backgammon sets, cribbage sets,” says Greene. “These sailors in their down time would just carve the bone, some were quite artistic. Whalers who weren’t as artistic made napkin rings.”
In some cases, Greene notes a whaler’s artistic ability extended beyond scrimshaw and extended to the fanciful drawings found in the captain’s logs themselves.
“There were a lot of talented artists on these ships, and sometimes the whaling logs had drawings of whales to show what they caught,” explains Greene. “Later on, they made wooden stamps of the different whales, but originally they were hand drawn.”
These hand drawn whales not only added color and interest to what could otherwise be a rather dry account of a voyage, they also offered important details about the catch — from the amount of bone that it yielded to the success of the chase.
“If it shows the back fin receding into the water, that meant it got away,” notes Greene.
For those interested in learning more about the Bridgehampton whalers life at sea, this Thursday, January 24 at noon Greene leads the second in a series of monthly winter curator’s talks on the exhibit. In actuality, it’s something akin to a walking tour, with Greene taking participants through the various rooms and sharing more of the history and lore of the whalers and their families than can be gleaned by simply viewing the objects on display.
“I lead people from room to room so they get the idea of why it’s set up that way, rather than making them read each little thing,” she notes. “There’s so much information that I can’t write for the displays. If I did, people would be there reading all day.”
One of the historical tidbits that Greene likes to share is the tradition of the pineapple in front of a home as a symbol of welcome.
“When the captains came home, they brought back a pineapple from their voyage and impaled it on the gate out front,” explains Greene. “That tells everyone that he’s home and ready to welcome visitors.”
“The front parlor room is set up as if the whaling captain’s saying ‘I’m home…come here my stories,’” adds Greene who has learned many of those stories herself by delving into the whaling logs of Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor captains. The quality of the tales, however, is largely dependent upon who wrote them.
“The captains didn’t always write in the logs. It may be the first mate, and sometimes you’re reading this very dry account,” confirms Greene.
One of the whaling logs on view belongs to the Hampton Library and is from the Argonaut, a whaling ship which Greene notes was one of the first to go around Cape Horn. Hoping to find some eloquent accounts of the passage, she scoured the log for the details.
“I wanted to see when they made it around the horn, and if they talk about it… and they don’t,” she says. “That captain was more interested in latitude, longitude and where the wind was coming from.”
If some captains were less than sentimental about their voyages, others offer a unique glimpse of life aboard ship in their logs — including Captain Andrew Jennings.
“Capt. Jennings had a July 4th entry about patriotism and our independence,” says Greene, who adds that he also shares a poignant account of one Christmas meet up – or gam – with other ships from home.
“When ships would meet, often captains spoke with other captains across the water, sharing news or letters around the world,” says Greene. “Gamming came about when there were no whales in sight and nothing was going on. The crew took one of the small whale boats to another ship to have a good time. On his entry for Christmas, they met up with two other Sag Harbor whalers and all three had a gam.”
They also made a bet, adds Greene, with Capt. Jennings offering a new top hat to the whaler who brought home the most whale bone.
His logs were great,” adds Greene. “And though I tried to find out who eventually won that bet, I couldn’t.
Julie Greene’s Curator’s Talk on “Bridgehampton Whalers – A Farmer’s Life at Sea” was originally scheduled for Thursday, January 24, 2013 at noon at the Bridgehampton Historical Society’s William Corwith House Museum, 2368 Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton. It has been rescheduled for Thursday, January 31, 2013 at noon. The tour is free and open to all. For information call 537-1088 or visit www.bhmuseum.org.