This year marks my 11th living in Sag Harbor Village. My family summered here in 2001 and eventually we came back for more. That summer made us realize that Sag Harbor was our kinda place. It’s rich in history and color; it’s a little kooky. In 2004 we moved into a second-floor apartment that was as small as it was historic and later that year we moved to our current home on Hampton Street.
With its many bars and rundown buildings, Sag Harbor was an artists’ paradise, “the Unhampton,” in the 20th century. The end of the whaling industry, and continued local poverty, effectively preserved 19th-century homes intact through the 1980s. When we arrived, Sag Harbor was becoming “the hot Hampton.” With the completion of the Watchcase condo complex later this year, that transition, that ascendancy, if you will, will be complete.
Locals are of two minds about this. The gentrification is good for business—but is it good for these descendants-of-whalers’ souls? Hard to say. No one misses the stench of whale blubber being rendered by the bay. Everyone is glad to see our institutions being preserved. The John Jermain Library, the Whaling Museum and the Old Whalers’ Church are all involved in restoration projects right now. Our little ornamental windmill underwent renovations recently. Is that windmill historic? Short answer: Definitely. Long answer: The sails don’t move, it never milled anything, it’s less than 60 years old—but John Steinbeck helped to build it.
Sag Harbor history is a many splendored, malleable thing.
Former sea captain and Whaling Museum board member David Cory, who passed away in 2010, held a wealth of information about Sag Harbor history and he shared it enthusiastically. Until the time of his death he led spirited tours of the Whaling Museum, the Old Whalers’ Church and the two blocks of homes in between them. On special occasions he offered tours of the cemeteries. I served with him on the Old Whalers’ Church Historical Committee. One day I came to him in an indignant state. A writer had mentioned in passing in a magazine article that the Old Whalers’ Church steeple back in the day was outfitted with vats of burning whale oil as a warning landmark to ships at sea. This was a ridiculous assertion on many levels. But David’s response to this idea was, “I’ve heard that one too from time to time.” He was just amused. It was a Sag Harbor history lesson for me, the idea that anything could have happened here. Colorful embellishment is expected, or any story can be a “fishing story.”
Another member of the Old Whalers’ Church Historical Committee at that time was Rosalie Jacobs, who told me about watching the Old Whalers’ steeple come off in the Hurricane of 1938 from her workstation window at the watchcase factory. I feel very honored to have known some of the older residents of Sag Harbor. They have allowed me to feel connected to Sag Harbor’s long and very rich history.
From the beginning, I viewed Sag Harbor Village as a play. Different colorful characters entered and exited and a good time was had by all. This idea came full circle in 2007 when the village celebrated its 300th anniversary. I wrote a play titled 300 Stories of Sag Harbor, which was performed in the Old Whalers’ Church. People loved it—especially the history quiz at the end, when we brought audience members onstage. With only 300 stories, ranging from a couple sentences to a few paragraphs, I had to leave a lot out. (You can read all about Sag Harbor history in Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski’s Sag Harbor: An American Beauty available from area bookstores.)
When you’re having fun this weekend, think of all the people who came to dock and to party here before you. Just be careful not to get too enmeshed in Sag Harbor—in Moby Dick, Herman Melville referred to our little village as “Sin City!”