Swampa Wampa Maker; Art From Shells

A professional clam digger ponders shell art.

EAST HAMPTON—Albert Lester, aka Swampa, but more widely known as Albie, is a tall man with a red beard. He looks and lives like someone may have centuries ago. Robert David Lion Gardiner, the 16th Lord of the Manor of Gardiners Island, thought Lester resembled his ancestor Lion Gardiner. Gardiner asked Lester to pose in a suit-of-arms for a statue, but Lester re- fused. “I was too busy fishing to get involved with that,” he said.

Lester lives in a home, assembled over the years, behind his family’s Round Swamp Farm on Three Mile Harbor Road in East Hampton. Antique clam rakes fit between beams on the ceiling. Clam baskets, nets and eel spears decorate the walls.

If his family needs clams for the farm stand, Lester jumps in his Jeep Cherokee and tows his “clam boat” down to a public launching ramp. He motors to the seed flats where he jumps into Three Mile Harbor in his waders.

“I like this rig,” he said, taking off on one of the last hot days of summer.

Clouds collect with each minute as he unlatches the boat from its trailer. It is quite a rig; ingeniously put together, exclusively for clamming. The three-piece floating chain, attached to Lester’s waist by a harness, allows him to efficiently sort, size and store any clams he gets. When Lester takes a rake full of clams, he dumps it into a little decoy boat, the first link in the chain that floats behind him. This small boat fits snugly underneath the clam rack, also known as a cull board, which he uses to separate seaweed and other matter scooped off the bay bottom from the clams.

Like everything else he builds, Lester customized the clam rack. It slants so water and other lighter material roll off.
Next in the chain is a square box Lester inherited from his cousin, indirectly. He was eyeing the beauty, made of wood and a row of metal rods, at a yard sale in Riverhead one day. The woman running the show asked him, “Do you know any Lesters?”

“I’m a Lester,” he told the woman. “My sister’s brother-in-law is a Lester, David from Flanders,” she said.

“It was my first cousin’s. The undersize clams drop through,” he said of the spaces between the rods.

For the caboose of the rig, Lester glued two boogie boards to- gether and cut a perfect hole in the middle to rest the clam basket, which allows the harvested clams to remain wet while he contin- ues to rake the bottom of the harbor.

“The basket stays flat this way.”

The three-piece floating apparatus is attached to a harness, belted around his waist via a fairly large link chain. (If Lester is covering a lot of ground, he will even tow the regular boat too.)

His clam rake is customized, too. “I’m trying to make a rake for an old man, so when I am an old man I can still clam.”

Lester moves his truck and trailer out of the way and guides the rig into the water.

“Now let’s see if the boat starts. I got oars but I don’t like using them.”

When he’s out of the house, his telephone answering machine picks up. “Hello, you’ve reached the offices of Albert Lester, half-assed contractor and licensed, professional clam digger. Please leave your name and number and I’ll get back to you as soon as the tide is high.”

When Lester is at home, he can be found making his wampum. Native Americans used two types of shells to make wampum, their traditional currency. The white beads, called “wompi,” were made from the spiral inside of a whelk, and purple beads, called “suki,” were made from the growth rings of a quahog clam. Beads were carved with stones from the shells and weaved into belts to be traded.

Wampum may have been the downfall of the Montauketts, who had so many of the coveted beads the Pequots from Connecticut were out to hunt them down. When the Europeans landed here in the 1640s, they, too, undertook wampum as a currency. The smaller Montaukett tribe trusted the Europeans to protect them from the bigger, more violent tribes. In the end, the Montauketts fell, not to violence but to poor trades with the Europeans.

Lester honors the Native American tradition by carving Indian heads, many cut on profile, which display detailed feather headdresses. His Indian chiefs have a full-feather headdress while braves may have just three large feathers. Indian heads are not the only shapes Lester carves from clam shells.

Last summer, 15 years after he made his first piece, a simple cross, he was in an art exhibition at Guild Hall. He welded a steel “tree” to- gether, from whose “branches” he hung his wampum pendants with twine, and placed it on a wooden pedestal, painted white. A brave, a unicorn, an owl, a fish with teeth, a dinosaur, a hummingbird, a mermaid, a seahorse, a swordfish, a shark, an eagle, a heart, all hang from the tree. The Indian chief has a place of honor next to the tree.

He sells the pendants separately and will take custom orders but cannot promise how long the process will take. Many a year, maybe longer, possibly shorter.

The way of the wampum maker is a secret. “There aren’t many people doing this,” he said. He vows to keep it that way. Just like the Native Americans, his process has evolved over the years, with much practice and patience.
It takes a lot just to pick out the right clam. He usually throws them in the driveway. “People run them over and they break open. I learn a lot from that,” he said, sitting in his living room at his desk. The computer shows the tide charts of Three Mile Harbor.

He holds on to the clam pieces that attract him in a large, yellow margarine tub. He’ll sit with a piece for a while, maybe make a rude sketch, throw it back in the tub and sit on it some more. “Then I might pick it up and throw it back in the driveway.”

Since he’s on a diet, he’s been fooling around with some low- calorie clam recipes. His famous clam pie has too many potatoes and flaky dough.

“Have you ever had a clam omelet?” he asked, “green peppers, onions, cheese. I had one the other day. It was delicious. My new thing is the clam burger. They’re good,” he said leaning back in his chair. “Use a lot of onions, that’s the key. Chop up clams, green or red peppers, add very dry mashed potatoes, a little flour, fry on medium flame.”