Images of a Rural Way of Life

Posted on 10 July 2011

Theodore Haines and grandson John Thompson Jr. @1910

By Annette Hinkle

The flavor of any place is largely determined not by its present, but its past. In Sag Harbor, for example, seafaring traditions are evident in the layout of the streets and the feel of the architecture.

But down the road, the story of Bridgehampton and Sagaponack is one told through its rich and fertile soil.

Though it’s a detail lost on casual visitors who come to gawk at the mansions and lavish beachfront properties, the wide open vistas of outwash plain still in evidence today in the area are a reflection of that story — one written by its farmers.

This Friday, the Bridgehampton Historical Society opens “Visual Images of 100 Years of Farming in Greater Bridgehampton.” Archivist and curator Julie Greene has assembled a photographic display for the show reintroducing audiences to old time farming families.

“I’m not a farmer’s daughter … but I know it’s 90 percent of living out here, or has been,” says Greene. “So I thought it would be a great exhibit to do. It’s still a rural community, there are still potato fields and jaded people don’t realize what they’re passing by — 300 years of farming history.”

Greene admits that she’s something of an “evolver” when it comes to organizing exhibits and has changed her mind more than once on the direction this one will take.

“Originally, I thought I would focus on the farming families — the Whites and Fosters, then I’d have to add the Ruppels, Wesnofskes and the Musnickis,” she says. “I soon realized there’s so many it wouldn’t be fair to leave any of them out.”

Next, Greene toyed with the idea of focusing on efforts related to farmland preservation in the area.

“But that’s all kind of still evolving,” she notes.

In the end, she’s settled on a primarily pictorial history of the community’s farmers — photos of wagons filled with hay, or egg and poultry farms now long gone. Also on view will be farm implements, the majority of which are no longer used.

“There’s an egg incubator, tons of farming blades, small corn shuckers, seed planters and cultivators that would have been pulled by oxen,” explains Greene.

In many ways, this exhibit is a collaboration between the community and Greene, coming as it does as a result of her role as archivist and the advent of computer technology. In recent years, residents have brought family photos to Greene who has scanned them for the historical society’s collection which is now full of imagery that speaks to an agriculture past forged by families with names like Halsey and White, Musnicki and Rogers.

“My favorite pictures, being a mother of three, is of young kids with grandfathers or fathers – standing and riding on tractors,” she says. “There’s one of Theodore Haines and his grandson, John Thompson Jr., working a giant thrasher on his farm on Ocean Road, circa 1910.”

Though photographs only go back to the late 1800s, when it comes to farming in the area, there is, indeed, a long history to document. The first European to farm here was Josiah H. Stanborough who in 1656 settled on Bridge Lane in Sagaponack. Greene explains that back in those days, farming wasn’t about commerce, but rather, sustenance.

“Basically you had  a cow for milking, a hog for meat, and you grew flax for clothing and home furnishings,” explains Greene. “Then they began taking things down the turnpike to the port [of Sag Harbor] to be shipped out.”

But Greene notes the arrival of the railroad in 1870 changed everything. Suddenly farmers could ship their products to market much more quickly.

“Then the whole immigrant population began coming in,” says Greene. “The first Irish started arrived in the 1840s with the potato famine. They settled in the city and moved to Brooklyn then migrated further out to farm.”

Polish immigrants followed, first working on farms owned by others and then, in the early 20th century, they began buying their own.

“They had large families, 10 to 12 kids, and they worked the land,” explains Greene of the immigrant families. “Some of the kids went to school, some just went a half day and worked the rest of the time. That’s when potato became king.”

The next farmers were seasonal migrant workers who began arriving in Bridgehampton from the Carolinas in the 1920s. When the season ended in October, families typically moved back south.

“But as things modernized and it was more affable for African Americans, they stayed,” says Greene. “Those families settled along the Bridgehampton Turnpike.”

While many farming families are still in the area, most gave up working the land years ago. With property values soaring and farming becoming an increasingly difficult profession, it has been more profitable to sell than sow.

But there are still familiar names — Halsey, Wesnofske, Foster — working the fields that remain.

“Many of them are still aimed at the potato – and some branched out into organic framing,” says Greene. “The Fosters are farming in different forms, like making potato chips.”

“It’s lovely and a testament to the people here – not all are selling their land,” she adds. “The White family has been here 350 years – they have their land and lease it to be farmed. The Ludlows are making cheese. They have farmed for centuries and hopefully will continue to do so. There’s definitely an evolution within the families.”

Like any evolving story, there are also new names being added to the roster of family farmers. Jim and Jennifer Pike are a prime example of that — a young couple and first generation farmers who are making a go of it with one of the most popular farm stands in the area.

“I’m enamored. Here I thought what do I know about farming? But what I do know and the sense I’ve gotten is it’s an agricultural society,” says Greene. “It’s amazing that elsewhere there’s not a single remnant of it.”

“Here, even if it’s just a rusty old tractor, it harkens back to the time when people took care of themselves and gave it their all,” she adds.

“Visual Images of 100 Years of Farming in Greater Bridgehampton” opens with a reception at the Bridgehampton Historical Society, Archives Building, 2537-A Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton, on Friday, July 8 from 5 to 7 p.m.

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