The Mast-Head: What’s in a Name?

Oh boy, here we go

    An aside in an editorial that appeared on this page last week threw down a challenge of sorts. In explaining why The Star persists in leaving the “s” off Ditch Plain, we said that it was in deference to old maps. Well, a reader saw this as an incoming softball and swung.

    “While you are at it,” David Buda wrote in an email, “why doesn’t The East Hampton Star use the historically correct hamlet name of The Springs, instead of plain old Springs?” Oh boy, here we go.

    Whether it is Springs or The Springs (with a capital “T”) has been a chafing point between those from here and those from away for as long as I can remember.

    I apply a couple of rules about place names: One: What did my father, the late Everett T. Rattray, a 12th generation East Hamptoner, call something, and two: How were places described among my peers when I was a student at East Hampton High School in the 1970s. The people I grew up with called it Springs; summer folk called it The Springs.

    Nearly every time I drive north on Three Mile Harbor Road I am amused by what appears to be a piece of black electrician’s tape apparently underlining the “The” on the Welcome to Springs sign. Deliberate? Perhaps. To my ear and in accordance with what my father would say, it’s just wrong.

    Maps themselves can be misleading. I myself have been embroiled in a more-than-five-year effort petitioning the United States Committee on Geographic Names to see the stretch of water between Devon and Goff Point properly marked as Gardiner’s Bay. I admit that Ditch Plain appears as Ditch Plains on some maps, and even an illustration in my own grandmother’s “East Hampton History and Genealogy” refers to The Springs.

    Still, I think tradition is on my side. East Hampton records from the earliest days do not refer to Springs at all. Instead, land allotments are at the Accbonack Meadows or at Three Mile Harbor. Through the 17th century, Wainscott appears, as does Montauk, but no Springs. In the 1870s, though, when there was a flurry of road building, nearly every reference I found does use “The” for Springs. However, there were quite a few place names with the word “the” in those days, such as The Fire-Place, which are no longer in use.

    The final word, at least as far as I am concerned, comes from an edition of the 1845-1870 East Hampton Trustee records published in 1927 by order of the town supervisor. In a description of the town’s villages and hamlets, it says, and I quote its entirety: “Springs. The name for this settlement needs no explanation.”

    One almost gets the feeling that people were arguing about it even then.