LI Our Story: Yachts and poetry by the bay
E.B. White spent a summer there and later wrote a poem about it. Artist William Glackens immortalized its beaches in his impressionistic paintings. And Elmer Sperry, inventor of the gyroscope, loved it so much he retired there.
No, not Newport. Bellport.
This still-unassuming fishing village 50 miles east of New York City was, for a time, among the most popular summer spots on Long Island, attracting great statesmen, financiers, actors, writers, journalists and artists. By the 1880s, they streamed into the welcoming village, bringing their families, their bathing suits and their yachts. They rented cottages or built their own or stayed in one of the many hotels and rooming houses that were springing up: The Wyandotte, The Homestead, The Bay House, The Goldthwaite. Most were on or near the waters of Great South Bay.
"It was a wonderful way to grow up," said Nancy Ljungqvist, 72, recalling the days she spent there as a child in her grandfather's Bellport Lane home, where she whiled away the summers of the 1930s and '40s sailing and playing tennis. "We had a huge group of friends who came every summer."
E.B. White's biographer recounted the summer of 1918 when White's sister hoped her teenage brother would overcome his shyness with girls and learn how to dance. A portion of White's poem "Zoo Revisited," was inspired by his vacations at Bellport. White wrote of the moment "summer takes complete command belly to sun and back to sand," and "how well I know . . . the bay and the way the wind blows the tide ebbs and the tide flows."
Bellport began as a modest outpost of farmers and seafaring folk. Most of the homes that still line Bellport Lane were built by sea captains. In fact, the village was named for a pair of sea captains. The Bell brothers, Thomas and John, came to the region in the early 1800s, enticed by the opportunities of the young seaport.
By 1829, the brothers had built a dock into the bay and a shipyard, carving out cross streets and main thoroughfares into the surrounding terrain. When the post office was established in 1834, the Bells hoped to name their new home Bellville, but the name was already taken by an upstate village. They settled on Bell Port, which was later joined into one word.
As early as the Civil War, dignitaries such as Christian Godfrey Gunther, one of several New York City mayors who vacationed in Bellport, sailed their yachts along the southern shore of Long Island and docked off Bellport. Many of these luminaries were drawn by the region's simple pleasures.
"There was a family orientation to the place that people liked," said Rita Sanders, curator of the Bellport Museum Complex. "People wanted to know that they could bring their families out here to a safe, clean and wholesome environment."
Birdsall Otis Edey, an early organizer and president of the Girl Scouts of America, summered in Bellport with her two sisters, her mother and her father, a state senator. Edey, affectionately nicknamed Bird, made up new lyrics that she and her buddies sang to the tunes of Gilbert and Sullivan while sailing aboard a neighbor's boat they coined The Walloping Window-Blind. At 25, Edey wrote and produced an operetta entitled "The Pirate of the Great South Bay" that she and her friends performed in the summer of 1897 in one of a half-dozen Bellport theaters called The Nearthebay Playhouse.
It was William Glackens who recorded these summer holiday scenes in soft pastels on canvas. Glackens spent at least five summers in Bellport before the polio epidemic of 1916. A member of the Ashcan School, a label bestowed by critics who ridiculed the artists' realistic style and subject matter, Glackens was said to have planned the Armory Show of 1913 in a rented cottage in Bellport.
The seasonal frivolity was somewhat dampened by the Great Depression, which led to the closure of the great summer hotels. But many of the traditions continued, ushering in the famous through World War II. During her parents' divorce, a young Jacqueline Bouvier vacationed in a summer cottage on Maple Street with her sister, Lee.
Ljungqvist recalled starting out early on a summer day and running down to the Bellport dock to catch one of the ferries, the Ruth or the Mildred A, to the barrier beach the village still owns. Once there, Ljungvist handed over the change she pulled from the pocket of her jeans in exchange for a cup of clam chowder, some gingerbread and a soda sold from a little wooden shack on the beach.
Claim to Fame: Working in his woodshop one day in 1866, Bellport carpenter Oliver Perry Robinson accidentally discovered that tiny steel balls of buckshot made a board move easily across a flat surface. He patented the idea, later known as ball bearings.
Where to Find More: "Bellport and Brookhaven: A Saga of the Sibling Hamlets at Old Purchase South," compiled by Stephanie S. Bigelow and available at the Bellport Museum Complex.