Descendants of Whaling Pioneer Pay a Visit to Sag Harbor

Posted on 02 July 2014

 

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Members of the Huntting family, descendants of Benjamin Huntting I, visited the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum on Thursday. Photo by Stephen J. Kotz.

By Stephen J. Kotz

It was not as spectacular an entrance as the Kardashians made to Sen restaurant on Tuesday night, but when members of the Huntting family arrived at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum earlier in the day, people took notice.

Fifteen members of the family, descendants either by blood or marriage, of Benjamin Huntting I, the father of the Sag Harbor whaling industry, paid a visit to learn more about the family business from which Mr. Huntting made his fortune.

Unlike the Khardashians, who arrived with a film crew and a phalanx of well-muscled bodyguards in tow, and were immediately surrounded by a horde of photographers, the Hunttings, many of whom arrived by bicycle, received a more subdued greeting from Gregg Therriault, the museum’s site manager, and Richard Doctorow, its collections manager.

It was Benjamin Hunting I, who with his partner, Stephen Howell, came up with the novel idea of sending out whaling ships that were equipped with try-pots on board, so that whale blubber could be rendered into valuable oil at sea. Prior to that, Mr. Doctorow said, the blubber was stored in barrels on board and brought back to port for processing.

“You could only catch so many whales before you had to return to port or your boat would start to smell pretty bad,” he said.

In 1785, Mr. Huntting and Mr. Howell underwrote the voyage of the Lucy and the America. The ships returned to Sag Harbor later that year with between 300 and 500 barrels of oil on board each of them. In later years that would have been considered a measly cargo, but the two businessmen were able to make enough of a profit that they were encouraged to expand their operations and in doing so, they established whaling as an industry in the small port village, Mr. Doctorow said.

Mr. Huntting’s son, Benjamin Huntting II, continued the family business and hired Minard LaFever, the same architect who designed the Old Whalers’ Church, to build him a grand, home on Main Street, which was completed in 1845 at a cost of $7,000.

Huntting family members, who came from as far away as San Francisco, “oohed and ahhed,” as they took in the intricate woodwork, the plaster moldings, and the circular staircase in the house that later passed into the hands of Mrs. Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, Sag Harbor’s benefactress, before eventually being turned over to the whaling museum.

“This is what you would do if you had the money and the labor was cheap,” Mr. Doctorow said, pointing out the various whaling motifs in the building’s decoration.

The Huntting clan was led by James Huntting, who now lives in retirement in Naples, Florida. For many years, he lived in Austin, Minnesota, where he ran a grain business that was established by his great grandfather, William Huntting, who also sailed the world before settling down on terra firma in the American heartland.

“I don’t know if it was as profitable,” said Mr. Huntting of his great grandfather’s line of work,  “but it was safer.”

For years, family members have taken group vacations, said Lisa Huntting, Mr. Huntting’s daughter, who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, but who lived in New York City during the 1980s and occasionally visited the East End.

“At first, when the kids were little, we went to a resort in Minnesota,” she said, “but for my parents’ 50th anniversary, we took a cruise to Alaska.”

“Mom died unexpectedly in January,” she continued. “And she was the one who usually planned the trips.”

Ms. Huntting said she thought it would appropriate to visit the family’s roots, so she organized this year’s trip, with family members renting an East Hampton house for a week-long stay.

The excitement over seeing the family’s place in local history turned more somber when Mr. Doctorow showed them the sharp harpoons used to slay the whales, with some family members cringing as they viewed paintings of mortally wounded  whales, spouting blood.

“They were called right whales for a reason,” Mr. Doctorow said. “They were slow, they were good for oil, and they rarely sank, so they were the ‘right’ whale to hunt.”

Outside, family members gathered around the museum’s 35-foot whaling boat, which Mr. Doctorow said had been restored but is the oldest surviving such boat that he knows of.

“It was a pleasure and a honor to meet you,” he told the family as they completed their tour and headed into the village for lunch with a single reporter in tow.

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