From 1850 to 1995

or How We got This Way

by Robert Keene

From the settlement of Southampton in 1640 until 1850, or 210 years, Southampton hardly changed at all. The population grew but very slowly, very few immigrants came, and the daily-life pattern remained almost static; people lived and people died, and their descendants carried on in almost the same way as their ancestors did.

But in 1850, give or take a year or two, something happened that began to change Southampton, slowly, but definitely. The Long Island Railroad was extended to Greenport in 1844, and it was the beginning of change for the East End, and within a few years several men from New York City began to come to the East End, via that train to Greenport. In the course of only a few years, doctors, lawyers, bankers, and so on, began to arrive in such places as Sag harbor, Bridgehampton, and East Hampton and Southampton. At first these men fished, hunted and hiked, and simply enjoyed the almost unbelievable natural beauty of the East End. In East Hampton, in particular, several distinguished artists began to visit; artists such as Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, and Edward Moran, along with others of the Hudson River School.

After a few visits to the Bridgehampton-East Hampton area, a very well known New York physician, Gaillard Thomas, discovered what became Southampton Village, more or less. he had already discovered the magnificent natural beauty of the entire eastern part of Long Island, and now he had found the seven miles of wonderful beach bordering Southampton on he south, plus he had discovered that Southampton had changed very, very little in over two centuries.

There were no places to accommodate visitors, but a few of the local families, mostly on South Main Street, began to take in roomers and boarders. These visits by that group of men continued through the 1850's, until the Civil War, and continued in the late 1860's. Then, on April 17, 1870, the Long Island Railroad line to Bridgehampton began to operate on a daily basis. So, with the advent of the railroad service, plus the publicity given the area by that group of men, led by Dr. Thomas, hundreds of people, both men and women began to come to Southampton.

Those first homes that had taken in boarders, one by one, became full time boarding houses, and many others were built. So, by the 1890's there were accommodations all along the East End, from Westhampton to Montauk, and the "first" tourist boom had begun.

In 1879, Doctor Thomas built the first summer cottage. It was located just east of today's Bathing Corporation, or Beach Club, and it was built right up on the dunes. It was, as all subsequent summer cottages were called, a cottage. Shortly after that several other cottages were built, mostly along First Neck Lane and the area around Dune Church, which was also built in 1879. By that time it has been estimated that some 200 people were regular visitors during the summer months, and most of them built or bought cottages.

By 1887, the Meadow Club was built, and it became the first club in Southampton. By 1890 more and more cottages were being built, mostly within the area from Lake Agawam to Captains Neck Lane, which, today is know as The Estate Area.

Those cottage people were also known as Rusticators, a name used for those who went to places like Bar Harbor, Newport and the Berkshires to rusticate, which means "to go into, or reside in the country." A word that is no longer used, as cottage is no longer used, although it was still used up until 1975 and each week in The Southampton Press the Cottage Colony was listed.

These first cottages were basic, smaller houses, often rebuilt from farm houses and other local buildings. But by 1890, or after about 10 years, many of those cottage people wanted more comfortable and more luxurious summer homes. It was at that time, one by one, the cottages were added to, guest quarters were added, and in many cases gardens, lawns and greenhouses were added. It was at that time that McKim, Mead and White built 10 buildings in Southampton and Shinnecock Hills.

From the early nineties on the Cottage Colony gradually became what we now know as The Summer Colony, and they were beginning to call them Summer People. The first servants to come with those early cottage people were, for the most part, Irish girls. Apparently, with the exception of a French Butler here and there, those Irish girls made up the entire servant population, and almost from the first, they began to realize that there was no place for them to say Mass, there not being a Catholic Church in the area. The pressure put on those Irish servants was responsible for the first Roman Catholic Church to be built in Southampton. Consequently several distinguished Irish politicians were instrumental in raising the funds and building the first Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary church.

It was during the years from 1900 to 1913 that the expression "The Golden Years" became popular. That was, of course, The Golden Years for the Summer Colony.Those earlier cottages had been replaced with large estates and luxurious grounds, and the second generation came into maturity, and the Summer Colony began to take a very active part in the community. The Library had been built, and the Parrish Art Museum came into being. The streets were being paved, and New York stores began to open branches in Southampton. The Village Improvement Association that had begun in the early 1880's had been instrumental in making Southampton the classy place that it had become.

The Fresh Air Home for Crippled Children was underway before 1900, the Meadow Club had been built, and the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club had opened, the Southampton Club opened in 1889, and the National Golf Club was built in 1912. Then, in 1913 something happened that put a damper on the growth of Southampton. The first federal income tax law was passed, and was to take effect the following year, 1914. That was followed by the beginning of World War One, and the combination of those two events held Southampton back until the end of that war, in 1918.

