In 1994, D.A. Pennebaker was edging the walls underneath his staircase. The space was hollow, lined with bricks and used to store wood for the fire. While fumbling with the gaps between the wall and the brick, Pennebaker heard a strange noise he likens to a small animal.
Above: The William Wallace Tooker sketch book was discovered in a Sag Harbor home and is now part of the John Jermain Memorial Library’s history room.
He joked to his wife, Chris Hegedus, daughter and son that he had found a treasure, even though he was sure it was simply a pesky vermin. After cajoling Hegedus to take a peek underneath the brick, she glimpsed a small, silver chest, coated in a thick film of dust. Placing it on the kitchen table Hegedus asked her young children if she should open it. As they were in the midst of watching “Scooby Doo” they begged their mother to leave the box closed.
“I didn’t know if I should open it in front of them because it could have been dead bones,” Hegedus joked.
But her curiosity ended up getting the better of her and as she lifted the heavy top, the family stared in amazement at a pile of silver pieces, two whale tusks elaborately scrimshawed, an antique map and deed and what looked like a wooden spinning top.
“It was incredible. It was all the things you think you find in treasure chests — coins and maps,” Hegedus added. “Our mouths were stuck open.”
With around 750 of the 1,000 homes in the incorporated village of Sag Harbor built in or before the 19th century, local history buff and tour guide Tony Garro believes stumbling upon historic objects — underneath stairs, a few feet under a lawn, or in the attic — is a common occurrence. Quite a few local contractors have reported finding newspaper inside walls, a cheap insulation material at the time, and discarded bottles, tools, cutlery and dishes buried on properties.
North Haven resident Susan Galardi chronicled her adventures in finding a possible root cellar at her home and bringing in a team of local experts and historians to help identify the long forgotten bounty in a Dan’s Paper piece from late August.
Researcher Jean Held, who has curated many shows for the Sag Harbor Historical Society, noted that it wasn’t uncommon for trash, like those glass bottles, to be dumped in a heap or a hole in the ground dug out at the end of a property. These items, once considered rubbish, are now little marvels and keys to the past daily lives of long deceased residents of the area.
Whether the find is an edge of a discarded teacup or a chest full of scrimshaw and silver, Garro points out the experience is akin to discovering buried treasure. It reveals a secret world and past, awakening a sense of mystery, he noted.
Above: Joan Carlson displays the “For Sale” sign she found in her home which belonged to the previous owners.
After more than a decade of coming upon the silver box, Hegedus and Pennebaker have slowly pieced together a biography for the previous owner’s life. Both are agreed that it was a man connected with whaling in some fashion at the end of industry’s glory days in the mid-1800s.
One carved tusk shows a rendering of the Eclipse, the ship Hegedus learned carried news from Boston to New York City, and the date 1848. The wooden top, Pennebaker believes, is actually an old instrument used to make the lines for the whaling ships. The map shows the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile, which was discovered in the 1500s, used as a pirate safe haven in the 17th and 18th century, and was later made famous for its appearance in the “Robinson Crusoe” novel.
The silver pieces minted for Spanish, English or French territories were probably only valuable for the metal and, based on Hegedus’ research, most likely only used as currency in the Caribbean. The nickel silver box itself, lined with plush red velvet and engravings with oriental patterns, reminds Hegedus of objects she has seen at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
“It feels like it would have come from the east. I feel like the box came from a long travel,” she remarked.
The deed, however, has proven to be the most enigmatic piece in the collection. Hegedus used an old English dictionary to decipher the document, dated either 1730 or 1760. After reading local historian Dorothy Zaykowski’s book “Sag Harbor: An American Beauty,” Hegedus learned the deed concerned a transference of 100 acres of land in North Haven between two brothers, John and Thomas Foster, whose family was among the first to settle Sag Harbor.
What became of the man who possessed this deed and tucked it into a secret corner of a village house? Pennebaker believes he ultimately traveled to California to try his luck in the gold rush of the 1800s.
“These were the kinds of things he thought were valuable. Everything was very personal. You kept it on you,” Pennebaker noted. “I think he thought he would come back from California rich from gold but he never came back.”
Joan Carlson’s find in her Division Street home was decidedly less mysterious, but no less cherished. In a closet, she happened upon a “For Sale” sign left there by the family who owned the home from 1905 to 1950. The sign was for the property they sold in Pennsylvania before they moved to Sag Harbor. Today, the sign decorates Carlson’s porch.
“In Sag Harbor there are so many old houses that people feel a connection to Sag Harbor’s history through their houses. If you find something that is of historical value and lends itself to that house. I think that is a neat thing,” Garro continued. “It gives people a material connection to the past through the house.”
On his tour of famous haunted spots in Sag Harbor, Garro highlights a connection to the past found in the walls of The American Hotel. According to Garro, resident Joe Hanna and a few workers found the diary of an East Hampton minister while renovating the hotel in the late 1970s.
“It was Good Friday, Joe recalls, and when they opened the diary to read the last entry, it just so happened it had been written on Good Friday, 1879 — 100 years to the day,” Garro recounts in his tour script.
For others hidden items are invaluable for their educational, historical and archival value. John Jermain Memorial Library Director Cathy Creedon noted that in 2008 the Friends of the Library donated a sketchbook from the 1800s belonging to local ethnologist William Wallace Tooker, which was found in the home of Nancy Carlson. The book of drawings depicting scenes around the South Fork, Connecticut and Brooklyn now resides in the library’s history room.
Though these types of tales hold special value for the finder, Garro understands the fascination of the outsider listening to these hidden treasure stories. He points out finding a connection to the past is interesting, but adds that for the owner of an older home it opens up a sense of possibility.
“Picture yourself in a house 200 to 300 years old,” Garro directs. “Don’t you ever wonder who lived there? What their lives were like? What they dreamed about?”