Widgets Magazine

Geoffrey K. Fleming, Director of the Southold Historical Society, Shares Local History and How to Experience It

Q: How did you get involved with the Southold Historical Society? A: I started here at the beginning of 2003, and I came over from Bridgehampton Historical Society, which I had been director of for a number of years.

Q: That gives you an unusual perspective; what strikes you as particularly similar or different between Southold and Bridgehampton?

A: From an historical perspective, each has their unique aspects, but there’s a lot of overlap as the same families moved back and forth between the two villages. Bridgehampton is directly south of Southold, and there was a lot of intermarriage and movement between the two. That common history is reflected in the mills, the artists, the photographers, the businesses, I think there’s a great mix between the two areas.

Two quick examples of families that crossed between the two towns are the Worths and the Squires. The Worths were in Southold and then crossed to Bridgehampton; the Squires, a family heavily associated with Hampton Bays, had a Southold branch that later crossed to Bridgehampton.

In terms of differences, the South Fork had a much bigger summer population from Manhattan (though there was a little from Brooklyn and Queens), whereas the North Fork was had summer people almost entirely from Brooklyn and Queens, and a lot more hotels. Their summer populations were very different in that regard. The immigrant populations are very similar—with huge Polish populations in both.

Q: Although they have such a common history, Southold and Bridgehampton don’t feel very similar today.

A: No they don’t. Now Bridgehampton is much more like Southampton and East Hampton. For a very long time, until the last 20 years or so, it wasn’t a heavily summer place. There’s been an enormous number of new summer houses built there, a lot of farmland lost. Southold—the whole North Fork—is really the hold out against that massive development tide of summer homes. The key to that is our major preservation of land. Southold really got ahead of that wave.

Q: Did you have a connection to the North Fork before you shifted over from Bridgehampton? Or was that your first real experience of the North Fork?

A: I grew up a little up island from here, in western Suffolk. Ever since I was a kid I’d been coming out here to the North Fork for day trips. Moving to the Southold Historical Society just felt like a good fit, it’s so different from Bridgehampton. I was in Bridgehampton when it was undergoing that change to more of a wealthy summer playground, and I don’t really care for that style of community.

The whole atmosphere is different here; you don’t get any of the nonsense that you get on the South Fork. I once saw a rich person make a waitress cry because the food wasn’t properly arranged on the plate; you’ll never see that here. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of wonderful people in Bridgehampton, and I still have good relationships with many of them. But that kind of money just washes over everything.

Q: The Southold Historical Society has so many historic buildings and holds so many wonderful events. Tell me a bit about them.

A: Actually, our wonderful buildings and events are really secondary. Almost everything we do is in service of our archives, which are massive and outstanding. We have a collection of more than 50,000 items, including more than 30,000 photographs. We have letters, ledgers, daybooks, diaries, farm records, furniture, paintings, decorative arts… such a rich collection.

We use the archives for our exhibits, books, and catalogues; we host researchers and loan materials to other institutions. Our archives are constantly getting used.

Some of the programming that we do, like the art auction, are fundraisers that let us do all the other work. Some things we do for the community, such as the Candlelight Tour. Most events and exhibits are somewhere in between, contributing to the support of the organization and enabling us to share our collection with the community in interesting ways.

Q: The recent exhibit on local prostitution history was an interesting and creative take on the collection, just like the historic signs one that preceded it. Do you have a favorite part of the collection?

A: The correspondence we have between individuals is very interesting because you can pull a lot out of it. There’s nothing like reading those letters and getting the true story—at least that person’s version of it.

It’s very funny how some things didn’t change. The local comment about The Suffolk Times—a great paper—is that it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Suffering Times.’ We’ve seen that moniker in records from 80 years ago. How did that get started? What was the underlying event or reason to start calling it that? Maybe it reflects the Great Depression.

One of our most precious pieces is a document from the 1600s that is a remonstrance to the Royal Governor of New York, expressing anger at taxes and such. We’re still inventorying our archives, constantly expanding our awareness of what we have.

Q: No offense, but it’s a little surprising that you don’t even know what you have. How did the Society get started? How did it acquire its collection?

A: We were founded in 1960; people came together and just started to gather things, pulling them out of their attics, closets and drawers. For a long time the institution was run by volunteers, and that’s why our inventory isn’t yet complete; with so many items in our collection it’s a full time job to do it. But we’ve inventoried most of it.

Q: Wow, local people were able to pull together such a massive collection of historic items just by going through their houses? Does that mean most of your collection is recent history?

A: Actually we have a lot of material from the 1800s, though not too much from before that. A lot of material disappeared during the British occupation of Long Island—a lot of families fled, and the British destroyed a lot of material—so we don’t have as much from that early period as we would like.

Q: That’s amazing that people cleaning out their closets and such in 1960 could create a massive collection of records and artifacts from the 1800s. I guess that reflects how several local families have been here for many generations. But back to the British occupation—how long did they hold Long Island?

