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OVERHEARD: Dashing Through the Snow

Sat, 12/03/2022 - 10:18
This is the one-horse open sleigh that played a role in the Montauk Lighthouse romance — although this driver didn’t. Here, Emil Gardell of Amagansett took it for a spin much later, in the 1940s. The sleigh was preserved at the Franklin Triangle and then moved to the Roy Lester Carriage House.
The East Hampton Star Archive

There’s a letter in a box in a garage in Sedona that may one day soon find its way to the Montauk Point Lighthouse Museum and, if and when it does, it will tie together disparate historical strands of a long-ago romantic tale involving a man, a woman, a horse-drawn sleigh, and a wild ride through the snow from Montauk to East Hampton.

Billy Strong, an artist and East Hampton Village native, moved to the Arizona resort town about a year and a half ago, bringing with him a trove of family ephemera, including a letter written by his great-grandfather James Strong, addressed to his paramour in Montauk, Emily Scott, in the late 19th century. 

James Strong was a blacksmith who ran a shop with his brothers on the corner of Pantigo Road and Accabonac Highway, right where the Strong agency — run by relations, naturally — still stands, across from the post office. Miss Scott was the daughter of Capt. James Scott, the longest-serving lighthouse keeper at the Montauk beacon, from 1885 to 1910. Captain Scott is honored today in the Montauk Point Lighthouse Museum in the form of a mannequin that sports an outfit designed by another prominent Montauk resident, Ralph Lauren. 

Another display at the museum is a lynx-fur lap blanket that Billy Strong donated. He describes it as a totem of the courtship between his great-grandfather and Miss Emily. 

“I donated the blanket and still have the letter,” says Billy. “I didn’t donate the letter at first because I thought it was a little too personal, but over the years I decided it’s a great piece of history. It’s a love story, and it’s a local story.” 

As that story goes, Billy Strong’s great-grandfather would make regular trips from “Down Hook” — as the Strong family’s corner of the village was known — to Montauk to visit the girl who would become Billy’s great-grandmother. “Traveling back then . . . if you went to the city, it was like going to the Moon,” Billy Strong says. “Going to Montauk was a pretty big deal, too.” 

He’s not sure if it was in 1888 or 1898, and the darn letter’s still in a moving box somewhere, but one winter day toward the end of that century, James set out by sleigh for what was to be a long but routine ride to visit the girl he was courting. But somewhere along the Napeague stretch, a windblown and desolate expanse that then had no houses or buildings at all (save for a stinking “fish factory” that is long since gone), he got caught in a terrible blizzard. It took James many endless and treacherous hours to get back home to East Hampton and safety.

On stationery bearing the mark of the blacksmith company, James penned his thoughts to Emily: He had had enough of the courtship period. It was time for the hard press. “So he wrote this letter,” Billy says, “and said, ‘Look, Emily, we’ve been dating awhile, I just got caught in this blizzard, and next time I come out, I want you to make a decision — will you marry me or not?’” 

The couple did of course get married, and, not long after, Emily gave birth to Billy Strong’s grandfather. James and Emily set up housekeeping Down Hook, and Billy’s great-grandfather continued to ply his smithy trade. Strongs still live to this day within a stone’s throw of the old forge.

Billy Strong says he’s planning to come back east next fall and he hopes to present the romantic letter, and perhaps an accompanying photo of the blacksmith shop, to the Lighthouse Museum. He hopes they will accept them. Making donations to local museums, he says, is something of a family thing. One of his great-uncles, for example, used to visit with Captain Scott at the Montauk Point Lighthouse and collected arrowheads from around the site. Those arrowheads were handed down by Uncle William to a niece, who donated them to the Lighthouse Museum, where they’re on display now, too. 

And then there’s the sleigh. Billy says it’s possible that his great-grandfather built it — but whether he did or didn’t, this critical vehicle of the story is on display these days at the Roy Lester Carriage Museum in Amagansett, albeit without any indication of its role in a long-ago romance. Oddly enough, this cold-weather conveyance became something of a symbol of Amagansett: It was showcased in a glass case at the Franklin Triangle, in front of Connie Anderson’s realty office, before eventually being dispatched to the carriage museum. 

As a visual artist working in sculpture, Billy Strong is known by the moniker of the Green Explorer and has traveled the world. He has taken to what could be described as a repurposed-driven life — conjuring art and beauty out of garbage and other debris as he promotes environmental engagement. He’s been to the Galapagos and says he’s got a trip to Alaska on tap.

Billy is 57 and moved to Sedona after having run a seasonal pool and garden business for many years in East Hampton. Like many people raised here, he had become tired of his beloved home village’s ever-expanding crowds and bloated sense of entitlement. “It’s my home, it’s my heart, but I came to a place here in Sedona that is very peaceful,” he says, sounding almost wistful for the days when you could get lost in a stormy wilderness on your way to Montauk.

A stile on the winding way to Montauk, with First House in the background. In the 1880s — and decades after that — it was difficult to reach Montauk, especially in bad weather. The East Hampton Star Archive

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