Mead Family Collection

Collection Owner:
Cover Image:
Mead Family, Camping at HIther Hills, circa 1940s
Mead Family, Camping at HIther Hills, circa 1940s

Collection Facts


Historical Context

A New York City firefighter, Joseph Mead made a “heroic effort” to get his family out to Montauk, New York, each summer from Queens, his daughter Patricia recalled in an interview in 2005. He and his wife, Anne (formerly Shaternik),  lived in the Whitestone neighborhood of Queens. In the mid-1930s, the couple first traveled to Montauk to camp with their Whitestone neighbors Lil and Ed Golden. The Meads had five children in seven years starting with Patricia, who was born in 1937, followed by Judy, Nancy, Joseph (known as Butch), and Kathleen (known as Dolly).

The polio epidemic peaked in New York during the 1940s and 1950s, and the disease spread rapidly in the summer months. Joseph Mead feared that the children would get polio if they swam in crowded public pools. So instead of staying in the city in the 1940s, the family summered in  Montauk as soon as the school year ended, towing a home-made trailer to Hither Hills State Park and then – after a two-week camping limit went into effect at Hither Hills – to “tent city” at Ditch Plains in the 1950s. The family built a house in Montauk in 1955. The camping life was simple, social, and cooperative. Everyone would help pitch the tents. 

Taking turns using the family car, the women would food-shop in East Hampton and the men would go out on “ice detail” in Montauk. The family used Coleman stoves and kerosene lamps, and the children would form a bucket brigade to fill a large washtub each morning that the sun would warm during the day. They strapped on bathing suits first thing and went all summer without shoes, discovering that they had outgrown them only when they went back to school. Visitors were numerous and frequent, and Joseph Mead made sure they all had a place to sleep, eventually building a wooden wall to support his family’s tent structure and adding bunk beds.

The Meads were camping at Ditch Plains, rather than Hither Hills, by the time Hurricane Carol struck in 1954, blowing away the gifts for Judy Mead’s 16th surprise birthday party. By this time handsome young lifeguards and Coast Guard officers were turning the heads of the Mead girls, three of whom met their future husbands while in Montauk and who raised their own children in the town where they had spent childhood summers. Many of the Meads’ seasonal neighbors did the same.

Butch Mead was killed in a car accident when he was 18. Dolly Mead Bistrian, who went on to live in Amagansett and then East Hampton, died in 2008. Pat Mead Smyth, who taught at the Montauk School for many years, died in 2009. Nancy Mead Neff and her husband, Paul Neff, owned O’Murphy’s Pub for 27 years beginning in 1985. At the time of this writing in 2023, she still lives in Montauk, and so does her sister Judy Mead Ceslow.

Scope of Collection

The collection consists of 144 photographs documenting the Mead Family’s recreational activities during summers in Montauk, New York from 1935 to 1967. The photographs primarily show the family camping at Hither Hills State Park from the late 1940s through the early 1950s, camping in “Tent City” at Ditch Plain (alternate spelling “Ditch Plains”) in the 1950s, and constructing their home in Montauk in 1955. Additional photographs picture a scuba divers rescue crew, swimming in Fort Pond Bay, scenes from around the docks in Montauk, hurricane damage, fishing, and the Montauk Lighthouse. The collection may be of interest to researchers studying camping, outdoor activities, family gatherings, social customs, communal living, state parks, and recreational activities in Montauk.