The Bonackers: East Hampton, Fireplace and the World’s Biggest Potato

Until about 15 years ago, the Village of Springs was largely populated by a very tight- knit group of people known as the Bonackers. They were the descendants of working class Englishmen who had come here accompanying the first English settler back then, an upperclassman named Lion Gardiner. The year was 1639 and the King had given Gardiner a royal land grant asking that he settle here. He settled on an island just offshore of Amagansett. Many of those who worked for him settled on the mainland and they called the place Springs. They also called themselves Bonackers, so named after an Indian word meaning root vegetables. The Bonackers did plant potatoes among other things. Mostly they were known for clamming and fishing, though.

I kind of miss the Bonackers. I live among them, or in this community among what is left of them. I confess to having been fascinated by them when I decided to move here. It was the early 1970s. I found them to be straightforward, gentle, funny and hardworking. What you saw is what you got. And they spoke in this strange English dialect that I had never heard before.

They were also, I think, fascinated with me to some degree. I was a Jewish boy from New Jersey. They were, well, they went back 300 years. I was told by one of them at Damark’s Deli one day that they would put up with me, but no funny business. Couldn’t prevent me buying a house if that’s what I wanted to do. Looked me straight in the eye. Gave me a little smile. I got it. Me and my young family would be safe here. [expand]

Of course, I soon embarked on a little funny business. Right across the street from my house there was this narrow sandy beach where about a half dozen Bonackers kept their clammer boats. These were old wooden rowboats, attached by pulleys to a metal stake on the ground at one end and another metal stake in four feet of water just offshore. They’d pull them in to go off clamming.

I bought myself an old rowboat and kept it there. There was no law saying I couldn’t do it. I didn’t clam but I did take my kids out for a row around the harbor from time to time. The Bonackers just ignored that I did that.

There is so much to tell you about the Bonackers, now almost gone; I almost don’t know where to begin. Perhaps at the end. They lived here and their culture thrived here from 1640 until about 1990. I got here in the 1970s. Now they are mostly gone. They left, or I thought they left, more about this later, because the value of their homes went through the roof, because laws made it difficult to clam and fish in the old traditional ways, and because of overfishing and pollution, their fish stocks declined. I long believed they moved—this was a population of about 1,500 people—almost en masse, to a new place they found off in the wetlands of North Carolina. I believed that until I learned differently just this past week, from one of the remaining Bonackers living in the old ways, Stuart Vorpahl.

Turns out that most of them are still here. But the new generation doesn’t embrace the old clannish ways. They are of the world of Twitter, videogames and cellular phones, just like everybody else. They’ve left the area, and so, as the older Bonackers die out with the kids off doing other things, so goes the culture. It’s an old story.

Here’s some history about the Bonackers. There’s a place at the end of Springs-Fireplace Road up by Gardiner’s Bay known as Fireplace. It’s called that because back in the 17th century when the Gardiners, living on their island offshore—it’s about three miles offshore—wanted the workmen to send a boat over with supplies or whatever, they’d build a wood bonfire at the beach on the island, and, in response, the Bonackers would build a bonfire at the beach here in Springs. They’d got the message.

According to Wikipedia, the Bonackers lived isolated among themselves without much contact at all with the outside world until the 1950s. They got along fine farming and fishing, raising chickens and ducks, taking care of the Island. Their unusual English accent persevered. “Goin’ downstreet,” one of them might say, meaning he was going to ride a horse to downtown East Hampton. “Yes, yes, bub,” might be a reply. Bub was what they called one another, bubbies, the plural. Upstreet meant they were coming back home. “Fines’ Kind” was a compliment. Their kids walked the four miles to the East Hampton High School every day and back.

By the 1970s, when I got here, the Bonackers drove pickup trucks that had haul hitches on the back to bring their fishing boats down to the ocean beaches. They’d cast nets into the surf and crank them back in by an ancient method they called “haul seining.” It was a trademark of the Bonac clan that if you had a pickup truck then you had to have at least one black lab dog accompanying you with it. He’d sit in the back bed of the truck and run excitedly around. He was going to the beach.

Imagine this. In the 1980s, haul seining was made illegal by the authorities. Took too many fish in too short a time. Billy Joel, also a friend of the Bonackers, went haul seining anyway with them. And he got arrested with the others. Next thing, in the 1990s, was a rule passed by the town that if you had a black lab or any other dog in the back of your truck running around, you had to have him “secured” with some sort of leash or bungee cord to keep him from falling out of the truck. None of the labs had ever done so that I ever heard of. But the summer people, driving their Porsches, who sometimes found themselves late for the club behind a Bonacker truck driving slow with the dog jumping around in the back, feared for the dogs’ lives.