When the First World War was over two things happened that more or less set the stage for was to become known as The Roaring Twenties. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, and the 19th Amendment became law. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, and the 19th Amendment became law. The 18th Amendment was to be know as Prohibition, and the 19th was the one that gave women the right to vote. These pieces of landmark legislation probably had more to do with The Roaring Twenties than anything else, including a great surge of prosperity.

The 19th Amendment gave women more that just the right to vote. It created and atmosphere of freedom for women that manifested itself in many ways. They began to smoke cigarettes in public, which had been rarely done before that time; and they began to wear dresses that reached above the knee for the first time, and to wear lipstick, and to cut their hair short, in what was called " the boyish bob." All that, along with the popularity of foreign sports cars and the touring car, and the rumble seat, in addition to the advent of the Speakeasy, created and atmosphere that was revolutionary indeed, especially for women.

Women also began to frequent the newly popular drinking places the Speakeasy, and it has been said that as soon as they entered a speakeasy, they checked their girdles with their hats, and proceeded to enjoy the most popular cocktail of the time, know as Between the Sheets, which by the way, is still listed in the bartender's guide.

The Crash of 1929 did not affect places like Southampton immediately, as it did the larger metropolitan areas and places of industry. Possibly because the way of life in big resorts was more relaxed, less serious, and the Summer Colony was, in general, under less pressure. A few of the large estates were torn down or changed hands but for the most part the Summer Colony stayed pretty much as it had been.

The Thirties, with the Great Depression, found Southampton pretty much unchanged, but more subdued, less affluent, and a far cry from the Roaring Twenties from which it had just emerged. When World War Two began, the Depression was at its worst, with the largest number of unemployed in history. Eastern Long Island by the time of the beginning of World War Two had almost completely recovered from the Hurricane of 1938, which pretty much devastated much of the Summer Colony area, due to the great number of men who were available to work. When the War was over the beginning of the biggest social change in Southampton in 300 hundred years began to take place.

For the first time after a war, the returning soldiers and sailors did not automatically go back to the farm, or their father's business, or just pick up where they had left off. After the Second World War, which included many women, the world was a different place. Service men and women had been all over the world, seen many foreign countries, and been to places such as Chicago, California, Texas, etc. They had become much more cosmopolitan, in a sense, than returning service men in the past.

So with the war over, the service men and women realized that the world was a far different place than before the war started in 1939, and consequently 1950 was the beginning of more changes in Southampton than it had experienced in the 300 years since 1640, when Southampton was settled. A group known as the Southampton Business Men's Association was formed in 1950. Today it is know s The Southampton Chamber of Commerce. Its first office was located in my bookshop in the Old Pelletreau Shop on Main Street. Almost immediately the group began to promote and advertise for tourists, especially in the New York Times.

It was in the early fifties that the first motels were built, in Shinnecock Hills, in the Village, and in outlying places such as Bridgehampton. By the end of the fifties developers were beginning to get interested in Southampton, and bankers, and real estate brokers, and attorneys, began to appear in Southampton, and by the early sixties the condominium concept began to appear. By the end of the sixties Southampton had already become a very different place that in had been at the end of World War Two.

The growth continued into the seventies and the eighties, and began to slow down somewhat by the beginning of the nineties. As for the Summer Colony, that too, began to change, although the second and third generations of the original summer families, although in decreasing numbers, had come of age as those original Summer Colony were still a major factor in the Clubs. New people, often total strangers, began to appear on the scene. They bought estates as they became available, and some of them built new houses. Slowly, but steadily, those new people became a part of the Summer Colony. Others continued to arrive, did not like it, or did not fit in with what was already here, and moved on.

By the eighties those officials of the Village of Southampton had new ideas, different concepts of what a great summer resort was or ought to be, and they began to revise, after a hundred years, a sort of Camelot atmosphere, as they called it.

A Culture Center was created, concerts were held in Agawam Park on a weekly basis, and a restaurant was set up at Cooper's Beach. A huge castle-like estate was built on Meadow Lane, on the dunes, and a serious controversy resulted from those who believed it not appropriate for Southampton. In the nineties the tax-rate in the Village increased, budgets were greatly expanded, and Southampton became host to still another phenomenon, the Day Tripper.

Now, every day, this new group of visitors descend on Southampton Village. At first, only causal, they often brought their lunches with them, but gradually they became more and more like real tourists, shopping, eating in local restaurants, and except for one distinguishing characteristic they blended into the Southampton scene...they left around six PM. The Day Tripper, it was discovered, was strictly a daytime visitor from other communities on Long Island.

The Summer Colony, although now very different than it was a century ago, is still a great asset to Southampton, and along with he original five clubs, and a number of descendants of those who created it in the 1880's, has held up better than any other summer resort in America. It still has a certain amount of style and class, although changed much over the years. It is now some 115 years since that first summer cottage was built by Dr. Gaillard Thomas, and still is the most desirable place to live by the most sophisticated and successful people in America.