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Bayman: ‘We have to continue the maritime heritage’

A photo of Montauk Highway in Hampton Bays

A photo of Montauk Highway in Hampton Bays likely taken in the late 1920s. Credit: Handout

Most days at sunrise, Ed Warner boards his boat and sets out on the Shinnecock Bay.

As a sixth-generation bayman in Hampton Bays, he finds solitude and peace in leaving the crowded shores for the open water. And like the Warner men before him, he loves how he makes his living.

“I consider it a privilege to still fish here and do what I do,” said Warner, 53, who also became a town trustee six years ago.

As a commercial bayman, Warner’s lifestyle is reminiscent of the beginnings of the community where he grew up and raised his own children.

Brenda Berntson, president of the Hampton Bays Historical Society, said there is little written about the Southampton hamlet’s history. The dates are fuzzy, Berntson said, but Hampton Bays is generally thought to have been founded in 1790 and was then called Good Ground.

As the name implies, Good Ground had bountiful land and sea that attracted generations of people who made their living off of it through the 20th century.

When the Good Ground Railroad station opened in 1869, it opened the waterfront community to tourism. Berntson, 53, who grew up in Hampton Bays, said in the late 1800s and early 1900s, boarding houses were everywhere and an influx of mostly female Irish immigrants came to Hampton Bays to work as chambermaids, Berntson’s own grandmother included.

“When you were 12 or 13 years old, you would go and work as a chambermaid,” she said. “And it was a full-time job. We’ve heard stories of little girls who came here with their mothers, but didn’t see them all summer even if the boarding house was just a few miles away.”

The era of the boarding houses was the advent of tourism in Hampton Bays, which was so named in the early 1920s as an effort by the community to align itself with the rest of the South Fork.

“The idea was not driven by locals,” Berntson said. “It was spearheaded by an influential group of city folk” who had taken to summering in the community.

She said Hampton Bays remained a small, close-knit community with an overwhelming summer population for decades.

George Skidmore, owner of Skidmore’s Sports & Styles, whose family has lived in Hampton Bays for more generations than he can count, said even when he was in high school in the '50s, it was still very small-town living.

“There were 20 kids in my class,” said Skidmore, 76. “The entire school was in one building. You knew everyone.”

Fishing and clamming were also still as popular as ever. In fact, though the infamous 1938 hurricane devastated parts of Long Island, it became a blessing for the community of Hampton Bays because it created the Shinnecock Inlet, which residents had been trying to do themselves for years.

“It would always fill in anytime someone dug it out,” said Berntson. “The hurricane gave us our inlet and changed everything.”

Suddenly, baymen had direct access to the ocean from their hometown, and fleets that left from Montauk Point could now stay in Hampton Bays. It also changed the salinity of the Shinnecock Bay and increased the amount of shellfish breeding there.

Warner said when he was in high school, fishing, clamming and hunting were common afterschool activities -- and it wouldn’t have been unusual for someone to store a shotgun in their locker so they could go hunting in the afternoon.

“When I was in high school, there were three or four dozen guys like myself that would be clamming or fishing,” he said. “That was just what you did.”

Berntson said the 1960s brought a lot of building, and also a period of group rentals and the rise of beach bars. With it came a younger, transient population and associated problems, like drunk driving.

The group rentals phased out over the next 20 years, as the people who traveled to Hampton Bays to party got older and realized it was just as easy to rent or buy a place for the year as it was for the summer.

Growth of a year-round residential community also coincided with the completion of Sunrise Highway through to Southampton in the early 1960s, when Berntson said the number of children in the school system skyrocketed.

Warner said he resisted becoming a town trustee, an elected board that governs the waters, for years although his father served for 26 years before he died in 2006. After his father’s death, he agreed to run for a seat and now considers it a great responsibility.

“The community is vastly different,” he said, noting that because of state regulations on fisheries, it is increasingly difficult to be a bayman. “That’s why we have to continue the maritime heritage in our town. As time evolves, I can see it slipping through the cracks and being something people have forgotten.”

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