One night a number of years ago, Ralph Brady found himself mingling at a bar in Ohio during a business trip.
After some initial teasing about Mr. Brady’s Long Island roots, and stereotypical accent, he asked his fellow patrons what they knew about his hometown region. They all stared at him blankly, except for one.
The man said, “I know you guys have that big-ass white shark. I’ve heard of ‘The Amityville Horror’ and I know about Joey Buttafuoco.”
Mr. Brady filed that moment away into the back of his mind, knowing that someday, he would help change Long Island’s image. Years later, he has launched a one-man campaign with his published debut, “Landmarks and Historic Sites of Long Island,” a tour of Nassau and Suffolk counties’ most significant and notable locations—many of them designated as National Historic Landmarks.
“I compiled a list of historic sites, by all means not all of them, visited them all, took some pictures, did a little research and I found I got very bored, very quickly, just looking at old buildings and old stretches of
beach,” Mr. Brady explained during a lecture last month at the Hampton Bays Public Library. “So I dug a little further and I found it was the stories of the people behind all these places that would really make these places come alive. I’m sort of the historic muckraker of Long Island.”
From Montauk to Garden City, Mr. Brady dove into the tales behind some of Long Island’s most beloved landmarks, including several on the East End. Among them, the Bulova Watchcase Factory, which is currently being redeveloped into condominiums.
“It was built in 1881, amazingly,” Mr. Brady said. “A guy, Joseph Fahys, builds a factory in Sag Harbor, Long Island. The railroad didn’t even exist then. You couldn’t even get to Greenport then, so why did he do this?”
For love. Mr. Fahys, a French immigrant who got started in the New Jersey watchcase business, set up shop on the East End after meeting a girl on vacation in the early 1880s, Mr. Brady reported. Mr. Fahys built the brick mammoth to be closer to his amour.
At that time, the whaling industry was dying and the factory, which Mr. Fahys sold to Arde Bulova in the 1930s, employed many of its casualties. During World War II, Bulova Watchcase manufactured timing devices for the military, Mr. Brady said. The business eventually closed in 1975.
Like the Bulova Watchcase Factory, the Big Duck in Flanders has also reinvented itself over the years. The idea for the ferrocement building in the shape of a duck, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was initially hatched during a coffee break in California by Martin and Julie Maurer, who ran a successful poultry store and duck farm in the Riverhead area.
During a trip to the West Coast in the 1920s, the couple satisfied a caffeine hankering at a café that caught their eye from the road. It was built in the shape of a gigantic coffee pot, Mr. Brady reported.
“One of them got the idea they should do something like this when they got home,” he said. “They took one of the poor little ducks off the farm, tied him onto the front porch of their house and they sketched him as a model. And then they hired a local carpenter and two Broadway set designers to build a wooden frame, covered it with cement, painted it white and voila, the Big Duck—30 feet long, 15 feet wide, 20 feet high. It’s no longer a poultry store; it’s a tourist office for Suffolk County.”
Another exclusive from the East End included in the book is the Old Whalers’ Church, which would have never been built if not for the exceptionally unpredictable fortune of Sag Harbor’s Presbyterian congregation, Mr. Brady said.
“They built a church in 1766 that they reported as leaking so badly that when it rained, the minister had to duck under the pulpit to get out of the rain,” Mr. Brady said. “I’m sure they were a very devout people, but hard luck followed them. They built a second church in 1816 and the congregation grew, so they moved out of that church, which burned down afterward, and built Old Whalers’ in 1844.”
Regarded as one of the finest examples of Egyptian-style architecture in the United States, Old Whalers’ Church did not always look as it does today. When Mr. Brady showed his two dozen audience members a photo of the building in its former glory, they groaned.
A 185-foot-tall steeple protruded from the top, so high that it was visible to ships rounding the Montauk Point.
“The steeple was a mixture of Greek-style architecture, which at the time people were very critical of,” Mr. Brady reported. “They thought it clashed. But have no fear. We had the Hurricane of 1938 and, like the nursery rhyme, down came the steeple. Funny thing is, they’re still debating whether to rebuild the steeple, but it’s over 70 years that the debate’s been going on.”
Arguably, Long Island’s most historic landmark is nestled on 155 acres in Oyster Bay, purchased for $30,000 by future President Theodore Roosevelt in 1880. It was there he built his summer home, Sagamore Hill.
Before construction was complete, Mr. Roosevelt’s wife, Alice, gave birth to a baby girl of the same name. Two days later, Ms. Roosevelt died due to complications of childbirth. His mother, Martha, had died just hours earlier.
When Mr. Roosevelt became president in 1901 following President William McKinley’s assassination, and was elected in 1904 to a full term of his own, Sagamore Hill became the Camp David of its day, Mr. Brady said.
“The place looks like a hunting lodge. It’s as masculine as you can get,” he said. “The ultimate man cave, which is the contemporary term. My wife was horrified. She thought it was nothing but dead animals all over the place. Strangely, Roosevelt remarried and the second wife, Edith Kermit Carow, didn’t seem to have any luck in changing the décor. You’d think she’d move in and bring a bunch of lace curtains, but no, it’s still what it is.”
The summer retreat proved not only to be an escape for the First Family, but also a negotiation ground, Mr. Brady said.
“When he was elected, Japan and Russia were amidst a war,” he said. “He brought the delegates together to Sagamore Hill and brokered a deal. He made a peace between them. For that, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize of 1906.”
At age 60, President Roosevelt died on Sagamore Hill. His story has not been forgotten, but so many others about lesser-known names in history are lost, Mr. Brady said.
“We have a responsibility and it’s your job, as well as mine, to keep these stories alive,” Mr. Brady emphasized. “Tell your families about them. They’re dying out and they have to be preserved.”