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Jun 14, 2018 4:56 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Sag Harbor’s Life Story As Told By Historical Images

Jun 18, 2018 9:28 AM

When Tucker Burns Roth was approached by Arcadia Publishing about authoring an “Images of America” book on Sag Harbor, she knew it would be a serious undertaking.

Arcadia is a familiar publisher that has put out lots of books filled with historic photos about lots of hamlets and villages throughout New York. On the East End, titles include “Amagansett,” “Montauk,” “Hampton Bays,” “Southampton,” “Bridgehampton” and “East Hampton.”

But curiously enough, Arcadia had never created a book about Sag Harbor, despite having long wanted to.

Then they found Ms. Roth.

“I was at a luncheon in the city talking to a man from South Carolina who knows the president of Arcadia,” said Ms. Roth during a recent interview in Sag Harbor. “Somehow Sag Harbor came up and something about me being a trustee of the historical society.

“In short order I got an email from somebody from Arcadia,” she added.

But it took several more months and a few more nudges from the publisher before Ms. Roth agreed to the undertaking.

If Arcadia understands anything, it’s that people like Ms. Roth who are involved in local historical societies can’t resist the challenge of delving into projects that allow them to wade through time by searching out images to show how people once lived, worked and played.

That’s exactly what Ms. Roth ended up doing when she finally agreed to take the project on.

“It was fun sleuthing,” she admitted. “The gathering of photos took a couple years and I got heavily into it toward the end.”

It helps that Ms. Roth is surrounded by people at the Sag Harbor Historical Society and the wider community who are equally passionate about the village and were willing to share their old photos. As a result, “Images of America: Sag Harbor” is full of obscure photos of residents of yore taking part in baseball games, working at the Bulova Watchcase factory, running a locomotive off Long Wharf and into the bay—accidentally, of course—and marching in endless parades. (In case you weren’t aware, Sag Harbor so loves a parade.)

“We have passion and the people in this village have passion, which is what we do,” Ms. Roth said.

In putting together “Images of America: Sag Harbor,” Ms. Roth started with the most logical location.

“I began with the archives at the historical society and I fanned out from there,” she said. “Robert Browngardt, Joe Markowski, Jack Youngs and his cousin Cynthia Barr were all very helpful.”

Also extremely helpful was Jean Held, a fellow trustee at the Historical Society who has spent years cataloging and digitizing Sag Harbor’s historic images.

“Jean is the keeper of the photos at the historical society,” Ms. Roth said. “She’s devoted and she was very willing to work with me. It’s as much Jean’s book as mine and we had a lot of fun doing it. She would get very excited when I found something.”

Boxes of old photos at The Sag Harbor Express was another treasure trove for the book. While finding images was one sort of challenge, tracking down the names of the people in those old photos and finding the stories behind them was another matter altogether.

“At the historical society, I’d be there most weekends and as older people came in, I’d pull them aside and say, ‘Do you know who these people are?’” Ms. Roth said. “One of the things I discovered, there was no event too small to not have a parade. There was a parade for someone who won a game, a parade when someone came to town.”

And, as Ms. Roth learned decades ago after buying a former firehouse on Main Street, there once was a parade by a group of volunteer firefighters who, after an apparent night of drinking, managed to toss a piano out a second-floor window. They played it as they pushed it and marched down Main Street—their own private parade, as it were.

“The other thing I learned was people had a great time,” she said. “They faced hard times economically, but had but a great joyous spirit and a general feeling of joie de vivre.”

Some of the most intriguing photos in the book are those offering a view of life rarely glimpsed. Workers inside the Bulova factory, for example (those photos were provided by Tony Zaykowski who found them while clearing out Grace DeCastro’s house) or images of the long gone oil tanks on Bay Street. These days, Sag Harbor may be a landing spot for the yachts of the rich and famous, but a quick look at Ms. Roth’s book reveals the depths of the village’s industrial past.

“People left Bulova for lunch when the noon whistle blew. I think it was a very social place as well,” Ms. Roth said. “Everyone worked there. I remember reading a post by someone who worked there as a teenager. He wanted to work there because he wanted to go to the great employee dinner which was held once a year around Christmas time at Baron’s Cove Inn. Bulova footed the bill. This kid wanted to sign up early enough to get invited to the annual party.”

Another image in the book that speaks to the love Sag Harborites had for Barons Cove features an unidentified Air Force technical sergeant somewhere in the South Pacific. He’s leaning on a palm tree as he reads the front page of The Sag Harbor Express about the Lions Club dinner at Baron’s Cove with Bobby Van at the piano. Above the young soldier is a sign nailed to the palm tree that reads “8500 miles to Baron’s Cove Inn, Long Island.”

From the early days and the whaling era, to life along the waterfront and the artists, writers and local luminaries who have called Sag Harbor home, truth be told, the primary difficulty for Ms. Roth in putting together this book was not lack of material but rather the embarrassment of riches and the need to eliminate material that wouldn’t fit.

“I had to kill off categories,” Ms. Roth confessed. “I was only allowed 10 chapters and had to bunch them together.”

Another challenge was telling the story of Sag Harbor solely through photo captions and staying within the allotted word count—a task that was especially difficult when photos were loaded with people and names.

Many of the best stories didn’t make the final cut. One of Ms. Roth’s favorite tales had to do with the old Sag Harbor Water Works tank that once sat at Jermain Avenue and Suffolk Street. The water was drawn from Long Pond in those days (one resident apparently had a baby eel come out of his faucet) and when the tank level was low, water quality suffered. Ms. Roth learned from longtime resident Nada Barry that the hardware store stocked amber glasses, which were also used at Baron’s Cove so patrons couldn’t see the color of the water.

“It’s not just the collection of photos, but the stories. How generous and wonderful the people in this village are about sharing all of that,” said Ms. Roth, who believes there are still a lot more photos—and stories about them—to be found in the attics of Sag Harbor.

“I hope when people see this book it will make them think, ‘I have to give my photos to the historical society,’” she said.

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It's a well known historical fact that the rusty color of the water was due to magnetite, a naturally occurring iron oxide scattered throughout the layers of the terminal moraine that is Long Island. Sometimes seen on the surface of beaches especially on the ocean side of the South Fork. Locals know it as "Black Sand". It's mildly radioactive to boot. The story that it was rust from the tank is just an old wives tale. A good example of how history gets twisted around.

Google, Sag Harbor ...more
By Just sitting on the taffrail (32), Southampton on Jun 16, 18 5:03 PM
It's a well known historical fact that the rusty color of the water was due to magnetite, a naturally occurring iron oxide scattered throughout the layers of the terminal moraine that is Long Island. Sometimes seen on the surface of beaches especially on the ocean side of the South Fork. Locals know it as "Black Sand". It's mildly radioactive to boot. The story that it was rust from the tank is just an old wives tale. A good example of how history gets twisted around.

Google, Sag Harbor ...more
By Just sitting on the taffrail (32), Southampton on Jun 16, 18 5:16 PM
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