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New take on origin of ‘hareleggers’ — documents discovered

ANNABELLE WOODWaRd PHOTO Library Director Terry Lucas points at a photograph of “The Old Windmill,” which was the location of the Island’s second library, and where the Shelter Island School now stands.

ANNABELLE WOODWARD PHOTO
Library Director Terry Lucas points at a photograph of “The Old Windmill,” which was the location of the Island’s second library, and where the Shelter Island School now stands.

The Shelter Island Public Library recently tasked someone to take a bunch of old boxes labeled “Miscellaneous Information” out of a shed. The simple chore revealed not only old tax records, but a boon of historical treasures, including one document that explains the origin of the Island’s unique referential term of “harelegger.”

Or at least a new version of the reason why Islanders born on the Island are known by the mysterious moniker.

Sifting through the old files, Library Director Terry Lucas found postcards from the 1800s, a set of square dance instructions and old letters from patrons — most of them thanking the library for its childcare services, but one of them — there’s always one — complaining about not being properly thanked for their book donation.

Ms. Lucas found sheet music, hardcover novels and a transcription of the first official library meeting, which was held on November 18, 1885. It was attended by 108 people who collectively raised $40 toward the library’s construction.

As for the new, or rather, old, harelegger origin story: Ms. Lucas’ most exciting find was the journal of Reverend Daniel M. Lord, who served as a pastor of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in the 1800s. Reverend Lord was a much-beloved member of the Island community, according to the Shelter Island Historical Society.

Installed as pastor of the Presbyterian Church in 1848, he was widely known as an “eloquent speaker and a strong family man,” according to the Historical Society, and was also an influential voice of the temperance movement.

He’s memorialized here with Daniel Lord Road, a short street off North Menantic Road that ends at a town landing on West Neck Creek.

In Reverend Lord’s journal, Ms. Lucas found a page that outlines the mythology behind the term for those born on the Island.

According to the journal, the origin of the nickname can be traced to the time when the long-legged herons were plentiful all over the Island. “The heron is a noble bird which stares and stares and waits and waits until things come to it,” wrote Reverend Lord. Over time, “heron-leggers” turned into hareleggers.

The only downside to the delightful discovery is that the Reverend Lord is not around to defend his harelegger story against the other versions.

Ms. Lucas said she loved the “serendipity” of discovering “all these treasures. I love Island history, Just to see people’s handwriting is a treat, because you don’t see that very often anymore.”

The library was established in 1885 and has been in three locations since its founding.

The first “library” was a re-purposed boot closet in “The Old Store,” which was presumably located where Chase Bank is now. The second library was by “The Old Windmill,” where the Shelter Island School is now. The third is the present building, which was erected in 1964.

Asked what the library plans to do with the historical finds, Ms. Lucas said that, for now, they’re going to “make sure they are kept in a warm, dry place.”

Some items will be given to the Historical Society for safekeeping, and others will be kept in the library office for reference. They might eventually be presented in a display case for public viewing.

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