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Salt of the Earth

Mon, 08/01/2016 - 19:57
Carolyn Snyder, the Round Swamp Farm's formidable matriarch
Michael Halsband

FIFTY SUMMERS AGO, Carolyn Lester Snyder decided to put her family's little farm on Three Mile Harbor Road on the map, quietly vowing one summer to make it a household name.

The year was 1966, and Snyder, then 21, used her grandmother's old kitchen table to sell strawberries beneath one of the five chestnut trees that surround the nearly 300-year-old Lester homestead. She called her stand The Girls.

The next year, her father built her a little red stand on wheels, and her business began to grow, ever so slightly. By 1968, Snyder had expanded the inventory to include squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, brown burlap bags, and little ceramic turtles and frogs.

“We would sit there all day long under the tree just waiting for a customer. If a car actually stopped, it was a big deal,” said Lisa Niggles, Snyder's eldest daughter. “They probably felt sorry for us.”

One of Lisa's earliest memories followed the triumphant end of an unusually busy week: She raced back to the house, opened up the metal cashbox, and counted out $300 in crumpled bills and coins.

In 1974, with summers becoming increasingly busy on the South Fork, the family took a gamble and pooled its resources to build a storefront. It would sit on a plot of land that had been in her family since the 1700s. Alongside whatever grew on the 20 acres of farmland out back” leafy greens, tomatoes, plums, peaches, cherries, and corn” Snyder starting selling homemade cookies, breads, pickles, and relishes.

Thus began an East End institution.

“We're strong women. We're hardworking women. And we love what we do,” said Snyder, now 71, holding court recently in her kitchen.

Round Swamp Farm has become a mecca, from May to December, for anyone who embraces locally sourced food and loves home cooking (home cooking, that is, with a sophisticated twist). And the successful business has preserved a fishing and farming way of life for a family whose roots have grown here on land and sea for three centuries.

Michael Halsband photo


Each day, during the height of the busy summer season, Round Swamp sells hundreds of crumb-topped pies, tins of cinnamon rolls, and hefty containers of seven-layer Mexican dip. Last season, they used a staggering 36,612 pints of local blueberries and 31,889 pounds of local peaches. In addition to Round Swamp's array of farm-fresh produce and seafood (much of it caught by members of the family), its breadth of prepared foods (anywhere between 60 to 75 dishes, depending on the week) has transformed the little farm stand into a thriving, multimillion-dollar business that three generations of Lesters work hard to maintain.

Carolyn Snyder is the enterprise's formidable matriarch. From May to September, she routinely puts in 90 to 100 hours each week, often rising at 3 a.m. and not returning to her bed until after midnight. She might stop to eat a yogurt, but little else. A stickler for order, with endless reserves of energy, she meticulously arranges her kitchen countertops in much the same way that she organizes the shelves at Round Swamp: packed to the inch, with items from the filling shelf used to instantly replace anything taken from the selling shelf.

Now with two locations” — the original one in East Hampton and a more recent storefront in Bridgehampton, run by her grandson, 25-year-old Brian Niggles”  — Snyder has started to gently ease up on the reins, although you'd never know. Her grandchildren, the ninth generation of East Hampton Lesters, will inherit not only the responsibility for Round Swamp's continued success, but, under their watch, its likely expansion in the years to come. “We've had to grow without growing and change without changing if we were to survive,” Snyder said. “We couldn't just sell baskets of strawberries. The season was too short and too many people were depending on us to make it their livelihood.”

Never once in our whole life did we go out to dinner,” said Snyder, who grew up in East Hampton. The main industries during her childhood were fishing and farming; certainly, the town had its share of summer people and seasonally occupied “cottages,” even then, but these had yet to become its economic engine.

Snyder was born in 1944 to Albert Cullum Lester and Barbara Jean Grace. Her mother, who gave birth to five children, one of whom was stillborn, was a homemaker. Her father worked as a carpenter at the Smith Meal Company at Promised Land, which produced fishmeal and fish oils. Once the fish factory closed, he worked for the Town of East Hampton. On his family's farmland, he raised horses, chickens, pigs, and cows.

The Lesters (originally spelled “Leicester,” but pronounced Lester) came from the north of England. They first settled in New England and arrived on Long Island in the early 1700s, according to Jeannette Edwards Rattray's East Hampton History and Genealogies. The Lester family likely arrived in East Hampton by way of New London, Conn., two or three generations after the first wave of settlers.

