By Valeria Hartman On a warm July evening in Montauk, with the waves of theAtlanticrhythmically crashing against the shore and the ethereal cry of the whippoorwill looming in the distance, I was conceived. Every year since, as soon as the last April frost gives way to the first warm day in May, the sea calls me home. For the past 50 odd years, I have not missed a single summer vacation out on theEast End. Yet even though I feel as though I grew up during my summers there, regrettably I am not now, nor have I ever been, considered a “local”.
Thirty years prior to my family building a home in Montauk, a man named Carl Fisher had a grand plan to replicate the luxurious resort area of Miami Beach out on the tip of Long Island. Having achieved multiple successes in his life, no one could have predicted what would follow, but a hurricane, the 1929 Stock Market Crash, and alcoholism all led to Fisher’s demise. Suddenly, Fisher’s dream of “Miami Beach North” was dashed before completion. However, Fisher efforts were not all in vain, for prior to losing his vast fortune, he had been able to develop the main infrastructure of Montauk. In the years following the Depression, much of the still undeveloped land was reduced into small building lots, which were virtually being given away for a mere $100 to anyone purchasing a subscription to the New York Daily Mirror.
After the war, the 1950’s saw a resurgence of interest in the development of Montauk into a tourist area. However, instead of the grand and lavish playground for the rich and famous that Fisher intended it to become, Montauk was now being developed as a summer vacation destination for the working class. Land there had become readily accessible and affordable to the average Joe, and small bungalows and cottages began to sprout up all over the landscape. TrueAmericanawas emerging in the shadows of the once grand Manor and theFisherBuilding. Dubbed by the locals as the “White Elephant,” theFisherBuildingnow stood empty and abandoned. Yet these once splendid landmarks still stood as a monument to a man with great vision, albeit poor timing.
In1956, afamily friend spoke to my dad about some building lots, which were formerly part of the “Mirror Development, ” that had come up for sale. At the time, my family lived inRidgewood,Queens. Before the L.I.E. was constructed, Montauk was too far of a trip to be considered a weekend destination, so the land was cheap. Like Fisher, however, my dad had a vision for this very unique and special place. His original intention was to build a home on the Montauk land as an investment. The house, which was expected to be used as a summer rental, was a fairly large, modern 2-story home, which was enormous in comparison to the traditional neighboring bungalows which were more modest in size. It featured an expansive red wood wrap around upper deck with a distant ocean view. Ours was the first and only summer home with a swimming pool. Besides the view, the most desirable feature of the property was the beach rights to a private, pristine ocean beach within a short walking distance. In 1957, however, after a month-long stay, my parents made the decision to keep the house for their exclusive use. Montauk had drawn my folks in with her mystical charms, and she was not letting them escape.
Every year, we would all pile into the family station wagon the day after school ended for the annual pilgrimage out to our summer home, Wilbermil, which we shared with my cousin and her family. In the beginning, the trek took 5 hours. We would always stop along the way out to break up the long trip. Depending upon the hour, we would sometimes stop at “The Big Duck” in Flanders. Just the sight of it would make us giggle. The Hampton Bays Diner was always a must, too. The thought of their giant homemade strawberry shake still makes my mouth water today. As we rode through the Hamptons, we would call out the name of each town we passed as we looked to see what new shops or restaurants had opened since the previous season. When we would pass the Wind Mill in East Hampton, our excitement would grow, for we knew we were closing in on our final destination. That long stretch of Highway through Napeague seemed endless. Driving over the hills and valleys of Old Montauk Highway always turned into a roller coaster ride. We were teased by glimpses of the ocean at the peaks and thrilled as our stomachs dropped as the car sped down the hill. My dad got great pleasure from the squeals of delight emanating from the back of the family wagon. As we passed by Gurney’s Inn, we would know that we were now only minutes from home. Once settled, our first excursion would be to the IGA to pick up groceries and a free copy of the Montauk Pioneer.