Save the Windmill: But Here in Sag, While We Save it, Let’s Make it a Proper One

What’s going on with the Sag Harbor Windmill down at Long Wharf now is a real opportunity. The Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce has announced that the windmill there, built as part of the Old Whalers Festival in 1966, needs major repairs and that these repairs might cost $70,000.

The opportunity here is that maybe by spending just a little more than $70,000, perhaps a full scale replica of an actual windmill could be built.

The truth is, this one is not.

A plaque on the side of the windmill says that the windmill is the reconstruction of a windmill built in 1760 that stood 50 feet to the west of this site. There was a windmill built in 1760 by a farmer named Mordaci Homan, but it is long gone and there are no drawings of it to tell us what it might have looked like. There are, however, 11 windmills in the Hamptons—the biggest collection of old windmills in the United States —and all of them share the same basic dimensions one to the other. Indeed, on the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce website, it says that the one built at Long Wharf is a scaled down replica of a windmill called the Beebe windmill, built in Sag Harbor on Suffolk Street in 1820, but moved away around 1837 to where it is today in Bridgehampton.

The windmills still standing on the East End were all built between 1790 and 1820. They undergo historically accurate restorations about every 50 years. They are the prides of the community in which they exist.

Sag Harbor has every right to a windmill built to historic specifications. Not only was the Beebe Mill and the 1760 mill built in Sag Harbor, but there are references to three other windmills built in Sag Harbor and no longer there, two even before the 1760 mill. Both earlier ones were reported to have blown away. There is also the Corwith Mill, built in Sag Harbor in 1800 and moved to the green in Water Mill. But I submit that the one at Long Wharf, built in 1966 is not an accurate reproduction of any of our mills. It lacks both the size and grandeur of all the others.

In the center of this article are photographs of the two windmills, side by side. One is the Beebe Mill, the other is this reproduction in Sag Harbor. As you can see, they do not resemble one another. The Beebe Mill is tall and grand. The one at Sag Harbor is short and stout and looks like the Little Windmill that Could.

It was in 1966 that the Village of Sag Harbor decided to build an information booth at the foot of Long Wharf in the shape of a windmill. I was publishing Dan’s Papers then. I recall this well.

Sag Harbor was a very rough town back then. It didn’t have much money. The invasion of the real estate boom fueled by New York City summer people buying whaling cottages was still 10 years away. More than half of all the houses at that time were abandoned. Many were derelict or fallen almost to ruin. And the only employment of consequence in town were assembly lines at three different factories. Plus, of course, there were the weekend tourists in the summertime. It was not a happy town at all.

In 1966, Sag Harbor decided to try to attract more tourists to the town by having a three-day-long Old Whalers Festival the week after Labor Day. They were willing to do just about anything to get money to flow into town. These were the days that Sag Harbor considered it’s closest competitors to be the Catskills, Cape Cod, Montauk and the Jersey shore.

At the Old Whalers Festival they had a beard growing contest, a storytelling contest and a 14 foot long styrofoam white whale covering a rowboat, which that weekend they anchored 50 feet into the bay to have locals in replica “whaleboats,” (actually other rowboats) row out to it and try to stick harpoons into it. They also at that time decided to build their own windmill at Long Wharf.

Now you can root for restoring icons from this tourist era. But you need to be clear about what it is.

The windmill they built is fatter and shorter than any historic windmill. They built it fat at the base. Inside, the bottom floor is large, not only to appear to be able to look like something that could have at one time ground grain into flour, but also to be able to accommodate its real purpose, which was to provide a place where many tourists at the same time could get information and pick up brochures and meet with chamber volunteers.

Since that time, the people in the Village of Sag Harbor have become very involved with protecting their heritage, getting all their history right, not allowing any chain stores or fast food joints or any other manifestations of the 21st century onto Main Street, and in the process of all this, I think, coming to see this windmill as colonial history when it isn’t.

Historic Sag Harbor is the Long Wharf, the American Hotel, the entire Main Street, the Old Whalers’ Church, the Fire House, the library with the big dome, the Whaling Museum and the Customs House and at least four historic windmills, none of which stand today. Sag Harbor is also a place of firsts. It was the first town on Long Island to have gas lamps. It was the first to have a Customs House and be declared a Port of Entry (1789). It was the first to have a Fire Department (formed in 1817), it was the first to have an electric generator and it soon had the tallest building on Long Island—the Old Whalers’ Church. From 1800 to 1849, the community was a whaling town, with more than 100 whaling boats tied up at the wharf. It was one of only four whaling ports in America—the others being Nantucket, New Bedford, Massacusetts, and Lahaina, Maui.

The town, wealthy as it is today—look how far it has come since 1966— can afford to build a proper replica of the old Beebe Mill. It could be done as a hollow shell as most of the windmills in the Hamptons are today without their original gears and axles.

I’ve heard arguments that a proper, tall, windmill would tend to stand out in town too much and might block the view of the bay. I’m not sure it would, but if it did, it would be a windmill to be proud of that did. East Hampton has the windmills they are proud of. So does Water Mill. And in my opinion, so should Sag Harbor. A full-scale replica of the Beebe Mill, at the entrance to Long Wharf would be a great addition to downtown Sag Harbor.

And then there is this. In a few weeks time, Suffolk County is going to sell Long Wharf back to Sag Harbor for a dollar. This is big news. And this would be a good time to consider what might be made more properly historic down at the wharf and what not.

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