The East Hampton Historical Farm Museum: Preserving Bonac History

The goal of the East Hampton Historical Farm Museum, situated on the corner of Cedar Street and North Main Street, is to preserve Bonac history and culture. The museum is focused on the Bonac families who farmed the local land between the years of 1880 and 1930.

“I’m a 12th generation Bonacker,” said Prudence Carabine, the chairman of the museum’s board, who spoke to James Lane Post about the museum.

The term Bonacker comes from Accabonac Harbor in Springs. Many of the original Bonac families in Springs were among the very early settlers of East Hampton, having come from England in the 17th and 18th centuries. For hundreds of years they made their living as baymen, fishermen, and farmers.

Carabine has a deep interest in East Hampton, the place she calls home, and says it is “very special in the world.”

With a background in nonprofits, she has been rallying volunteers on the East End for decades. She was instrumental in starting Maureen’s Haven, a homeless shelter, and the East End’s Habitat for Humanity, building homes for those in need in the mid-’90s.

Following her run for town board in 2009, when the town posed the question, “What should we do with the Lester Farm?” and its 18th century Selah Lester farmhouse, Carabine stepped in with the idea to start the Farm Museum.

At the time, the East End’s maritime history had been widely celebrated, following the reopening of the Amagansett U.S. Life-Saving & Coast Guard Station, serving as a maritime museum. Carabine saw the need to focus on East Hampton’s farming history, which provided a livelihood for many Bonackers during this time period.

“The fishing angle was getting lots of romantic coverage,” she said. “This is not as romantic as a life on the sea, but it is a bona fide way of life. It is very difficult, but can be very rewarding.”

“You need vegetables to go with that fish,” she added. And with that Carabine was able to memorialize the history of the farming industry and Bonac life in East Hampton, opening the museum in 2014.

“We haven’t bought anything in the barn,” she said of the museum’s current display. All of the museum’s items have come in the form of donations from local families. And unlike most museums, you can touch most of the objects on display.

Photo by James J. Mackin

The time period that the museum focuses on was a significant time in the development of East Hampton — a time when a tremendous amount of change took place “socially, economically, and industrially,” she said.

The railroad, which came to town in 1895, brought in laborers from Italy and Sicily. Many who worked for the railroad received a plot of land.

“Industrialization brought equipment that had up to that point been handmade,” she said, and “the social atmosphere was changing.”

Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog started to sell equipment to farmers and fisherman, while a dusty Main Street saw its first automobile. It was a time of businesses development — Roy Lester’s farm taxi, which is now at the museum, would bring people from the train to the beach. Dr. Edwards, the town’s first doctor, came to town, and churches began to organize — offering weddings, funerals, and Christenings.

Photo by James J. Mackin

Life became “easier than it had been” in the past, according to Carabine. “People began to have more free time with family and friends,” she said, and the beach was always a draw.
And because of the influx of money, many more people came to farm and fish.

“There were all kinds of businesses that were developed to accommodate the enjoyment of free time, which added to people’s bankrolls and to their enjoyment in being out here. A lot more people started coming. Even the depression did not really slow that down.”

“Freetown is the only community in the United States that I am aware of where three cultures lived, worked, went to school, and partied together,” she said. “The three cultures hung out.”

Freetown is the area just north of East Hampton Village. After slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827, freed Black slaves were relocated to small houses in the area. In 1879 after Arthur W. Benson bought 10,000 acres around Montauk, many from the Montaukett Indian tribe were relocated to Freetown as well.

Today, the museum is used as a cultural center and a way to preserve Bonac history. What Bonac life represents, said Carabine, is “ethical ways of living by nature’s standards — by land and by sea.” She believes they are still “valuable life lessons.”

Photo by James J. Mackin

“We have become a cultural center with activities that bring out Bonac,” she said.
It’s a way to show “we’re still here,” she added. And while staying here has become increasingly difficult in recent years, with the area’s rising real estate prices, the museum is a way of preserving the past.

“There’s something very special about Eastern Long Island,” she said, attributing its mix of water, light, attitude, and the ability to make a living as the reasons people moved to the area in the first place.

During non-Covid-times at the museum, films are displayed on the barn door, there is live music, and clams on the half shell are served during a celebration after Labor Day. Clamming is at the heart of Bonac culture and cuisine. There’s even a piano that plays music rolls form the 1920s.

The museum also pays tribute to two of its biggest supporters, who both passed away at a young age. The museum features a garden dedicated to Matthew Lester. Lester had created the garden, along with a pollinator garden for bees, as an Eagle Scout project. A flagpole, put up in memory of Peter Schaefer, was created from a 100-year-old boat mast donated by The East End Classic Boat Society of Amagansett.

What Carabine said the museum needs right now are volunteers to help.

“We need volunteers who are creative and interested in putting a little bit of time into a project that is basically run on $15,000 per year for programs,” she said. The museum welcomes volunteers to give as little or as much time as they’d like.

“This is a project where everyone who walks in the door has a gift,” she said.

The museum plans to reopen in May. For more info, visit the museum’s Facebook page.

Those interested in volunteering can email or call 631.324. 3892.

Jessica Mackin-Cipro


Jessica Mackin-Cipro is an editor and writer from the East End of Long Island. She has won numerous NYPA and PCLI awards for journalism and social media. She was previously the Executive Editor of The Independent Newspaper.

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