Tales Carved in Scrimshaw

A glimpse of life during whaling times
Julie Greene, the curator of “Bridgehampton Whalers: A Farmer’s Life at Sea,” gave a talk last Thursday describing the exhibit, which will remain on display at the Bridgehampton Museum’s Corwith House until April 1. Carrie Ann Salvi

   A pineapple placed on the front gate of a returning whaling captain’s house symbolized a welcome to visitors who wished to view the treasures from his world voyages. Historical artifacts from these captains, who left the East End to hunt whales in hopes of becoming wealthy from their valuable oil, are on display in “Bridgehampton Whalers: A Farmer’s Life at Sea” at the Bridgehampton Museum, formerly known as the Bridgehampton Historical Society. Among them is a bottle of whale oil, a rare find according to Julie Greene, the curator, who offered a talk last Thursday on the exhibit.
    With about 70 ships having set forth on whaling adventures from Sag Harbor and Greenport, Ms. Greene, who also works as the local history librarian at the Hampton Library, found a wealth of material in whaling logs, writings, drawings, and other objects, which she drew upon to give the community a glimpse of life during whaling times.
    Some of the work demonstrated artistic ability that was “beyond belief,” she said. An example was a hand-carved baleen yarn winder on display in a glass case in a room with scrimshaw corsets, fans, shoehorns, jewelry, tools, and baskets.
    Paintings by Claus Hoie depicting whalers and their lives also grace the walls of the museum. Two were given initially, but since the exhibit opened, 11 more were given to the museum. Maps and navigational items, including a spyglass and compass, which demonstrate how the whalers used the stars and lunar observation to guide their voyage, are displayed. On loan from the East Hampton Town Marine Museum in Amagansett is a piece of whale vertebrae and tail.
    A feathered cape from a trip to Cape Horn in South America, acquired during a historic, life-threatening whaling trip to that area, was gifted by the Hildreth family, descendants of the Halsey family of whalers.
    Reading painstakingly through the often uneventful details described in whalers’ logs, Ms. Greene learned that whalers would sometimes meet up at various places around the world and trade newspapers and letters from home when they met up, and even wagered with each other about their successes. As written in a log by Capt. A.J. Jennings, “I bet a new hat with Captain Rogers today that I would have more oil than he one year from today.”
    Not all whalers were successful, and crewmen would often return with little to nothing, indebted to the ship store for rum, cigarettes, and supplies used during their voyages. A crewman’s “lay” or percentage of profits, even for a successful trip, might result in only $25 for several years of work.
    The logs told tales of woe, drawings of a fin indicated the whales that got away, Ms. Greene explained. Capt. William C. Haines, whom she called a Hayground boy, “waxed on eloquently” about the sad tales and challenges encountered during his unsuccessful four-year venture, which included six months in Australia waiting on repairs and lost crewmen.
    The beginning of the end of the whaling industry came about when petroleum was discovered and during the Civil War, when southern blockades prevented ships from getting through. Many whalers went instead to seek gold in California, among them Captain Haines, who headed an 1840 mining adventure after his unsuccessful whaling trips. He later returned to be a farmer and to marry Frances M. Rogers, and is now buried in Hayground Cemetery.
    Pictures of James and Henry Huntting, two brothers who lived in Bridgehampton, are displayed on one wall in the museum. Their grandfather Benjamin Huntting, whose house is now the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, set out on the first whaling ship from Sag Harbor, and they followed in his wake.
    A quilt displayed in the museum’s welcome room was a gift for the betrothed Caroline F. Huntting by 40 local women when she was preparing for her nuptials with Henry Huntting upon his return. Quilting and needlework was a “popular distraction” for women who awaited the return of their men, Ms. Greene explained.
    For those at sea, the wait could be arduous. Capt. Edward Halsey, who completed the first dangerous trip to South America out of Sag Harbor, wrote of the longing for home in “A Ditty Made at See”: “When will kind fortion set me free/ That I may leave the boisterous Sea/ I love my friends I love the Shore/ I long to leave the Ocean roar/ Then home sweet home/ Shall be my pride/ With her I love/ Near by my side.”
   A few of the whalers are commemorated on a broken mast monument for those lost at sea during the 19th century, which includes Alfred C. Glover, 29, Richard S. Topping, 29, and William H. Pierson, 30.
    The whaling exhibit, on display through April 1 at the Corwith House, will be a permanent display in the society’s Nathaniel Rogers House when its restoration is complete, in a room named for Captain James R. Huntting, who became the house’s second owner in 1857.