How East Hampton Became ‘America’s Most Beautiful Village’ By Mistake

The Little Windmill That Could cartoon by Dan Rattiner
The Little Windmill That Could
Cartoon by Dan Rattiner

If you call East Hampton Village, you’ll get a recorded message:

“Thank you for calling the Village of East Hampton, America’s most beautiful village….”

Who has declared it that? Well, if you must know, I did. And I am not proud of it. It was sort of an error.

It happened in the 1960s, when I first started publishing Dan’s Papers.

Over the years, working as the editor of the paper, I became one of those trying to help plan this community’s future. One year, after learning the Coast Guard had ordered the Montauk Lighthouse torn down to be replaced by a steel tower as a belt-tightening measure, I organized a protest on the lighthouse grounds attended by thousands, which resulted in the Coast Guard canceling that order.

Sometime later, after learning that an oil company wanted to tear down one of the big white historic mansions standing at the crossroads of downtown Bridgehampton and replace it with a gas station, I asked readers to boycott that oil company until the company officials changed their minds.

And some years after that, my stories helped save a second mansion and build a replica of a third. Today, these three buildings serve as the grand center of downtown.

But then there was the summer where I inaccurately announced that one of the largest magazines in the country, one with millions of readers, had declared East Hampton “America’s Most Beautiful Village.” 

Here’s how that happened.

That summer, covering the Ladies Village Improvement Society fair at Mulford Farm for the paper, I overheard the woman who was the president of that organization talking to a friend. There was very good news about East Hampton.

“East Hampton won a national contest held by The Saturday Evening Post,” she said. The Saturday Evening Post was one of the most popular magazines in the country. “They’ve declared us the most beautiful village in America!”

As a result of this, I wrote a story about what had likely won this honor for us.

Main Street East Hampton was a grand thoroughfare, the broadest on the east end, lined on both sides for its entire length with enormous elm trees. Their tops arched across the road to create a dark and magnificent leafy tunnel under which cars and trucks could pass.

Many of these giants had to be taken down, victims of Dutch Elm disease. And in their place are a smaller kind of elm, not as grand, but immune to Dutch Elm.)

In addition, Main Street had three giant and historic 18th-century windmills along its length, their blades rising even higher than the elms. And they are gorgeous. Main Street was and is also home to two town greens, three beautiful old churches, the town pond, and at each end a cemetery where the tombstones date back to 1650. 

No other village in America had such a lovely downtown.It is something which, you would think, would cause the general public in America to select this town as the most beautiful village in America. 

After I wrote about that magazine’s contest, that slogan began to appear over and over again in magazines, newspapers, leaflets and booklets about the area. I felt proud to have called the community’s attention to this.

But then, around 1990, I got a letter from a man who said he had worked for The Saturday Evening Post for 40 years. He said that at no time had there ever been a contest that resulted in East Hampton Village being declared the most beautiful village in America.

“If it had happened,” he wrote, “I would have known about it.”

Could this be true? I was stunned.I decided to go to the largest library I knew – the New York City Public Library on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Surely they would have all that magazine’s back issues. If there had been a contest, I would find it.

Librarians there directed me to their periodicals annex library just across the street, where all back issues of magazines were collected.And there, I spent an entire day doing this search. I looked through every issue for the prior 40 years, checking contents pages for stories about a contest. And I found nothing.

Perhaps it was in other magazines. I tried Fortune. Holiday. Travel + Leisure. Nothing and nothing.

Back in East Hampton, I decided to not write about what I had learned. And today, for the first time, I am revealing the truth. Let’s just not tell anybody. Perhaps I missed it.

These days, you can drive down Main Street in East Hampton any evening and see the blades of each of these three windmills lit up with tiny strings of lights.

They are lit like this not just for the holiday season but year-round. And yes, there are windmills in other towns – the East End towns have the largest collection of these historic windmills in the country – but no town has more than one except East Hampton, which has three. 

A few people have written that they think the lighting on our three windmills together with the lights wrapped around the streetlight poles on Main Street “garish” and “crude” and “like Las Vegas.”Bah!Humbug! 

Most people think the joyful display of our town’s treasures is appropriate. After all, since the village has been declared the most beautiful in America, we should showcase it.

And let’s get those white swans back in Town Pond. Swans used to nest in the pond year after year. But several years ago, a now-retired mayor ordered all the natural underwater vegetation removed from the pond. It was seen to be contaminated. As a result of this poking around in their habitat, the swans left. 

We need to return some goop, then hire a group of determined local citizens, vigilantes if you will, to go out with nets, lassoes, tasers, and potato sacks to round two of them up, gently, of course, and take them, a male and a female blindfolded if necessary back to where they belong.

Bingo. They’ll see our beautiful pond. And they’ll build a nest, lay eggs, raise cygnets and live happily ever after.

It’s only fair.

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