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Gilbert Bergen, longtime Connetquot park manager, dies at 88

The site began in 1866 as a fishing and hunting retreat for members including the Astors, Vanderbilts and Roosevelts.

Gilbert Bergen, park manager at Connetquot River State

Gilbert Bergen, park manager at Connetquot River State Park Preserve in Oakdale, died April 4. He was 88. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Gilbert Bergen, who ran the Connetquot River State Park Preserve in Oakdale for decades, was to the manner born.

Shortly before he was to retire, Bergen died at age 88 on April 4 at Connetquot, where he lived much of his life, officials said.

The nonprofit Friends of Connetquot has posted videos of him relating the history of the 3,473-acre park and conservation area, which began in 1866 as the Southside Sportman’s Club Inc.

The club was a fishing and hunting retreat for 100 top-drawer members — including Astors, Belmonts, Vanderbilts and Roosevelts — and guests who ranged from the chancellor of Germany to the prince of Wales to President Grover Cleveland.

“All of the things you see at Connetquot are a result of the foresight of those people; what they built lasted,” Bergen says on video. “It’s nice to know it’s here — and will be for generations to follow.”

Bergen was known for his deftness with dignitaries, recalled George Gorman, Long Island deputy regional director of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. And “I don’t know how he did it, but they always went away with a fish.”

Bergen’s father was a herdsman at what became Bayard Cutting Arboretum State Park in Great River. However, working with Jersey cows led Bergen, then 14, to consider another path in life. “I thought perhaps there had to be a better way” to make a living, he said.

After observing members fish at the Southside Sportsman’s Club, he trespassed there one day.

Though barking hunting dogs alerted the guides, Bergen knew some of them, so they looked the other way and he soon joined them, learning the club’s lore.

Bergen started his career as a club guide in 1945. He was polite, kind, disciplined and displayed sportsmanship — traits that came in handy when dealing with gentry.

Standing by the circa 1830s Bunces Bridge on video, Bergen said: “Teddy Roosevelt used to use this crossing when he was going to Meadowcroft, which would be his cousin’s place in Sayville.”

Bergen described members’ pastimes, which rooms women could enter, and how hunts shifted among species.

It did not do to flout either club or park rules.

Club pheasant shoots began on Saturdays at 10 a.m. “Everyone would be ready to go at that time because we tried to have a rule. If you were not there, it started anyway,” he said.

Former Assemb. Ginny Fields recalled her son telling her “some man” — Bergen — had taken away the fish he caught at the hatchery. “He said ‘Oh, there were many a young man I that I did that to,’ ” Fields said.

“He was a legend,” and exceptionally well-read, she said.

Other countries’ hatcheries tapped his expertise. He was sought after for hunting and fishing trips in Canada and Scotland.

Bergen, who served about two years in the military, mastered deference and discretion. In 1945, he promised Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson he would say nothing of the discussion he had overheard about “the potential of dropping a new and devastating bomb on Japan in hopes of ending the war,” said Richard Remmer, a Long Island state parks commissioner.

Remmer said his lifelong friend told him: “I’ve been holding that inside for 60 years.”

On video, Bergen explains that the state bought the original club’s land in 1963 for about $6 million, and gave a 10-year lease to the new Connetquot River Club Inc., which he then ran.

Its president, Bergen said, advised him: “ ‘Don’t change anything.’ So that’s what we tried to stick to, and that’s what we still try to do, is to have a bit of this property [which is] what Long Island used to be like.” The site became a state preserve in 1973.

Bergen is survived by two nieces and a nephew.

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