An Amagansett family of builders and farmers turns to the kitchen.
By Kelly Ann Smith
Sam Lester III lives in a mobile home near Lazy Point at the end of Cranberry Hole Road in Amagansett, but you can still find him in front of his grandparents’ strawberry patch at 20 Skimhampton Road, selling local, handmade products, just as he did as a child.
His grandmother Rose Lester and father, Samuel Lester Jr., own the two original homesteads in what was known as Lesterville from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Both homes were built by brothers Nathaniel and Jeremiah Lester in the mid-1800s and both are now for sale.
Lesterville started there, at the triangle where Skimhampton and Pantigo Roads meet Montauk Highway, in the southeast corner of Amagansett and stretched all the way to Further Lane. “Back in the day, we owned a good portion of Further Lane,” Sam says. The Lester family farmed all over town. They farmed on their own land and leased land from others. “The main crop was potatoes,” Sam Lester Jr. says. Cucumbers and cabbage were rotating crops, since there were pickles and sauerkraut factories on the North Shore of Long Island in towns like Greenlawn. “We had everything,” Sam recalls, “cauliflower, zucchini, tomatoes. There was an apple orchard on my father’s property and even peaches and watermelon.” At five years old, Sam, who is now 28, remembers gathering apples and collecting money at the farm stand on weekends.
A few years ago, a slowdown in the building industry gave him some extra time to explore his love affair with slow food. Sam’s grandmother Rose asked him to pick some beach plums so she could make jelly. “Usually my grandfather did that,” he says, “so I went and got them for her.” Sam thought he might make and sell jellies on the side of the road as his family has done for generations. But he had no idea the venture would blossom into a passion and occupation. He formed the Pantigo Farm Company label and began mining his family’s cooking legacy.
“My grandmother gave me some pointers,” he says of his own attempts at boiling down the fruit. There was such an overwhelming response from the community, the jars of rose-colored nectar flew off the shelves. “I had to keep it going,” he says. Balsamic beach plum salad dressing and beach plum BBQ sauce followed the beach plum jelly. He won’t divulge the secret to the depth of flavor he gets from the fruit. He will say it was hard to keep up with the demand. He experimented with recipes and expanded his product line to include salsas and moved on to locally grown grapes, although he’s protective of the provenance. “My wine jellies are made from very high quality, local award-winning grapes. That’s all I’ll say.” Indeed, the wine jellies are delicious and make a very special gift. He uses chardonnay, merlot and cab-franc grapes, with pinot noir to come. “The wine jellies really opened it up,” he says. “Have you tried them on a cracker with goat cheese?…oh my God, it’s so good.”
It all started when Nathan Lester was on a whaling voyage to Greenland and heard about some property for sale. He sent word to his elder brother, Jeremiah, asking him to purchase the land on his behalf. When he got back, Nathan left the Round Swamp homestead on Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton to build his own home. (The Lester genealogy is rich and complicated and sometimes contested.)
In 1851, Jeremiah inherited the land he leased, next door to his brother, from the childless Hervey Dayton, and thus began Lesterville. The Lester family continued to build houses and farm the area south of the highway. Jeremiah’s grandson Raymond Lester purchased land stretching back to Further Lane and beyond to the ocean. “You could stand at my house and look straight to the ocean with nothing but sand dunes in the way,” Sam Jr. says over the phone.
Generations earlier, Roy Lester kept livestock and operated the Riding Club, featuring Clydesdale horses and horsedrawn carriages, on Sam Jr.’s property. The foundation to the slaughterhouse can still be seen in the backyard. The beautiful red carriage house is now the Roy K. Lester Carriage House Museum at the corner of Windmill Lane and Main Street. Roy Lester kept his horses in the livery across the street, which is now the site of Amagansett Applied Arts. In 1956, Raymond’s son and Sam’s grandfather Samuel Lester Sr. built a home on Further Lane for his family, where Sam’s father grew up. In 2001, Sam Sr. and his wife, Rose, sold their house on the elegant and increasingly exclusive Further Lane and retired to the original Lesterville property at 20 Skimhampton Road, where Sam Sr. was born and where he died, at 82 years old, last June, just as his famous strawberry patch was at the height of its season. The Lester’s strawberry patch was cause for celebration every spring and that’s just how Sam sees Pantigo Farm Company’s business model: local food as a celebration.
To that end, Pantigo Farm’s cranberry sauce with berries harvested from nearby bogs and local port wine brought cheers when it was served as a dessert topping for a Slow Food Valentine affair at the Art of Eating this year. And, even for a business built on traditional flavors, every day brings new ideas or recipes. “Imagine ice cream made with local fruits?” Beach plum ice cream anyone? “I’m super excited to be a true representation of our East End natural resources,” he says.
Trudy Lester, Sam’s mother, remembers working on the farm stand when she was pregnant with Sam. “I carried him around in a papoose attached to my chest. I made zucchini marmalade and tea bread.” She points to an old photograph of Sam as a toddler riding a miniature John Deere tractor. “Sammy would get so excited he would shake when we put him on the seat of the tractor with his dad,” she says, mimicking a hyperventilating child. Sam’s eyes still light up when he talks about the tractors his family used to cultivate the land, including a rare, mint-condition 1939 model that John Deere engineered especially for potato growers.
“My father told me I couldn’t drive a car until I could operate the tractor, and not until.” “I was always helping my father farm. I weeded and picked and ran the farm stand.” While in high school, Sam worked full time at the farm stand during the summer and on weekends through October, selling leftover fall crops and bags of apples. After high school he went to Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island to study business, and two years later came back to work construction. “That’s what we do. We farm and we build.” Sam says sitting on his porch, “We all worked together building houses and farming.” His father and grandfather both had excellent reputations as builders and in fact helped to build some of the grandest homes in East Hampton, a tradition Sam is very proud of. Even now, looking around his own property, evidence of both family trades abound. Repairs and renovations are obvious inside his mobile home. An antique cranberry picker with a wooden sweeper, copper edging and long tines rests against the living room wall, and there is a wooden fruit press outside next to the porch steps, dregs still stuck to the bottom of the barrel. Sam is determined to hold on to at least his father’s acre and a half. “I don’t want to see my family’s farm go. I want to keep it going.” He expects a great summer selling Pantigo Farm Company’s handmade, local products. With the hard-earned fruits of his labor, he hopes to put a deposit down on the house he grew up in, which is now rented. Sam Jr. is retiring to Vermont, where he purchased 50 acres of farmland.
“I’m trying to talk my father into selling me his house so I can farm,” Sam says. In the meantime, “I’ve been cooking my ass off this week getting ready to open the farm stand. Grandma’s apple pie jelly is my newest invention. So far everyone that’s tried it wants to buy some. That’s a very, very good thing.” Just like the till of a finerunning tractor, the Lesters keep plowing along.
Kelly Ann Smith lives and writes in Springs.