Featured Story

Safe harbor through decades of Shelter Island life

COURTESY PHOTO A warm and welcoming harbor, no matter the weather.
COURTESY PHOTO A warm and welcoming harbor, no matter the weather.

The teaser in the Reporter classified ads early last month was: “Much more than a yard sale!” And the address, 45 Burns Road, should have been the tip off.

For three decades, ending in 1985, 45 Burns Road was Harbor Inn. Owned by Jack and Beverly Cahill for much of that time, the tavern remains embedded in the collective memory of Shelter Islanders over the age of 40. If you lived here prior to 1985, you not only remember Harbor Inn, you probably have a story or two to tell about it.

In the fall of 1984, Nik Cohn, a London-based author of the classic “Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock” and the magazine article that inspired the movie, “Saturday Night Fever,” and Michaela Muntean, an author of children’s books, were visiting Shelter Island looking for a home. Mr. Cohn had been living an edgy New York life, and as much as the couple wanted a comfortable place to live, they wanted somewhere quiet to work.

They found their way to Harbor Inn. Sitting at the smooth, curving mahogany bar, they got to talking to owner Jack Cahill and mentioned they were looking to settle down on the Island.

“Why don’t you buy this place?” Jack said.

The next day the couple came by to take a look in the daylight. They found a farmhouse built at the turn of the 20th century and converted to an inn around 1947. Two cottages, one built in the 1950s and one rolled onto the property from across the street a few years later, stood on land at the corner of Cartwright and Burns, a scallop-shell throw from Coecles Harbor, cater-corner from the grassy strip of Klenawicus Airfield.

Joseph and Josephine Margiotta bought the house in 1947 and ran it as a restaurant, calling it Harbor Inn. In 1961, Eddie and Vicki Pertile began to manage the restaurant, changed the name to Coecles Harbor Inn and offered lodging. The Cahills bought it in 1965 and changed the name back to Harbor Inn.

And what an inn it was. Charlie Beckwith, who tended bar there for 12 years, called it “the best neighborhood tavern in the history of Shelter Island.”

By January of 1985, Jack had agreed to sell the place to Mr. Cohn and Ms. Muntean with the stipulation that he could host one more party for old times’ sake. New Year’s Eve was the last hurrah and Harbor Inn was no more.

‘The perfect guy to have it’
Jack originally came from off-Island but had friends here and married a local girl, Beverly Price. The couple settled in New Jersey and had two children, Susan and Scott. Several generations of Beverly’s family lived on Shelter Island in those days and the couple visited frequently.

“Jack liked it out here,” said Beverly. “He was a policeman in New Jersey, it was the 60s, and there were a lot of problems at that time.”

In 1965, the Cahills decided to buy Coecles Harbor Inn and move their young family to Shelter Island. The family quarters were on the second floor with the kitchen downstairs behind the bar. Beverly worked as a nurse three nights a week while

Jack was bartending and the kids were upstairs. “So it worked out,” she said.

Although Jack was running a drinking establishment, he quickly made a reputation for himself as a family man, closing the bar early on Christmas Eve and staying closed on other holidays. People should be home with their families, he believed, and that included his staff and himself.

By all accounts, Jack created an atmosphere at Harbor Inn that was friendly and surprisingly wholesome.

Town Councilman Paul Shepherd remembered that “Jack Cahill ran a good, clean establishment, with no small effort on his part to keep the language fit for mixed company.” He was known to shoo stragglers at closing time, with the time-honored bartender’s farewell: “I don’t care if you don’t go home, but you can’t stay here.”

The best qualities of Harbor Inn sprang from the personality of the owner. Town Building Inspector Bill Banks said Jack, by his own admission, wasn’t a particularly gifted storyteller, and his joke delivery wasn’t the best. Charlie said Jack “got up to tell jokes on St. Patrick’s Day, but it was loud so you couldn’t really hear them.”

What came through loud and clear was his heart. “My husband was Irish,” said Beverly. “I would say he was a draw.”

Picking and choosing bartenders

Charlie was barely of legal drinking age — 18 at the time — when Jack started running Harbor Inn. He worked there for more than a decade. “Jack Cahill would pick and choose the staff,” he said. “He wanted us to be friendly, trustworthy and to banter with the customers.”

Known for his preemptive bartending, Charlie could keep one eye on the parking lot so by the time a regular customer had stepped through the door their beverage of choice was waiting on the bar.

Chrissy Gross, who tended bar on weekends at Harbor Inn, is a central part of many people’s memories of the place. Then as now, she was warm, funny, plain talking and discreet. What happened at Harbor Inn, as far as she’s concerned, will stay at Harbor Inn. She agreed to be quoted on one subject: the Cahills.

“I loved them to pieces,” she said. ”They were great people to work for and it was a great establishment.”

Beverly said the bar was busy year-round, but Jack still took time off for family vacations, leaving the business in the hands of the regular bartenders.

Anders Langendal described himself as “an immigrant from Sweden” in 1965 when he attended an open house at Harbor Inn. He ended up living in one of the cottages for $7 a week.

“Drafty,” he said. “I was there for six or seven years, but had to move out in the summers so Jack could rent it out.”

Anders, known as “Andy the Swede,” tended bar and undertook building and woodwork improvements, including recovering the slate pool table — twice. Anders later established a respected wooden boat-building business in Greenport, but in those days his artistic skills were directed to a rebuild of the beautiful mahogany bar.

Jack asked Anders to build an extension of the bar to keep customers from blocking the path to the kitchen. Anders arrived a little before closing time one night “with a handsaw and cut the end off the bar,” he said. “Jack gave me quite a look when I walked in with that big saw.”

Anders then matched it up with a piece of Honduran mahogany he had found and made a handrail for the new extension.

The “Over the Hill” Gang
Before sports bars were invented, there was one TV in Harbor Inn. It got two channels. In the fall, a Giants game was on every Sunday afternoon and the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox dominated the summer. Red Sox legend, Carl Yastrzemski grew up in Bridgehampton and more than one patron of Harbor Inn played against him when Bridgehampton met Shelter Island in high school baseball and had stories to tell around the bar about Yaz back when.

The Lions Club supported the local Little League team, but when Jack heard the team needed more support, he put together a baseball team dubbed, the “Over the Hill Gang.” He pitted them against a team organized by the Dory. Starting in the 1970s, on the third weekend in September, the annual Dory vs. Harbor Inn baseball game raised money for the Little League. The “Over the Hill Gang” was coached by Charlie Beckwith and the Dory team by Ben Jones.

Bob Dunne, editor of the Reporter in those days, once reported on the game from an outhouse dragged to the field to serve as a press box. Bob was famous for taking pictures with no film in the camera, but in 1977, the Reporter managed to produce a photo montage of the event anyway. Another year, Sherman Payne was said to have pitched a giant grapefruit and Frank Klenawicus played catcher in a red dress and wig, with a bushel-basket for a glove.

Hundreds of spectators showed up every year, passing the hat to support the Little League.

This  year the “Over the Hill Gang” softball game and benefit, a descendant of the Harbor Inn vs. Dory matches, will be played on Sunday, October 4. Rain date: Sunday, October 11.

Next week, Harbor Inn is sold, along with the ghosts of the Island landmark.