Reviews of East Hampton: A History and Guide

East Hampton Star

East Hampton in 1653, you may be comforted to know, was a dangerous place to be in, and wise citizens controlled their tongues, as Goody Edwards was loath to discover.

Goody, evidently a quick-tempered woman, was sentenced by the town meeting to pay a fine of three pounds or stand for one hour with a deft stick upon her tongue for having said that her husband had brought her “to a place where there was neither gospel nor magistracy.” According to town records, when the constable came to impose her punishment she kicked him “and broke his shin.” And when her husband advised her to “take her punishment patiently,” she threatened to kill him.

The obscure incident, which occurred more than 300 years ago when the settlement was only five years old, comes to light in “East Hampton: A History and Guide,” (Medway Press, $5.95) written by Jason Epstein, vice president and senior editor of Random House and founder of the New York Review of Books, and Elizabeth Barlow.

They spent about a year on what turned out to be a handsome 240 page paperback divided into three sections: A general history of the town of East Hampton from the time of Captain Kidd, Lion Gardiner and the Whaling fleets to the present with descriptions of birds, beaches and wetlands and hundreds of other points of interest; tours of the six villages incorporating the town including Sag Harbor, Wainscott, East Hampton, The Springs, Amagansett and Montauk, and a detailed service directory that tells tourist and resident alike everything from where to eat, where to stay, how to get a beach permit and where to charter a fishing boat. Also included are a Napeague nature walk and bicycle tours from Wainscott to Montauk.

According to Elizabeth Barlow, a friendly, enthusiastic woman who is the author of The Forests and Wetlands of New York City and Frederick Law Olmsted’s New York, “East Hampton’s past remains a vital part of its present life. Nearly everything ... whether the houses, churches, streets, even the trees and beaches ... has its history.

“And though the modern town flourishes as a resort and as a fishing and agricultural center, an incalculable part of its energy comes from a continuing involvement with its origins. Many of the farmers work land tilled by their ancestors three centuries ago, and the techniques used by some of the fisherman have not changed much since Indian times,” she said.

“This place has to be unique ... I can’t think of any other area where there are so many 10th and 11th generation families. Talking to some of the oldtimers I discovered what may be the reason for this continuity.

“They were all able to shift gears so easily, to go with the times and adjust and become economically viable instead of having to move away when one way of life or industry failed. One family in The Springs, started out as farmers. Then when grain was no longer feasible they went to poultry. Then dairy. Now they’re boarding horses. But they are all still there.”

In point of fact, little has disturbed the calm or ruffled the dignity of the farms, villages and hamlets of East Hampton town in more than 300 years.”

Although with the coming of the “summer people” a century ago, several of the prosperous farming and fishing communities were transformed into celebrated resorts, there is much that was not transformed: bay beaches encircled by ocean, gently sloping dunes, steep bluffs, virgin oak and cedar woodlands, acres of fertile, rolling farmland, languid fresh-water pools and wetlands teaming with fish and fowl.

And it was a general curiosity about the area in which she lived that led Mrs. Barlow, who has maintained a second home in Wainscott since 1964, to begin delving into, the natural history of the area and its Indians.

“I had begun talking to the farmers and researching the Indians’ story which interested me. They were progressively degraded; whiskey and small pox did them in. I spent a lot of time in the East Hampton Library reading the town records in the Long Island Collection.”

At about the same time, Jason Epstein, a parttime resident of Sag Harbor, had begun pondering the question of Sag Harbor’s sudden decline as a busy and cosmopolitan whaling port around 1850, with an eye to an eventual history of the town of East Hampton.

“When we discovered what we each were up to ... we’ve been friends for years ... we decided to collaborate,” Mrs. Barlow said. “It was Jason’s idea to do it in the form of a guidebook and service directory.”

The method of working evolved into each contributing certain sections ... Mr. Epstein wrote the Sag Harbor, Montauk and Gardiner’s Island chapters, while Mrs. Barlow concentrated on the histories of East Hampton Village, Wainscott, Amagansett and The Springs.

She also wrote “A Landscape Left by Ice,” “The Birds of East Hampton,” arid “A Nature Walk at Napeague.” The first section of the book, an engrossing history of the town of East Hampton, was a collaboration.

Using ancient records of the town founded in 1648, previous histories compiled by other local historians, including the extensive writings of the late Jeanette Edwards Rattray, and interviews with older residents, the co-authors completed both an informative and historical digest.

“Aside from a sightseer’s guide, one purpose of the book was to present the history of East Hampton in so far as it can be determined from the available records. We take ourselves seriously as historians, and since we wanted to make sure that it all checked out, we had the completed manuscript read by local historians including Everett Rattray, editor of the East Hampton Star, and Charleton Kelsey, librarian at the Amagansett Free Library.”

The pair also utilized the talents of Ralph Carpentier a local painter, illustrator and sometime commercial fisherman, who did the illustrations, journalist Irene Silverman who wrote the service directory and Marvin Kuhn who drew the maps.

And rather than attempt to interest a New York publisher in their work (“We felt a major publisher would sell it in Chicago. We didn’t need that. What we needed was to distribute it widely on a local level”), Mr. Epstein and Mrs. Barlow formed their own publishing company, the Medway Press.

“We had to become businessmen,” Mrs. Barlow said wryly. “Figure out how to distribute it, order labels, etc. And there was naturally no advance and no royalties as of yet. But it’s a challenge and we hope very much to eventually do other books. This will tell the tale.”

“East Hampton: A History and Guide” is available in shops throughout the South Fork ranging from bookstores to ice cream shops and grocery stores, including White’s Pharmacy in East Hampton, Guild Hall, also in East Hampton, and Sag Harbor Antiques. Copies may also be found in Manhattan bookstores.

— Phyllis Stewart

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