The late 18thcentury Annie Cooper Boyd House on Main Street, the home of the Sag Harbor Historical Society, is easy to miss: low profile, humble, set well back from the road behind a low stone wall and a garden that’s a little gangly and deer-browsed by midsummer.
Many visitors and weekenders don’t know about it. Some local people walk or drive past and think they’ll have to stop in sometime. Both groups, in their ignorance or hurry, are missing an elemental aspect of understanding Sag Harbor.
This is an historic village, a place where bits and pieces of the past have piled up over the decades in attics and cellars, backyard sheds and the mud at the bottom of the harbor. Much of it was collected over the past century and before by history buffs, including Annie Cooper Boyd herself and her daughter, Nancy Boyd Willey, who bequeathed the house to the historical society upon her death in 1998.
Like a three-dimensional scrapbook, many of those treasures are on view at the house in the historical society’s 2018 exhibition, “Presenting Sag Harbor through Letters, Journalism, Costumes, Art, Photos and Local Voices,” which can be seen on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. or by appointment by calling the society at (631) 725-5092.
“We still get inspiration from Annie’s work and Nancy Boyd Willey’s preservation work,” said historical society trustee Jean Held, a former graphic designer for Time-Life magazines who, along with trustee Barbara Schwartz, were “the mainstays” who put much of the exhibition together over the past winter, according to trustee Nancy Achenbach.
Ms. Held used her graphic design skills to create informational displays about Sag Harbor artists and photographers as well as artifacts — from old coins and a bell to fishing lures and a decayed telephone handset — found in the spoil after a 2017 dredging project at Long Wharf.
Ms. Schwartz is a specialist in Cooper family genealogy and records. She also, in effect, curates the period dress collection that was given to the society about a decade ago by the Anderson family when an old house was sold. “I wanted to get the costumes out of the attic and display them again,” she said, describing the overall exhibition as a “group effort.”
Dating as far back as 1820, all the dresses are original except for a reproduction 18th century ball gown made around 1910 for a costume party, and an outfit Ms. Schwartz wears when she tends the exhibition: an 1840s-style dress and petticoat sown for her by Geraldine Merola.
With the help of society researcher Dan Sabloski, Ms. Schwartz located a pertinent letter in the collection of the Long Island Museum at Stony Brook written by Annie Cooper Boyd’s great grandfather, Caleb Cooper, to his sons, William and Huntting, saying he was “happy to hear you have plenty of boats to build” — a reference to the whaleboat shop in the backyard, which the Sag Harbor Historical Society recently recreated —and reporting that two cousins “were nockt ovrerBord & Drownd on their Passage to New York.” He warns his sons to be “Very Carefull While on the Water & keep out of the Way of the Boom.” A facsimile and a transcript are on view in the exhibition.
Annie Cooper Boyd was an artist herself who painted charming Sag Harbor scenes and adorned the inside of the house — where she summered and lived full-time later in her adulthood until her death in 1935 — with artwork on walls and doors. Mermaids frolic on the wall above a clawfoot tub in a bathroom that she added in the 1930s.
Annie’s diary, photo albums, whaling tools, tea sets, china and a lot of artwork, including rare views of early Sag Harbor, came with the house and are on display, including a portrait of a voluptuous beauty titled “Crowning of Mercy,” a mid-19thcentury oil painting by Sag Harbor’s Hubbard Latham Fordham that Ms. Held remembers seeing in the attic “in a stack of dusty works, ripped and ignored,” she recalled.
Restored by the Century Arts Foundation, it’s on view in the current show next to a display poster researched and designed by Ms. Held with the headline, “Who Was Mercy?” and a subhead that answers the question: “She was Emily Fairchild Fordham Keese, a Sag Harbor relative” of the painter. The lively text fully explains the family connection and notes that Emily’s daughter was a best friend of the young Annie Cooper.
Another painter, one whom well-to-do whaling captains hired to paint their portraits despite his more primitive style, is featured in the other front room of the house. Orlando Hand Bears was a student of Hubbard Latham Fordham who “had trouble with foreshortening the shoulder to the arm,” Ms. Held said she’d been told. That’s why it’s believed the two girls whose portraits are displayed on the wall are attributed to him. The society obtained the portraits after a local woman bought them, unframed and rolled up, at a yard sale.
In a corner of the same room, videos can be viewed from the society’s oral history project, “Tell Me a Story,” for which natives and late-comers to Sag Harbor share their memories. Gabe Schiavoni, for example, describes his “free range childhood.” Nearby a slide show runs continuously showing what residents submitted in 2017 in response to the society’s request for digital photos documenting whatever the photographers thought would be historically interesting in another 50 years.
“We’ve packed quite a bit into this,” Barbara Schwartz said about the exhibition. There’s a lot to see and not a lot of time left to see it. The summer schedule of visiting hours from 1 to 4 p.m. on weekends at the Annie Cooper Boyd house ends in early October.