Those Were the Days
Tucker Burns Roth
Arcadia Publishing, $21.99
“Today, People’s United Bank is on the property.” Rarely have so few words said so much, so thuddingly and so prosaically, about what’s wrong with the towns and villages of America. Never mind the affront of the faux populist name on a commercial enterprise happy to make use of your money for no interest in return. How many banks does one village need?
Sag Harbor has four, in a short dogleg from Main to Bay Streets, to say nothing of one branch’s second, superfluous drive-up booth barely more than a coin toss away. And then there’s that odd barn-sided former drive-thru back behind the municipal parking lot, which, in keeping with the village’s true history and favorite pastime, perhaps should be turned into a window-service package store, as the New Englanders call them. Grab your hooch and go, carton of cigs on the side.
But those days are gone, as is much else, you’ll notice, if you happen to peruse Tucker Burns Roth’s new entry in Arcadia’s Images of America series. Titled simply “Sag Harbor,” it amounts to roughly 120 pages of historical photographs and explanatory captions.
The history of the village is nearly a history of fires, given their devastating regularity. That was the fate of the People’s United lot, where, Ms. Roth tells us, the 1847 Nassau Hotel went up in flames 30 years after it was built, replaced by a brick Hotel Bay View and Tea Room, pictured in the book, its handsome facade also lost to the ravages of time.
Peering through the smoke and ash, though, unexpected edifices come into view, like an ornate three-story, mansard-roofed exhibition building at the Main Street and Jermain Avenue entrance to a half-mile driving-track and fairgrounds. Starting on the Fourth of July in 1879, it drew the curious by steamboat and train to see harness and carriage team races, Ms. Roth writes. “A Great Bicycle Tournament was attended by 1,000 spectators,” she adds. And then, of course, a small inferno claimed the grand exhibition hall, 11 years after its opening.
(Luckily, Mrs. Russell Sage, the colossus of Sag Harbor philanthropy, was around to turn the place into sprawling Mashashimuet Park.)
A book like this, entirely of photos and captions, can still be put together with a narrative thread. Ms. Roth has opted instead for chapters grouped by subject, which may well have been the only sane way of getting a grip on the Harbor’s deep past. “Early Days and Whaling Era” leads it off, which is unsurprising. So why bring it up? Only for this note on the text: The very first image, for one example, shows a 19th-century tollhouse, but below it two distinct tollhouses are mentioned, one on the turnpike between East Hampton and Sag, the other on the turnpike between Bridgehampton and Sag. Even if you think you know the latter is the one shown, a simple “above” would’ve eliminated any doubt.
These Images of America volumes tend to look self-published, but they’re not, and somewhere in some South Carolina strip mall there’s supposed to be the “controlling authority” of an editor, to borrow Al Gore’s phrase, for clarity’s sake. Thus endeth the nitpick.
Now you’ll have to forgive me as I skip over the usual hit parade — Captains Row, the cinema, the American Hotel, the writers of renown, the Old Whalers Church, Bulova — and head straight for munitions. How the heart sings to read of the E.W. Bliss torpedo factory and its pummeling of Long Beach as a testing site. It’s a welcome reminder of what’s most interesting about Sag Harbor — its urban nature, once an all-American manufacturing hub. War materiel? And later Grumman? Sounds like another, significantly more faded American beauty: Riverhead.
It turns out nostalgia isn’t weak, lily-livered, and mopey, new studies say, but rather grounding, positive, and emotionally fortifying, a helpful connection to better days, maybe a better you. In that spirit, invoking a ghost of an establishment not all that long departed, yes, there is a gloriously deep shot of the late lamented Paradise Diner, seen here in the 1950s, with its upholstered booths and contented folks sipping coffee on those spinning stools at the counter.
You can almost smell the pancakes.
Tucker Burns Roth is a member of the board of the Sag Harbor Historical Society. She will talk about her book at the society’s Annie Cooper Boyd House on June 9 at 2 p.m.