The Coat, Three Seagulls, and a Saying
Up on our dining room wall hangs a picture by William Wallace Tooker, the famed Algonquinist of Sag Harbor. Tooker lived from 1848 to 1917 and we have no relation to him. Well, almost none. That picture was handed to my grandfather by his sister Ida when they all moved out from the big house on Sag Harbor’s Main street to the much smaller and simpler Montgomery kit house on Jermain Avenue; to my Dad, who lugged it to the cozy cape he built amongst the Roscoe potato fields of Southampton; to me, who carted it out of the Southampton place when my mom died and Dad moved in with my sister. Ida Belle De Castro was fifteen years Tooker’s junior, and by the preserved written accounts Tooker was in love with his wife to the end. So how did she get this fine painting by a renaissance man that produced few pictures and real passion was deciphering the local native’s language?
Our Tooker is unusual in that it depicts a pastoral scene of a small harbor with a dock, one boat, a rise of land in the background, and fish traps fashioned in the mode typical of Native Americans in the foreground, all done with the fine hand of a draftsman, especially those fish traps. I call it ours since everyone before me has since passed away. I told my wife for ten years this was an image from the perspective of Sag Harbor before the bridge was built. But then one day we actually stop and look at that place, where they are thinking of putting in Steinbeck Park. It didn’t match up! We couldn’t cram any relevant perspective into what Tooker drew. Ah, I knew better and started to tour my wife to the other possibilities. Had to be Northwest Harbor, with Barcelona Neck in the background. Nope. My wife looks up Tooker and finds that in addition to being a pharmacist, he sold his impressive collection of Native American artifacts to help finance his career in researching and publishing on the Algonquians, the culmination of which was “Indian Place-Names on Long island”, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1911, and dedicated to the philanthropist Mrs. Russell Sage. My wife finds that the love of his life was Lillia Byram Cartwright, of the Shelter Island Cartwrights, and we drive around Shelter Island thinking he had to make our picture on the island as the reason to be there and court Miss Cartwright. Maybe Coecles Harbor? Not quite. Ram Island? Not really. We are stymied.
Cady-corner to our Tooker hangs a much smaller print bearing a coat of arms with the name Sayre at the bottom. This is the only other thing we have from Ida, and we know it was hers since on the back, marked in pencil, is a boldly curled script saying “This is for Sayre, Ida.” Sayre is what they called my Dad. Now I know nothing about coats of arms, and find it curious we hold onto the Sayre ideal and name so much for our family identity. When you think about it, I am 13th generation Sayre, which means at best one in eight thousand parts of my DNA are from a Sayre – basically no Sayre at all. At the bottom of the image is a scroll with the words “Saie and Doe.” In today’s age of many people saying and not too many doing, I take refuge in this motto. And I extend it to the American experience of all of us essentially being immigrants, each leaving parts of their familiar cultural identity behind to become American and adopt ideals that are common to us all by doing things like building our railroads and bridges, going to the moon, and wiping out polio. There is a red shield with three seagulls on it. I check out the internet on what red shields mean on coats of arms. The results say willingness to serve country, which seems appropriate for immigrants, as I suspect this coat of arms was created well after the first Sayre arrived at Conscious Point, in North Sea. This assumption is due to the seagulls. Nowhere in my research do seagulls come up as symbols, which is surprising amongst all the falcons, blackbirds, lions, dragons, deer, and lambs you see on these shields. Especially since seagulls as a species are present on all seven continents, a rarity of adaption. When that first hired boat paddled ashore at Conscious Point, which was a favorite shell fishing spot for the natives, I am sure they were greeted by seagulls, who today consider that stretch from Holmes Hill to the North Sea Transfer Station, which we used to call the dump, as the best seagull real estate of all. You know you are out east by the sound and flying antics of seagulls. So that’s those seagulls: survivors living off of whatever nature throws their way, willing to adapt, a group that blends in. Over the top of the shield is a highly stylized horse head pointed up, looking almost like a chess piece, with a hand clenched tightly around its neck. I’ll make up the symbolism on that one: relief from the oppression of high taxes.
These two wall hangings are the only clue we have about Ida Belle De Castro, never married, second oldest of eight, and living right on Main Street in Sag Harbor, an easy walk to Tooker’s place at 67 Hampton Street. Her father being an immigrant from the Azores and having a livery stable in town probably made her of a much different class than the renowned and refined Tooker. Thus the mystery of how she was willed that picture.
Years later, after giving up on finding where Tooker did our painting, we took a random walk up to the Annie Cooper Boyd House, home of the Sag Harbor Historical Society. We see a nice show of historical photographs and drawings of Sag Harbor. Included are some Tooker drawings, since you cannot show Sag Harbor’s past without the man, and in the fine print of curatorial descriptions find these sketches are reproductions from Tooker’s sketchbook, held right across the street at the John Jermain Library. My wife contacts the archivist. She was the corporate archivist for one of those big city hedge funds but wanted to find a place to normalize her life, and really got into the historical collections in Sag Harbor. We make an appointment to see the book, kept under lock and key. We do not see the actual sketchbook but a fantastic reproduction done with high resolution photocopiers. We weren’t really expecting anything, just interested in what Tooker had painted and his process for developing his work. And then, near the end, we see it – sketches of our painting and the shocker of location! After all these years we find he attended an artist workshop in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and this was a painting of the harbor, the only image he did that was not eastern Long Island.
At some point, he must have realized that his thirst for Native American ethnography could be supported neither from his art nor from his pharmacy, and he needed a patron of the arts. This is where Mrs. Russel Sage comes in. She had underwritten much of his research and publications, and as we saw in the Easthampton Star article on Tooker, “…the cost of secretaries.” And this is where Ida Belle De Castro, fifteen years junior to Tooker, and disciple of “Say and Doe” must have played a part. It must have been something she said and had done for Tooker that curried the favor of a reply in a painting.