This is part one of a two-part story on the Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve. The conclusion will appear next week.
Standing at the overlook point of Miss Annie’s Creek in Mashomack Preserve, the swans swimming placidly below, it is hard to imagine that just over 30 years ago, this chunk of Shelter Island was slated for large-scale development. Instead, thanks to a recessionary economy, sympathetic owners and the timely intervention of The Nature Conservancy, these 2,039 acres were preserved in perpetuity.
The peacefulness of Mashomack also belies its colorful 400-plus year history, a tale of wealthy families, Prohibition-era bootlegging, stock market crashes, development plans and even a flirtation as a national park.
Today, Mashomack faces new challenges, from environmental and climatic threats to modern lifestyles that place less of a priority on outdoor activities and pursuits. “We are looking hard at the way that the land will adapt to changes in the environment and are changing the context in which we view this property,” said Preserve Director Mike Laspia, who has been managing Mashomack since 1979. “How will the salt marsh adapt to the rise in sea level? What will the impact be of acid rain? Do invasive plants contribute to bio-diversity and how can new species be managed?”
He added, “We used to be concerned about shellfish restoration within our own boundaries but now we are looking at expanded shellfish spawning in the Great South Bay.”
And as the generation of volunteers who helped preserve Mashomack 30-plus years ago begin to retire, finding their successors, the next cohort of conservationists, may also be an issue. Board Chair Michael McConnell believes that identifying and recruiting the new generation to run Mashomack will be a distinct challenge.
“Everyone rallies when there is a crisis but we now need to find people who love the Island, are interested in conservation and are willing to devote the time to do this work. People must understand that this entity doesn’t take care of itself.”
WHERE THEY GO BY WATER
What we now know as Mashomack was originally called Sachem’s Neck. “Mashomack,” meaning “where they go by water,” referred only to Mashomack Point, which was thought to have been an island before a narrow spit of land formed, connecting it to the rest of the peninsula.
Despite its proximity to New York City, naturalists and environmentalists have long considered Mashomack to be one of the richest habitats in the Northeast. Covering one-third of Shelter Island, it encompasses 350 acres of salt marsh, 100 acres of freshwater wetlands, 1,700 acres of coastal oak woodlands and some 300 to 400 miles of shoreline. Within its boundaries are rare plants, one of the densest breeding populations of osprey on the east coast, as well as sanctuaries for the endangered piping plover and least tern. And thanks to a decade-long volunteer effort, it had over 320 Eastern bluebirds last year, a far cry from the 15 found there in 2001. It is no wonder that The Nature Conservancy has dubbed Mashomack “The Jewel of the Peconic.”
THE NICOLLS FAMILY
The history of non-native habitation in Mashomack dates back to 1693, when Nathaniel Sylvester’s son, Giles, sold Mashomack to William Nicoll I, starting the 230 year “reign” of the Nicoll family there.
William Nicoll II was the first full-time resident of Mashomack. He passed the land on to William III, who farmed the land with his family. Over the years, the property was divided among members of the Nicoll family, including the legendary “Miss Annie,” who continued to farm in the center of the Preserve, and Dr. Sam Nicoll, her brother, who built the Bass Creek Cottage now known as the Manor House.
Miss Annie sold 1,100 acres of her land to a development syndicate in 1923, reportedly the first time in two centuries any part of the original holdings passed out of family hands. An unattributed newspaper clipping from that time called it “one of the most important real estate transactions on Eastern Long Island in some time.”
In 1925, Otto Kahn, a wealthy German financier, reestablished the integrity of Mashomack, reuniting all of the original Nicoll family holdings by buying up disparate parcels from the family as well as other plots that had been sold. He installed Albertus and Belle Clark as caretakers with the intent of developing the land.
The period of the Kahn ownership, which coincided with Prohibition, was perhaps the most colorful in the property’s history. According to “Where They Go by Water,” the history of Mashomack by Muriel Porter Weaver, Mashomack was the setting for “a grand game of cops and robbers, glamour and cold cash” during the Prohibition years. The waters of Mashomack were a preferred drop-off point for alcoholic beverages from Canada, the Bahamas, Cuba and the French Caribbean. Miss Annie’s barn was stocked with contraband liquor. “Everybody was on the take except Miss Annie,” wrote Ms. Weaver.
