Tag Archive | "history"

Preserving Library’s Past For the Future

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By Kathryn G. Menu

Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Memorial Library has received a grant for almost $6,000 to aid its efforts towards historic preservation. This comes as the library embarks on an expansion that will allow the 100-year-old institution to expand its archives for researchers and residents alike.

During the John Jermain Memorial Library (JJML) Board of Trustees meeting on December 15, JJML director Catherine Creedon announced that history librarian Jessica Frankel was awarded a Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institutions by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The organization funds small to mid-level institutions, such as libraries, museums, historical societies, archival repositories, municipal records offices and cultural organizations, as well as colleges and universities.

The foundation grant was specifically geared towards institutions and organizations looking to enhance the preservation of their humanities collections. The NEH provides grants up to $6,000 through the program and in her application, Frankel secured the full $5,9777 she requested.

“It is worth noting that in an age of reduced governmental funding for the humanities, the John Jermain project and local history collection has attracted this level of federal support,” said Creedon to the board last Wednesday.

The grant will enable the library to hire Rolf Kat, the director of planning and development at the Conservation Center for Arts and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia.

According to Creedon, the grant Frankel secured will bring Kat to JJML for a study on the library’s current historical collection. It includes photography, works once owned by William Wallace Tooker, a collection of Bibles, historical records from the village, county and state, material on the whaling industry, personal history and artifacts from some of Sag Harbor’s celebrated families, as well as some items yet to be specifically identified, like a child size cap from the Civil War.

“Artifacts like that are so wonderful because they allow us to imagine,” said Creedon. “We don’t have documentation about why this is in our collection, so we begin to ask ourselves, was this a young child piper? Was it passed from generation to generation? How did it wind up here?”

Creedon said the expansion will include a dedicated room for historic artifacts that encompasses the kinds of temperature, humidity and light controls the current collection lacks.

“Going forward, one of the things I want to do is craft a mission statement about what the nature of what our collection is all about,” she said, noting the library might ultimately decide focusing on village history, rather than state and county records is its priority.

“Even in out new space, we will have a finite amount of room,” she said.
Creedon said she would like to see JJML expand its holdings of whaling related materials, as well as oral histories of current residents with stories about Sag Harbor’s culture and history, as well as relics pertinent to village history.

“I am also interested in collecting materials to the history we are making now,” said Creedon. “A lot of our history is wrapped up in whaling or the Custom House, but what we don’t think about is the history we are making now. We have this amazing sustainable food movement taking place on the East End. Our vineyards are accomplishing so much, Mecox Bay Dairy is looking at traditional ways of life. That reinvention of classical material is ripe for our archive.”

Creedon would also like to document the wave of immigrants, both past and present, that have descended on the East End. For Sag Harbor, she noted, immigration has been a constant and continues today.
“What is fascinating is 100 years from now people will want to know what was the culture of Sag Harbor in 2010,” said Creedon. “And we will be able to show them.”

The Feminine Mystique: The role of women in Sag Harbor’s storied past

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For quite some time now, Noyac’s Tony Garro, a dedicated member of the Southampton Trails Preservation Society, has led hikes along the many woodland paths that make up the extensive trail system on the East End.

In recent years though, Garro has developed something of a reputation as a historian as well thanks to his walking tours of Sag Harbor which explore the village’s colorful and storied past. Audiences, it seems, are always eager to hear about the often bawdy past of this quaint little village by the sea.

“I used to do just a generic hike of Sag Harbor,” explains Garro. “But after doing more and more research I found so much out about Sag Harbor, I started looking for different themes.”

Maritime history was a natural for a walking tour of the village. Then Garro branched out and also developed walks based on Sag Harbor’s houses of worship as well as it’s esteemed literary past based on the many authors who have lived here.

“Then an idea popped into my head that with HarborFest coming up, I should do something different.”

This Sunday, as part of HarborFest weekend, Garro will offer one of the newest hikes in his repertoire — one about the women of Sag Harbor. This is actually the second time the hike has been offered (it premiered last year at HarborFest). But with women (or at least one of them) being such a focal point in this presidential campaign, it seems a most appropriate time to visit just how far the gender has come since the founding of the country. 

Garro explains that the inspiration for his women’s tour stemmed from the fact that for years Betty Freidan, that first lady of feminism, had a home on Glover Street in Sag Harbor and plenty of people didn’t even know it.