John Lester, the first generation of all present-day East Hampton Lesters, died here in 1764. The oldest Lester house is the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house that Snyder occupies, where “everything is old and crooked and nothing matches.” Six houses away is the Round Swamp Cemetery. There, eight generations of Lesters are buried, some in unmarked graves, according to Dianna Catozzi, 65, Snyder's sister.

Catozzi serves as the family historian and also works full-time behind one of Round Swamp's three cash registers. She ensures that its line, which snakes through the store and often out the front door, moves as swiftly as possible. And she makes sure that, despite the continual crush, the atmosphere is always friendly and convivial (no small feat when wrangling a crowd of hungry, deep-pocketed New Yorkers).

Besides the Round Swamp Lesters, the family has various local factions” including the Pantigo Lesters, the Devon-Springs Lesters, and the Lesters of “Poseyville” in Amagansett.

But despite the robust success of Round Swamp, the once-common Lester surname is dying out. Snyder and her two sisters all took their husbands' last names. Their brother, Albert Lester, a semiretired carpenter and fisherman, still lives a few doors down. His two sons, Scott and Jonathan Lester, are the last to carry on the Round Swamp Lester name.

Growing up, Snyder and her three siblings attended services at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in East Hampton Village every Sunday. Following a hearty lunch, when the weather was nice enough, they'd take a drive, all piling in her father's Chevrolet.

“He always bought them second-hand,” Snyder recalled. “He never had a new car.”

More often than not, the family would end up at what is now the Springs General Store. For a nickel, their father would buy his four children a taffy bar and one or two small cones of ice cream to share.

Carolyn met Harold Snyder, who later became her husband, at East Hampton High School. She graduated in 1962. “He was one of the best-looking guys in school,” she said. The couple married when she was 17 and he was 19. With no money for college, Snyder went to work, determined to provide for her growing family. The couple's first daughter, Lisa, was born in 1963. A second daughter, Shelly, arrived 11 years later.

A fisherman at heart, Harold Snyder assumed responsibility for the farm after his father-in-law died in 1968, learning as he went. “My father was a fisherman who grew to love farming,” explained Lisa Niggles, noting that it paid more to farm than it did to fish.

Discussing Harold Snyder's unexpected death in 2005 still brings his family to tears. Black-and-white photographs from the last crops he planted hang in Carolyn Snyder's kitchen. A corncob from his last season of corn, now petrified, still sits in her refrigerator, carefully wrapped in paper towels and fastened with rubber bands.

Just before his death, Harold Snyder and his wife had purchased a small house overlooking Hog Creek in Springs, with plans to someday retire. “He said he never thought there were still places left in East Hampton that were so peaceful and quiet,” Carolyn Snyder said.

It was July 31st, a Sunday afternoon. Round Swamp had just closed. Harold Snyder was driving his green Ford pickup truck along Round Swamp's perimeter when he had a heart attack and drove over an embankment. His eldest grandson, Steven Niggles, an officer for the East Hampton Village police, was among the first to respond. Meanwhile, his wife was at their Springs house on Isle of Wight Road, readying it for the summer. Her daughter, Shelly, drove up and let out a blood-curdling scream, saying simply: “Mommy, Daddy's dead.”

Following his unexpected death at 62, the family struggled to regain its footing, unsure of who could fill not only the tremendous void he left behind, but his roles on land and sea.

At Harold's funeral, Stuart Vorpahl delivered a powerful eulogy for his lifelong friend. Vorpahl, a passionate advocate for local fisherman and working people, died in January at 76.

Vorpahl said these words, Carolyn Snyder recalled: “I've had a silent admiration for Harold Snyder that goes back a long time, a really long time, to 1648. The reason it goes back that far is that Harold Snyder was about the last person who truly represented what this place was all about. At the beginning, everyone out here was either a fisherman or a farmer. Harold was both” and he was the last one.”

Charlie Niggles, now 56, took over his father-in-law's responsibilities, becoming an all-but-extinct fisher-farmer. “I think he only married me to get to my father,” Lisa Niggles said.

“Harold and I had a lot in common,” said the soft-spoken Charlie Niggles.

Charlie Niggles grew up working on a Wainscott potato farm. Before marrying into the Lester family, he worked as a butcher at the East Hampton I.G.A. Since the 1970s, he's overseen Round Swamp's fish market, providing much of the catch himself from pound traps off Sammy's Beach and Gardiner's Island and other inshore fishing.

