By Kathryn G. Menu; photography by Michael Heller
Sag Harbor’s annual “Light Up” has long been a village tradition. Main Street and Long Wharf are transformed with Christmas trees and glittering lights, as is the iconic windmill constructed in honor of the Old Whalers’ Festival in the 1960s — a centerpiece in Sag Harbor’s holiday aesthetic.
Heavy winds knocked down one of the windmill’s blades just before the holiday season in 2011, leaving one of the blades badly damaged and unlit during last year’s holiday “Light Up.” Quickly, residents working in conjunction with the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce and village officials began to hatch plans to restore the aging windmill — a structure not historic in nature, but viewed by many as one of the most recognizable landmarks in the village.
On Saturday morning, just hours before the 2012 “Light Up,” those plans came to fruition as Sag Harbor builder Tom O’Donoghue and his team installed four brand new blades on the windmill, the last spoke in a project that restored the whole of the structure from the inside out.
“It was a little bit of a push to get it done in time,” said O’Donoghue on Wednesday. “The storm really threw us off.”
Hurricane Sandy, which impacted the East End as it made landfall on October 29, had the potential to literally wash away the windmill — now named the John A. Ward Memorial Windmill in honor of its original builder and a former Sag Harbor mayor. As the tide rose during the storm, water battered Windmill Beach and the structure was only saved by the tons of bulldozed sand placed in front of the windmill to protect it from being eroded away into the harbor.
But it did survive, and on Saturday night O’Donoghue gathered with his wife, Carla, and children Rose, James and Maeve to stand with his village as the four blades of the windmill were once again lit.
“It made me think about how nice it is to be a part of the Sag Harbor community,” said O’Donoghue. “There is really no place like it.”
The original construction, and now the rehabilitation of the John A. Ward Memorial Windmill is a story about community.
In the 1960s, Ward and a group of businessmen and community members including Bob and Frank Barry, Bob Freidah and author John Steinbeck worked together to create the Old Whalers Festival as a way to promote the village to tourists. The group needed festival headquarters. So Ward — a builder — organized a group of volunteers to build a windmill at the foot of Long Wharf. Drafted by Ward, his design looked like a smaller version of the Beebe windmill on Ocean Road in Bridgehampton, which stood on Suffolk Street in Sag Harbor prior to being moved in the late 19th century.
According to figures from the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce, to this day about 6,000 visitors pass through the windmill annually.
In part because of its history, last year as Sag Harbor Village Superintendent of Public Works Dee Yardley took down the damaged blades, fearful they could hurt someone, the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce — led by Phil Bucking — and Save Sag Harbor began fundraising to restore the windmill. This time, said Bucking, instead of just addressing the blades or piecemeal repairs the windmill needed, as had been done in years past, the goal was to complete a comprehensive renovation of the building.
“The community really came together to support this project,” said Bucking on Wednesday. “We had fundraisers with great turnouts — a cruise, a night at Muse, a community wide mailing, we had students that raised money through bake sales.”
Save Sag Harbor, noted Bucking, was a partner in this fundraising effort, bringing a lot of momentum to the project through its own membership, which fundraised to save the blades.
“Historically, Sag Harbor has had windmills going back to the 1700s and this windmill in particular has always been a symbol for Sag Harbor, the Old Whalers’ Festival and now HarborFest and it is where a lot of the community activities for this village happen,” said Bucking.
O’Donoghue constructed the blades with permanent white Christmas lights, added Bucking, meaning the windmill can be lit with the flip of a switch year round, to honor special events like HarborFrost in February.
In October, the chamber had already collected $25,584 towards the project, which was significantly reduced in cost, according to Yardley, by O’Donoghue offering to do the project for only the cost of materials. The total cost of the project, according to a Sag Harbor Village Board resolution hiring O’Donoghue is around $33,490.
“Basically we are talking about a project done for the cost of materials,” said Yardley on Tuesday. “He saved the village quite a bit of money and he did it because he was trying to give back to the community. Tom also helped us redo the cupola on the Municipal Building for basically the cost of the paint.”
“Sag Harbor is my home, so I was honored to be able to do something like this,” said O’Donoghue. “Not everything is about making money. You have to have a sense of community and you have to be willing to do things in the community that gives to you and feeds you and your family every day. For me, this was an easy decision. I had this great opportunity to work on something that will probably still be standing long after I am gone.”