History as a Beach Read

By Richard Barons
Marilyn E. Weigold Donna Davis/Ms. Davis Photography

“Peconic Bay”

Marilyn E. Weigold

Syracuse University Press, $24.95

Writing a history book about four centuries of Long Island’s East End is rather like squeezing 12 adult humans into the trunk of a Maserati — it is going to be a tight fit. Marilyn E. Weigold, a professor who teaches at Pace University in the department of economics, history, and political science, has chosen to let the blue waters of Peconic Bay form the matrix for an engrossing collage of folklore and facts that tells an abbreviated but well-curated episodic history of Long Island’s eastern forks.

The book takes the form of an exhibition with various galleries highlighting themes such as “At Home,” “At Work,” and “At Play.” Within each section, there are smaller chapters that focus on “The Shinnecock,” “Gardiner’s Island: Family Feud,” and “Saints, Sinners, and Just Plain Folks.” This is not your grandfather’s old volume of local history, as it is not really chronological in its weaving of topics to and fro. The author is clever and has fun debunking traditional myths and brings Martha Stewart’s name up in the most unusual situations.

As one might expect from an economist, some of the smartest sections of the book trace recent politics and real estate. Indeed I found myself much more engrossed by her excellent discussions of the brown tides, the wineries, the East Hampton Town Baymen’s Association, and land preservation than the digressions back into the 18th century.

The reader may be surprised by some exclusions and inclusions, but the Prellwitzes and William Steeple Davis are artists well worth being introduced to, in lieu of the well-known Pollock and de Kooning. Like any good travelogue, we need to trust our guide, and Ms. Weigold knows any number of off-the-beaten-path places to entice us. Just let her unfold the tale of Cutchogue’s bloody Wickham murders or the “Not So Dear Deer” of 1916 Shelter Island. A more delightful story involves Albert Einstein trying to buy sandals at Rothman’s Department Store in Southold.

Within a chapter titled “At Peace” is a section on Robins Island, a 445-acre island in Peconic Bay, in the Town of Southold. The author helps straighten out a very convoluted series of events. James W. Lane saw this beautiful island, once a private hunting club, at the turn of the 20th century while his company was testing torpedoes nearby. He fell under its charms and bought the island and began building a mansion. By the time the exterior was completed, his wife died and he had the construction stopped. It is said that the workers left their tools and clothing behind.

By the middle of the 20th century, John W. Mackay, whose fortune came from the Western Union Telegraph Co., bought the property. He used the island as a hunting lodge. MacKay was the author of one of the first scholarly books on antique duck decoys. By 1979 he sold the island to a European real estate syndicate that planned on building 28 luxury homes.

Both New York State and Suffolk County wanted to keep the island natural and began to look for federal funding to purchase Robins Island. The application requested $2 million and hoped that Peconic Bay would be declared a National Estuarine Sanctuary. Local governments were not happy with the idea of more federal oversight that could curtail commercial fishing in the bay.

This is but the beginning of a story that includes a claim by the Wickham family, who felt the island had been wrongfully taken from them following the American Revolution. You must read the book to find out what happened.

Ms. Weigold has successfully created a more impressionistic storytelling approach to our regional history. By taking a topic like work, she starts with a scene at Southold’s Bagel Cafe. It’s Labor Day, 15 years ago, and two ladies of a certain age are talking about a new traffic light. With a fast brushstroke, the next paragraph introduces a guy on a beach with a metal detector. Then we are on to the recession of the early 1990s and then the infamous economic meltdown of 2008. Does this sound kaleidoscopic?

In 57 pages, we have been introduced to growing strawberries in Mattituck, parking problems at wineries, duck farms, the 18th-century saltworks on North Haven, the Joseph Fahys and Co. watchcase factory in Sag Harbor, and many digressions. The pace is conversational, the information is well researched, and we have learned a great deal while being entertained. Dare a history book be a beach read? Without question!

This blending of primary source material, folklore, and contemporary media can be successful only if the writer is a scholar. Without a framework of deductive reasoning, this staccato-like style would be incomprehensible. With Professor Weigold’s grasp of our area’s historical highlights, she is able to hold our very complicated 400 years of triumph and tragedy firmly in hand. We can see how our communities developed and what mistakes were made and who came up with the positive solutions. Some of her sections end unresolved — court cases still being followed, new policies yet to be tested. Time will tell.

Behind a somewhat gaudy dust jacket, with a contemporary folk art depiction of Greenport, herein lies a fascinating story of randy ministers, submarines, McMansions, slaves, potatoes, railroads, the Montauk Project, Plum Island, Ezra L’Hommedieu, and so much more. I hope to see many copies of “Peconic Bay” in the hands of beachgoers this season. It will help put East End history in perspective and totally upgrade your conversation at the next benefit cocktail party on your calendar. This material is certainly more inspirational than talking about the traffic or the upcoming presidential election.

Richard Barons is the executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society. He lives in Springs.

An 1858 map of the Peconic Bay region, John Douglass, publisher.Suffolk County Historical Society
A Montauk Steamboat Company vessel docked at Long Wharf in Sag Harbor in an undated image.Suffolk County Historical Society