As a farmer, Charlie Niggles is a perfectionist, much like his wife and mother-in-law. He plans 60 to 90 days out, already thinking in April about the tomatoes, lettuce, corn, zucchini, cucumber, kale, arugula, beets, carrots, potatoes, and radishes that won't come up until July and August. Once he harvests one thing, he immediately plants another. “When it rains, I can fish,” he said. “And when it's windy, I can work on the farm.”

A lot of people, some dozen family members and another two-dozen workers in the summer, make their living from Round Swamp. Come mid-September, the curtain comes down. After Labor Day, Round Swamp's business drops by some 75 percent, Charlie Niggles said.

"Shelly is my Julia Child. She cooks like her and makes a mess like her and drinks red wine like her. Lisa is my Martha Stewart and a total perfectionist. Claire, my sister, is my Betty Crocker,” Carolyn Snyder said. “I'm just the color coordinator.”

Perfectionism is easily the Lesters' best and worst quality. “We don't like working with men, because they're sloppy. We're control freaks and we're neat freaks,” Snyder said of the largely woman-dominated business. By and large, the male relatives seem to prefer staying outdoors.

When Lisa Niggles was 11 or 12, she started making chocolate-chip cookies with a hand mixer that could be heard throughout the house. Her parents would come downstairs in the morning to find cookies lining their countertops.

Slowly, the farm stand started expanding to include homemade goodies, both sweet and savory. “You start with one thing,” said Lisa Niggles, 53, a self-taught chef whose most popular items include blueberry muffins and chocolate chip cookies, not to mention her guacamole, chicken salad, and cinnamon rolls. “You try it once and see if it sells.”

Lisa Niggles's aunt, Claire Olszewski, now 59, started out by making all variations of banana bread” with and without nuts, with and without chocolate chips. Olszewski is Carolyn Snyder's youngest sister. The two are extremely close. Now also widowed, Olszewski's late husband, Joseph, worked as a commercial fisherman, supplying fresh fish to Round Swamp's market.

A talker and a people person, Olszewski circles the market over and over, organizing its walk-in cooler of fruits and vegetables, chit-chatting with customers, and whipping up endless batches of cakes.

Lemon pound cake is Olszewski's most popular item. One batch yields 13 large and 21 small loaves. In a given day, she makes between three to four batches from a memorized recipe that includes 44 eggs, 27 cups of flour, 16.5 cups of sugar” and a secret ingredient (a type of juice) that she refused to disclose.” Grosgrain ribbon encircles each loaf. Banana bread gets a bright yellow bow.

Carolyn Snyder's youngest daughter, Shelly Schaffer, 41, is famous for her lemonade and Key lime pie. Once her two children, Alexa, 6, and Nicholas, 11, are grown, she hopes to launch a Round Swamp delivery business. Her husband, Al Schaffer, supplies Round Swamp with lobster, fishing off Montauk and Fishers Island.

Shelly Schaffer is a chef. Her most popular dishes are those customers can take home and reheat: picnic chicken, macaroni and cheese, and chicken buffalo balls, to name but a few. “Anyone can find a recipe. The reason we're successful is because of the quality. That's what makes us special.”

Especially in Round Swamp's early years, when premade food was a novelty, some customers would reheat the food at home, plate it, and pass it off as their own. “People got away with it for a while,” explained Lisa Niggles. But when the same guests showed up wanting Round Swamp's ribs in the wintertime, the ruse was up.”

While Round Swamp's prices are not as easy to swallow as their lobster salad, Lisa Niggles bristles when customers complain. High prices, she said, are simply the result of charging a decent price for healthy food, much of it locally sourced and produced by fair and decent employers. “When we use eggs, we use organic eggs. Organic buttermilk, organic quinoa. We take a lot of time in whatever we prepare” — and labor isn't cheap.”

This summer in East Hampton, Round Swamp is expecting to double its baked-goods and prepared-food output with a new 14,000 square-foot kitchen located in the exact spot where Harold Snyder died nearly 11 years ago.

Over the years, Round Swamp's loyal customers have become like family, with Carolyn Snyder's nod of recognition a sign of having arrived. “It's a connection,” explained Lisa Niggles. “You don't get that at Citarella. There's love in the food we make.”

One familiar face is Kenneth Lipper, an investment banker, who has shopped at Round Swamp Farm since buying a weekend house here in 1973. Most summer weekends he pulls into the parking lot at 8 a.m., eager to beat the morning rush.

“No matter how isolated you feel otherwise, you feel part of something bigger when you walk in there,” Lipper said. “The customers are family for them, and they are family for their customers.”

