Modest Markers Tell The Story Of One Man’s Effort To Beautify Sag Harbor With Trees

A homemade historical marker explains the origins of two large American beech trees on Suffolk Street in Sag Harbor. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Dominic LaPierre first noticed the two half-typed, half-handwritten notes, sealed in Ziplock bags and pinned to two American beech trees, when he walked his dogs down Suffolk Street to Round Pond in Sag Harbor about a month ago. The trees stand on the east side of the street, on the edge of a wooded lot and across from a simple two-story frame house.

Mr. LaPierre, who has French-Canadian roots, paused to read them and was intrigued by the French name, Joseph L’Ecuyer, above a 19th century photograph of a bespectacled, stern-looking, bald man with a thick beard.

“Joseph L’Ecuyer (LaGuire) planted the two large American beech trees — circa 1855 —to make shade for sidewalks,” the notice reads in black marker.

Below Mr. L’Ecuyer’s photograph, his full name is typewritten and the reader informed that he was the son of Jean Baptiste L’Ecuyer and Frances Bell, and he was born on June 28, 1817, and died on February 13, 1894.

Additional handwriting below notes that he was the grandfather of Amy LaGuire Ingersoll, the great-grandfather of Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski, and the great-great-grandfather of Joseph Zaykowski Jr.

“At first, I thought it was a kid’s school project,” Mr. LaPierre said, “but then I looked at the handwriting and it looked like an adult’s.”

Scott Forsch, who lives just south of Oakland Cemetery and a stone’s throw north of the trees, said he had no idea where the signs came from. “I thought it was a missing person poster or maybe a school project,” he said.

Bob Weinstein, who lives a couple blocks north, said he noticed the signs on the trees a few weeks ago on one of his daily walks around the village.

“One of the saving graces for me during the pandemic has been my daily walks through the village,” he wrote in an email. “I always stop and take photos of things that catch my eye, whether it’s the shadow of a picket fence creating a graphic pattern or an architectural detail on a house that reminds me of the important history of our village. But to have markers on living trees tying them to the history of those that planted them over a hundred years ago brings our history literally to life.”

The cold case — it being winter after all — was turned over to Catherine Creedon, the director of the John Jermain Memorial Library, who assigned archivist Rebecca Grabie to it. Using Mr. L’Ecuyer’s anglicized name, LaGuire, she found an advertisement he had placed in The Sag Harbor Express on October 18, 1876, advertising his new boot and shoe store on Washington Street. “All work entrusted to him guaranteed to give satisfaction,” the ad said.

But it turns out it didn’t require a lot of shoe leather to find the answer to the riddle. It was in plain sight, at the bottom of the list of names on the signs. A call to Joseph Zaykowski Jr., a retired Bridgehampton School shop teacher who lives in North Haven, revealed that it was he who placed them there.

Mr. Zaykowski, who had been doing some work on a small cabin behind the family-owned house across the street from the trees, said he noticed that the trees, which have hollowed out trunks, were starting to show their age, and he said he expected the village might soon have to cut them down.

He said he knew his great-great-grandfather, who was born in Quebec, had planted the trees because his grandmother used to talk about how her grandfather had planted them.

“There are a lot of people who walk along Suffolk Street,” he said, “and I wanted to share a little history about how those trees came about, so maybe they would appreciate why they are there.”

Sharing history is a family trait. Mr. Zaykowski’s mother, Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski, is the author of the well-regarded local history, “Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty.”

The trees, which are native to the East End, took well to their surroundings, and have seeded a small grove of descendants.

“They are the perfect tree to carve initials in because the bark is so smooth,” Mr. Zaykowski said. “I still recognize some of the initials.”

Mr. Zaykowski said his great-great-grandfather, who came to Sag Harbor in the early 1850s, had worked for the Black Ball Steamship Company as a crew member on ships that crossed the Atlantic before he took up a new career as a shoemaker when he moved to the village.

The family owned a parcel of land that stretched from Madison Street to Suffolk Street, and Mr. Zaykowski said that his great-great-grandfather moved a small saltbox house at the corner of Madison and Harrison streets to Suffolk Street, planting the trees soon after, assuming — wrongly it turns out — that someday the street would be lined with sidewalks. The old saltbox house was eventually torn down, but some of its remnants, including broad wood planking, were repurposed for use in the cabin Mr. Zaykowski has been working on.

In the meantime, Mr. Zaykowski’s impromptu history lesson has won him some admirers.

“I love that we are surrounded by living history and that we are a community that still has people that not only appreciated this, but take the time to share their knowledge with others,” Mr. Weinstein said.