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Wintering In Ole Oyster Bay

Nostalgia was in the air as members checked out the new exhibit decorating the walls of the Koenig Center for the opening reception of Snow Day in Oyster Bay on Jan. 30. The Oyster Bay Historical Society (OBHS) was prescient in picking winter as the season to highlight in this year of excessive snow. The OBHS has been investigating their collections to present them for the public to view. The area has many winter sports, including its bobsledding past and ice boating on the harbor. There is even a model of the ice boat Swifty, from the collection of Scott Valentine. Swifty Tillotson of Bayville built both the ice boat Swifty and the model in the exhibit in 1930. The current exhibit also brought up items of the popular sports of skiing, skating and sledding.

Nicole Menchise, OBHS librarian and archivist; with Jacqueline Blocklyn, special projects staff and Philip Blocklyn, executive director, have created a visually vibrant display of items from their collections enriched by new donations from local residents as well as clothing items on loan from Monica Randall, Gold Coast era expert/collector.

Interestingly, the OBHS had the original sign for the Oyster Bay Ski Center that operated from late 1949 to about 1959, according to information from past New York State ski guides. Oscar Summers managed the ski center during the mid-1950s. It became the centerpiece for the current exhibit. Menchise said that as they were moving their objects from the Earle Wightman House to the much larger Koenig Center, two years ago, when they decided that using items in the collection they could mount an exhibit on winter in Oyster Bay.

“You see that image and tuck it into your mind and finally see a group of material worthy of an exhibit,” she said. “The seeds are planted and then you look around to see something that inspires you… like the sign, and think where we can get enough things together, all from that idea two years ago.”

She said sometimes it is difficult to fully identify objects because over the years, things came in and were not always given the proper notations about it. They might also have lost the original material giving the provenance of an object, since overall, Menchise is the first archivist on the staff.

Flowing Exhibit

The items from the collections and donated items were arranged for best viewing. On the far wall of the Koenig Center is a display of sleds, “augmented by a flowing fabric, creating a snowy hill for sledding,” described Blocklyn, of the work the women did in setting up the exhibit.

Many of the items on display were on clear Plexiglas stands. “They are actually the bonnets of our Lucite storage boxes, done to make the items appear floating,” said Menchise. It really worked with a sled with a steering wheel, flying across the center of the floor.”

The Frozen Harbor

The introductory exhibit description by Philip Blocklyn at the entrance to the exhibit mentioned that in Mary Cooper’s Diary she wrote that Robert Townsend crossed over Oyster Bay Harbor to get to her place in Cooper’s Bluff. It was easier to walk there over the frozen harbor than take a horse and carriage and go through Cove Neck.

Belle Santora, 102 and a half years young, also remembered (in a telephone interview) the harbor icing over in past years. “We walked over to Centre Island when I was about 8 or 9 years old. One summer I swam half way there, with my mother yelling ‘come back, come back.’”

She also recalled the bobsled races on Route 25A, before the hill was flattened as they widened the road into a highway.

Santora said, “Afterwards everyone went to Rothmann’s Inn.”

It had a famous mirrored bar the length of the room.

Ellen Weeks Nicoll loaned the OBHS a photograph of Molly Weeks, her mother, taken in 1927 of her at Beaver Dam holding a hockey stick. Beaver Dam in Locust Valley is famous for their ice hockey Beaver Dam Club.

Oyster Bay Ski Center

“They are daddy’s ski poles,” said Caroline DuBois of the items on the exhibit wall featuring The Oyster Bay Ski Center. In 1934 her father, Eugene DuBois was the manager of the first U.S. Olympic Ski Team to play south of the border in Chile.

“He was an excellent skier but was the manager of the team,” DuBois said.

He wrote a book about his experience: Skis And Andes: Pan American Ski Races by Eugene DuBois. The small 80-page volume includes “Thoughts by the U.S. Ski Team.” It was printed by the A.B. Morehouse Publishing of Boston in 1937.

The International Skiing History Association lists DuBois as the author of several articles in the American Ski Annual and Eastern Ski Annual Index. In 1936 he wrote New York Thinks It Can Ski; in the 1927-38 issue, he wrote Esquiadores Yanquis and in the 1938-39 issue he wrote The Jolly Bavarians.

