By Michelle Trauring
First, Kathryn Szoka fell in love with the farm fields of North Sea—the wide, expansive swaths of land touched only by those who knew what to do with them.
Then, she stumbled across Sag Harbor—virtually nonexistent on the Hamptons tourist radar in the 1980s—and discovered a diverse haven with a real sense of community and work ethic. It was a community she wanted to join.
That same feeling, she would later learn, was once echoed by John Steinbeck in the 1950s. He ushered in a wave of fellow creative types who joined the longstanding backbone of Sag Harbor’s working people.
Together, they are the subject of “Every Village Has A Story: People,” curated by Ms. Szoka, on view starting Friday at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum.
“I think what has drawn people and caught people in the web of Sag Harbor for many decades is this feeling of it being a place where people may be able to feel comfortable, or tolerated if not embraced,” Ms. Szoka said during a recent telephone interview. “And that’s what Sag Harbor was in the late 20th century. We’re now at another pivot point in the village’s history, and that is just what happens.”
Through a collection of more than 40 vintage portraits, contemporary paintings and digital reproductions of archival photographs, their story starts in the 1800s with the factory workers of the post-whaling era.
Photographs on loan from the Sag Harbor Historical Society and private collections document the active industry inside the brick building on 1A Bay Street, built in 1879—first home to the Hampton Flour Mill before E.W. Bliss Co. took over operations as a torpedo factory.
“There are photos of workers in the factory with torpedoes and photos of them testing the torpedoes in the bays around Sag Harbor, wearing scuba gear from the early 1900s,” Ms. Szoka said. “There is a charming photograph of a fiddler on the wharf during a break from the factory work day, with guys in the water and the fiddler playing on the wharf. Later, this is where Grumman Aerospace built parts for the Apollo Lunar Module. It’s the claim to fame.”
Just up the road, the Bulova Watchcase Factory went up in 1880 after the Business Aid Committee of Sag Harbor convinced entrepreneur Joseph Fahys to relocate his New Jersey-based factory. One photo from 1909 gives a peek inside the enormous building of that time, as well as another taken in the 1950s after Bulova had taken over.
“I had never seen exactly what the interior looked like when people were working there,” Ms. Szoka said. “The women are lined up, working in front of the windows at desks, but leaning over. You realize how meticulous and close up and miniscule in detail the work was that they did. The actual glass could be less than three quarters of an inch, or even half an inch. The way they were huddled over whatever it was they were working on, that is quite striking.”
It was the workmen who captured the eye of photographer Arthur Leipzig, who shot for LIFE magazine. “My favorite of Arthur’s is a photograph he took through the truck window of Larry Abelman. You see Larry walking out of this house toward the truck and, at the door of the house, you see his wife and she’s saying goodbye for the morning, and you see Main Street. That is just iconic. That’s almost anywhere in small town, USA.”
Mr. Leipzig was an inspiration and mentor to photographer Ann Chwatsky, whose series of circa-1980s Sag Harbor portraits will hang in the exhibit. She captured decoy duck carver Bob Hand and other local characters, including four generations of the Schiavonis at the IGA on Main Street.
As rumor has it, the great-grandfather, Angelo Schiavoni, was the model for Steinbeck’s grocer in “The Winter of Our Discontent,” which he wrote while he lived in Sag Harbor, a place that reminded the author—whose portrait by David Slater will be on view—of his Californian roots.
“He was born in Salinas, but he spent a lot of time in Monterey. It looks like a theme park now, but it was a working fishing village in his day,” Ms. Szoka said. “When he and Elaine came out east and drove into Sag Harbor, it was similar to how I felt myself, being from rural Maryland. It felt like he was coming home.”
The factory town transformed into a destination for writers and artists, Ms. Szoka explained. They were working with their pens, pencils and brushes, but still with their hands, she said. Today’s Sag Harbor is also on the precipice of another evolution—if it hasn’t happened already.
“As a photographer who has walked the streets of the village for three decades, the built environment has changed dramatically and the success of Sag Harbor’s real estate market has brought a different individual into the mix,” she said. “I can only hope it continues to be a mix so there is diversity going forward.
“Let’s face it, we all know Sag Harbor is being gentrified in a rapid manner, and that’s why this is important, so the people who are coming to Sag Harbor with fresh eyes can really have an appreciation for what Sag Harbor was just 20, 40, 60 years ago. And I have faith that the people coming want to have a sense of that history.”
“Every Village Has A Story: People” will open with a reception on Friday, July 1, at 6 p.m. at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. The exhibition will remain on view through Monday, July 18. For more information, call (631) 725-0770 or visit sagharborwhalingmuseum.org.