Our customers come to us to feel sustenance and feel part of a family,” said Brian Niggles, the second of four Niggles brothers.

Brian grew up on the farm, in the house where he still lives. He spent his childhood outside. Starting at the age of 5, his grandmother put him to work, carrying empty baskets to the front of the store and using a dustpan to sweep crumbs off the floor. Since 14, he's worked at Round Swamp on weekends and during breaks from school.

“Every baby I had was planned in the winter. When I finished work, I had another baby,” said his mother, Lisa Niggles. Family members rarely acknowledge summer birthdays, briefly gathering after closing to celebrate with peach or strawberry cake and whipped cream.

Brian Niggles's parents led by example, instilling in each of their sons the value of hard work. “We had to work. When it was summer and my friends were at the beach, that was our season and that's what we did,” Niggles said, during a conversation this spring at Jack's Stir Brew Coffee in Amagansett. But unlike his grandmother's upbringing, when he was coming up, Round Swamp was already a success, growing by leaps and bounds.

“I'll never have that history of bootstrapping,” he said. “There was never a time when it didn't work out. My family has always made our living this way. We've never had to find another job.”

Everything sold at Round Swamp gets passed through a family member's hands before hitting the shelf. “We're the quality control,” said Niggles, a graduate of East Hampton High School who holds a degree in economics from New York University. He knew early on that he wanted to stay in East Hampton, but he craved a space of his own and wanted to try his hand at being his own boss. Running the East Hampton store wasn't an option. Ready to strike out on his own, Niggles slowly planted the seed that a second location could be profitable.

It was a snowy day in January of 2014, and he and his mother were driving around Bridgehampton. A for-rent sign caught their eye in the parking lot behind the Candy Kitchen. The store was ideal, with big, beautiful windows, wooden floors, and a nearby parking lot.

They quickly signed a one-year lease. Despite being scared to death, he never doubted they could supply two stores. “My family has never had a problem making enough food. We always cook for 20,” said Niggles. Each day, a truck makes delivery rounds, using the back roads to transport freshly prepared foods from the kitchen in East Hampton to the store in Bridgehampton.

For the first year, his goal was that the Bridgehampton store might do half as much business as East Hampton. It quickly exceeded that expectation. And last year, its second, Bridgehampton's profits were “just under” those of the East Hampton flagship.

“We are catching up with them and meeting new people who had never heard of us before,” said Niggles, whose customers typically drive from Sag Harbor, Shelter Island, and Southampton.

Niggles describes himself as the “final man in a long line of strong women.” He was 14 when his grandfather died, and it never occurred to him that his grandfather, the family's anchor, wouldn't still be here.

As his grandmother's heir apparent, Niggles hopes the Bridgehampton store will add another layer of stability” financial and otherwise. “I'm hoping it will give my family a good life and not have this burden of killing themselves in order to operate it day in and day out,” Niggles said.

With Niggles running the show in Bridgehampton, where he is part-owner, the farm will most likely be taken over by one of his brothers. So far, Steven Niggles, 29, a police officer, has shown the most interest. Tommy Niggles, 23, enlisted in the U.S. Navy last month. That leaves Jim Niggles, 18, a senior at East Hampton High School. He plans to enroll at Suffolk County Community College in the fall. Jim is the only employee that Carolyn Snyder has fired twice. (She joked, with a laugh, that he “didn't cut the mustard”).

My ideas are the oldest and the rightest,” said Snyder, who is nothing if not determined.

When asked to recall the precise moment when she knew that Round Swamp had made it, her response was unequivocal: “I always knew it was going to be successful. I'm a determined person. I don't give up.”

Standing in her kitchen in late spring, she said she could see her legacy unfolding before her eyes: When Tommy stops in for a banana or a ham and cheese sandwich before heading back to work, or when Steven talks about a recent course in organic farming and the gallons of honey he hopes to harvest from his four beehives later this summer.

“At 72, your life starts to change,” Snyder said, with tears in her eyes. She's already started putting her affairs in order, including a handwritten copy of her eulogy, written on yellow legal paper, tucked into her Bible for safekeeping.

“Do you think you might live here someday?” she asked her grandsons, without waiting for an answer. “It would make my heart happy.”

Mostly, she wants the next generation to be proud of their heritage” — what it means to make a true and honest living from the water and what it means to be a steward of the land. “I hope Round Swamp will be here in 50 years, for the next generation and the generation after that. I just hope Round Swamp will be here forever and ever.”


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