Blue Blood: The Story of the Founding of the Southampton Summer Colony

In September of 1863, a young Manhattan physician of means by the name of Theodore Gaillard Thomas went by horse and wagon out to visit the farms and rural villages of Long Island with his wife.

The trip lasted many days. The couple spent their first two nights in Babylon staying at a rooming house, then pressed on to Quogue, Southampton, East Hampton and Montauk, finally spending a night out at the lighthouse with the keeper and his family there.

During this sojourn, Thomas fell in love with the simple though bucolic communities of eastern Long Island and, after returning to Manhattan, vowed that sometime in the future he would return with some friends with the intention of establishing a summer colony there. He had become charmed by the farmland that went down to the ocean, the single Main Streets with the Presbyterian Church, the blacksmith shops, feed stores and dry goods stores that marked what were essentially old New England Communities. He did take note of a small summer colony of well-to-do Brooklyn fishermen in Quogue when he spent the night there, but there was nothing further east.

Thirteen years later, in 1876, Dr. Thomas and his family returned to Southampton, just six years after the Long Island Railroad service had built tracks out to that town (and to Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor). Still finding it as peaceful and unaffected as it had been all those years before, he decided he would buy some property and build a mansion for his family down near the ocean. Also, as he was quite connected with the social set in Manhattan, he thought to invite as many friends as possible to come visit him and, if they wanted to, also build homes there.

Dr. Thomas is considered to have been the founder of the Southampton Summer Colony as we know it today. Within four years, he had persuaded many others to build there. By 1882, there were 30 summer owners (a dozen “cottages”) where five years earlier there had been none. Two years later, Dr. Thomas and others in that group met in a Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan to found what was then called the Southampton Village Improvement Association to “beautify the principal streets” and “see to the removal of nuisances” so as to make Southampton even more attractive to possible future summer residents. They planted 190 lovely shade trees. They induced a dry goods merchant to clean up his yard. They were willing to spend up to $25 to get a man who ran an unsightly blacksmith shop to move it to a side street. And they made it a goal to have the community pick up after itself. “It is earnestly hoped,” they wrote in the minutes of one of their meetings, “that especial care will be taken to keep rubbish, paper, straw, old cans and all kinds of litter out of the road.” As you might have imagined, they soon came into conflict with the local residents of the community—there were about 500 of them, who were enjoying the town as their ancestors had for 200 years before—farming the land, fishing the waters and otherwise engaging successfully in rural activities.

Sparks flew. Nevertheless, within the next 15 years, Dr. Thomas and the others saw to the creation of just about all the major downtown Southampton institutions we have today, including the St. Andrews Dune Church, the Shinnecock Golf Club, the Meadow Club, the Southampton Beach Club, The Parrish Art Museum and much else. They built their mansions not only down on the ocean but on all sides of Village Pond, which they renamed Lake Agawam, letting it be known that this was their “private property,” their summer centerpiece, which they would take care of and attend to without interference. “Not a weed or leaf that floats on its surface escapes our notice” the president of the Association, Salon Wales, told the membership at one meeting. “We should watch it as we would a precious jewel.”

At the time of all this, at least early on, they could do all this because there was not yet a municipality called Southampton Village. Downtown Southampton was simply part of the larger municipality of Southampton Town, which extended from Sagaponack to Westhampton. The Town had only a small interest in the doings in downtown Southampton. And so at least until 1894, when the village was finally formed, there was no formal structure among the locals to defend their way of life.

Nevertheless, within a year of the formation of the Southampton Village Improvement Association, a legal battle took place, ending in a sensational trial which pitted the locals against the summer people over the ownership of the beachfront in that community, and whether the summer people even owned the land upon which many of their houses were built. It rocked the community. And it formed the basis of who owns what and who can do what today on a three-mile stretch of beach from Old Town Road to Ox Pasture Road along the ocean.

I have always been interested in the founding of our communities. I have learned of all the above and more reading a book published by SUNY Press and written by David Goddard, entitled Colonizing Southampton. Dr. Goddard is an academic, a retired professor of Sociology formerly at the City University of New York. He too became fascinated with the early history of this summer colony, and came here a few years ago to go through many old documents, including the local paper The Seaside Times from that era (the Press had not yet been founded), then moved to Plattsburg, New York to write the story. (The parts in quotes in this account are from his research.) It is an amazing tale.

If Dr. Thomas founded the Southampton Summer Colony, his efforts were soon overshadowed by other New Yorkers far richer than he who bought up property from the locals to create lots for others to build their summer cottages. Among them were Charles Atterbury, James Ruggles, Mrs. Schemerhorn and two brothers, C. Wyllys Betts and Frederic Betts. Some of them had big plans for the town—for instance, Wyllys for a time had plans to build a casino and beach hotel in town.