“I began wondering about how other women were involved in different activities here,” adds Garro. “Not only with whaling, but literary women as well and thought if I did research I could come up with a dozen or so interesting women who lived and interacted with Sag Harbor.”

Garro was not disappointed by what he found. The women who are the focus of the tour run the gamut and span history —  from a whaling captain’s wife who spent years at sea traveling with her husband to Linda Gronlund, Sag Harbor’s native daughter, who lost her life in Shanksville, Penn. on September 11, 2001 aboard United Flight 93 while traveling with her boyfriend to San Francisco to celebrate her birthday. Each of their stories is unique and each tells a small bit about some of the trials and triumphs that have been stitched into the fabric of women’s lives through the centuries.

“It’s a great good cross section,” says Garro. “It’s not only the Betty Friedans of the world — the women who had earth shattering effects — but other women who lived quiet lives and got through it with dignity despite tremendous obstacles.”

“One of my favorites is Anna Westfall, who lived on Howard Street,” continues Garro. “Her husband died at 47. She was 33 and had a son to support, so she taught needle work in her house.”

While there is no known surviving example of the needle work of Anna Westfall, who lived from 1800 to 1888, Garro notes that Westfall’s influence does survive in the work of her students.

“She was such an excellent teacher and her students were so influenced by her, in their works, many of them which are in museums, they would sew her initials — AEW — as a sign of respect for her,” notes Garro. “She had a tough personal life. Her son was a whaling captain who died at sea in 1856. His wife had already died, she then had three grandchildren to raise. Her grandson, a sailor, died at 21 and a granddaughter also died. In her later years her only surviving granddaughter took care of her. She lived her whole life in Sag Harbor.”

“She’s not a Betty Freidan,” says Garro, “but a woman who lived a life with dignity.”

Also on the tour will be a diverse collection of women who lived in Sag Harbor in more recent times — artist Annie Cooper Boyd, Sag Harbor’s great benefactress Mrs. Russell Sage, Rev. Christine Grimbol (the beloved late pastor of the Old Whalers’ Church) and Lady Caroline Blackwood, a Guinness heiress who bought a home on Union Street in the mid-1980s. Though she had some success as a novelist, Blackwood is best known as a “dangerous muse” for the three men she married — artist Lucian Freud (grandson of Sigmund), pianist Israel Citkowitz and the manic-depressive poet, Robert Lowell.

Though there is much information to be found about these women, Garro has found that following the trail of women who lived a century or more ago — can be a real challenge. While men have always left their marks on official documents in the form of recorded deeds, business transactions and logs, historically, women’s lives were rarely documented. Other than the recording of births, marriages and deaths, a woman’s life was not her own — particularly after the wedding when she became the virtual property of her husband.

“It was such a male dominated society, you lost all the property rights, your name and the kids really belonged to your husband, not you,” says Garro.

And when husbands were unable or unavailable to support their wives and children, women had to take matters into their own hands.

“There were many B&Bs — bars and brothels — in Sag Harbor,” says Garro, who points out that given the fact that men could be gone for years (or even killed) while whaling, many of the women back home had to support themselves by turning to a slightly older profession.

“There really was no economic option other than the husband and what he could provide,” explains Garro. “Is it any wonder poor women would drift into prostitution? For a women to live her life without a man was a difficult thing — not only economically but emotionally.”

“I think for the captains, ship owners and mates wives, their husbands earned enough money while they were at sea to live. But I think the wives of the crewmen, if the need arose, would turn a trick to earn a few bucks,” he adds. “What else could they do? Unless they were educated and could teach, there was really no other occupation.”

And because Sag Harbor was such a bustling port in the 1800s, there certainly was no shortage of eager customers.

Down on Bay Street, near the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard, there is house that, according to the 1850 census (one of the most detailed ever), was owned by Mary A. Watkins, 33, mother of six who was listed as head of household. Also noted on the census was the fact that there were 13 other people living in the home.

“They were all are unrelated women between the ages of 18 and 35,” says Garro with a raised eyebrow. “They were not local, all but two came from outside the state. No occupations were listed for any of them — the census listed occupations for men only. Could it be that they were practicing the oldest profession?”

