Island profile: The Brigham family

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Alfred and Rachel Brigham with their children, from left, Elsie Mae, Lily and Alfie, outside their Smith Street home.

Several things tend to be true about young Island families — their roots go deep, they love Island life, they work hard and are related to half the people found in the IGA at any given moment or day of the week.

The Brigham family fits the mold; that’s Alfred Sr. and his wife Rachel, and their three children, Alfred Jr., called Alfie, now 6 and in first grade at the Shelter Island School, Elsie Mae, now 4 and enrolled in the Presbyterian Church preschool, and their youngest, Lily, 2, at home on Smith Street.

If you ask All about his family, be prepared to block out some time if you want the whole story. “The Brighams have been here since the early 1800s,” he started, and then went on to speak first of his great grandfather, the artist Walter Cole Brigham, who designed and executed the stained glass windows in both Union Chapel and St. Mary’s Church and coined the phrase “marine mosaic,” for which he’s still remembered.

His great uncle was Walter Lawson Brigham, a ship builder on Winthrop Road and his uncle is Al Kilb, a former town supervisor, still living on the Island and active in the Taylor’s Island Foundation preservation project. His grandmother is Karoline Kilb and we haven’t even come to the Corbetts, who are all cousins. His father, Walter is retired now, and his mother, Barbara, works at Gardiner’s Bay, and his older brother, Walter, is the  go-to IT expert at the Shelter Island School. Catching his breath, Al continued that his younger brother, Harry, recently married Catherine Needham, adding the entire Needham and Sareyani clans to the mix.

He stopped and laughed. Referring to the family tree, he said, “The more you get into it, the more it just gets bigger and bigger.”
Rachel grew up on the Island as well — she’s a Clark of the “Mashomack Clarks.” Her great grandparents were Bert and Belle Clark and her grandparents, Bucky and Barbara (Buzz) Clark, were the caretakers when the Nature Conservancy’s Manor House was the center for the Shelter Island Gun Club. Her mother, Heather Clark, now Heather Reylik, grew up there.

Both Rachel and Al graduated from the Shelter Island School in 1990 and went on to college together at SUNY Oneonta in upstate New York. By 1997, they both had their undergraduate and masters degrees in education; Rachel got hers in special education at Southampton College and Al received his from Syracuse University’s School of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Rachel is the special education teacher here at the Shelter Island School and Al teaches science and biology at Hampton Bays. He’s also on the Shelter Island School Board of Education. “I think the school is doing great. We have a great new superintendent who’s really changed things around and I’m happy to be part of the school board. I’m happy that my children are going to school here, I think it’s a unique opportunity.”

He enjoys his work on the board; “It’s a nice match. Being a teacher and seeing both sides, you understand it all.”

The Brigham homestead is more than a house; it’s more of a mini-farm. They have three goats, ducks, chickens, bees and “a big garden in the summer time.” They get eggs from the ducks and chickens and honey from the bees and vegetables from the garden. Which leaves the goats, who don’t do anything. “Except keep our kids entertained,” Al said. “We don’t milk them, we don’t have the time for that, but they’re there for these guys to learn responsibility, to feed animals, water them, feed the chickens, check the eggs.”

Al’s been bee keeping for a while. With three children, he has less time than he used to, but he still has some hives and provides them to “people who have big gardens and want bees. The more bees you have, the better the pollination and if you have a garden, you want bees close.”

Does he worry about stings with little ones around? Not so much, since, as he pointed out, honey bees only attack if their hives are threatened. “There’s yellow jackets and they’re not bees, hornets are not bees, wasps are not bees. It’s honey bees that are bees and once a honey bee stings you, it’s dead, so they’re not going to sting you unless they need to.”

It’s not difficult to sum up his life, Al said. “The other day at work someone asked me about what it was like to live on Shelter Island. I told him its not where you live, it’s not a place. It’s a way of life that you can’t find any place else.”