Jim Dreeben is best known as the Peconic Paddler — his store stood near the roundabout in Riverhead for 53 years until just recently.
But before there were boats, there were wheels.
“I moved to Riverhead in 1966, shortly after starting a business of running a gas station, renting U-Hauls, doing oil changes, washing and waxing cars, installing trailer hitches, snow plowing, and doing moving jobs,” Dreeben said.
“My first new car was a Volkswagen Beetle. I bought it while I was in the Army in Germany. My second new car was a 1971 Buick Electra 225, also known as Deuce and a Quarter — it was 225 inches long,” he explained. “I got it from Glennon Buick/Cadillac in Southampton. It was a big beautiful car: two doors, blue with a black vinyl top. On the way home from Glennon, I stopped to eat duck at John Duck’s in Southampton. I had a house account there, which I thought was very cool. You signed the check and John Duck’s billed you monthly.”
“Then I stopped at Shep Miller, a clothing store on Jobs Lane, and bought a beautiful tweed sport jacket, solid gray pants, and a red knit tie, to celebrate my new car. Shep Miller was on the corner across the street from the Southampton Arts Center, in a beautiful brick building.”
“My business was in Riverhead, but in Southampton Town. The Peconic River, on the north side of my property, was the dividing line between the two towns. It was a perfect location to branch out and add a paddling business to my automobile businesses. I got into canoeing, kayaking, and now stand-up paddling,” he said.
Over the years that followed, “I often visited the South Fork, all the way to Montauk,” Dreeben continued. “Most of my visits included eating at fine restaurants in the Hamptons. The most memorable restaurant was ‘Lunch’ or Lobster Roll in Amagansett. I was friends with Dave Terry, whose family owned Lunch. We made a deal: Dave got a special rate on a U-Haul trailer for the summer; I got free lobster roll or fried clams and coleslaw.”
Dreeben’s other happy gustatory memories include Shagwong, Gosman’s, Herb McCarthy’s, the Old Stove Pub, and Sip ‘N Soda.
“I usually went to Montauk and the Hamptons to deliver canoes or U-Haul trucks, or to go paddling. I delivered a Mad River canoe to the lighthouse keeper in Montauk and I had dinner at Shagwong on the way home. A few times, around Christmas time, I would visit the Montauk Lighthouse to see it all lit up.”
When he still had the U-Haul business, “a 20-foot U-Haul truck, parked at an old diner in Montauk, was long overdue. The company asked me to recover it. I unlocked the truck door with a slim jim, hot-wired the ignition, rolled out of the driveway, and popped the clutch. The engine started. I drove off just as the overdue renter ran out of the diner with a shotgun,” he said with a smile. “He came to Riverhead the next day, paid the rental fee, and took back his furniture.”
Another overdue truck “was at a restaurant by Georgica Pond. I went inside the restaurant and asked politely for the rental fee. Restaurant employees were not as polite; they told me to get lost. On the way out, I saw the U-Haul truck key laying on the piano. I grabbed it and ran out and drove off. They came to Riverhead the next day, paid the rental fee, and got their furniture.” Another happy ending.
But “the most fun out east was paddling,” he continued, remembering his first open water paddle in a solo racing canoe from Accabonac Harbor to Napeague Harbor, not following the shoreline, but at about a “45-degree crossing,” he said. “After swimming at Napeague Beach, and taking a nap, we had lunch at ‘Lunch.’”
“In the ‘70s, I took over a Sinclair Station on the corner of Windmill Lane, north of Shippy’s Pumpernickels restaurant. Gristedes supermarket was just east of it. Judge Kendrick’s house was across the street, about where the Southampton library is now. My gas station was not profitable. In the ‘70s, most residents went to Miami or New York City after Labor Day so there was hardly any traffic. I gave it up after only a few months.”
In the 1980s, he continued, “Ken Walls and I did a canoe race in Accabonac Harbor using an 18-foot Sawyer Outrage canoe.
He recalled an early morning kayaking from Riverhead to the Lobster Inn for “Splatt” — “a signature dish with lobster, clams, shrimp, and corn on the cob. That was a memorable paddle, and great exercise. We saw scallops swimming,” he said.
Being on the East End means meeting some celebrities as well. “Calvin Klein’s wife bought him a beautiful, special edition, wooden canoe. It had serial number ‘3,’” Dreeben said. “It was a surprise. I paddled it across Georgica Pond and delivered it to his boathouse. Don Hewitt bought a beautiful, lightweight, 16’4” Mad River Kevlar canoe with wood paddles. I delivered it to his home in Bridgehampton and built him a rack near the water, a perfect location for canoeing,” he said.
“Alan Alda bought a 15-foot Grumman canoe and asked me to deliver it to Water Mill or Bridgehampton. As I was leaving my shop my two daughters, and six of their friends, got into my truck. They wanted to meet Mr. Alda,” he said.
Speaking of his daughters, “Nancy graduated from Riverhead High School about 1984, went to Hofstra, and is a lawyer in Garden City,” Dreeben said. “She lives in Merrick across the street from where I grew up.”
His other daughter, Diana, is an accountant/auditor in Georgia. “Her son, my grandson, Jared, is going to Kennesaw State University in Georgia. When he visits here in summer, we paddle almost daily and we race in July by the aquarium,” Dreeben added.
Even though his store is closed, Dreeben still waxes on about his favorite love, seeing the water from a boat’s-eye view.
“Last summer, we went kayaking off Meadow Lane in Southampton,” he said. “We saw ‘necklaces’ being born, coming out of conch shells. We saw thousands of sea stars and dozens of cherrystone clams,” he said.
“There is so much to see and do on the South Fork, I can’t wait for warmer weather. I swim in the ocean at my favorite beach, Ponquogue Beach, almost every day in the summer and stand-up paddleboard or kayak evenings in Shinnecock Bay, Red Creek Pond, or Squires Pond, or I canoe on the Peconic River,” he said.
Jim Dreeben still leads tours and loves to talk about boats. And food. “A fun place to put in kayaks is at the marina by Library Avenue in Westhampton Beach,” he said. “Paddle west for lunch at John Scott’s Surf Shack or east for dinner at Docker’s. If you go to Docker’s, bring dress clothes in a plastic bag, change under the deck, leave your PFD in the kayak, and bring your paddle to the table.”
To reach Dreeben, you can call 631-834-2525 or email him at [email protected].