Twenty-nine years ago, Linda Kessler was a Greenport transplant, and the East End Maritime Festival was a twinkle in the village eye.
For the occasion, merchants would boost their wares with more seaworthy objects — wooden boats and lighthouses, pirate and mermaid gear — readying for the kickoff parade and smattering of nautically themed events that would dot Main Street and Mitchell Park for the day.
Almost three decades later, that same parade still starts off the festival, but what comes next has expanded exponentially. Think grand displays of classic wooden boats, live music, kayak races, high-end artisanal vendors, children’s programs, fresh oysters, craft beers and local wines, woodcarving and model shipbuilding — just to name a few activities, explained Kessler, who is now a festival co-chair.
“It’s grown to about 30,000 people that we host over the two days,” she said. “The streets close down, we have vendors that come in and the merchants will still do something nautically themed. Everybody has a good time.”
Compared to when it first began, the festival may look different, but its mission feels the same: to honor the town’s history during a weekend-long celebration of local maritime heritage, to benefit the East End Seaport Museum & Marine Foundation.
“We’ve been fortunate enough, even though times have changed to a certain degree, to still have our boat builders and the revival of the oyster industry,” Kessler said, “and it’s something that we’re very proud of.”
In 1640, Barnabus Horton led a small band of adventurers from England and across the Atlantic, where they landed in Southold — the township that now includes Greenport. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the village was known as Winter Harbor, and later Stirling, after George Washington’s General, Lord Sterling. The name of the village was changed again to Greenhill and finally renamed Greenport when the village was incorporated as part of Southold Town in 1838.
By this time, Greenport had established itself as a major whaling port, with 24 whaling ships making a total 103 voyages from 1795 to 1859. Through World War II, more than 550 ships were built and launched from the village, which would also become known for its fishing industry by the mid-1800s, and oystering during the first half of the 20thcentury. At one time, there were as many as 14 oyster processing companies there, with dockside values running as high as $2 million per year.
As a nod to the village’s nautical legacy that lives on today, the festival’s Land and Sea gala is held in no other place than the Greenport Yacht & Shipbuilding Company — essentially, an old-fashioned boat yard — where it has called home for the last two years.
“It’s a working boat yard, so we erect a tent in the middle of the working boat yard, and have the event there,” Kessler said. “It’s wonderful. It’s grown. It started out years ago at the museum, and as the event grew, we had to expand it. One year, we did a tent at Claudio’s in one of their lots, and the last few years we’ve been at the boat yard because we think that signifies who and what we are on the North Fork.”
The festival-at-large acts as the major fundraiser for the East End Seaport Museum, which houses a 750-gallon saltwater aquarium and serves as guardian of the Orient Long Beach Bar Lighthouse, affectionately known as “Bug Light.”
Originally built in 1870, the lighthouse was destroyed by a fire on July 4, 1963. Though a tragedy for the local community, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the community came together, donating their materials, labor and time to rebuild the lighthouse.
After just 60 days, it was the Greenport Yacht & Ship Building Company that launched the new Victorian structure, which floated over to its original concrete foundation and was lit once again on September 5, 1990 — thus establishing the East End Seaport Museum as a Greenport fixture and planting the seed for the longtime festival.
“We’ve become a staple as a go-to event on the East End. I think the people like the quaintness of Greenport,” Kessler said. “It celebrates our nautical heritage and I think that’s what’s most important.”
The 29thannual East End Maritime Festival will kick off with the Land & Sea Gala benefit — featuring a live auction, dancing, food and drink from local purveyors — on Friday, September 21, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Greenport Yacht & Shipbuilding Company, located at 201 Carpenter Street in Greenport. VIP access begins at 5:30 p.m.
The festival continues on Saturday, September 22, and Sunday, September 23, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Highlights include a parade on Saturday at 11 a.m., the inaugural Five Alarm Chili Cookoff on Sunday from 12 to 3 p.m., and a lighthouse and seal watching cruise at 2 p.m.
Weekend-long events include American Schooner Association and Classic and Ice Boat exhibits, cruises to tour Bug Lighthouse, self-guided tours of the Village Blacksmith Shop and East End Seaport Museum, and vendors, demonstrations, and special programs.
For more information, visit eastendseaport.org.