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Walking with Women in Sag Harbor

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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.

Barbara Schwartz

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web convo Barbara Schwartz

The Sag Harbor Historical Society opens a new exhibit this weekend on the evolution of the Annie Cooper Boyd House. What do you hope to accomplish?

We want to give people an idea of what life was like when the house was first occupied in 1795, and how it evolved through various ownerships. We’ll look at the house as it was first built by Joseph Whiting Foster, and including the addition Annie Cooper Boyd made in the early 1900s.

What was life like when Foster first built the house?

He and his wife lived there and they had two small children. It was a very simple life. He was probably surviving on seafood and hunting. By that time life had gotten a little simpler, they could go out and buy material, she didn’t have to weave their cloth by hand. Things were becoming less restrictive for women.

The village had gotten busier, but it was still small. The Presbyterian Church had only 13 members, and they were among the first.

We don’t know what he did for a living. They probably had a subsistence garden, probably a cow and a pig.

Were there many other homes in Sag Harbor at the time?

Oh yes, theere were a number of homes in Sad Harbor. His was a more modest house. There were several, bigger, ships captains homes. By 1795 Sag Harbor had pretty much recovered from the Revolution.

Children were encouraged to play more at that time. They weren’t expected to do chores when they first walked. They could go down to the harbor and watch ships come in, watch ships being built. They would collect eggs. Sag Harbor was exposed to a lot of the outside world. Children would see a lot of people from all over the world.

The next owners were the Coopers. When did they come in?

William Cooper would have purchased the property about 1871. On the neighboring property he had a substantial piece of land, and his shop for building whaleboats.

Was Annie the first to make a big addition?


What was the purpose of the renovation?

Really to bring it up to date. She and her husband moved into it after it was left to her by her parents. By 1906, heating a house with three fireplaces was not practical.

How much of the history of the building will the exhibit cover?

We go from 1795 to 1998, when Nancy Willey, Annie’s daughter, died and left it to the historical society.

We’ve never really talked about the early period of the house. We’ll have sketches by Pam Lawson imagining what life was like at the earliest part. She has a sketch of the mother knitting, for example. And we’ll have the model of the house as it was in 1795.  And a collection of photographs from when Annie Cooper Boyd lived there going back to the early 1900s.

It’s pretty remarkable, in more than 200 years, only two families lived in the house.

Yes, and not much was changed. You can still see some of the original paint, behind the layers, in some parts of the house.

The exhibit, “The Evolution of an Old Sag Harbor House – 1795-1998,” opens to the public Sunday, May 27, 1-4 p.m. at the historical society’s Annie Cooper Boyd House, 174 Main Street.