by Julie Penny
Hugging its shore, I’ve walked the length of Long Beach hundreds of times. Sometimes, alert to the moment, sometimes wistful with the ghosts of friends who’ve gone before me, remembering the sound of their laughter as we’d strolled contentedly, absorbing the feast of sun, sea, sand and sky. Sometimes, when picking up a shell, I think of our children and grandchildren who all live three time zones away from us, conjuring up their images from past romps at the beach. But for a few fleeting seconds of satisfying thoughts, I’m a failed alchemist; it’s their actual presences I’d like to create from thin air, not the vapor of memory. I’m glad for the second-tier alchemy my handy cam provides. At least I have a video library of ephemeral family frolics at Long Beach, and, also of the beach itself in all its different moods and seasons. Long Beach is the temple I pray in.
I’m sure many have felt this way about this beloved spot: at daybreak, at sunset; when it’s sunny, cloudy, windy, raining, snowing, icy; when waters are choppy, calm, frozen over.
Multiply me by all those who’ve walked this shore from its native Indians to colonials, on down to us and it creates a tapestry of lived moments, the nature of which we share in common—from its enjoyments to its activities. We would not be enjoying this beach today if it weren’t for Clifford J. Foster and his sons. This summer, through a labor of love, the Sag Harbor Historical Society brought the history of Long Beach to us. Using artifacts, news accounts, maps, specimens, photos, paintings, oral history, emails, whimsy, a slide show, Jean Held and Dorothy Zaykowski weaved together its history
The present is always a snapshot in time while things and we are evolving into something else. The paintings of Long Beach that Annie Cooper Boyd painted in the 1800’served as snap shots in time for Jean and Dorothy. It created curiosity to know what Long Beach was like, looked like before and after Annie took up her paints. Her paintings were original impetus, the canvas from which Jean Held and Doris Zaykowski have filled in the before and after dots creating, in their exhibits, the Long Beach we see today. It took them the better part of a year to do it. The show, which was on view all summer at the Sag Harbor Historical Society, is ended. It brings us to the present. Like the history of Trout Pond they exhibited last year, it’s a bridge from the past to the future. What will future generations see? The sheer act of tracing the past to the present gives us a glimpse of the future, at least, where we think we’d like to be headed. One man glimpsed the future and saw what he wanted for Long Beach: a place for the people of Southampton and Sag Harbor to enjoy.
In that respect it was a privilege to meet the Foster family, whose patriarch, Clifford bequeathed Long Beach to us. Acting on his wishes, his sons did precisely that, deeding the beach to the town in December 1949. It appears the original dedication of the Clifford J. Foster Memorial Park was a small ceremony in January 1950, and brief because it was bitter cold. It wasn’t an official event. Sixty years later, with the retrospective of the Long Beach exhibit on display it was honored more fittingly. A re-dedication was held—two in one day. One by the memorial rock at Long Beach, the other on the porch steps of the Historical Society.
First of all, it was a gorgeous, sparkling summer day, and many people—all with long and fond memories of Long Beach—assembled for the event at the beach in tribute to the largesse of Clifford J. Foster—and his son’s Charles and Everett, who carried through on their father’s specific wishes. A meaningful “Proclamation” was read aloud by town officials and given to the Fosters. The gap of time in this overdue “thank you” — while too long a wait for the Fosters — has provided us a unique perspective given what else has transpired around this glorious beachfront. To fully appreciate the grandeur and vision of Clifford J. Foster’s gesture to his fellow townspeople, one only has to think of what this stretch of land and beach has not become. It has not become yet another long row of houses end to end blocking out our view of the beach; destroying natural habitat into the bargain. Instead, Clifford J. Foster’s vision, love of his town, and sense of place has provided an oasis of delight by which we all get to replenish our souls with beauty. It’s provided a place where we can walk, swim, fish, laze in the sun, look at, even study, its flora and fauna. Imagine Noyac without Long Beach. I can’t. Can you? It’s a gift I treasure every time I pass it, or walk on it. Starting with Native Americans, its changing tides have been greeting succeeding generations. Without the Fosters being its owners at a crucial moment in time, it could have all been developed.
Just before reading the town’s proclamation a pair of ospreys flew right overhead. They circled a few times then headed south to the cove. But before they did another pair of ospreys, that circled just a bit south of the Clifford J. Foster memorial rock, joined them. I felt it was in his honor. I believe many of us did. Generations of ospreys, terns, and piping plovers have all benefited from this selfless gesture too.
Several years ago, I learned a lot about the history of Long Beach, spending many hours reading through the old records in Southampton Town’s Archives. To my delight, in mounting this exhibit, Jean Held and Dorothy Zaykowki only added to that store of information. Plus added all the human elements—the flotsam and jetsam of lives lived at Long Beach in the remarkable collections of old photos and related old objects. The photo displays, a delight to historians and those fond of their local folklore, actually burgeoned in size during the course of the exhibit as people came in sharing their stories, then coming back later bearing photos of moments spent at Long Beach. In that sense, it became a communal happening, punctuated with photos of old familiar faces now gone, or the faces of people’s younger selves spending a happy day at the beach. The life cycle of a community.
When we repaired to the Annie Cooper Boyd House, the site of the historical society, for the second ceremony on its porch, I got to speak with Cliff Foster. He told me how his grandfather, a Sagaponack farmer, had gone out of his way to help the Polish farmers. He told me how “incredibly beautiful” the wetlands were at Long Beach before the county came in and tore up so much of it when putting in the current road in the 1960’s. (The road that is the current beach parking lot was once part of the old road.) He says the wetland system was never able to restore itself. I wish I could have seen them. Maybe not. Hearing him speak about the wetlands and their destruction, you can hear the pain, that special ache we feel at paradise lost. The sting of which we feel all too often nowdays, along with the animals that lose their habitat and their livelihoods.
But we still have a bit left of paradise and I thanked him for the generosity of his family, for Long Beach, a gift that keeps on giving.