Jim Marquardt wasn’t always a history buff. His professional life was spent heading up an advertising agency in Stamford, Connecticut.
But then, he retired.
“We wanted something more rural away from the hectic life,” Marquardt said, referring to he and his wife, Ann’s, decision to leave the Nutmeg State. Among the places they considered were the Delmarva Peninsula in coastal Delaware, as well as locations in Maine.
Then, in the mid-1990s, the couple, who are both Long Island natives, took a drive out to the East End.
“We were out exploring one day with no preset notion and came upon Sag Harbor,” Marquardt recalled. “Once you come upon the Main Street, you immediately have a good feeling.”
That good feeling quickly turned into their next move. They bought a house on a bluff overlooking Little Peconic Bay just outside Sag Harbor where they lived for 15 years before downsizing to a condominium in the village a few years back.
Retired with time on his hands and a gem of a village at his feet, Marquardt’s interest turned to local history. That interest deepened a decade ago when Bryan Boyhan, then-publisher of the Sag Harbor Express, asked Marquardt if he would be interested in writing a regular column for the paper based on village history.
Marquardt agreed, titled his column “Looking Back” and set out to discover what he could about Sag Harbor’s long and fabled past. From its cemeteries and the waterfront, to cultural institutions like the library, museums, and houses of worship, he educated himself and his readers about the events and people that came before.
“I’ve always been enamored of marine and nautical subjects, so when Bryan asked me to write for the paper, I was delighted that whaling was part of it,” said Marquardt, an avid sailor. “I always had sailboats. That was really a way into it. I branched out from there to cover many subjects.”
Now, a collection of Marquardt’s columns have been compiled in book form. “True Stories of Old Sag Harbor: Whaling Adventures, Indians and Colonists, Wars, Shipwrecks, Writers and Artists” takes readers on a trip through the history of Sag Harbor and the surrounding area. The seafarers are well represented here, naturally, but so are the Native Americans and the earliest European settlers. The book also documents the various economic engines that drove Sag Harbor over the years (including its bootleggers) and offers insight into the lives of those who still make their living from the sea.
On Thursday, August 29 at 6 p.m., Marquardt will kick-off Labor Day weekend with a reading from his book at one of Sag Harbor’s most venerable literary institutions, Canio’s Books.
As a newcomer to the area, Marquardt readily admits that the act of writing his column introduced him to a great many of Sag Harbor’s people, events and places. He counts among his most intriguing discoveries 19th century whale man Thomas Welcome Roys who invented the rocket powered harpoon, yet died penniless in Mexico. He said it was also through research for his column that he first became aware of the existence of Eastville, Sag Harbor’s traditionally African American neighborhoods which were recently designated as a state historic district known as SANS, encompassing Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah.
“I was also intrigued by the aspect that Sag Harbor went from being one of the most important ports on the East Coast, even more so than New York City, and after whaling died in the second half of the 19th century, fell into this rut and became very blue collar,” said Marquardt who feels that anyone with a connection to Sag Harbor would do well to learn and understand this history.
“People had to try everything in order to survive. I think that has a lot to do with the guts of Sag Harbor,” he added. “I find it very alarming how people are coming into the village and not aware of the history.”
Marquardt credits James Monaco of Harbor Electronic Publishing for his help in organizing and producing the book, which contains 70 essays and is divided into six sections covering the various aspects of historical Sag Harbor.
When asked how he selects topics for his columns, explains that sometimes, it might be based on the approaching anniversary of an important event or a, holiday such as Veterans Day.
“I’ll deliberately seek something suitable for that day,” Marquardt said. “Usually, I go into all the reference libraries in the area, browse shelves or back issues of magazines until something strikes me as interesting.
Though Marquardt strives to write primarily about Sag Harbor, he has found the need to expand the focus and has broadened the column’s focus to include the whole East End.
“The Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton has the Long Island room down below. it’s full of history, including Sag Harbor and all the East End,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll go there and rummage through the books on the shelves, the magazines and monographs.”
And with the publication of his own book of history, it’s very likely “True Stories of Old Sag Harbor” will soon have a place alongside the very tomes he used in his research while writing the book. He also feels that in addition to sharing the stories in newsprint and online, preserving his columns in book form is an important way to preserve the history itself as well.
“It’s sad that good newspaper writing is used to wrap fish in the next day. Something you found good angles on is gone,” he said. “I put a lot of effort into all these stories, and I just thought they should be saved somehow, not only for my children, but for people coming to Sag Harbor for the first time.”
Jim Marquardt presents “True Stories of Old Sag Harbor” on Thursday, August 29 at 6 p.m. at Canio’s Books, 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor. For details call (631) 725-4926.