Recollections of a Bridgehampton Childhood in the 1940s and ‘50s

By Tom Sayre


When I was about 5 or 6 years old (1942/1943), Bridgehampton was primarily a farming community of about 1200 residents, with an influx of city folk during the summer.
My first recollection was about WWII; it was a very exciting period. I remember we had blackouts. When the fire house siren sounded all lights both public and private had to be extinguished. The top half of all car headlights had to be painted black, so the headlight glare would go downward and not be readily seen by enemy aircraft. People were also concerned about enemy submarines off the Long Island coast where supposedly some of the crew disembarked and infiltrated the general populace. After the war, the fire house siren sounded at 12 o'clock to notify the town's folk that it was noon. Hopefully, there wasn't a real fire at exactly 12 noon, because the volunteer firemen may not realize there was a fire and not go to the scene in a timely manner.

Another quirk of the war was that most meats and other commodities were earmarked for our troops abroad. This resulted in a rationing program here at home. Families were issued rationing coupons, so they were allowed only small amounts of scarce items such as sugar, butter and most meats. Many of the farmers and other residents raised their own pigs and steers to compensate for the shortages. I believe there was some black marketeering of food and meat during that period.
Potato farming was the primary industry in Bridgehampton, a far cry from today. Always wanting to help, as young farm boys did, my first experience was to steer the potato truck in the fields while my dad and brother loaded the burlap bags of potatoes. I could barely see over the windshield of the truck. That only lasted a few years. Then when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I was indoctrinated in the fine art of plowing, planting, and harvesting. During planting season, we plowed the fields and planted from dawn until dusk. The farm boys worked before and after school loading fertilizer, cutting seed potatoes and other related tasks.
Also, during harvest season, we dug potatoes before school each morning. Migrant laborers would pick the potatoes and put them in bushel bags. Then after school we loaded the potatoes on the flat bed truck, transported them to the local grading house for immediate sale, or to the potato cellar to store the spuds for winter sale (hopefully at a better price than at harvest time).
After the potato season ended and the weather got colder, my dad's slaughtering season began. We would slaughter and dress from 3 to 5 pigs each morning before I went to school. Then he would cut the pigs into hams, bacon, chops, etc. for the owners. Lastly he would cure the various cuts and smoke them from an apple wood fire in the smoke house. Usually on Saturdays we would slaughter steers for local farmers. Also, the owners of the Montauk ranch would bring several steers each month to our Butter Lane facility for slaughtering. After seasoning the beef for about two weeks, Dad would cut and package the beef for freezing.
Part of our farm land was on Long Pond (now Sayre Park). In the old days, this was where my father and grandfather harvested ice in the winter for keeping meat cool during the summer. The ice was stored in ice houses, which had very deep cellars to keep the ice frozen throughout the summer. They also provided ice for ice boxes (before refrigerators), which many people still had even in the 40s and early 50s. Also, when Long Pond was frozen, a bunch of the local kids would skate there. We younger kids were always relegated to the end of the skating snake and the older kids (including my older brother Dick) would whip us around and snap us off of the snake's tail. We also played hockey on Poxabogue, which usually stayed frozen sufficiently, to play hockey or to skate, most winters. As I recall, Bryan Hamlin was the premier hockey player and the hockey teacher of the community.
We also had a lot of snow in those days. Sledding down a steep hill in my grandfather's potato field and pasture behind his house was great fun. There were some hazards though. The sledding required us to stay very low on the sled so that we could fit under the barbed wire fence separating the potato field from the pasture. One day Leonard Alder looked up too soon and hit the lower strand of barbed wire. He broke his glasses and had a cut large enough to require medical attention. Of course, the accident didn't deter anyone else from continuing on with the fun.
Bridgehampton was always a very sports minded community. It started with younger kids playing sand lot ball (predecessor to little league), Babe Ruth league, intramural sports, junior and senior high school varsity and town team ball (baseball and basketball) after high school. In my era, we had some great ball players, Ricky and Billy Depetris and Carl Yastrzemski. Carl went on to have a phenomenal baseball career with the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately, most of us were mediocre players at best, but we sure had a lot of fun. Carl's father managed our Babe Ruth team. He was a great ball player in his own right.
We had two town teams at that time, the White Eagles managed by Carl Sr. and the Blue Sox managed by my dad Warren. Most of the White Eagles were excellent players, and the Blue Sox were pretty decent players as well. There were several teams from surrounding communities, making up a league of town teams. I think the White Eagles were the superior team of the league.
I remember when we would play baseball in my grandfather's pasture. We used available chips for the bases. Or course, the chips had to be well seasoned or they would be too slippery (if you get my drift). The games ended early in the afternoons because our cows had to be milked by 5 o'clock P.M.
Bridgehampton high school (BHS) students played varsity soccer, along with basketball and didn't start a football program until 1949 or the early 1950s. Then BHS started a six man football program, because we didn't have enough players to have a regular program. Just the same, football was football and we had a lot of fun playing.
We started school in the first grade in the same building BHS is housed today. Kindergarten was not offered at that time. My brother, sister and I walked or rode bikes to school (about one mile from our house on Butter Lane) every day. Our Mom would drive us to school during inclement weather. Bus service was not offered back then. There was only one teacher per grade level and no assistants. In a small-town school like BHS, most students knew each other and many were friends.
We had many activities, in addition to organized activities such as boy scouts and sports. These activities kept us occupied in our spare time. Camp's pond was a great place to go. It was a spring fed pond located deep in the woods between Bridgehampton and Noyac, not far from my cousin, Sayre Baldwin's farm (now Atlantic Golf Club). Sayre's son Bruce, Joe Kuch, Tom Edwards, Ed Hildreth and I even bivouacked overnight there occasionally. Unfortunately, Bruce succumbed to spinal meningitis in 1950 and passed away at the age of 13.
Bruce and I were only a month apart, and I think about him often. We pretty much grew up together. We were in the same class, went to the same church and did most other things together. We both drove at that time, illegally, but most farm boys learned to drive farm tractors and trucks at an early age, so the transition to cars and pick ups wasn't that unique. I had my first car at 13, a 1938 Chevrolet, which was a hand-me-down from my brother. We even drove to school, long before we got our licenses. John Penny was the state trooper in that area. He would tell our fathers that if we were going to drive they had better keep us off the main roads. He knew it was fruitless to try stopping us from driving.
We were confirmed as members of the Methodist church in 1950. Mr. Leese from England was the pastor then, and his wife taught piano lessons. I only took two or three lessons, no talent whatsoever. We sang together in the junior choir, again, I had no singing talent.
As the boys in my age group got a little older, the activities changed. We were more interested in muskrat trapping, fishing, pheasant and duck hunting, and earning spending money. After all, young guys needed money for dating, hanging out at the Candy Kitchen and other kid's necessities.
We also liked to drive on the beach. Since four wheel drive vehicles were few and far between, old cars were modified and were called beach buggies. A couple friends and I bought an old Plymouth that had already been modified by shortening the drive shaft. Since the chassis and body was shortened as well, the back seat had been eliminated. The gang had great fun running up and down the dunes.
All-in-all, growing up in Bridgehampton was a great experience for a youngster. My wife Nancy, a Southampton native, and I have many ties in Bridgehampton. Nancy has a sister in Sagaponack, Mary Hildreth, and two sisters in Southampton, Bernice Holden and Dottie Tenant. I have a nephew in Sag Harbor, Gary Debes, and several cousins in Bridgehampton: Ray Topping, Mary Ann Gabrielle, Paul Brennan and Ruth Foley. We usually visit two or three times a year, and we look forward to each and every visit.

 

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