The Feminine Mystique: The role of women in Sag Harbor’s storied past

Posted on 11 September 2008

For quite some time now, Noyac’s Tony Garro, a dedicated member of the Southampton Trails Preservation Society, has led hikes along the many woodland paths that make up the extensive trail system on the East End.

In recent years though, Garro has developed something of a reputation as a historian as well thanks to his walking tours of Sag Harbor which explore the village’s colorful and storied past. Audiences, it seems, are always eager to hear about the often bawdy past of this quaint little village by the sea.

“I used to do just a generic hike of Sag Harbor,” explains Garro. “But after doing more and more research I found so much out about Sag Harbor, I started looking for different themes.”

Maritime history was a natural for a walking tour of the village. Then Garro branched out and also developed walks based on Sag Harbor’s houses of worship as well as it’s esteemed literary past based on the many authors who have lived here.

“Then an idea popped into my head that with HarborFest coming up, I should do something different.”

This Sunday, as part of HarborFest weekend, Garro will offer one of the newest hikes in his repertoire — one about the women of Sag Harbor. This is actually the second time the hike has been offered (it premiered last year at HarborFest). But with women (or at least one of them) being such a focal point in this presidential campaign, it seems a most appropriate time to visit just how far the gender has come since the founding of the country. 

Garro explains that the inspiration for his women’s tour stemmed from the fact that for years Betty Freidan, that first lady of feminism, had a home on Glover Street in Sag Harbor and plenty of people didn’t even know it.

“I began wondering about how other women were involved in different activities here,” adds Garro. “Not only with whaling, but literary women as well and thought if I did research I could come up with a dozen or so interesting women who lived and interacted with Sag Harbor.”

Garro was not disappointed by what he found. The women who are the focus of the tour run the gamut and span history —  from a whaling captain’s wife who spent years at sea traveling with her husband to Linda Gronlund, Sag Harbor’s native daughter, who lost her life in Shanksville, Penn. on September 11, 2001 aboard United Flight 93 while traveling with her boyfriend to San Francisco to celebrate her birthday. Each of their stories is unique and each tells a small bit about some of the trials and triumphs that have been stitched into the fabric of women’s lives through the centuries.

“It’s a great good cross section,” says Garro. “It’s not only the Betty Friedans of the world — the women who had earth shattering effects — but other women who lived quiet lives and got through it with dignity despite tremendous obstacles.”

“One of my favorites is Anna Westfall, who lived on Howard Street,” continues Garro. “Her husband died at 47. She was 33 and had a son to support, so she taught needle work in her house.”

While there is no known surviving example of the needle work of Anna Westfall, who lived from 1800 to 1888, Garro notes that Westfall’s influence does survive in the work of her students.

“She was such an excellent teacher and her students were so influenced by her, in their works, many of them which are in museums, they would sew her initials — AEW — as a sign of respect for her,” notes Garro. “She had a tough personal life. Her son was a whaling captain who died at sea in 1856. His wife had already died, she then had three grandchildren to raise. Her grandson, a sailor, died at 21 and a granddaughter also died. In her later years her only surviving granddaughter took care of her. She lived her whole life in Sag Harbor.”

“She’s not a Betty Freidan,” says Garro, “but a woman who lived a life with dignity.”

Also on the tour will be a diverse collection of women who lived in Sag Harbor in more recent times — artist Annie Cooper Boyd, Sag Harbor’s great benefactress Mrs. Russell Sage, Rev. Christine Grimbol (the beloved late pastor of the Old Whalers’ Church) and Lady Caroline Blackwood, a Guinness heiress who bought a home on Union Street in the mid-1980s. Though she had some success as a novelist, Blackwood is best known as a “dangerous muse” for the three men she married — artist Lucian Freud (grandson of Sigmund), pianist Israel Citkowitz and the manic-depressive poet, Robert Lowell.

Though there is much information to be found about these women, Garro has found that following the trail of women who lived a century or more ago — can be a real challenge. While men have always left their marks on official documents in the form of recorded deeds, business transactions and logs, historically, women’s lives were rarely documented. Other than the recording of births, marriages and deaths, a woman’s life was not her own — particularly after the wedding when she became the virtual property of her husband.

“It was such a male dominated society, you lost all the property rights, your name and the kids really belonged to your husband, not you,” says Garro.

