One of the surest ways to instantly tell if someone was born and bred out here is to note how he or she refers to the neck of land between Accabonac Creek and Three Mile Harbor.
Is it Springs, or the Springs? This has been a lexicogical controversy for a long, long time. Residents have been bickering about it in the public arena for 40 or 50 years, but battle lines were decisively drawn and sides chosen when a set of road signs went in about two decades ago that read “Welcome to the Springs.”
Last week, another chapter of this drama was written when the East Hampton Town Board authorized the replacement of the signs without the controversial “the.” (The Star supports this decision, having been in the no-“the” camp since the 1960s, when its young editor decided that common usage was the best guide.) The decision came with the blessing of Averill Geus, the town historian, who pointed to the official town seal, commissioned in 1957, which refers to the hamlet as just “Springs.”
You might think that would quench the debate or give the combatants more time to look into other matters of public importance, but it did not.
The Springs or Springs: It has been written both ways, alternately, for centuries, but the spoken version has probably always tended to omit the “the.” Back in 1698, in a deed for eight acres of land, it was referred to as “Accabonick Springs” — no “the.” But in another deed, dated 1724, the parcel in question was said to “lyeth Near the Springs.” Ninety years later, yet another record refers to a land “at or near to a place called the springs in Accabonac Neck.” Any reader interested in seeing these bits of evidence for him or herself can do so on the East Hampton Library’s website or in the excellent Long Island Collection (just don’t tell them we sent you).
Within our own files at the Star office is a 1939 two-part history of the hamlet by George S. Miller Jr., who wrote, “The community of Springs is located in the township of East Hampton on eastern Long Island. It is limited on the northeast by Gardiner’s Bay, and five miles southwest is the Incorporated Village of East Hampton. . . . As Springs has only one small store, most of its residents do their trading in the larger village.”
Mr. Miller went on to serve as the chairman of the town planning board and Springs School Board later in life. His word would seem pretty definitive, would it not? But during this same time period, The Star — bowing to the more formal preferences of its then-editor, Jeannette Edwards Rattray, who was a writer of local histories herself — referred to “The Springs” in its notes about local activities.
Confusing? You bet.
Another authority, Ferris G. Talmage, was an East Hampton farmer and preservationist who, in his dictated memoir, “The Springs in the Old Days,” used “the Springs” and “Springs” interchangeably. Among his historical collections were many newspaper clippings, like this one from 1888: “Mr. C.S. Parsons, Springs blacksmith, has had orders for 100 anchors for the fishermen to use in setting their traps.” When Talmage referred to The Springs in a 1940 letter to the editor, he did so within quotation marks; in the rest of the letter it was just “Springs.” It seems he, like Mr. Miller, likely said one thing and — sometimes, when the occasion seemed more formal — wrote something else.
Deep within a personal file folder marked “Springs” that was kept by the late Mrs. Rattray, who was editor of The Star in the second half of the 20th century, we found the following, which to us captures the essence of this endless debate:
“A Star reader writes asking me if I know anything about a locality over at East Side (near Springs) which is called ‘Twant.’ I do not. Have any of you other readers ever heard of it? Or know why it is called that? If so, do call me up; or write a note. Maybe the questioner is spoofing me. My curiosity is aroused. I’d like very much to know whether ’twas or ’twant!” Some questions are not meant to be answered.