Land speculation on Shelter Island also grew in the mid-1930s on the rumor that a bridge was imminent. With its 2,039 acres, Mashomack represented the single largest private holding of undeveloped land on the Atlantic coast between Boston and Washington. One developer wrote to potential investors, “I am recommending the purchase of the Nicoll tract on Shelter Island which can be bought for a mere fraction of its true value … $100 an acre.”
Kahn lost most of his assets in the 1929 stock crash and, in 1934, a real estate syndicate headed by Sumner Gerard purchased Mashomack from his estate.
32 QUIET YEARS
Things were relatively quiet on the property for the next 32 years. A succession of fish and game clubs leased the land from the Gerards, their members enjoying hunting, fishing, horseback riding and even the occasional fox hunt. Two fields in the center of the preserve were converted into a skeet range and tennis courts and the well-appointed Manor House served as the Lodge, offering fine French cuisine for the members.
Controversy emerged, however, in 1966 when a proposal to create a national seashore park out of the 2,200 acres of Sachem’s Neck was made by M. Scudder Griffing, the brother of Shelter Island’s then-supervisor Evans K. Griffing, to Secretary of the Interior Morris Udall. Secretary Udall tentatively favored the idea and authorized a feasibility study by the National Parks Service.
The news provoked an outcry on the Island, with residents writing heated letters to both the Secretary and the Reporter. One frequently voiced concern was “today a national park, tomorrow a bridge.” Even Evans Griffing was quoted as saying, “You put a national seashore here and in five minutes there will be a four-lane bridge.”
The Town Board passed a resolution on June 16, 1966 opposing the proposal. The Gerard brothers joined in the fray, writing Secretary Udall to say that they opposed the suggestion that their land be acquired for a national park. The issue faded away.
‘RED LETTER DAY’
In 1973, a plan was made public to develop Mashomack into an exclusive residential community. A group of investors known as Mashomack Forest, Inc. proposed a $10 million, 10-year plan to build five separate residential areas with a total of 1,100 homes, including two-acre building lots, apartments and condominiums. A press release announcing the offering stated that “Plans are to make this the most select and delightful summer colony in the East.”
The plan included an airstrip on Mashomack Point, a golf-yacht club residential complex on Coecles Harbor, a marina village on Congdon Creek, two tiny housing hamlets and the “Mashomack Club” residential area. There would be bridle paths, playing fields, beaches and woodland and a “sanctuary.”
The proposal included setting aside several hundred acres of shoreline and marshland to be preserved as flyways, though no land was to be taken off the town tax roles. Donald Lamb of East Hampton’s Nature Conservancy was quoted as saying “this is the proper way to approach the development of such a unique area … I am delighted with the group that purchased Mashomack … You could never hope for anything better than that.” And then-Supervisor Thomas Jernick said, “It’s a red letter day for Shelter Island.”
Michael Laspia was hired as the outdoor manager for the Mashomack Fish & Game Preserve in 1977 and, as such, was witness to the marketing of the development plan. “It became apparent that the club was really a front for the real estate syndicate that wanted to develop the property,” he recalled.
In the late 1970s, when the Gerards decided they wanted to sell the property, they began courting Japanese and Arab real estate interests. Representatives from these big global real estate syndicates would show up to look at the property. “I spent a lot of time driving the potential investors around,” Mr. Laspia said. As he recalled it, the Gerards evicted the club in 1979 in the hopes that the property would be more marketable without a tenant. The club relocated to Dutchess County.
“I stayed on to look after the property while the Gerards decided what to do with it,” Mr. Laspia said. “It was at that point (July 1, 1979) that I moved on-site.”
When the Mashomack Forest plan fell apart in 1979, the Gerards’ company, Aeon Realty, put the property up for sale, saying it could no longer afford the $125,000 in annual property taxes. Since the 1950s, The Nature Conservancy had expressed hopes of preserving Mashomack and was able to strike an agreement with the Gerard family to acquire all of the assets of Aeon at a purchase price of $10.6 million.
“There were warehouses in Miami, brownstones in New York City and oil and gas leases in Louisiana and Texas,” Mr. Laspia recalled. Those assets were sold off for $5.5 million, leaving the cost for more than 2,000 acres on Shelter Island at $5.1 million. The Conservancy then mounted the largest fundraising effort in its 30-year history to purchase Mashomack.
On January 14, 1980, The Nature Conservancy took title to Mashomack with the support of 1,700 Shelter Islanders and Nature Conservancy members, foundations and corporations nationwide. That truly was a red letter day for Shelter Island.
To be continued next week.