No damn wonder they left. Or the kids decided this was not worth pursuing.

It’s not a total loss. The Bonac dialect is being preserved on tape at the East Hampton Library and at other libraries around the country. And I still remember them fondly.

When I first moved here, I had a farming story passed on to me by a Bonac friend. It had been told by an elderly and much-loved Bonacker named Ferris Talmadge Jr. a few years before. Talmadge was blind by that time. But he was still a wonderful story teller and someone with a tape recorder one day asked him to tell his Big Potato story, which he’d been telling for years and years so they could write it down. He did. And now I had it. And now you have it too.

In the fall of 1890, Ferris’ father Ferris Talmadge Sr., who owned a potato farm in the Springs, received a letter from the promoters of the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893. They had heard of him and his accomplishments, they wrote, and they wanted to ask if he would, for a fee, grow the largest potato in the country so it could be brought to Chicago and go on view for the visitors there. Of course, Talmadge said yes. The fee would be big, though.

In the spring of 1891, Talmadge took a special cutting out to one corner of his farm and planted it on a low hill there. This was a considerable distance from his regular potato field. He would need lots of room for it to grow.
During that summer of 1891, Talmadge had his farmhands rake into the soil a special kind of potato food he had created. When the potato plant popped up, he had a special kind of water ready for it.

The potato grew in the ground all through the summer of 1891 and Talmadge could see that the height of the hill was rising and he was pleased. But that fall, when he harvested all the rest of his potatoes he left this one in. To grow it really big, he knew, he would need another growing season.

The Promoters of the Chicago Worlds Fair called him that autumn and asked him how things were going and he said right on schedule. He expected to have it ready to harvest in the autumn of 1892. It would be ready in plenty of time for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, scheduled to open in April of that year.

The next autumn, however, Talmadge felt the potato still wasn’t quite ready. When the promoters called him that fall to arrange for shipping he told them that he wanted to leave it in the ground for one more winter. He would have it out at the end of March, at the beginning of the thaw. He knew this was cutting things close and he knew the promoters would be panicky about this but he asked they trust him with it. They said they would.

In late March of 1893, on a warm Monday morning, Talmadge went out to the edge of his field, kicked at the ground and said his potato was ready. He brought in six farmhands with picks and shovels and they labored for an entire day just to uncover the top of the potato. It was big all right. From end to end, it was a little more than 23 feet.

The workmen dug for the rest of the week and into the next. By the following Thursday, they had dug all around the big potato and it was completely visible there, sitting free deep in a big hole. Half the townspeople of Springs came out that Thursday afternoon to have a look.
How was Talmadge going to get that potato out of there? the people wanted to know. It was going to be a problem. Talmadge put ropes around the potato and tied them to a team of six horses. But the horses pulled and pulled and the potato would not move. They pulled all day until they were bathed in sweat. Nothing happened.

That night, Talmadge got a brainstorm. In the morning, he asked for the strongest wagon in the village and he had it brought up to the big hole and then pushed down into it and arranged right next to the potato. Then he got a team of 12 horses, tied them with ropes to the potato and after 20 minutes of mighty pulling they had raised the potato up about seven feet, just high enough for Talmadge’s men to
push the wagon under it.

And so that’s how they got that potato out of there. The farmhands got behind the wagon with the potato on it, the team of 12 horses tugged on the ropes tied to the front of the wagon and they pulled that potato up the side of the hole in the ground, out into the pasture and down to the rocky beach there at the end of Fireplace Road.

There the potato stayed. It took about 10 days for Talmadge to come to the conclusion that there wasn’t a boat owner on eastern Long Island willing to try to haul that potato to Chicago. Finally, with nothing done, Talmadge called the promoters and told them he had the potato but he couldn’t get it out of there. The promoters said they would take possession right there.

Six days later, a big ocean-going ferry from Manhattan arrived off the coast of Fireplace and dropped anchor. Ropes were secured to the wagon, the wagon cranked out through the surf toward the ferry where, lo and behold, it was found that the wagon and potato floated!
Then the tug towed it away.

Nobody ever heard of the potato after that. And Talmadge never revealed what the promoters had paid him to grow this giant potato. But for years afterwards, every March, Talmadge would hand out big bonuses to his farmhands. It came, he said, from the annual check he was getting from Chicago. It was certainly quite a windfall for this community. [/expand]

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