And when husbands were unable or unavailable to support their wives and children, women had to take matters into their own hands.

“There were many B&Bs — bars and brothels — in Sag Harbor,” says Garro, who points out that given the fact that men could be gone for years (or even killed) while whaling, many of the women back home had to support themselves by turning to a slightly older profession.

“There really was no economic option other than the husband and what he could provide,” explains Garro. “Is it any wonder poor women would drift into prostitution? For a women to live her life without a man was a difficult thing — not only economically but emotionally.”

“I think for the captains, ship owners and mates wives, their husbands earned enough money while they were at sea to live. But I think the wives of the crewmen, if the need arose, would turn a trick to earn a few bucks,” he adds. “What else could they do? Unless they were educated and could teach, there was really no other occupation.”

And because Sag Harbor was such a bustling port in the 1800s, there certainly was no shortage of eager customers.

Down on Bay Street, near the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard, there is house that, according to the 1850 census (one of the most detailed ever), was owned by Mary A. Watkins, 33, mother of six who was listed as head of household. Also noted on the census was the fact that there were 13 other people living in the home.

“They were all are unrelated women between the ages of 18 and 35,” says Garro with a raised eyebrow. “They were not local, all but two came from outside the state. No occupations were listed for any of them — the census listed occupations for men only. Could it be that they were practicing the oldest profession?”

It would probably be a good guess. Garro notes that he has found evidence that, directly across the street from Watkins’ home (of ill repute?) there sat a cooper shop which outfitted whaling ships.

“Sailors would hang out there between jobs,” says Garro. “There was always a group of men hanging out around the cooper shop.”

But by the late 19th century, whaling (and many of the men) were gone and Sag Harbor was on the skids. It was a tough time to make a living, but Garro notes that one Sag Harbor woman — Fanny Tunnison (1870-1944) who lived in a tiny house on Hampton Street —  managed to support herself in those tough times through her talents as a seamstress. Particularly amazing, given the fact that she had been paralyzed from the neck down since birth.

“Luckily, her father was a carpenter and was able to make specialized implements so she could work,” explains Garro. “She had a special chair and table. She did everything with her mouth. She was able to paint, embroider and sew using her mouth and tongue.”

Tunnison eventually became the main supporter of her family. She exhibited and sold her work at fairs and became something of a vaudeville attraction for her talents, which included fortune telling and card reading.

In fact, the New York Times of 1909 includes a listing of vaudevillian acts in the city for the week. Included is a listing for Tunnison, who appeared at    .

“She was a well adjusted person,” says Garro. “She was well read and a great conversationalist. People forgot she had a disability.”

The women’s tour of Sag Harbor begins at 11 a.m. on Sunday, September 14, 2008 and will leave from the windmill on Long Wharf. It is free of charge. Garro will also lead a hike on Saturday, September 13 on the village’s maritime history. It too, meets at 11 a.m. at the windmill. For more information, call 725-5861.

Top photo: Tony Garro in front of the former home of Fanny Tunnison

Above: Fanny Tunnison sewing at her special table

 

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2 Responses to “The Feminine Mystique: The role of women in Sag Harbor’s storied past”

  1. Tim McGuire says:

    Great research and storytelling by Tony Garro on early Sag Harbor resident, Anna Westfall (1800-1888). Also, thanks for the reporting to Annette Hinkle.

    There is a window in the rear of Westfall’s former house on Howard Street that is inscribed “Mrs. Sarah B. Huntting 1827″. This may be just before Ms. Westfall moved into the house or perhaps, (and more likely), the window and sash itself came from one of the other houses built by the Huntting brothers nearby. (Three on Main Street alone.) Legend has it that young brides would etch a window in their first house using their diamond rings and perhaps that is the origin of this “autograph”.
    Subsequent owners included the American composer and conductor Harry John Brown who lived there from sometime in the early 1950′s until around 1977 and the Hunter College professor, Dorothy Greenberg who summered there with her family from around 1977 until 1997.
    Any information on other residents of that house would be welcomed.

  2. Renee says:

    Speaking of women, does anyone know Elsa Plainver? I belive that we may be related.
    She passed at the age of 99 in April 2001.
    Any information on her would be greatly appreciated.


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