Pattersquash Gunners Association clubhouse in peril

The Pattersquash Gunners Association is debating its future The Pattersquash Gunners Association is debating its future after the historic hunting group's clubhouse washed into Bellport Bay in the March nor'easter. (March 9, 2013) Photo Credit: Doug Kuntz

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The Pattersquash Gunners Association lost its clubhouse to the sea last month and most of the island it called home since the duck-hunting club was founded in the 1920s has washed away.

The building sat on Pelican Island, in the path of a growing breach created when superstorm Sandy cut through Fire Island. The house was pushed off its pilings and floated into Bellport Bay during a Feb. 27 storm that brought wind gusts as strong as 48 mph.

"It's just a piece of history that's been around for so, so long," Pattersquash president Frank Miller, 54, said. "We think we are one of the oldest gun clubs in the United States" that has continuously operated.

The group has not decided whether to rebuild.

But Miller said two things are certain: the building will be removed from the water and Pattersquash traditions will continue, with or without a clubhouse.

The clubhouse sits on the bay bottom, partially visible above the water. The group has leased the land from Brookhaven Town since the early 1920s.

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"Long as anybody can remember there was always a house on that island," Miller, of Brookhaven, said.

Used as a place to escape bad weather, get dry and bunk down, the clubhouse that members refer to as a "shack" had a main area, two bunk rooms, a dock and crow's nest where hunters in the early morning would take note of the wind and weather before choosing a spot to shoot, Miller said.

The structure is less than 50 years old and doesn't fit into any historic or cultural categories that would make the club eligible for grants, said Nancy Solomon, executive director of Long Island Traditions, a Port Washington group that documents and tries to preserve maritime and farming culture.

Pattersquash members watched the property start to disappear after the breach was formed.

"Initially, we could see the island being washed away," said Patchogue resident Dick Richardson, 77, a lifetime member who served on the board for more than 30 years. "The shack is shot now. It's on the bay bottom."

The group retrieved a map showing different hunting spots from the front of the building before it floated off Pelican Island. Solar panels also were rescued. It's unclear if a cherished tin cup hunters used to draw lots to determine hunting spots was retrieved.

The group will likely wait until summer to get the building out of the bay. Details and funding haven't been finalized.

The club has 60 regular members and the lease requires all must be resident taxpayers of the town. Over the years, the club has fought off claims on its lease and Navy plans to use the island for target practice.

The building in the bay is the club's third on the island. The original was destroyed in the 1938 Long Island Express hurricane and the second damaged by fire in the 1980s.

As for rebuilding this time, "I don't know what the options are," Miller said.

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Whether the breach is left open or closed, and whether Pelican Island re-emerges or is lost to the waves, will affect the club's decision. The state asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin preparations to close the breach but has not requested physical work.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and other local officials have called on the state and National Park Service to close the breach because they believe it may contribute to flooding in South Shore communities.

Environmentalists, who say the breach is not the cause of increased flooding, want the cut to stay open because it's helping flush out the Great South Bay.

Miller said ships used a cut near the new breach centuries ago.

"A lot of people are so afraid of this inlet and yet it's been there before and it was an important part of our commerce," he said.

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The breach is near a spot called Old Inlet, which from at least 1776 through 1836 served as a passage for ships to reach Bellport, according to "The Story of Old Inlet," written in 1952 by Paul Bigelow and William L. Hanaway.

"All of the coal, bulk groceries and flour came into their town for merchants of the surrounding areas," the book said. "Cordwood, and local produce would go out on return trips."

From the 1860s until about World War II, about a dozen recreational gun clubs dotted the shoreline from Lido Beach to the East End, Solomon said. They offered a place for sportsmen and guides to hunt and work off the land.

Erosion, roadway construction and other factors led to their demise and the shacks disappeared from places like Merrick, Seaford and Oakdale.

"The Pattersquash Gun Club was the last of the survivors," Solomon said.

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