Starting around 1976, when our nation was celebrating its Bicentennial, a movement to record the voices of people who had witnessed events from the past began to take hold. Historical societies and museums across the United States started recording oral histories, and the Montauk Historical Society was no exception. Although the Society had been taping speakers and lecturers at their meetings since the Society’s inception in 1963, during the 1970s the members began to specifically seek out oral history interviewees, some of whom who had been living in the area as early as the late 19th century.
The Historical Society continued to record oral histories throughout the 1970s and 80s. In the 1990s, when an Archives was established, the Montauk Library recorded oral histories, as well, and continued until about 2004. A few have been done intermittently since then. Altogether, about 140 oral histories were completed between the Montauk Historical Society and the Montauk Library. This audio material represents a rich historical reference for researchers, genealogists, and generalists.
Scope of Collection
There are four subject areas of concentration found in these oral histories:
Many of Montauk’s current residents are descendants of the workers who moved north from Miami in the 1920s to help entrepreneur Carl Fisher develop Montauk. Carl Fisher was one of the key players to transform Miami from a swamp into a playland for the well-to-do in the Roaring 20s. When he visited Montauk, he saw the same potential. Oral history interviewees describe the dynamic energy of this man while he was in his prime. They also describe the terrible effects of the Depression on those workers who no longer had employment, and how the townspeople pulled together to survive this terrible economic crisis. Reminiscences of rum-running surface periodically.
The Fishing Industry
Fishing is vital to understanding the history of Montauk. Early oral histories include descriptions of trap-fishing and the menhaden processing plant at nearby Promised Land. Several Duryea interviews detail the growth of the lobster business. Interviews with multiple fishermen provide information about the commercial and sport fishing industries in Montauk.
Hurricane of 1938
The greatest single shared experience among those who gave oral histories is this “once-in-a-century” hurricane, when Montauk was cut off from the rest of the mainland. Fort Pond Bay Village, which is where most Montauk residents lived, disappeared under a tidal surge that left only chimneys in view. A reunion of survivors at the Montauk Manor in 1988 was also recorded.
World War II
The war had a very real presence in Montauk. The Navy literally removed the fishing village that fronted Montauk’s Fort Pond Bay because its deep reaches made it possible to test torpedoes before shipping them overseas for the war in the Pacific. This forced abandonment of people’s homes is described in the oral histories. Yet, at the same time, Montaukers embraced the war effort. The women of the village were active in the American Women’s Volunteer Service, establishing an ambulance service and running blood drives to help our soldiers overseas.