Our Front Porch Interviews take you to the homes and neighborhoods of notable North Forkers. This week, historians Nancy Gilbert and Richard Wines talk about their deep connection to the land—and the community—in Jamesport.
RICHARD I grew up on Sound Avenue, and this property has been in my family since 1661. In fact, it turns out Jamesport got its name in the 1830s from my great, great, great grandfather’s brother, James Tuthill. (Whether I want to claim Uncle James or not, I don’t know—he was basically a land speculator who sold off lots, went bankrupt and left town, probably with a bounty on his head.)
Once I went to college, I lived in Boston and New York for all of my professional life—I was in investor relations consulting. We were both academics and originally historians. But it was very hard to make a living in the early 80s as an historian! So we both ended up on Wall Street, which is how we met.
“Jamesport is a great place. We hope people will come here. We welcome new people, but we want people to be part of the community and to find their own way to engage.”
NANCY I’m originally from Wisconsin, and I was a banker at JP Morgan. Richard’s cousins and brothers were living here, and we would come and spend weekends.
RICHARD We had one little cottage, but the rest of this was just farmland and woodland. In the early 1990s, my father’s family wanted to put 22 houses on the land. So we decided to start buying these pieces back. Every time we could scrape together two extra pennies, we bought another piece of it until we had all of it. And then I’m glad we did it when we did it because we could never, never do it now. And then Nancy said, you know, once you have this land, we’ve got to put a building on it.
NANCY We used to do a lot of bike riding, and there was this great old schoolhouse—falling down, walls covered in poison ivy, roof caving in—on Sound Avenue. I thought, Oh, that might be an interesting building to restore. As historians, we know in the 19th century, they moved buildings all the time. So we weren’t daunted by the process.
RICHARD The house we live in now just fell into our hands. A few years after moving the schoolhouse, we saw a photo on the front page of the News Review of this house being torn down. The owner had a lot of grief about losing it. I was going to make an offer, but he said, “No, no, you can just have it as long as you move it off the property.” It was Valentine’s Day—so my Valentine’s day present for my bride that year was this rotten old house.
NANCY The moral of the story is beware of free houses. Our architect took one look at it and said, “Why didn’t I just reproduce it for you? It will be a lot cheaper.” But we had it delivered here, had to slice it and dice it. We found a barn up on Sound Avenue that was threatened with demolition, and salvaged parts from that—that we used for the front of the garage, the windows in the house. Around 2000, we finished the house.
We had never had any intentions to be out here full time. And then one Monday, Richard’s company was sold, and then that Wednesday, Chase bought JP Morgan. So we thought, the writing’s on the wall—it’s time for us to leave.
One of the first things that we did after we got out here was we decided, after buying these pieces back from the family members and moving these buildings, how do we protect it? We put easements on the land and ended up becoming very involved in the Peconic Land Trust and other land preservation committees.
A community’s relationship to land says something about the community. Preservation is not just for a few people, it’s for everyone. People need land. Yes, there’s an economic value and there’s the scenic value. But there’s a psychological necessity. Think about how important parks are in cities. It’s important that we acknowledge that and do our best to make sure it’s here for future generations.
RICHARD Having grown up here I remember when you could look out the back door and it was just potato blossoms, as far as you could see. Even though farming is not the major occupation here anymore, the open space is what makes the North Fork unique. It’s part of the beauty, it’s part of the specialness of the place, it’s part of what attracts people here.
NANCY We’ve also been very supportive of efforts to take a much deeper look at the pieces of history out here that people have not wanted to look at—the migrant labor camps, the slave labor, the segregation that’s taken place, the various immigrant groups that have come in and assimilated. Those questions are not necessarily the things that local history wants to focus on, but they are probably what intrigue us more than anything else. Jamesport has a rich history, but pieces of it have fallen off and it could be a richer experience if some of that past were more respected and known.
RICHARD The people that first started moving here were pioneers in every way. They all got together in 1731 to build a meeting house, because the alternative was going to Southold, which was a couple of hours away by primitive roads. The farmers all came together. We still have the records: One of the farmers there had a little notebook and he wrote down how many cartloads of trees each farmer brought to the site. And then how many cartloads of stone they bought for the foundations. And what’s really amazing is the Jamesport Meeting House they built in 1731 still survives. It’s the oldest public building on the East End of Long Island.
NANCY In 2008, the church that owned it put it on the market for sales and it was threatened by commercial development. It could have become a Starbucks. We got a bunch of people together in the community and bought it and then started a nonprofit trust to save it.
RICHARD So the community together came together again, is one way of looking at it. Now we use it as a concert venue. We have world-class performers come. Of course, we’re a little bit stymied now, but until March, we hosted weddings and the Jamestown community chorus that Nancy helped organize. Jamesport is such a small place, but there is really quite a lot going on.
NANCY We are so thankful for where we live. The ability to be outdoors as much as we can, not worry about social distance, working in the garden and being out on the water sailing or kayaking. Jamesport is a great place. We hope people will come here. We welcome new people, but we want people to be part of the community and to find their own way to engage.
We’ve learned one thing from Covid and that is that we need to foster connectedness. Even if you’re here just for the summer or for weekends, it’s a much richer experience if you become involved in the community. And you can pick your passion. It can be through the environment. It can be through art. It can be through the community garden, the audubon society, a church—there’s so many interesting people, and getting involved is how you meet them. It can’t just be about sitting on the beach.
RICHARD Well, we own a beach. We never sit on it. Because I grew up working on farms, of course, going out and just sitting in the sun strikes me as very strange. And sitting isn’t really our style.