Where Fields Extended to the Sea

“As far back as anyone can remember there were always farmer-fishermen in Sagaponack.”


Sagaponack beach, circa 1940. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Foster Family

Plenty of people will drive to the beach and turn around. They treat the spot as if it were a dead end, a fisherman knows differently. Mr. Tillotsen checked on the ocean every day, twice—morning and afternoon—not because he fished any longer, but out of habit. His kind of crew, seasonal haul seiners, had ceased to be.

I’d never met Mr. Tillotson until the day, nearly 20 years ago, he came to our door and asked if I knew who he was. It wasn’t a belligerent question so much as a conscientious one. He seemed shy or nervous, and before I could answer, he told me his name, Bob Tillotson. He told me who he was related to and where he lived. Bob was well into his 80s and kept much of his expression under the brim of his cap. He handed me a piece of paper, saying he had written it about the farmer-fishermen of the East End. “Maybe you won’t be interested,” he said, already making his way down the steps. “I don’t know, maybe you can use it.”

He wrote: “As far back as anyone can remember there were always farmer-fishermen in Sagaponack. Many of their fields extended to the sea, and it was only natural that once the crops were harvested from the land, we gathered from the ocean.”

I was familiar with his style of writing, as it is my own. One definitive sentence descends into a page mostly full of crossed-out words, but this much was there: fishing season began when the potato crop was in and lasted until the first snowfall. Farmers had already netted the fish alewife, or bunker, for fertilizer. They began to haul seine as organized crews in the 1930s. Striped bass were the fish of choice, and all available hands worked to bring the nets in. There was the observation that fishing is like farming, and that luck is as important as preparation. Tillotson and crew fished quite prosperously until 1967.

I called Mr. Tillotson, and asked if I could come visit. He was outside tending a burn barrel in the backyard. The small fire, mainly newspaper, gave us something to look at as we talked. When the fire was finished, we went inside and sat in his widower’s kitchen. Magazines were stacked on the little stove. We talked until it was dark. He showed me his log book: the dates, the men who went, the pounds of fish they caught, the price paid and sometimes a mention of the weather. The record-holding days are entered a second time in the back of the notebook; one day they caught a shark, and another they packed 2,000 pounds of fish. The day’s haul had to be waiting by the side of the road where a truck, the Reach Bros., took the iced boxes of fish into Fulton.

Don Seabury went out with the crew for three years. He knows he is the last of his crew. They used to clean the fish at Gil Roger’s farm, now Madoo. It was he who used the word “slatch,” to explain the importance of the push-off guy—the man who got you through the breakers but didn’t actually fish. It was he who called a place “Littleworth”—a place that no longer exists, but it was farmland and wilderness once. They had simple wool mittens that once wet if wrung out, still kept your hands warm. They rowed in a quiet semicircle, just beyond the breakers, slipping the weighted net into the water. They then rowed back to shore and hand over hand they pulled the nets in.

The nets were linen then; when they were done, they dragged them onto the dune banks where they could dry. Girls, who are now in their late 60s, remember cleaning crabs from the nets. You had to keep watch over your equipment. Fishing could get pretty competitive with crews from other places crowding the territory, watching and antagonizing each other. The guys from Littleworth, it was suspected, might cut your nets.

Don also told me that you wouldn’t have found a life preserver from here to Montauk, but he’ll barely admit it was dangerous, instead he explains, “Sure it was hard, but it sure was fun. You weren’t going to make any real money at it. Not then.”

Of course, once, they had made lots of money at it. I find this passage in the 1956 book Bridgehampton: Three Hundred Years. “It is said that the financial prosperity of the farmers here began with this business. Using fish for fertilizer, they were able to raise large crops, and the money received was invested in stock in whale ships.”