The land made available to the city people was largely from a group of locals who called themselves the Proprietors, moderately wealthy citizens who in common as a group, had inherited much of the land from their ancestors, the original founders of the community. There were farmers and merchants who owned land separately of course. But what had not been divided up by that time was still in the hands of the Proprietors. And they were willing to sell parcels to the new summer people for $200 a lot at first, then $300 and on up to $500 and $600. One summer person wrote a letter to The Seaside Times grousing about it; “The rapacity of the landowners of your village,” he wrote, “[can only induce] irretrievable ruin [if they persist in such] absurd pretensions.” Eventually, they pretty much sold all they had to the new summer community. That is what accounted for this three-mile stretch along the beach and around the lake, a group of homes owned by city people out for the summer to stroll on the beach, take an afternoon sunbathing on the dunes and otherwise enjoy what was believed was the healthy rural “air.”

The locals did not at first know what to make of the summer people. They were surely of an entirely different culture from the locals. The locals soon gave a nickname to these interlopers. They called them “Yorkers.” But they tolerated them because they had to. And they also profited from them.

At the time of Dr. Thomas’ arrival, the beaches along that three-mile stretch were largely considered part of the industry of the community. Whales were brought ashore on the beaches. Fishermen dragged nets in. Most importantly, the beach was considered a road. Carts with wide wooden wheels plied the beaches, taking people and merchandise drawn by teams of horses from one village to another between East Hampton and Westhampton. The sand, particularly at low tide, was hard and smooth. It was far easier to use the straight line of the beach highway than to travel by wagon along the rutted main road inland. The locals didn’t even call the mounds of sand at the back of the beaches “dunes.” They called them “banks.” And indeed they were. They were one of the lifelines of the prosperity of the community. The summer people called them “dunes,” a far more romantic term.

The locals dressed in simple rural attire, and they took time out of their busy days for beach bathing. But the locals went bathing in scandalous beachwear, something people like Dr. Thomas did not want their families exposed to. At the time, the women in his social set wore beach attire that covered practically their entire bodies.

At one particular location, near where the Southampton Bathing Association is today, the locals had established a group of beach shacks which they called “wigwams,” where people could change into bathing suits and from there go for a swim. But one day, near the beachfront mansion of summer resident C. Wyllys Betts, two summer people (Salem Wales and George R. Schieffelin) went out and had the wigwams removed.

That act was quite possibly what led to the legal challenge that resulted in a trial in 1892 about who owned the beach. The locals said they did. The summer people said they’d bought it fair and square. It went to court.

Leading the charge for the locals was George Gilbert White, a farmer, a former whaling captain, and now, the leader of the Town Trustees. A few years earlier he had successfully fought against the Proprietors of Southampton over who owned Mecox Bay. The Proprietors had, because of their vast land holdings, taken to “selling” various ponds and lakes within the Town, in the belief that because they owned the land surrounding them, they could sell the ponds too. The Proprietors had earlier sold Poxabogue Pond (for £35), and they had sold Otter Pond in Sag Harbor. Now the proprietors wanted to sell Mecox Bay to a New York City Oyster Company (represented by summer resident Richard Esterbrook, Jr.) to fish its bottom to the exclusion of everybody else.

White had taken on the Oyster Company, saying they were there illegally because the Town in common, meaning all the citizens, owned the pond, as a result of a group of early English patents that later, after the country was founded, brought all the waters to Town ownership in the aftermath of the Revolution. And he’d won. Now he challenged Frederic Betts, a member of the Southampton Village Improvement Association, who had claimed ownership of all the ocean beaches fronting his property and had begun fencing them off.

In the end, a judge ruled that the Betts purchase had included the beach in front of his house down to the high water mark because the land he bought from the Proprietors had included that. Below that, to the low water mark, the locals could haul their fish and have free passage. He also ruled that various roads down to the beach could be pathways to the beach for the locals.

Although this was a compromise, it was a great disappointment for the locals, as they felt they had lost what had been theirs up until then. And it marked the formalization of the exclusive nature of the Southampton Summer Colony as we know it to this day.

Author Goddard draws charming descriptions of the people and their behavior of that time. He describes how the summer people, when they formed their Southampton Village Improvement Association, also included some prominent local farmers and merchants—without even telling them in advance they were doing so. The summer people felt that by doing this they were getting broad representation. Of course none of these prominent locals were on the executive committee that made all the decisions.

The SVIA also gave an honorary membership to the SVIA to Walter Burling, the publisher of The Seaside Times. They got good press after that.

Goddard also describes the one group that the SVIA could not go up against. That was the Long Island Railroad. As part of the SVIA’s efforts to beautify Southampton (they included wooden road signs designed in a way that would make an antiquarian proud), they had approached the railroad hoping to get them to build a railroad station the community would be proud of rather than just the old existing shack. They never did get them to do it, so in 1902 they had to pay much of the cost themselves to get the beautiful station with the embedded seashells that you see there today.

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