Mrs. Russell Sage is responsible for building Mashashimuet Park, Pierson Middle-High School and John Jermain Memorial Library.
By Mara Certic
As you walk down the streets of Sag Harbor, its history is palpable. Treading in the footsteps of sea captains, authors and artists past, you pass buildings on Main Street that date to the 1770s. The histories of Mashashimuet Park, Pierson High School and the John Jermain Memorial Library share one thing in common: they were all funded and built in the first 10 years of the 20th century, by a woman.
“It was so unusual then for a private, independent benefactress to pay for those municipal buildings,” said Tony Garro, who along with Annette Hinkle, hosts a women’s history walking tour of Sag Harbor on Thursday, May 22, sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Mr. Garro moved to Sag Harbor shortly after retiring from his teaching job of over 30 years in the Massapequa School District. His love of history quickly had him enamored of Sag Harbor. “A little town with this much history is just incredible,” he said. A combination of research, curiosity and long walks led him to start leading historic walking tours in the village. “I thought to myself, instead of putting together a walk in the woods, it would be great to start a walk in Sag Harbor.”
When Mr. Garro first began his tours, they tended to be more generic. The tour would begin at Mashashimuet Park and would continue down Main Street, pausing to look at and learn about some of the historic houses along the street. Continued research prompted Mr. Garro to look into doing themed walks.
A maritime tour during HarborFest one year was his first venture into the world of specialized historical tours.
“But I had an idea for a woman’s tour, and a man leading a woman’s tour doesn’t have too much credibility,” he said. So Mr. Garro brought on writer, Annette Hinkle. Since then, the two have formed “Sag Harbor Sidewalks” and plan to offer tours through the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum this summer.
This Thursday’s tour will explore the homes of four women who played major roles in history, both local and on the larger stage.
Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, who even today is still most often referred to as Mrs. Russell Sage, did not live in Sag Harbor, or own a home in the village, until she was 74 years old. When her reportedly tight-fisted husband died in 1906, she inherited a fortune estimated at over $50 million to be used at her own discretion.
Mrs. Sage spent the rest of her life spending that money, supporting education, programs for women and also several “pet projects,” including Sag Harbor. As a descendant of both Abraham Pierson and Major John Jermain, she named the school and library that she built after them, respectively.
“She didn’t grow up here, she grew up in Syracuse, but she almost had an unrealistic romanticism about Sag Harbor because her grandmother had grown up here, and I guess she had regaled her with stories of Sag Harbor when she was younger,” Ms. Hinkle said.
In 1912 Mrs. Sage left Sag Harbor never to return. From 1908 until she left, she lived in the Huntting House, where the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum is now located, and where this tour of Sag Harbor begins.
Another stop on the tour is the former home of the feminist pioneer Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” whose family still owns the house.
“But it’s not just the Betty Friedans that we look at,” said Mr. Garro, mentioning the lesser-known women whose lives are explored on the Sag Harbor Sidewalks tour.
One of the houses the tour will visit was home to Annie Cooper Boyd. At the age of 15, she began keeping a diary, which has since been published. Her writings offer an intimate look into what it was like for a “wild child” to grow up in Sag Harbor in the end of the 19th century.
“She was really trying to be a free spirit in a society that didn’t reward women for being free spirits. On her 17th birthday she talks about not being able to climb trees—at least in her front yard—anymore.”
Annie Cooper Boyd was an artist as well, painting wherever she could—including on the walls of her Sag Harbor home, now home to the Sag Harbor Historical Society and open to the public.
In her artwork, “you can see some really cool views of Sag Harbor that don’t exist anymore,” said Ms. Hinkle. Mr. Garro added “She, in essence, became a historian of Sag Harbor through her art.”
Also included on the tour is the former home of Nelson Algren. “I mean obviously not to talk about Nelson, really.” Mr. Garro said. The tour stops at the Glover Street house because of a torrid love affair the writer had with one of the most celebrated feminists and philosophers of the 20th century, Simone de Beauvoir.
Just a few yards away, on the corner of Glover and Green Streets, is what Mr. Garro refers to as an old “Sag Harbor B&B—a bar and brothel.”
“In the end, it all comes back to the economics, women doing what they had to do to survive,” Ms. Hinkle said.
Sag Harbor Sidewalks will be putting on themed tours throughout the summer, including maritime tours, cemetery tours and their popular haunted house tours. For more information call the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum at (631) 725-0770.