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When Less is More - The Bay House Way of Life

August 12, 2017

The average size of single family houses in the United States has grown significantly in recent times. Our McMansion lifestyle, created out of a need for prestige, was slowed down by changing economic times in 2008 and Hurricane Katrina’s wide-ranging housing damage in the Gulf area. There was suddenly a need for inexpensive housing that could be assembled quickly for the storm survivors. Inexpensive and quick assembly are terms that describe building the houses we’ve seen on the islands out in the bays from Nassau County to the Hamptons out east. These bay houses are how our ancestors who were commercial fishermen were able to work the waters and still see their families before bridges and ferries made the islands more accessible

The Town of Islip dates back to the late 1600s and has lease records for islands in the Great South Bay dating back to the 1700s. The first leaseholders may have been the baymen who rowed to the islands to harvest salt hay for the farmers to feed their livestock in the winter. Rowing to the islands, cutting the salt hay and rowing back took a lot of time and energy and the solution was to spend the night on the island, reducing the travel time and energy expended to one trip.
Commercial fishermen and shellfishermen were probably the first to put up permanent structures on the islands. The towns leased the land and the leaseholders put up the buildings. The annual cost of leases in the Town of Hempstead ranged from $5 in 1890 to $1,050 in 1991. Currently, the Town of Islip lease fees are around $1,000 a year for a ten year lease.
At one time there were hundreds of bay houses or bay shacks of varying sizes and designs. These were not houses built by builders or designed by architects. Most started out as minimal shelters and were added to and improved over the years. They were built by owners and friends of salvaged wood, old garages, sheds and doors. Most of the houses had a porch and a deck and were usually built to face south to take advantage of the sunlight and prevailing breezes.


To withstand the high tides of storms, a bay house was constructed on a foundation of dock piles (big trees, untreated lumber and later on, telephone poles) driven by men early on, and later by waterjet pumps. The houses sit on a platform-like mud sill that rests on the marshland and on top of the pilings. There were trap doors in the floor to let the water out that came in at extreme high tides.
There was no particular style to how bay houses were built and with the constant need to repair and replace doors, windows, roofs, flag poles and other victims of wind, storms and high tides, the same house might look different a few years down the road. The houses were stacked onto the mud sills and mostly were framed with 2 x 4’s to enclose rooms in plywood. Being lightweight and easy to move is important when your property includes shoreline that moves closer to your house.
With few exceptions the houses were one-story. The two-story Doxsee house on Meadow Island was moved to Point Lookout in 1936. The two-story bay house Gloria Swanson had built in the 1920s on Great Sand Creek was more of a mansion than a bay house, having Italian mosaic tile and a swimming pool.
The houses were furnished with everything from nice wooden furniture like people had back home to cast-offs, and some brought their beds from home in the spring and took them ashore again in the fall. On Meadow Island Eddie Cantor had a nice furnished bay house built and the Vanderwater family house was also known to be luxuriously furnished.
Filling an important need for each new bay house was the building of the outhouse. They were sometimes called “backhouses” because they were usually located about ten feet behind the houses. Fresh water was available down about 30 feet into the marsh and wells were driven, sinking a very long metal pipe into the marsh with a hand pump at the end. Homeowners collected rainwater in rain barrels. Wood, kerosene and coal stoves provided heat and cooked the food. Ice had to come from the mainland several times a week for the iceboxes until propane appliances became available.
An example of bay house living was provided by Mary Schaper. Her story…
Mary and Lou Schaper got married right after World War II and lived in Babylon. He was a commercial fisherman with Sunrise Fish Company, his family’s company, located on Captree Island. He needed to be at the work site in the summer and would need a house for the family. When the hospital in Central Islip was closing and getting rid of sheds and other small buildings, Lou bought the blueprint office, a 20’x 30’ shed, for $30. He took it away on his truck to the boat, brought it across the bay to the beach and that was the first part of the Schapers’ bay house. As the family expanded to five children, Lou added to the house. They had a living room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and porch. What was different about Mary and Lou’s house was the inside bathroom that had a sink, toilet and running water.
Sunrise Fish Company, along with Short Beach and Long Island Fish Company of West Sayville, shared the island. Sunrise had the most southerly part. There were equipment sheds, cookhouses and bunk houses for the fishermen and some built their own family houses. Each company had a cookhouse with a cook who fed the fishermen all their meals. They slept in the bunk houses.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Sunrise had four pound nets out in the ocean. They had developed their own nets that guided fish from the larger areas of the nets to the smallest chamber at the end. Normally the fishermen would empty the nets, going out after breakfast at 6:30 and coming back around Noon for lunch. After lunch they’d go to the mainland, unload the fish and pack them in ice. On a day with a light catch, some of the fishermen would stay on the island to mend the nets and maintain the boats and gear.
What was it like, spending a whole summer away from the conveniences of modern living that the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s offered? The tubs for the wash were brought out every Saturday night and everybody had a bath so they were clean for Sunday school. One of the women had a piano and Mary taught the island’s Sunday school classes.
The season started on the last day of school in June. They would pack up everything – clothes, whatever they wanted to read, bedding and beds. Mary and Lou sometimes asked the kids if they wanted to go ashore during the summer, but they never did. They loved the island way of life—swimming, clamming and rowing, visiting kids on other islands and putting on skits for their parents.
The big event of the day was going to the dock to meet the pound boat and see the catch of the day. Mary and Lou’s sons all worked on the fish boats every summer they were old enough and it gave them a better understanding of how hard their father worked to provide their college tuition money.
In Mary’s own words, from a paper she wrote for a class when at 55, it was her turn to go to college…
“Life at the beach was, and remains today, a rustic and meaningful lifestyle, a simple time set aside from the many pressures of modern life. Family members of the original fishermen who labored long and hard in their generation have endowed their children’s families with the same deep regard and appreciation of the past: the fishing industry, the historic lifestyle, the beach life as it was then lived It is those families who now occupy the beach houses who have a fervent desire to preserve the past. It is their heritage and their dream to carry this meaningful life on for themselves and future generations—a way of life which sometimes seems as fleeting as the sands along the shoreline.”
Mary, now almost 95, was happy to tell me that she has given the house to her daughter, Robin, who was not only interested in having the house, but very capable. She is able to repair and replace to keep the house in good shape and has already replaced roof tiles and dug a new cesspool to replace the one Superstorm Sandy washed away.
If you’d like a closer look at a bay house, Long Island Traditions sponsors Annual Bay House tours. The August 26th boat leaves Freeport at 11 am and at 1 pm. The September 9th trip will leave at 11 am and 1 pm from Long Beach. There is limited space, so an early call or email should get you a seat on the boat. The boat stops for a look at two houses and you get a brief history of the houses. The boat then proceeds to other nearby houses. Executive Director Nancy Solomon is the folklorist who saw beauty and cultural significance in the bay houses and is largely responsible for their survival. The Town of Hempstead in 1965 decided to get rid of the houses by 1993. Bringing the issue to the attention of the public, writing the book, “On the Bay” and getting help from the South Shore Bay House Owners Association and other agencies helped persuade the Town to save the houses. Long Island Traditions can be reached by calling (516)767-8803 or emailing to info@longislandtraditions.org

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