Long Island as seen through the lens of Hal B. Fullerton.
Imagine the bucolic spirit of Walt Whitman, the progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt and the humor of Mark Twain all rolled into one man who stood five foot seven and sported a handlebar moustache, and you have a perfect image of Hal B. Fullerton, legendary publicist-photographer for the Long Island Rail Road and unstinting promoter of what he called “the Blessed Isle.”
Fullerton was himself blessed with a dynamic personality and natural resourcefulness, qualities that landed him an unusual assignment for a protoMad Man: in 1905 he became the head of the LIRR’s Agricultural Department and, alongside wife Edith Fullerton, a legend in her own right, undertook development of an experimental farm on some of the 240,000 acres of pine barren and scrub oak “wasteland” in central Suffolk County. The project was intended to prove the fecundity of Long Island soil, even in territories believed uncultivable, and, by stimulating agriculture, to increase freight shipping of produce.
Whether or not they accomplished this objective, the Experimental Stations were the site of many story-worthy events and considerable successes. The Fullertons’ approach to clearing the land—with dynamite, and Edith manning the plunger—was ridiculed around town and in the papers (said one local skeptic, “they’re plantin’ dynamite and raisin’ hell, and that’s all they ever will raise”). Yet within a year the first farm at Wading River had yielded 180 varieties of vegetables and 64 types of fruits and berries; a year after that, the Fullerton partnership had established its second experimental farm at Medford and published its first installment of The Long Island Agronomist, a promotional pamphlet featuring advice to farmers, Fullerton’s photographs, his witticisms and, of course, extensive praise for Long Island’s climate, water and soil.
Though Fullerton’s mission was to advertise Long Island, his photographs are far more than purely promotional. Between 1890 and 1930, his various view cameras captured countless Long Island farms, farmers, fishermen, landscapes, seascapes and street scenes. Today some 2,500 of his glass-plate negatives reside at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, having been discovered on property once owned by the Fullertons in East Setauket in 1949 (it is believed that many others were scraped clean of emulsions and used to build a greenhouse).
“The great value of the collection is that he photographed all over the isle, particularly in Suffolk, and over a relatively short period of time,” says Wally Broege, who has been the director of the Suffolk County Historical Society for the past 30 years. “If we’re looking to interpret anything from that period, Fullerton is just a wealth of information.”
While the extensiveness of Fullerton’s photographs makes them the premier visual archive for local historians, they will strike a chord of nostalgia with anyone who remembers, or likes to imagine, Long Island as it was: a place of rolling hills, sails, steamers, shacks made out of oyster tongs, potato farmers swigging hard cider, and endless possibility.
The Fullerton Collection can be accessed for research purposes Wednesday-Saturday, 12:30-4:30 p.m., in the library of the Suffolk County Historical Society, located at 300 West Main Street in Riverhead. The museum is open to the public Tuesday-Saturday, 12:30-4:30 p.m.
Delia Casa is Edible East End’s editorial assistant and a lifelong patron of the Long Island Rail Road. She writes from her home in Brooklyn.