“You can spend your whole life traveling around the world searching for the Garden of Eden, or you can create it in your backyard.”
-Khang Kijarro Nguyen-
If you grew up in Sag Harbor, you probably had a nickname. Almost everyone here has one. Most of us don’t know, or even wonder, where they came from, but they’re just about as important as our given names.
Jim “Beaver” Early was born and raised in Sag Harbor to a large family whose Sag Harbor history reaches back to some of the earliest gravestones in the St Andrew Catholic Church cemetery. Jim’s grandparents on his mother’s side, owned Soah farm on Noyac Road reaching from Bea’s Old Farm Stand to Stony Hill Road. “They had orchards on both sides of Noyac Road and grew apples, pears, peaches, and grapes,” said Early. “They had a farm-stand there. I remember my grandmother baking homemade molasses cookies, and she’d give us each just one. I can remember how soft and chewy they were.”
“My Dad, Jake Early, was born in the Haven’s House on Madison Street in 1929. He was one of nine boys and three girls and worked in Bohack’s Supermarket on Main Street as a butcher and then worked for 35 years as a carpenter. My mom worked at Bulova,” he remembered. “On my first day of kindergarten, my mom and my grandmother walked me to school on their way to work. I lived just around the corner. I waited until my mom left and then I walked back home. I played hooky on my very first day of school.”
There is something remarkable about Early’s memory. He remembers so much from growing up in Sag Harbor: who lived where, what store occupied each building, the people, the festivals, the fires, the storms, down to the smallest detail. “I remember when Sag Harbor was a factory town. There used to be seven gas stations on Main Street between the flagpole and the dump. Gas was about thirty cents a gallon. I remember Young’s Bike Shop on Main Street near Spitz’s Furniture and Appliance Store. I’d get my bike fixed by old Mr. Youngs. He’d say to me, ‘What did you break now? OK young man, let’s see if we can get you back together’.”
“On Sunday mornings, I would to go down to my grandparent’s house, the Rose Mansion, on Hampton Street,” said Early. “They were always on their front porch inviting people to come in and talk. Everyone was welcome. We had such a big family that my grandmother had three sittings for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. You’d have to tell her what time you’d be over. Every neighborhood had their own Deli: Korsaks, Clevlands, Secret Sams, Fields.”
Early reminisced about the ‘Old Whaler’s Festival’ of days gone by. “They would set up toll booths coming into town; one on 114, one on the Turnpike and maybe one more. You would pay to get into town, and then you would get a bumper sticker for your car to show that you had paid. There were international whaleboat races and four flagpoles near the windmill to raise the flag of the four international teams. There were skydivers and a helicopter would come and pick them up out of the water. Miniature boat races were held in the Cove, and there was a surfcasting tournament where you cast your line into an inner tube to win a prize. There was a beard growing contest, and also a Miss WLNG contest that was held in St. Andrew’s auditorium. You could tour the Coast Guard Cutters and take in rides on Long Wharf, and there was a big parade.”
As an avid NASCAR fan, Early remembers the major races that were held at the Bridgehampton racetrack. “Some of the drivers would stay at your motel (the Whalers Motel), and I’d see Richard Petty (a famous NASCAR driver) at the Paradise having breakfast before the big race,” he said.
Graduating from Pierson High School in 1974, Early went to work in carpentry with John Ward, who was eventually elected mayor. “Then I got hired by the Village of Sag Harbor and worked my way from laborer, to foreman, to Director of Public Works. I worked for the village for 35 years and 8 months. I enjoyed trying to make the village better-cleaning up the beaches, working on drainage…”
Early has also been very active in the Sag Harbor Fire Department. “I joined Montauk Hose in 1975. I held every office in the company and became assistant chief and chief from 1982-86,” he said. “I’m an ‘old-schooler’ now; there are many more young people in the department and a lot more concern about the health of the fireman when fighting fires. I like doing what I can and contributing to the community. For years I cooked the pancakes at the fire department pancake breakfasts. Even though I’ve never liked pancakes, I’ve flipped thousands of them.”
Facing his own health challenges, Early received a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis 30 years ago. “I told myself I wouldn’t let this beat me; I’m going to beat it,” he said. Little by little he worked to strengthen his leg muscles and now the doctors tell him he is in good shape. Jim spends his time making baked clams, working in the yard tending to his garden, and caring for his sister, who suffers dementia. “I have my dog Rocco,” said Early. “He’s my companion; the only thing I have now.”
When reminiscing about the changes in Sag Harbor, Early said, “It’s like the flip of a coin. First it was nothing more than a working and a fishing town. My mom used to work for your grandfather, ‘Old Joe Remkus,’ down at the fishing station shucking scallops. And now it’s pretty much a tourist town.”
We talked about destinations that are warm and sunny and wondered if that might be a nice place to settle, but Early remains committed to his hometown. “I hope to stay in Sag Harbor as long as I can. I love the area; it is so unique,” he said. “I tell people the best season is from Labor Day ‘til Christmas. You can go fishing, crabbing, scalloping-you can drive on the beach. We have the four seasons, and when you get tired of one season, the next one comes along.”
Jim and the Early family have long been part of the fabric of Sag Harbor. “I like to go to the Corner Bar to see the locals and listen to their stories,” mused Early. I would recommend if you should ever want to hear some of those stories, pull up a stool next to Jim.
Tough on the exterior, when you get close enough you see that Jim has a heart of gold. Sag Harbor is grateful for all of Jim’s years of service to our village-and we’re very fortunate that he calls Sag Harbor HOME.