Oral History Collection

HISTORIC CONTEXT

Starting around 1976, when our nation was celebrating its Bicentennial, a movement to record the voices of people who had witnessed events from the past began to take hold. Historical societies and museums across the United States started recording oral histories, and the Montauk Historical Society was no exception. Although the Society had been taping speakers and lecturers at their meetings since the Society’s inception in 1963, during the 1970s the members began to specifically seek out oral history interviewees, some of whom who had been living in the area as early as the late 19th century.

The Historical Society continued to record oral histories throughout the 1970s and 80s. In the 1990s, when an Archives was established, the Montauk Library recorded oral histories, as well, and continued until about 2004. A few have been done intermittently since then. Altogether, about 140 oral histories were completed between the Montauk Historical Society and the Montauk Library.

Montauk has a singular past, and at times, has been a significant player in the history of New York State. For many years the hamlet of Montauk, which is part of the town of East Hampton, was sparsely populated. Cattle and sheep grazing took place on its open grasslands, but native peoples were its only residents. French Canadians and Scandinavians fished in the area seasonally, but it was not easily accessed by land, visitors were few, and mostly, it was wealthy sportsmen who came to hunt or fish. Starting in 1898, with the arrival of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders after the Spanish-American War, there was a military presence for training and later for defense in World Wars I and II. When Roosevelt arrived, a small fishing village of French Canadians and Scandinavians had started to grow on the north side of Montauk, on Fort Pond Bay.

The arrival of Carl Fisher, in 1926, threatened to turn the sleepy fishing village into an ocean resort. One of the key entrepreneurs to transform the swamps of Miami into a playground for the well to do, Fisher saw the same potential in Montauk. He blasted roads out of cattle-grazing areas, enhanced train service from New York City, built a luxury hotel, bathing club, golf course, housing developments, and a high-rise. Residential construction started to alter Montauk’s landscape and lifestyle, but stopped with the Stock Market crash. The boom ended abruptly and Fisher went bankrupt.

Fisher’s concept of a Montauk resort regained a foothold after World War II, during the post-war boom. In the 1950s and 1960s hotels and motels were built near the Atlantic dunes where tourists enjoyed bathing, swimming, and recreational sports. Montauk waters set records for the size and weight of swordfish, tuna, marlin, and other fish that were caught here. The Golden Age of Sportfishing had begun. The promise of Montauk as a resort was realized, and the Village has flourished ever since.

SCOPE OF CONTENT
There are four subject areas of concentration found in these oral histories:

Carl Fisher: Many of Montauk’s current residents are descendants of the workers who moved north from Miami to help Carl Fisher develop Montauk. The oral history interviewees describe the dynamic energy of this man while he was in his prime. They also describe the terrible affects of the Depression on those workers who no longer had employment, and how the townspeople pulled together to survive this terrible economic crisis. Reminiscences of rum-running surface periodically.

The Fishing Industry. Fishing is vital to understanding the history of Montauk. Early oral histories include descriptions of trap-fishing and the menhaden processing plant at nearby Promised Land. Several Duryea interviews detail the growth of the lobster business. Interviews with multiple fishermen provide detailed information about the commercial and sport fishing industries in Montauk.

Hurricane of 1938: The greatest single shared experience among those who gave oral histories is this “once-in-a-century” hurricane, when Montauk was cut off from the rest of the mainland. Fort Pond Bay Village, which is where most Montauk residents lived, disappeared under a tidal surge that left only chimneys in view. A reunion of survivors at the Montauk Manor in 1988 was also recorded.

World War II: The war had a very real presence in Montauk. The Navy literally removed the fishing village that fronted Montauk’s Fort Pond Bay because its deep reaches made it possible to test torpedoes before shipping them overseas for the war in the Pacific. This forced abandonment of people’s homes is described in the oral histories. Yet, at the same time, Montaukers embraced the war effort. The women of the village were active in the American Women’s Volunteer Service, establishing an ambulance service and running blood drives to help our soldiers overseas.

Researchers, Montauk family members, genealogists, and generalists will find a rich resource in this audio material.

1983

1995

  • Fred “Gus” Pitts
  • Clara Palma
  • Vinnie Grimes
  • Margot MacDonald Bachman
  • Elizabeth Job
  • Emma Webb
  • Emma Webb, Richard Webb, Ellen Johns
  • Stanley Miller, Hazel Miller McGuirk
  • Ed Pospisil
  • Frank Tuma
  • Mary Smith Fullerton
  • Edna Biase
  • Eugene Beckwith
  • Lena Greenwald, Mary Stannard
  • Perry B. Duryea, Jr.

2002-2005

Oral History Interviews conducted by Peg Winski

Interviews conducted by the Montauk Historical Society, 1968-1977

  • Mrs. Hilda Tuma, daughter Vivian & her husband Carl Darenberg 10/25/1976
  • Jeannette Edwards Rattray 9/21/1968
  • Leonard Mcdonald 11/13/1976 (Bay trap fishing)
  • Edgar Grimes 11/6/1976
  • Edna Steck 4/11/1978
  • Harry A. Bruno 8/13/1973
  • Eugene Beckwith Sr. 1969
  • Vivian Darenberg 12/7/1977