GUESTWORDS: A Montauk Legend

By Perry Duryea III

    Recently I had the opportunity to spend several hours with Frank Tuma Jr., now 88 years old, at his home alongside the Montauk Downs golf course. We talked about Frank’s young years in Montauk and his varied life experiences.
    Frank’s dad, Frank Sr., first came to Montauk in 1919 with the Coast Guard. His mom, a Baker from “under the bridge” in East Hampton, was from a large family who helped to settle much of what is now Springs. Frank Jr.’s middle name, Nathaniel, comes from the Baker side of the family.
    Frank Jr. has lived in Montauk all his life, but was born in the Swedish Hospital in Brooklyn. He grew up in the old Montauk fishing village on Fort Pond Bay, near Belber’s restaurant and the original Bill’s Inn (since moved to Fort Pond and named ENE).
    Many of the Tuma family, including Frank’s cousins Bob and Burt, lived near the bay as boys. According to Frank, the old fishing village was divided into sections — there was the area past the Union News Dock where a few locals lived, the Portuguese section of the village, and the area where the French Canadians lived and built wooden fish boxes for the local fishing fleet. One can only imagine the rich blend of languages and cultures that surrounded young Frank in those days.
    Frank attended the Montauk School, at that time located in a one-room house near the Montauk Firehouse. He went on to East Hampton High School and enrolled in the same class as his future wife, Marian (they would meet more formally at Trail’s End in 1948, after Marian’s first husband had passed away). Frank’s younger sister Vivien, who would subsequently marry Carl Darenberg, was in the first class of the new Montauk School after it relocated to Upper Shepherd’s Neck.
    While in high school, Frank spent a lot of time on the water, as a mate for the charter captains Harry Conklin and Carl Erickson. Upon graduating from East Hampton High, Frank enrolled at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., but would not graduate from college until 1947 due to his military service.
    As with many men of his generation, Frank felt the pressures of World War II and enlisted in the Navy. He went to Officer Training School at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., and graduated as a lieutenant at the head of his class of over 200 men. A large part of his actual service was sea duty in the Mediterranean, shuttling troops between Sicily and Marseilles. Frank recalled with a smile taking military leave along the beautiful French Riviera and hearing the heavy artillery of the U.S. Eighth Army engaging in battle at the front in nearby Monaco.
    As the action in Europe wound down, Frank’s ship was sent to Bayonne, N.J., to be outfitted for the Pacific, but then word came that the war was officially over. Frank went with the boat to Jacksonville, Fla., to have her decommissioned, but rather than re-enlisting he returned to Colgate to finish his courses and graduate.
    Upon returning to Montauk, Frank worked as a mate and swordfish lookout on boats sailing from the Montauk Yacht Club. Even today, there are pictures hanging on the wall of the yacht club showing a younger Frank and other anglers with swordfish, marlin, and tuna. Frank had obtained his captain’s license at a young age, and in the late 1940s his father helped him buy his first charter boat. He would subsequently build his own boat, the Gannet, and fish her until 1952.
    A large part of Frank’s reputation as a Montauk businessman came out of his employment with the Montauk Beach Company. Lindsay Hopkins, a major shareholder in the Beach Company, had directed the purchase of much of the Montauk Beach Development Company from the pioneer developer Carl Fisher. In Frank’s words, “the Beach Company in the ’50s was Montauk — there was no chamber of commerce before 1952, and people came to the Beach Company for everything from directions to parcels of land.”
    Carl Fisher had built the Montauk Manor, the yacht club, the Surf Club, and the Montauk golf course as enticements for getting people to go to Montauk and buy property there. Having taken over all of Fisher’s holdings, the Beach Company actively marketed large subdivisions from the Carl Fisher era. Frank was hired by Glen Kissel, a member of Beach Company management, and worked as a salesperson for the company until 1956.
    In the mid-1950s, Jerry Wouk bought the Beach Company and renamed it AllState Properties. AllState holdings at that time included the Montauk Manor, the Surf Club, the Montauk Yacht Club, and the Montauk Water Company. Though each entity had its own manager, Frank was appointed overseer of all four operations, a rather notable position. With the death of Frank’s dad in 1961, Frank was now responsible for four separate businesses, plus the family fishing charter business and bait and tackle store at Tuma’s Dock.
    In-season, Frank’s day would start at 3:30 a.m. at Tuma’s Dock, where he would book charters and oversee the store until his mom came in several hours later. Frank would then go home to change clothes and report for work at AllState by 9 a.m. Frank’s stature as a real estate salesman in Montauk was solidified by that time — he told me that when the Montauk Yacht Club was sold to Jerry Finkelstein in 1965, it was the only major Montauk deal that did not go through his hands.
    In 1966, the Israel Discount Bank, run by Mort Hyman, bought AllState Properties from Jerry Wouk. Under Hyman’s guidance, the Circle in the center of town was sold to Suffolk County, and the Montauk Village Association was deeded much of the underwater land in Fort Pond and Kirk Park. Shortly thereafter, the Montauk Downs golf course was sold to New York State.
    Several years earlier, Frank had sold the land now occupied by the Montauk Airport to Perry Duryea Jr. In a much larger transaction, all the land from Third House through the Indian Fields, and all the way to Shagwong Point — over 1,000 acres — was sold to the county for $750,000. In retrospect, it is clear that Frank Tuma Jr. played a large part in defining much of what is present-day Montauk.
    By the late 1990s, much of what had been Beach Company property had been sold, and Frank left the firm in 2001. He would then open the Tuma Agency on Main Street in Montauk to trade in real estate, having sold Tuma’s Dock to another party in the early 1990s.
    Frank recalled with pleasure the many trips he took with both my grandfather and my father to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He always asks me how the hunting was after a trip I take now, and sometimes when I return I bring Frank and Marian a fresh-killed goose, already cooked.
    I could not help but be impressed by Frank’s grasp of Montauk history and his close relationship with nature and the sea. He said his mom was one of the first postmistresses ever to serve in the U.S. Postal Service, and she worked in the Montauk Post Office for over two years.
    In another anecdote, he said that every year that he can remember, Montauk has always had a big storm around or shortly after Labor Day weekend. That observation made me a bit uncomfortable, but I’ll bet he’s right. He remembered walking down the street from high school in East Hampton during the 1938 Hurricane and seeing huge trees strewn around the sidewalks.
    As we wound down our conversation, I asked Frank what he thought of all the changes in Montauk, the influx of new people and new ideas. “Time goes on,” he said, “and progress is inevitable — but I don’t have to like it.” That’s a forthright and honest statement from someone who has done a lot and seen a lot in his lifetime here.
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    Perry Duryea III runs the Perry B. Duryea and Son wholesale seafood business and restaurant in Montauk.