A: The British took Long Island in 1776 and held it for the entire war. They had forts all along Long Island, including a major one in Mattituck. Soldiers were quartered in people’s homes, homes were turned into stables, Long Island’s forests were chopped down for British firewood, ship building, and other military resources. Long Island was devastated by the Revolutionary war. We’ll never know what we really lost.

Q: Was Southold more sympathetic to the revolutionaries or the British?

A: Eastern Long Island tended to be for the Americans, whereas Western Long Island and NYC tended to be for the British because of tremendous commercial ties.

Q: Because of tremendous commercial ties—yes, it’s always key to follow the money. Now that we know a bit about the archives and collection, please tell us a bit about the buildings and events you hold. How can a visitor experience Southold history?

A: Our museum complex on Maple Lane offers several historic buildings filled with artifacts in a park-like setting. Maple lane complex southold historical society

The Prince Building houses our offices, the archives and our consignment shop. The Reichert Family Center is our newest building, and it is a gallery showing small scale exhibits. We also offer the Nautical Museum at Horton’s Point Lighthouse, and the lighthouse itself can be explored.

Our events season starts in the Spring, when the area begins waking up from winter. We start doing exhibits at the Reichert Center. Then the programmatic stuff starts, planning for our educational programs, etc. The Lighthouse opens Memorial Day Weekend and the complex opens July 4th Weekend. We have a gala fundraiser in July, and host a few concerts on the Lighthouse lawn in the summer and fall. The concerts span the musical gamut from opera to rock and roll and everything in between.

Another traditional event is the old-fashioned Ice Cream Social, but we won’t be having that this coming year; that day we’ll be celebrating Southold’s 375th Anniversary. We do a regional history lecture series from September through December, featuring historians from the tri-state area, the children’s programs take place, and then we do the Candlelight Tour and Tree Lighting on the day after Thanksgiving.

Southold Historical Society candlelight tour2014

We also have gift shops and the consignment store, an art auction—which I think this year will be in the summer—and a holiday bazaar with Santa. A final thing we do is lead tours of other interesting historical places; this year went to the William Floyd estate. Some years we organizes overseas trips; we’re thinking about do that this coming year.

Q: Southold is 375 years old? That’s much older than America. So cool.

A: Yes, well, I disagree with the town. I don’t think 2015 is our 375th anniversary; I think 2024 is.

Q: What? Explain that please.

A: The town considers Southold’s founding in 1640. But that’s when Southold was created as a plantation of New Haven. Plantation in the sense of settlement, not the cotton holding and slaving version. New Haven purchased the land from the Corchaug Tribe, and sent people to settle it. From 1640 through 1649, Southolders had to transact most of their business in New Haven; that’s where we had to go to court, do certain business, etc. On June 25th 1649 New Haven passed a decree that said:

“The plantation of Southold upon Long Island are to have that plantation made over to them and seeing that it is purchased by this town, New Haven, it is by this town to be made over to them.”

By contrast, Southampton was originally founded as an independent town.

Q: So Southold was a creation of New Haven, then its own place; was sympathetic to the American side of the Revolution, but was devastated by that war—were those the only times its basic identity changed or was challenged?

A: Not quite. In the 1670s, after the Dutch retook New York, they sent a small contingent to Southold to demand its submission, but Southold refused to.

Q: I’m not used to thinking about the Dutch out here; I mean, I know they settled New Amsterdam originally, but out here the names of things aren’t really Dutch; they’re native names or English ones.

A: Yes, the name Southold surely comes from the English town of Southwold, which happens to be in Suffolk County, England, and is where some of the original families here, in particular the Youngs family, trace their roots. But the Dutch were here first.

Dutchman Adrian Block mapped the Sound and the islands in it, and named Block Island after himself. There may have been a Dutch lumber camp in Orient, and the Sylvester family of Shelter Island who had a slave/triangle trade plantation had Dutch connections.

Q: A visitor might be struck by the fact that the Town of Southold, running the 20 or so miles from Laurel to Orient, has not one but several different historical societies—Mattituck-Laurel, Cutchogue-New Suffolk, Southold, Greenport (called Stirling Historical Society) and Oysterponds. Why so many?

A: The societies are of various sizes, some have professional staffs, some are volunteer based. Each has its own wonderful collection that, while focused on its own area, contains artifacts and records from elsewhere on the North Fork because overtime families moved around. In many ways it would make sense to have one big North Fork Historical Society, but each community is sort of insular and likes to have their own little group, so I think it’s unlikely to every happen even though it would make tremendous sense from an archival perspective.

Q: If a history buff had enough time, what should she do to get the most of visiting the North Fork?

A: Well, they’d have to visit the resources of all the societies. From West to East, go to Mattiuck-Laurel and see their buildings, to Cutchogue-New Suffolk and see theirs—their Old House is a nationally important building, being the oldest extant example of English domestic architecture in America. Then explore the Nautical Museum at Horton’s Point Lighthouse and our Maple Lane complex. Head to Greenport and visit the railroad museum, the maritime museum and the Stirling Historical Society. Finally, head out to Oysterponds and see their buildings and collection. Each place will have different buildings, objects, and ways to enjoy our local history.

To do it all properly would take at least a week, and for a true history buff, a lifetime.