On a Friday night in Bay Shore – depending on what’s showing at the Boulton Center – the streets might fill with people leaving the theater, moseying into the restaurants or rowdy 20-somethings hopping from bar to bar.
But at one time it was much more grand, even with Main Street unpaved and dusty.
In its heyday, Bay Shore was a mix of the wealthy who summered in mansions on the Great South Bay, tradesmen who made their living on the water and working in those mansions and film stars socializing at local hotels.
“It was such a social place,” said Priscilla Hancock, first vice president of the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Historical Society. “That was really its heyday.”
The Bay Shore community was formed in 1701 when John Mowbray purchased the land from the Secatogue Indians, and a land patent for the purchase was signed by the Queen of England in 1708. The community took off as a haven where people could either enjoy the fruits of the land and sea or work them. The forests proved bountiful for those in the hunting and timber industries; and the waters were full of fish, clams and oysters.
The mansions, which required butlers, maids, gardeners and chauffeurs, employed many, according to historical society president Barry Dlouhy.
“It was very genteel,” he said. “It was a different time. But on the other hand, you had all the people who were working these estates. And they all lived in Bay Shore together.”
In 1809, the Cortland House was built. The hotel symbolized the level of interest in the Bay Shore community and would later become a stopping place for stage coaches headed farther east.
A year later, the Methodist Church was built.
“That’s usually a sign of a community forming,” Dlouhy said. “Rather than just a place to stop, now this was somewhere where people wanted to live and worship.”
By the mid-1800s, he said, almost every denomination was represented in Bay Shore and a few years later the population reached 2,000. But even then, it doubled during the summer.
In 1868, the Long Island Railroad stopped in Bay Shore for the first time. It was also the first time the area was called by that name.
“First it was Mechanicsville, but nobody could remember that when they were sending mail out,” Hancock said. “Then it was Penataquit, but nobody could spell that.”
The turn of the century only increased the grandiose atmosphere in Bay Shore. More hotels were built, including the Prospect House, which could accommodate 400 guests. The wealthy came from Brooklyn and Manhattan to bathe in the sea, breathe in the fresh air, attend horse races at the Oakwood Driving Park, enjoy polo matches and cruise on their yachts.
In 1915, Vitagraph Moving Picture Company opened a studio on Fourth Avenue. Film stars began frequenting Bay Shore, local residents were used as extras and could see themselves in short films shown at the Carleton Opera House on Friday nights. Film star Anita Stewart came to love the area so much, she built a home in Brightwaters.
Bay Shore attracted a number of prominent businessmen, including Charles Gulden, of Gulden Mustard; J. A. Mollenhauer, a leader in the sugar industry; and John Adams, the Chiclets gum manufacturer. Later, in the 20s, the Entenmann family opened their bakery on Main Street.
In the early 20th century, a few things changed the character of the community, Hancock said. Many of the men who worked the large estates were called to war; then the stock market crashed in 1929.
“The next generation of people in Bay Shore didn’t exhibit that same wealth,” she said. “Things began to be a little bit different.”
Susan Barbash, a lifelong Bay Shore resident who produced the documentary “A Small Piece of the World: The Bay Shore Story,” said as the community grew with its population there was more focus on schools and the infrastructure had to be adapted. But Bay Shore was unique in that it already had such a strong history.
“It was a time of expansion,” she said. “But it was expanding on something that already existed.”
Hancock, who has been collecting and organizing materials for the historical society’s reference library for the last 17 years, said though some things have inevitably changed - industries have come and gone, as have the film stars - certain aspects of Bay Shore will likely stay the same.
“It’s always been a beautiful community where people enjoy what they have here,” she said. “I think that will always be the case.”