Freeport, Long Island, has a storied past. Its first inhabitants were the Meroke band of Native Americans. The English crossed Hempstead plains in 1659 to settle a village in the “The Great South Woods” led by Edward Raynor, a farmer and bay man. He was joined by the Carmans, Smiths and Baldwins. Originally it was called “Raynor Town’’ but “Freeport” stuck because no duty was charged to ships off loading cargo. In Sag Harbor and New York these high taxes were in full force. It was officially changed to Freeport in the mid 1850s.
The original Raynor home stood near the Freeport Recreation Center where the car wash is today across from the head of Freeport Creek. My friend, Bob Raynor of the Freeport Historical society, fought unsuccessfully in the 1970s to save it for prosperity. It’s regretful that Freeport lost this piece of history.
The settlers took advantage of the bays and access to the ocean through Jones inlet. They harvested oysters, clams, crabs, scallops, striped bass, fluke and cod. They built sloops to bring these catches, farm products and lumber to an expanding New York. Boat building continued until the mid 1980s when the Grover Family stopped building their famous “Grover built “ boats. They continue operating their marina and boat sales operations. In the mid 1920s Fred Scopinich and brother Mike established a boat yard that built a variety of crafts. Their yard was near the south end of Woodcleft canal. They built fast government boats during prohibition to catch rum runners and faster boats for rum runners so they couldn’t be caught. They built military boats, ferries and pleasure boats. Later they moved their operation to a marina in Quogue where it operates today. Maresca’s boat yard on Woodcleft was a builder specializing in building and outfitting commercial fishing boats well into the late 1970s. I remember the huge lift with tracks in the street to move large vessels across the street to their huge workshop, now the “Operation Splash” center.
Once Freeport was called “The boating and fishing capital of the world!” Today the waterfront is coming back from Sandy and the financial down turn that almost destroyed the pleasure boat Industry. The party boat Industry is alive and well with vessels such as “ Miss Freeport, Capt. Jim, Cod Father, The Capt. Lou Fleet , Star Stream “ and others that sail from the water front. Along the Nautical mile, new restaurants thrive amongst older establishments and marinas along the canals. On any fine day you see private fishing boats, party boats, pleasure cruisers and sailboats enjoying the bays, the gateway to Jones Beach and the inlet. These marinas and restaurants hug much of the shorelines of Freeport Creek, Hudson Canal, and Woodcleft Canal.
Upland of Freeport were woodlands with clear fresh streams and ponds that contained native trout and ran to the bay. This fresh water balanced the salinity in the bay to make it perfect for growing and harvesting oysters. This was a huge industry for the area. Today old oyster buildings exist next to where the old Yankee Clipper Restaurant was. In the late 1890s area ponds and streams were tapped by the Brooklyn Water Works to supply Brooklyn with fresh water. Old conduits from this system can be found at Jones Pond in Bellmore. As a result, too much sweet water was siphoned from the water table and bay salinity increased strangling the oyster beds.
Other industries grew upon the arrival of the South Shore Rail Road in 1868. Summer cottages were built and bought by folks to get their families into fresh ocean air away from the sweltering summer city. Large hotels, pavilions and boarding houses were built near the waterfront to accommodate tourists. For a time, a trolley ran from the train station down to the waterfront. As the “Gay Nineties” rolled around, beautiful Victorian mansions and grand summer houses, many of which have been restored, lined roads down to the waterfront.
John J. Randell (1846-1924) was the prime developer during this era and called “The Father of Freeport”. He was prominent in Brooklyn real estate, The Freeport Bank, and
The Freeport Land Company. His company excavated the canals east and west of Woodcleft. He laid out the streets and home lots. He did so much it’s amazing no one changed Freeport’s name to “Randell Port”.
With swanky hotels, homes, beaches and sailing clubs came fame. Freeport welcomed the rich and famous. Diamond Jim Brady, Lillian Russell, John Philipp Sousa, Gentleman Jim Corbett, and the Ringling Bros. often vacationed in Freeport. On their heels came Al Jolson and Flo Ziegfeld, Leo Carrillo, Fannie Brice, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers, Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields and many other entertainers living in fine homes. Many kept fine boats in Freeport to fish, sail and enjoy water sports.
Guy Lombardo arrived and opened the famous Point View Inn; (Originally Liota’s East Point House built in 1920) Lombardo made it one of the largest restaurants on the South Shore. It stood at the end of South Grove. Food and entertainment by “Mr. New Year” backed by his famous “Royal Canadians”. Guy Lombardo owned a home at the end of today’s Guy Lombardo Ave. The house was huge for its time. It overlooked the bay, with a pool and a large boathouse to shelter his collection of fast pleasure boats. Still standing it seems modest compared to the mini mansions everyone feels they must to live in today.
For years Lombardo hosted Jones Beach musicals like Song of Norway and Oklahoma at Zacks bay Amphitheater. Before each show he roared into the arena in his speed boat waving to the crowd then tied up and conducted the Royal Canadians. What a showman he was! More recently, Freeport has bred notables like Lou Reed, Rapper Favor Flav, Author Eric Larson (Devil in the White City), Cindy Adams (columnist) and Justin Dunn, the 2016 Major League baseball draft.
In 1930 Freeport, always in love with fast boats, opened the Freeport Raceway making sure it was now covering land and sea speed. The Stadium held over 2,000 people with both short track races for speed’ stock car and demolition races. My brother–in-law, John Liuzza, had a following there in the 60s racing his custom Impala under the name of “Johnny Impala”. He raced Tues, Fri, and Sat nights. Saturday always ended with a fireworks display which we watched from the open porch of our 1917 Sears beach cottage “starter” home. The track finally closed in the 80s.
There were many historic firsts in Freeport. Electric street lighting came in 1910, supplied by its own power plant.
In 1924 Freeport broadcasted from the first radio station on Long Island-WGBB. In 1910 Arthur and Albert Heinrich built the first monoplane in a plant on Merrick Road.
The late 60s to early 80s were stressful times for Freeport. The waterfront remained viable but businesses centered along Merrick Rd. and Main Street suffered like every “downtown” on Long Island trying to compete with malls. Socially, the rise in awareness of civil rights came to forefront. But much progress has been made. Now Freeport is coming back. It is now a town of diversity with Hispanics, Afro Americans, Whites, and people from every nationality living, working, playing and boating together. Just go to the great Imperial diner on Merrick Road any day and see for yourself. (The best diner on the south shore)
C.2017 Mark C Nuccio
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