Summer of ’92

Written By: Terrence Lavin

An inflated, leather bag rattled off the wood beam with each blow, spraying the assembled onlookers with a rooster tail of sweat. John L.’s punches were more powerful than anything they’d seen, but he was in no mood to preen in front of the VIP guests as per usual, for he was instructed to put on another cardigan – the weight must come off! Two sweaters, one boxer, and it was high summer inside the barn behind the Canoe Place Inn. His fight will change the world.

Directly across the hostelry with easel propped, Mr. Chase was capturing the stunning scene of his wife, and children playing beside the wooden row boat beached on the bucolic shore of Shinnecock Bay. He’ll title this painting, A Sunny Day at Shinnecock, and it will be adored for a century. But, it’s not his paintings that will change the world, it will be his students.

As the wind gamboled across the bay there was not that horrid stench, as had previously existed for nearly two decades, from the stagnant water which entombed dead seaweed, madhaden fish, and the once bounteous, but recently abated, clams and oysters of Shinnecock Bay. Now, the last wood slots were installed, finalizing the creation of the canal connecting the great Shinnecock and Peconic Bays. This rejuvenation of a saltwater sluiceway resurrected a once thriving clam and oyster industry which were beloved, and sold worldwide.

Looking east over grassy dunes, scattered pine trees, thickets of blueberry, and arbutus, lay a barren, undulating, 412-yard-long field nestled along a shallow valley in Shinnecock Hills. A skunk scurries to avoid a fast rolling ball made of tightly wound, rubbery, gutta-percha resin, or “gutties” as the golf ball was called, having been whacked by the mighty swing of a driver carved of wood. It’s the 5th hole of the recently built Shinnecock Hills Golf Club which was now unveiling their new club house, designed by the most famous architect of the day. Both the golf club, and architect would become iconic on a global stage.

This was the East End in the summer of 1892, presenting itself to the world.

When the train from Brooklyn rolled into Good Ground station, one of the last stops on the Long Island Railroad, the national press had gathered to cover one passenger, the passenger, the big man himself, John L. Sullivan, heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Alighting from the stagecoach in front of the Canoe Place Inn, John L. was a bit green around the gills after the jostling, primitive ride from the station. Owning to reputation, his queasy condition could have just as easily been the result of hard refreshments imbibed on the train. Now on surer footing, John L. Sullivan, the most famous athlete in the world, scanned the area known as Good Ground as this was to be his training location for the summer. “It is the finest place to train that I was ever in,” said Sullivan, “I will get into the best form of ring life here.” He didn’t.

After settling on the barn as his provisional gymnasium, John L. inspected the environs of Canoe Place, taking great interest in the gravestone of a Shinnecock Indian in the underbrush. It was the resting place of the beloved preacher, Reverend Paul Cuffee, who died eighty years earlier. The powerful preacher united black, white, and American Indian congregants all the way to Montauk. Reverend Paul was so masterful in oratory that “grand as Cuffee” became a local colloquialism; the phrase even made it into Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Today, Paul Cuffee’s gravestone still rests nearby, but sadly, seldom visited.

Wandering across the road from the inn, John L. stopped at the giant statue of Hercules. Naturally, this well-known curiosity garnered his attention as “Hercules” was one of Sullivan’s nicknames. The statue was once the figurehead on the bow of the U.S.S. Ohio which was built in 1820, and traversed the seas of the world on missions as divergent as suppressing the African slave trade, to action in the Mexican-American War. After decommissioning, and numerous owners, she found a watery grave off of Greenport. The giant statue of Hercules was salvaged, and stood in front of the Canoe Place Inn for many years. It dwarfed big Sullivan, and his entourage, who took photos with it like any tourist. Currently, the cedar statue of Hercules is delighting visitors at Stony Brook harbor.

During that summer of 1892, John L. Sullivan would rise at 6:30 AM, adorn himself with a three-pound sweater, a double-breasted pea coat, wool knickerbockers, thick woolen socks, and heavy shoes to trundle around the shoreline of Shinnecock Bay, over the sandy dunes of Good Ground (thirty years before being renamed Hampton Bays), then making his way to Peconic Bay where he stripped and swam in those pristine waters. The champion had clocked in at 247 lbs., and was anxious to shed forty of them for his September fight against the much younger, and lighter, challenger, “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. It would be billed as the fight of the century. John L. had a passion for hard drinking, and quarrelsome boasts, all combined with savage knock-out power (be it the ring, or a pub) which ensured every step he took was in the limelight. He loved it, and the people loved him. A popular song refrain went, “I’d like to shake the hand of the man who shook the hand of John L. Sullivan!”

Throughout Sullivan’s daily hikes that summer, he’d certainly pass the great American Impressionist artist, William Merritt Chase who was painting, and teaching throughout the hills and shores in the newly fashionable plein air style that brought artists out of the studio and into their natural surroundings. Chase founded the Shinnecock Summer School of Art the year before with Mrs. Janet Hoyt, an art patron.

Always resplendent in dress, William Merritt Chase was running the most influential outdoor art school in the U.S., and his classes were filed with over 100 amateur and expert art students, mostly women, with a campus built of cottages and christened Art Village.

Southampton was rapidly developing, and the Hills were next — in fact an article in Brooklyn Life magazine at the time noted in perfect prescience, “The cottages are growing larger and more pretentious year by year, and the hedges of shrubbery are keeping pace with the social barriers growing higher and more impenetrable.”

The zealous president of the Long Island Railroad, Austin Corbin, had bought up most of Shinnecock Hills. He sold large parcels to friends such as Samuel L. Parrish to establish a summer resort. Mr. Parrish donated much of the land for the Shinnecock Summer School, and his love of art manifested a few years later into the Parrish Art Museum. More importantly, he was one of the founders of Shinnecock Hills Country Club. But this summer, the bourgeoning golf course needed a proper club house befitting the 70 men and women members who paid $100 a share to join.

Enter Stanford White, the most admired architect in New York, creating such iconic buildings as the Washington Square Arch, and the second Madison Square Garden, in addition to some of the most opulent mansions. This summer of ‘92, the striking clubhouse at Shinnecock Hills, designed by McKim, Mead, and White, opened to great enthusiasm, and lasting beauty.

The Shinnecock Canal opened this summer, and it was for resurrecting a shellfish industry as much as it was for nautical conveyance.

The press was largely indifferent to the new canal, they were here to watch John L. Sullivan train for the fight of the century! Unbeknownst to all, John L., spent every night satiating himself with beer smuggled into his room while studying lines for an up-coming play he was to star in after the fight.

The fight…well, it truly was historic, ushering in the modern era of boxing. John L., the last of the bare-knuckle champions, first of the gloved ones, lost. The tell-tale sign was when Sullivan emerged from Good Ground that August, and reporters noted the “superfluous flesh” around his middle. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett beat John L. down in 27 rounds!

William Chase would teach for another 10 years in the dunes out East, and then started the Chase School in the city, which became the Parson’s School of Design. His students? The world-famous Georgia O’Keefe, and George Bellows.

That glorious summer saw the opening of the clubhouse at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club which has consistently been voted one of the greatest courses in the world, hosting the U.S. Open four times, and the next U.S. Open in 2018.

That clubhouse was a perfect example of the world-famous “American Renaissance” architecture, led by Stanford White.

And the water still flows from the ocean, to the bays, and the world can look back at the summer of 1892 on the East End, and give thanks for all that she bore.