A Whirlwind Tour of Fishers Island

Originally published on www.eastendbeacon.com
 by  •  August 17, 2017 • 2 Comments

Lea Cetera's "Chair Totem Pole" at the entrance to the Fishers Island ferry dock.
Lea Cetera’s “Chair Totem Pole” at the entrance to the Fishers Island ferry dock.

Not too many people know too much about Fishers Island, and the residents of this island in the stream of the glacial deposits that also dropped Long Island on the map would probably like to keep it that way.

But every August, a boatload of Southold Town department heads and other representatives of various State of New York functions make their way from the Plum Island ferry dock in Orient to this far outpost of Southold Town that shares more with Connecticut than with our shores, to conduct the year’s government-related business.

On the island, they call it Southold Town Day, as a bunch of unfamiliar faces with name tags wander the streets of this exclusive enclave, checking up on everything from potholes to recreation services to the Rube Goldberg sewer system first constructed when Fort Wright fortified the island against the underwhelming Spanish-American War.

At Race Rock
At Race Rock

On Aug. 9, Southold headed off on this annual adventure, passing the town’s other strange islands — the Plum Island home of U.S. animal disease research, then Great Gull Island, home to flocks of terns and other shoreline birds, dotted with observation platforms constructed by the American Museum of Natural History, which watches over these endangered birds. Town workers pass Little Gull Island, a lonely rock outcropping home to little more than a lighthouse, and then see Fishers Island’s Race Rock in the distance.

One year on this trip, a tugboat was lodged into the rocks along the shore near Race Rock. It had been there for quite some time and its owners had no intention of moving it. But, like most nautical salvage, it’s now only a memory.

Some years, submarines from nearby Groton surface to give Southold Town a show.

This year, the motley assemblage was greeted by a sculpture of three giant metal chairs, perched precariously atop one another at the entrance to the Fishers Island Ferry District’s dock.

This was sculptor Lea Cetera’s new work, Chair Totem Pole, “at once a gateway, a totem pole and a balancing act of three common chairs: a Shaker chair, a folding chair and a stool,” according to the artist’s statement.

The work, on view thanks to Lighthouse Works, a non-profit on the island supporting developing artists, looks into “what becomes sacred in the canon of design, what is allowed to be reproduced and who makes those decisions.”

As we docked, the reporters aboard were greeted by Jane Ahrens, editor of FishersIsland.net, the thoroughly modern media source on this decidedly nostalgic spit of land.

Ms. Ahrens showed us the spiffy things on the island, including the newly revamped movie theater, housed in one of the buildings alongside the parade grounds that were once a part of Fort Wright’s installations there. 

In prior years, this movie theater’s façade had been crumbling, its bricks worn from more than a century exposed to the salt air. This summer, with a fresh coat of paint and freshly pointed mortar, it was showing “A Plastic Ocean,” as part of a series of environmental films sponsored by the Fishers Island Conservancy.

Fishers Island is home to just over 250 people year-round, but the summer population swells nearly ten-fold, Ms. Ahrens told us, and in August there was plenty happening, from pickup ball games in the park to families at the beach to coffee drinkers klatching outside the News Café. She showed off the island’s Sea Stretcher, an ambulance in a boat that can get to Connecticut in 15 minutes. She even showed us the view of Connecticut, which, for the first time, made clear why this island always seems to have more in common with New England than our suburban corridor. Connecticut really is just a hop, skip and jump from these shores — two miles as opposed to 11 miles to Orient Point.

At Lighthouse Works.
At Lighthouse Works.

And, of course, it being Southold Town Day, there were people from Southold Town all around.

The most difficult thing to find on the island, said Ms. Ahrens, who summered on Fishers Island but lived during the year in Fairfield County, Conn. before moving to the island full time about four years ago, is Chinese and Thai food. 

When island dwellers find out their friends are headed to Connecticut for supplies, she said, they implore them to bring back steaming boxes of exotic food. Even pizzas are delivered from Connecticut to Fishers Island. 

Ms. Ahrens said some favorite things to do in Connecticut are to drive fast, go to big box stores and go to the movies, much as we try to do here on Long Island.

We took a brief visit to the Henry L. Ferguson Museum, devoted to the island’s natural and human history, currently filled with a beautifully hung exhibition of photographs from the 1880s to the 1930s by the island’s earliest photographers, who documented the social goings-on in an enclave few of us on the mainland have ever seen. My reporter’s notebook made the staff nervous, so I shoved it in my pocket and tried to take everything in with my eyes.

Henry Ferguson, who served as the president of Fishers Island Farms for more than 40 years, was a passionate ornithologist and archeologist, and the museum was formed to house his vast collections of taxidermied birds and Native American artifacts. The displays are top-notch, like something you’d find in a day exploring the American Museum of Natural History.

Zoe Nelson’s “Cut-Outs”
Zoe Nelson’s “Cut-Outs”

Down near the ferry dock, in one of the many Fort Wright-era buildings on the west end of the island, we found the intriguing building that houses Lighthouse Works’ exhibition and artist studios. Inside, an exhibition of artist Zoe Nelson’s “Cut-Outs” paintings were on display, works of vibrant colors and voids, described in ArtForum as “paintings you look at but also see through.” 

It was dead quiet, and the only way we could guess an artist was present was because there was a pair of shoes sitting outside one studio door.

The visit was brief, as it always is. The town promised state money for paving roads at its perfunctory meeting, New York State Seagrass Coordinator Soren Dahl asked attendees to come to his upcoming lecture on sea grasses, and community members in attendance thanked the town for its annual commitment to civic engagement. 

And then we were gone, and Fishers Island went back to its quiet ways, quite content to let us go back to our heathen life on the crowded semi-mainland that is our own crazy Long Island.

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