By Annette Hinkle
The history of Bridgehampton has largely been written by its farming traditions. But few people may realize that farming wasn’t the only way Bridgehampton residents historically made a living. When seasonal necessity called, they put aside their agricultural tools and turned to other means of survival — namely the waters that surrounded them.
This weekend, the Bridgehampton Historical Society (BHHS) opens “Catch of the Day – Fish and Fowl in Greater Bridgehampton” at the Archives Building on Route 27, the first in a pair of summer exhibits highlighting ways in which residents historically relied on the sea for survival. Using old photographs shown in conjunction with implements such as barrels, eel spears, harpoons, fish traps and even try pots, the exhibit focuses on both sustenance fishing through near shore whaling, haul seining and duck hunting as well as “for profit” enterprises, like the raising of shellfish and, of course, those far flung whaling voyages which are the stuff of legend.
Necessity is the mother of invention and as the historical society’s director John Eilertsen points out, farmers became fishermen organically when land resources were scarce.
“Whether it was for profit or sustenance, locals had to abide by the dictates of the season,” notes Eilertsen. “If you had a bunch of kids, only so many could live off the farm, so they had to do other things and fishing was one. When the train came this far east in the late 19th century, with it came the possibility of shipping fish and farm produce to an insatiable city. It made commercial fishing and farming more viable.”
“‘Catch of the Day’ deals a lot with this notion of sustaining oneself,” he adds. “It acknowledges the harvest and bounty of nature and keeping the skills alive from generation to generation.”
A second exhibit, on Bridgehampton whaling, opens Friday, July 13 at the BHHS Corwith House up the road from the Archives Building and is centered on local farmers who went whaling and came back again. That exhibit is anchored by the paintings of the late East Hampton artist Claus Hoie who interpreted scenes from whaling logs in his work.
While Sag Harbor was known as the rough and tumble 19th century port from which whaling vessels departed to ply the world’s oceans for years at a time (Bridgehampton resident Dick Hendrickson, who turns 100 in September, recalls his grandmother referring to it as a place of loose morals), aboard many of those ships were Bridgehampton farmers who had put down the plow and picked up the harpoon.
Just as the gold rush drove thousands west in the 1850s, a generation earlier, it was the potential of whaling which led farm boys to leave home, head up the turnpike to Sag Harbor and board ships bound for the world beyond.
“The lure of the money was part of it – the tantalizing stories local people heard about it,” says Eilertsen. “The other part was the romantic notion of traveling to other places. Sailors came back talking about beautiful women in exotic ports, and of danger — which doesn’t sound so bad when you’re here. But doing it is another thing.”
And of course, while captains and the ship owners made tidy profits on whaling voyages, ordinary cabin boys didn’t typically fare as well.
“They would come back with little financial reward,” says Eilertsen. “It’s said that people went once and quit. If you went twice you were running away, and if you went three times you were running away from the law.”
Julie Greene, archivist at the historical society and curator of “Catch of the Day” notes while some like James Huntting, made big money, that was hardly the norm.
“A lot of them came back and farmed. In the census, you’ll see them listed as ship master one year, then the next time they’re listed as ‘farmer,’” she says, adding that some of them hated the work.
“William C. Haynes went out of New Bedford on the Iris, and he was miserable and he talks about how miserable he is,” says Greene. “He writes, ‘We haven’t seen a whale, I just want to go home.’ He lamented his fate and didn’t go out again.”
While whaling as an industry peaked in the mid-19th century, in Southampton, the culling of whales inshore for sustenance (by white men) had begun 200 years earlier with the town’s founding in 1640. It was a skill learned from the Native Americans, who at times partnered with the settlers in bringing in whales and divvying up the oil, bone, blubber and other products it yielded.
“By 1644, there were a series of wards along the beach with people broken into crews and a captain,” explains Greene. “They had to sound an alarm if they saw a whale offshore. There were penalties imposed if you didn’t go to help get it onshore.”
These whaling stations, which eventually became lifeguard stations, were shacks outfitted with harpoons and whale boats. They dotted the beaches from Mecox to Sagaponack, Wainscott, Georgica and beyond.
“When they sounded the alarm everyone would go who was responsible for this section of beach and hope to harpoon the whale,” she explains. “Back on shore they set up the try works to process it. They killed everything inshore.”
Greene notes the last two whales taken from the shore of the East End were a mother and calf killed in 1907. The mother was killed in Bridgehampton and the calf was taken in Wainscott by the Osborn family. Among the photos in “Catch of the Day” are two from that event — one showing the calf just off shore, and the other the try works processing the young whale on the beach.
But there are other, less dramatic examples of fishing and hunting highlighted in the exhibit as well. Eeling through the ice, shellfish harvesting in the bays, haul-seining using nets cast from shore, and duck hunting from blinds in the marshlands — and they all represent a way of life seldom seen here anymore.
“It always amazed me, watching the baymen in East Hampton, how much they had to know,” says Eilertsen. “ How to fish, where to fish, how to process their catch. For a lot of political, social and environmental reasons, that way of life has faded for a lot of people. It’s no longer a viable way of making a livelihood.”
“We hope the public comes and learns the history of the people who interacted and sustained themselves by looking around at what’s here. We’ve lost that connection. There’s no longer the desire, need or opportunity to go out and catch the next meal.”
“Catch of the Day – Fish and Fowl in Greater Bridgehampton” opens Friday, June 15 at 5 p.m. at the BHHS Archives Building, 2539A Montauk Highway. The exhibit remains on view all summer. Call 537-1088 for details.
Top: Clamming in Mecox circa early 1900s.