It would probably be a good guess. Garro notes that he has found evidence that, directly across the street from Watkins’ home (of ill repute?) there sat a cooper shop which outfitted whaling ships.

“Sailors would hang out there between jobs,” says Garro. “There was always a group of men hanging out around the cooper shop.”

But by the late 19th century, whaling (and many of the men) were gone and Sag Harbor was on the skids. It was a tough time to make a living, but Garro notes that one Sag Harbor woman — Fanny Tunnison (1870-1944) who lived in a tiny house on Hampton Street —  managed to support herself in those tough times through her talents as a seamstress. Particularly amazing, given the fact that she had been paralyzed from the neck down since birth.

“Luckily, her father was a carpenter and was able to make specialized implements so she could work,” explains Garro. “She had a special chair and table. She did everything with her mouth. She was able to paint, embroider and sew using her mouth and tongue.”

Tunnison eventually became the main supporter of her family. She exhibited and sold her work at fairs and became something of a vaudeville attraction for her talents, which included fortune telling and card reading.

In fact, the New York Times of 1909 includes a listing of vaudevillian acts in the city for the week. Included is a listing for Tunnison, who appeared at    .

“She was a well adjusted person,” says Garro. “She was well read and a great conversationalist. People forgot she had a disability.”

The women’s tour of Sag Harbor begins at 11 a.m. on Sunday, September 14, 2008 and will leave from the windmill on Long Wharf. It is free of charge. Garro will also lead a hike on Saturday, September 13 on the village’s maritime history. It too, meets at 11 a.m. at the windmill. For more information, call 725-5861.

Top photo: Tony Garro in front of the former home of Fanny Tunnison

Above: Fanny Tunnison sewing at her special table


Nathaniel Rogers House: Optimism for Diamond in the Rough

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“Excited” would be too weak a term to describe the sentiments of Bridgehampton Historical Society President Gerrit Vreeland as he stood before a small gathering behind the Nathaniel Rogers House on the southeast corner of Montauk Highway and Ocean Road. Although skies were overcast on the afternoon of July 24, nothing could cloud the society members’sunny optimism.

“This is a terrific example of what a partnership between a private and a public organization can accomplish,” said Vreeland.



The partnership mentioned is one between the historical society, which is a not-for-profit corporation, and Southampton Town. The organizations have come together in a joint effort to renovate the historic building, one time residence of artist Nathaniel Rogers, one time Hampton House hotel, and most recently an empty, deteriorating example of 19th century Greek revival architecture.

“It’s a diamond in the rough,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot on Thursday, who added that she is relieved to see the lot “not become a shopping mall.”

This process began five years ago, when over 270 individuals from the Bridgehampton community donated over $550,000 to the historical society to go towards purchasing a portion of what was then known as the Hopping Property. Since that time, work has already started while fundraising efforts have continued.

“A great deal has been done, though it doesn’t look like it,”

laughed Vreeland. Leaks in the roof have been fixed and chimneys have been stabilized, while preliminary reports have been given by architects Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, wood specialists, structural engineers and historic preservationists.

Vreeland announced the estimated total costs for the restoration project is $4.5 million, but reminded those in attendance at the presentation that an estimate is “an art not a science.”

Of that sum, the historical society already has commitments of $2.2 million, including $1.1 million from Southampton Town over the next three years. Another $850,000 has come from private donors, and $250,000 from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The building has been listed on the National and New York State Registers of Historic Places.

Renovation is scheduled to begin late fall of this year, and with continued public and private support the society hopes to complete the project in three years. At that point they will move their headquarters into the Nathanial Rogers House, complete with exhibition spaces, a research center, and archive area. According to executive director John Eilertsen, the historical society will continue to maintain their current location at the Corwith House, situated at the other end of Bridgehampton’s Main Street.

Extensive work is already planned for the house on the exterior alone. Aside from necessary repairs to the roofing and foundation, there will also be restoration on all windows and the existing brownstone foundation walls. Wood cladding and trim will be replaced, and all wood doors will be restored. The support piers for the front columns must be reconstructed as well.

Everyone who spoke that afternoon stressed that the overall success of the project is dependent on the continued support of the local community. Said Southampton Town Councilwoman Nancy Graboski, “What’s gotten us to this point is that people in Bridgehampton care.”

And to the public, Supervisor Kabot implored, “You need to open up your pocketbooks and your hearts.”