Of Steinbeck and Sag Harbor

Written By: Montgomery  Granger

In his introduction in the 1967 journal of the 5th annual Old Whaler‘s Festival in Sag Harbor, resident John Steinbeck wrote of the event and the place, “No one can foresee what will happen here but the prospects are dreadful and beautiful to contemplate.” And, “I don’t know how I got here. I am a sixth class citizen. It takes six generations for first class. But my neighbors are considerate and kind to me.”

Exactly my experience.

There is a bronze bust of the famous American author in the library of the Pierson Middle/High School, flagship of Sag Harbor’s public schools, both of them. It greets you as you enter, stoic and forlorn, apparently contemplating his next novel.

Known as “Migrant John” by immigrants who admired him for taking up their cause in the mid-to-late 1930’s, John Steinbeck was as iconic as he was disarming and unabashedly sincere. He enjoyed Sag Harbor in the eight last years of his life, and endeared himself to the Harborites, his love of literature and of the sea and of towns and people.

As an adolescent I was introduced to Steinbeck’s writing by my mother, a book lover of grand proportions. My favorite was Cannery Row, which inspired me to within a hair’s breadth of taking up marine biology in college, like Doc from the book.

Having met Steinbeck through Doc and the cast of hilarious and sad characters of Cannery Row, he welcomed me to Sag Harbor on my first visit to the school, staring back at me as I entered the school library.

Was it an omen? A longtime friend, a touchstone in a strange but mystical place, Sag Harbor.

I liken the place to Brigadoon, the mythical Scottish town of Learner & Loewe lore that appears only once every 100 years. Cursed/Blessed to disappear to avoid being changed by the outside world, residents are trapped by the entrancing beauty and simplicity of the place and life there.

Only outsiders from modern New York City dare try to break the spell, for love and greed.

Now I ask you, is that Brigadoon or Sag Harbor from whence I speak?

People in Sag Harbor complain that they want things to improve, but they don’t want anything to change, like relics trapped in paradise.

Some places in Sag Harbor are “run down” masquerading as “natural.” “Decrepit” pretending to be “antique.”

Denying the one constant in the universe – change – Sag Harbor rests existentially on the horizon of reality and dreams.

Looks are not deceiving there. Some buildings and landmarks are as run down as they look.

The Village high school, corner stone laid in 1907, was conceived and built by Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage (Mrs. Russell Sage) – once the second wealthiest woman in the world, next to the Queen of England. The proud and beautiful school sits on Pierson Hill, named for a relative of Mrs. Sage.

The Village library, named in memory of Mrs. Sage’s grandfather, Major John Jermain and founded in 1910, was presented by her as a gift to the people of the Village of Sag Harbor. It has recently enjoyed a lovely and well deserved renovation. It is a spectacular and modern preservation of what was great and grand about the original building.

The Village Park, Mashashimuet, Algonquin for “Place of the Great Springs,” was also a gift from Mrs. Sage, and specifically to the children of Sag Harbor. But the Park Board of Trustees fight any and all upgrades as if Lucifer himself were trying to pry it from their hands. The park website lists only two significant events in the park’s history after Mrs. Sage’s death, the last over half a century ago in 1960.

Nearly kicking and screaming for everything at the park to remain as is, the Board refused even offers of free labor from the school’s maintenance crew, so as not to “give the impression that the school district owned the park,” even though the vast majority of funding for the park comes from taxes levied by the school district. It looks more like from the children than for them.

At one time, early in its history, the Park hosted the Suffolk County Fair, with booths and bake-offs, horse & carriage, foot and bicycle races flashing by the grand stand that is as neglected as Mrs. Sage’s edict that the Park be for the children.

In the old days, the Park provided a gardening plot for each student in the school. A grand and generous arrangement that initially respected Mrs. Sage’s wishes.

Try as I might, though, Mash Park, as many locals refer to it, would not change. Even for the better. Only the men’s softball league plays at night, under the lights. Little League? No.

Nearly the entire school soccer program squeezes into one soccer field there, yet the school district pays exorbitant amounts of money for the privilege of using a valuable resource bequeathed to “the children.”

The overused fields are green because of commercial chemical fertilizers. The park rejected a proposal that they, like I did with the school grounds, use only 100% organic turf maintenance.

I asked the Park Board to consider holding at least one annual fund raiser in the summer, when many big money folks would be in town; one “Olde Tyme Faire” that would recall the days gone by. The schools could get involved, I explained, with activity booths, turn of the century games, food, homemade specialties, crafts, etc., on the scale of Old Bethpage Restoration Village, or Port Jefferson’s Dickens Festival. Nothing. Not even a moment of consideration.

Satisfied with the money from the schools, equivalent to $20 each time one student athlete steps foot on the property for practice or a contest, the Park does virtually no fundraising. And it shows. Their other large source of revenue, a professional tennis program, has but a few hours dedicated to children.

I appealed to the Park Board using Disney as an example of what can be accomplished with the right attitude and a commitment to excellence. Having worked for The Mouse as a young man, I knew and understood the company’s vision of quality preservation of the symbols of Americana.

Teddy Roosevelt’s home at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, is a prime example of how modern technology and materials can be used to preserve and protect important landmarks for the education and enjoyment of all.

Mashashimuet Park could be part of the East End’s historical mecca. But even the example of Disney fell on deaf ears. Preservation to the Park Board meant letting the park rot in place.

The place needs someone with a fearless vision. One that emulates the vision of Mrs. Russell Sage.

When I arrived at the schools in August 2009, there were over $14 million worth of non-compliance and health and safety issues identified by architects and engineers. The School Board had packaged only just over $6 million worth of projects for a bond set for voter approval in December 2009. It failed because word got out that $1 million would be for parking, and NO ONE wants more parking spaces in Sag Harbor except for the Chief of Police, who is sick of all the parking chaos in the streets.

A $9 million bond passed in the fall of 2013, but between three superintendents, four school business officials and numerous School Board Trustee changes, no work had been done when I left in March, 2015.

There are many dedicated and honest people who live and work in Sag Harbor. It is a blue collar, service oriented community with deep roots in the history and traditions of the 18th century boom industries of shipping and whaling. But with those things long gone, many in the village are lost in their own memories of how things used to be.

Not even the Old Whaler’s Festival survives, although attempts have been made to revive the spirit of those times, “dreadful and beautiful to contemplate,” there is no Steinbeck anymore to lead the way.

Decidedly a “six generations” lacking outsider, John Steinbeck was accepted because of his celebrity, and endeared because of his willingness to participate as a leader when such things called to him and were needed.

Stubborn ostracism by the Park Board towards anyone who dared defy the curmudgeon’s attitude of “old is good, but falling down is better,” percolates into the Village Board and the School Board. Not for lack of fresh voices and ideas, but who gets the credit here is more important than if things get done.

Perhaps in the spirit of John Steinbeck and his Brigadoon years in Sag Harbor, the people seem to think calling in school superintendents from up the State serve the children best.

John Steinbeck may be gone, but his bust remains, as does that of Mrs. Sage, hers in the Pierson High School main lobby, watching, waiting and maybe even anticipating the change that just might make their bronze spirits smile.