By Annette Hinkle
As far as folkloric history goes, it’s certainly an oddity. As far as its role as an object contained in the collection of a local public library, it’s even odder still. But it turns out that the rather ordinary looking elongated black rock currently on view at the East Hampton Library comes with a truly intriguing back story.
Archivist Andrea Meyer, head of the library’s Long Island Collection, explains that the rock’s fabled provenance dates back to 1755 when it functioned as the pestle of a woman named Zerviah Hand. Zerviah was the wife of East Hampton’s David Hand and the mother of Sag Harbor’s legendary Revolutionary War hero Captain David Hand, who was born in 1759, eventually had five wives, and was purportedly the inspiration for Natty Bumpo, the protagonist in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.
Today, the Hand house, one of the oldest in Sag Harbor, is on Church Street across from the Watchcase condominiums. But in 1755, the house, which was built on Shelter Island by Zerviah’s father and gifted to her and David Hand upon their marriage, was situated in the Poxabogue area of Sagaponack where the couple lived at the time.
“According to family lore, the neighborhood had indigenous people on or near the property,” said Meyer. “Different versions of the story say that one night in darkness, Mrs. Hand overheard a domestic dispute between a nearby indigenous couple. She ran outside and stepped between them and intervened, pulling a rock from the hand of the man who was threatening the woman with it.
“That rock became the pestle of Mrs. Hand’s mortar and pestle, but after that incident the Hands didn’t feel entirely safe in the neighborhood, so they moved to Sag Harbor,” added Meyer, noting that they took the house with them.
“It was like the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ but the Poxabogue 1760s edition,” she added.
“It’s a crazy story. I can’t swear to the accuracy, but it’s folklore, history and an actual object — you can’t argue with that,” Meyer said of the rock. “I spent a year walking past this before I knew what it was.”
Zerviah Hand’s rock is just one of several unique and unusual objects from the Long Island Collection that are on view through Columbus Day weekend in four display cases near the library’s main entrance.
Other items on view include artwork and personal effects belonging to artist Thomas Moran and his wife, Mary Nimmo Moran; photographs and documents related to George Lewis Fowler Sr. and Sarah Melissa Fowler, whose East Hampton home the town recently restored as the only landmark currently associated with the Montaukett people; Noah Webster’s 1806 dictionary; a 1757 French map of Long Island recently purchased by the library; and objects related to Dr. George Huntington, an East Hampton resident who, in the 19th century, discovered Huntington’s disease by studying the local ancestors of a man who had emigrated to the area from England in 1634, bringing the gene that causes the disease with him.
“Most items I’ve found while I was looking for something else,” explained Meyer. “The items on view are from me constantly finding cool things in the collection that people wouldn’t expect in a library, like Mrs. David Hand’s mortar and pestle. It’s not at all what one would expect to find even in a special collection library. Nobody thinks a public library has five rooms of art. It’s such a weird collection for a public local library to have and that’s one of the themes of the display.”
The basis of East Hampton Library’s odd and unusual selection of historic documents and objects is the Morton Pennypacker Long Island Collection, which includes 20,000 or so items such as manuscripts, books, papers, photographs and other documents related to Long Island history. Pennypacker, who died in 1956 at the age of 84, gave his collection to the East Hampton Library in 1930 and oversaw it until his death. Over the years, the library acquired additional objects and documents and today, the collection contains more than 100,000 items including, according to the library’s website, “photographs, postcards, whaling logs, diaries, account books, deeds, wills, genealogies, maps, architectural drawings, oral histories, and newspapers. Various items of note include early Native American documents and artifacts, the 1599 Gardiner family bible, the original deed to Shelter Island, the Captain Kidd ‘cloth of gold,’ and materials relating to the Culper Spy Ring.”
That’s a lot of stuff, and it all adds up to an endless source of material to highlight in exhibitions.
“Some of the things currently on view in the case are books and manuscripts, so that fits into typical collecting, but really, because of Morton Pennypacker, we have a complicated legacy, said Meyer, explaining that Pennypacker, a rare book and antiquarian collector of Long Island history, had been collecting for years when he came to East Hampton and gave the materials to the library.
“Pennypacker was running this collection until the 1950s, but he was less concerned with accuracy and more in driving interest. He was a big proponent of the Hulbert flag story,” said Meyer, referring to a flag made by Captain John Hulbert of Bridgehampton in 1775 that may or may not have influenced the eventual design of the American flag.
“Did it beat Betsy Ross?” asked Meyer, unable to answer her own question.
Another example of Pennypacker’s spin can be seen in the form of a piece of paper on view at the library that might have been made by George Washington himself during a 1790 tour of Long Island.
In her position as overseer of the collection, Meyer has come across other surprising finds, including the 1806 Webster Dictionary — which she notes is dated 20 years earlier than this dictionary supposedly existed.
Though anecdotes, forgotten documents and fabled pieces of paper are, indeed intriguing on their own, beyond stirring interest in local history, Meyer finds that the often unusual objects in the library’s collection are vital for preserving valuable knowledge for successive generations.
“It’s why archives matter. People say ‘old things’ when I tell them what I do, but I say it’s still relevant,” said Meyer. “Huntington disease, for example, is a big deal. It’s genetically inherited and sometimes families will call me looking for genealogy because they have the genes. Because of George Huntington’s work, people can go get tested for this gene.”
Local history exhibits from the Long Island Collection are on view at East Hampton Library, 159 Main Street, East Hampton, through mid-October. For more information, visit easthamptonlibrary.org.