DuBois is preparing to put her family’s Cove Road home on the market and after hearing about the exhibit, donated the skis from the attic.

She added, “The little red sled (in the exhibit) is from Millicent Pittas’ house.” DuBois donated two other pairs of skis to Henry Joyce, Planting Fields Foundation (PFF) executive director, along with two pairs of bamboo poles and a tennis racquet. “They (PFF) are going to create a sports room at Coe Hall,” DuBois said. The ones in the OBHS exhibit are the skis he took to Chile.

Having grown up in Oyster Bay Cove, DuBois remembered the Oyster Bay Ski Center owned by Oscar Summers. The Oyster Bay Ski Center was located on Ski Lane, across from the Town of Oyster Bay Lake Avenue Yard. A little wooden stand at the end of the run sold hot chocolate in the area where Glen Cove Road crosses Lake Avenue. “There was a little booth at the bottom of the hill that sold hot chocolate. There were pebbles on the floor and they had a pot belly stove.”

She pointed to another exhibit item, a map of sports areas in New York State and said, “The Oyster Bay Ski Center is listed on the map. It says ‘operates when snow is sufficient. Night skiing.’ Oscar Summers, ran it in Harbor Park. There is no phone number.”

Charlie Doering remembered the area from his childhood growing up in the 1950s and seeing the ski lift. Now a developed area, it was an open hillside pasture at the time.

There were cows kept in a barn further up the road from Lake Avenue. On that corner, opposite the little hut area, was where his grandmother took him to buy fresh farm eggs. He added, “Mr. Summers had a house upstate, and a big farm. He skied up there. They were sort of a ski family. Oscar Summers owned a lot of real estate in Oyster Bay.”

Rick Robinson said when he was growing up in Illinois his family had three Flexible Fliers, “Until my father ran over one with his car. He parked the car in the carriage house.”

Robinson attended Oyster Bay schools from 1947 to 1954 and said he didn’t remember any notable snowstorms during that time. What he did remember were the historic bobsleds the area was famous for earlier in the century. The bobsleds carried 20 men and women. At one time they were raced on Route 25A, before the hill was flattened to create the existing highway.

Harry Slutter said he had a Flexible Flier. He offered, “The snow isn’t that hard anymore. They needed the steel runners while now they use plastic sleighs, those round ones (Flying Saucers).

“I used to slide down Moore Hill Road in the ‘40s. There were no cars then, there was gas rationing. I could go all the way to Yellow Cote Road.” Today, he said, “I try to enjoy every day.” His wife, Virginia, was at the show too.

Also at the exhibit was Kate Reardon, who is currently a volunteer at Planting Fields. She grew up in Oyster Bay and remembers going there as a Girl Scout. She also remembers that when she was a Brownie Scout, she attended the dedication of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site when it took place.

Keeping The Cold Away

One of the most visually striking items in the show is a Turkey Red Civil War-era quilt that Jackie Blocklyn and Menchise discovered while looking for items for the exhibit. Quilts were an essential part of winter at a time when there was no central heating.

Blocklyn said, “We just found it. We were digging around looking for shawls. She was looking and I was looking. I couldn’t believe it when I found it.”

It is a hand stitched cotton quilt of 7.5” panels of what looks like shirting material in black, red and white stripes, bordered by 7.5” panels of Turkey Red. The fabric comes from the country of Turkey where they used rose madder as their red color. It is in beautiful condition. Flipping over a corner of the quilt to show the back, Blocklyn said that was some fading of the Turkey Red color over the years.

The reversible quilt was made in the mid-19th century and is 79 x 86 inches. It is made of materials available during the Civil War and is hand quilted in a combination of gold and red threads with eight stitches to the inch. It is quilted in a pattern of concentric circles.

A warm looking plaid cloth covered the buffet table that offered hot tomato soup, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, hot chocolate and cookies made by Jacqueline Blocklyn.

The OBHS Koenig Center, 20 Summit Street, is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday, from 1 to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Call 516-922-5032 or visit oysterbayhistorical.org.