By Ellen Frankman
“The first time John came into my store, I had a men’s store on Main Street, I said, ‘Hello Mr. Steinbeck,’ and he said, ‘Oh no, no, call me John. Everywhere else I’m Mr. Steinbeck, but in Sag Harbor, I’m John.’”
That’s how long-time resident David Lee recalls meeting the author, who had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, and in part, that’s how the Old Whalers’ Festival was born.
“He helped put Sag Harbor on the map,” said Lee who, along with other local businessmen, befriended Steinbeck after that initial meeting. The group would frequently gather to drink at the Black Buoy, a bar on Main Street. “That’s how we got him involved, and we made him chairman of the Old Whalers’ Festival.”
Now in its 50th anniversary year, the salty windswept village of Sag Harbor is once again opening its waterfront to a host of activities, contests and merriment September 6 though 8, all in the name of what is now called HarborFest, the ambitious young successor of a tradition begun decades ago.
Lee recalls Sag Harbor in the early 1960s as a “real blue collar town,” so busy at times that factory hours were staggered to avoid total gridlock. There was Agawam Aircraft and Grumman Industries, the Bulova Watchcase Company and Rowe Industries up on the turnpike.
“Unfortunately, because of mergers and acquisitions and the cost of doing business here we lost all of our industry,” said Lee. “We had to do something to be able to provide employment and we thought the only thing we have left is tourism.”
Alongside brothers Frank and Bob Barry, Bob Freidah, and with the renown of Steinbeck’s name attached, the men got involved with the Long Island Convention of Business and drummed up the idea to promote Sag Harbor’s whaling industry.
John Ward built the windmill and a bumper sticker was created for folks to put on their luggage that said, “I did it in Sag Harbor.” Perhaps what drew the most attention to the village however, was whaleboat racing.
“It was huge,” said Bryan Boyhan, former Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce president who resurrected the festival after it foundered for some years. “After the first year Steinbeck told them, ‘What you really need is some good competition to really get people excited and interested,’ and they settled on whaleboat racing. So they went out and bought these little pigs of boats, these 14-foot-long little fiberglass tubs.”
And these were fine for a large collection of local teams. But with Steinbeck’s help, the festival eventually brought in ocean rescue boats from the Coast Guard and invited teams from the great whaling countries of the world for what would become the International Whaleboat Competition.
The races drew competitors from around the world, with teams arriving in Sag Harbor from Portugal, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The New York Daily News gave the festival a color Sunday spread and ABC’s Wide World of Sports pulled into town to cover it.
“It did very, very well for quite a few years, and then we had trouble getting permits because we drew so many people into town,” explained Lee. “But we’ve managed to bring it back under various different names over the years.”
Boyhan did just that as chamber president in 1990, following the publication of a historical book on Sag Harbor called “Sag Harbor: An American Beauty” by Dorothy Zaykowski. Boyhan returned to the counsel of Bob Freidah, one of the original Old Whalers’ Festival founders, and they were able to pull together a parade, resurrect the whaleboat races and incorporate historic walking tours.
“It was my belief that if you could educate people about the village they will appreciate it more,” said Boyhan.
After the success of HarborFest in 1990, the village decided to continue it the following year, and it has been growing ever since.
“The challenge was always to come up with something new,” said Boyhan, who ran HarborFest for 14 years. “It was like having a party where you are inviting 2,000 of your friends and you want to be able to entertain them and feed them.”
Local wineries and breweries now come with refreshments, and restaurants make their way down to the wharf with food trucks and stands. Demonstrations like wood bending and line splicing continue to provide a historical and educational component for both adults and children.
And while the same small dories are being used to race out to the whale, the behemoth itself has changed over the years. The most recent whale was built by members of the Sag Harbor fire department in the early ‘90s. It was constructed atop an old donated skiff, with duck cloth stretched across the ribs to create the shape. Kelly Connaughton, the current president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce, is hoping to raise money this year to have it repaired.
“We’ll be doing a raffle to raise money to keep up with the maintenance of the whale boats and to hopefully repair or rebuild the whale,” said Connaughton. The prize will be a 14k gold whale charm designed by David Lee in 1957.
“When you look through the quartz eye of the whale, it shows a map of Sag Harbor and the surrounding area,” said Connaughton.
The charm is currently on display in the windmill.
This year there will also be a farmers market down on Bay Street and an arts and crafts fair at Marine Park.
“It’s a village-wide event so everyone participates,” said Connaughton.
“These kinds of festivals exist up and down the coast in many communities,” said Boyhan. “But the thing that differentiates them is they all have their own individual story to tell.”
Of course Sag Harbor’s story is rooted in its bustling wharf, its centuries-old homes and whaling tales that give the village a boisterous vibrancy not as easily found in some of the other Hamptons enclaves. But for David Lee, it all comes down to the people.
“The friendliness of the community makes it a place people want to come to,” said Lee. “I’m very proud of Sag Harbor.”