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Rumrunners on the Bay.

Few events raise as much curiosity on the bay than the stories of the legendary rumrunners, many of whom called Freeport and other South Shore communities home. When I first began doing fieldwork in the late 1980s in this area, some of the people I approached were still concerned for their safety in sharing their memories of the 1920s, when prohibition was the law of the land. On Long Island, many baymen earned extra money on the side, bringing booze from offshore boats that traveled from the West Indies to the waters off Long Beach. Their small garveys and skiffs were difficult to detect, especially at night, and waiting cars and trucks quickly collected the barrels and boxes of imported liquor.

Fred Scopinich was born in 1927 in Freeport, part of the third generation of a family of boat builders. They built fishermen's garveys and military boats during the two world wars, and rumrunners and Coast Guard boats in between. "I grew up in the boatyard--every day I would watch what was going on. There was nothing else I wanted to see except what the next day's progress was going to be."

According to Fred:

   The boat, Maureen, took five crew members
   out of the inlet. They got out to the
   Coast Guard boat that was patrolling
   the inlet, who stopped them and asked
   where they were going. They told them
   they were going mackerel fishing. As they
   said, these two fellows jumped off the
   boat with pistols and held up the Coast
   Guardsmen. They stayed in the Coast
   Guard boat, and the other boat went out,
   got its load of rum, went in and unloaded.
   Afterward, the Coast Guard sent a skiff
   out to pick up the two guys. The two guys
   who held them up hid $200-300 dollars
   in the boat and told the Coast Guardsmen,
   "If you report us, we're reporting
   you that you took a bribe."

Some baymen played an indispensable role in rum-running, smuggling, via their bay houses, illegal booze from large cargo ships offshore to hotels from Brandt Point to Woodmere Bay. Fishermen and sportsmen, like Carmine Marinaccio and Arthur Pearsall frequently witnessed illicit activities. They kept many of their stories secret until recent because of fear of retribution.

   Jack Combs, a burly bayman, and his
   partner, "One arm Charlie," shared a
   bay house in the Haunts Creek area.
   The tale he told me: He and his friend
   had converted their booze into cash and
   deposited it for safekeeping in a cigar box
   and hid it under a cot. By the time they
   returned the next day, the extra high tide
   had soaked their "deposit box," the $5s,
   $10s and $20s, now soggy with saltwater.
   Jack hastily went to town and returned
   with a box of thumbtacks. The two had
   just finished tacking the money on the
   walls to dry when federal marshals, gun
   in hand, kicked the door open, and gaping
   at the money hanging on the wall,
   shouted, "You are under arrest!" Jack
   stuttered and gasped, "What for?" "Possession
   of alcoholic beverages" came
   the answer. "Wa, wa, wa, we only got
   money; no booze," Jack protested. "Ain't
   against the law to have money." All the
   while, "One arm Charlie" was nodding
   in approval. "You have a point," admitted
   the officer. "We will be watching you,"
   he cautioned as he left.

--Carmine Marinaccio, September 1989

Arthur Pearsall remembers how, only a short distance from the mainland, stills dotted the marshlands. As a child, Pearsall sold scrap metal, which made the bootleggers' scrap metal stills very valuable to Pearsall. According to local legend, some baymen and bay house owners made substantial fortunes as rumrunners in the 1920s, enabling them to eventually retire in fashion.

Schoolteacher Lillian Chapin recalled an outing taken by her and some fellow teachers to Meadow Island, where several hotels coexisted with baymen and celebrities. She jotted down her memories in an illustrated poem:

   Eight little maidens reached the Freeport
   dock. For the ferryman, they waited half
   an hour by the clock.

   Wet and laughing, joking, chaffing, to the
   bungalow repaired. Dirty dishes, dirty
   floors, dirty mattresses and doors. Sadly
   the homesick maidens eyed the feather
   bed, with mental reservation. "Here I will
   not lay my head."

   Then up rose the fair young boatman,
   who had been our faithful guide, pointed
   out the hotel near us where he thought
   we might abide.

   Then the maidens wandered. O'er the
   sand ... Lou and Etta went in bathing
   while the others stayed on land. Thus
   passed by the happy moments, maidens
   feeling all was well. Little knew they at the
   time of goings-on at the hotel.

   For nightly ran the host with bottles
   armed, while the ever thirsty crowd
   around the hotel and beaches swarmed.
   Daily in his tower sat a member of the
   Coast Guard crew. Though one hundred
   yards away, yet little of these things he

   Three days spent the carefree maidens,
   mostly lying near the shore ...

   ... while their arms and necks and faces
   from the sun grew pretty sore.

Chapin and her friends stayed at Charlie Johnson's Hotel until Chapin married. The album containing this poem was passed down to Marylynne Geraghty, Chapin's great-niece, and then to Grace Remsen, a friend of Geraghty's. The Remsen family owns a bay house and run a killey-fish business that has been passed down in their family.

Further east, near Captree State Park, once stood the Wa Wa Yanda Club, along with bay houses that survived Superstorm Sandy. Several of the bay house owners recall this storied club. The islands were used primarily by commercial fishermen until 1885, when a group of recreational duck hunters and fishermen from New York City founded the Wa Wa Yanda Club, a private fishing and hunting club on the southeast tip of Captree Island. The club was well known among prominent Long Islanders and out-of-towners. Advertisements for the club could be seen in such magazines as Gray's Sporting Journal.

Capt. Charley Islein began a club ferry that ran from Babylon to Captree Island, which was originally a half-mile long and a quarter-mile wide. According to old-timers today, Captains "Windy" and "Shorty" ran the club's fishing boats so guests could fish for fluke, striped bass, and other finfish that were common in the surrounding bay waters. "Old 'Lige Raynor" was the club's caretaker and best known for his entertaining stories. During the "Roaring Twenties" the club was a safe haven for those who enjoyed a drink now and then. Rum-running was a major activity at this and other island clubs and hotels.

There is scant visual evidence from this storied period of Long Island's history. Yet many residents are familiar with this chapter and the stories of Long Island's rumrunners, in part, because of the stories that have been told and published. One of the stories, shared by Bob Doxsee, is that Bill McCoy, a legendary rumrunner, brought booze through Jones Inlet, making sure the booze was high quality. According to Doxsee and others, the phrase "the real McCoy" was a reflection of McCoy's insistence that the alcohol be genuine. Like all traditional stories, there are those who doubt its validity. However, as I and other folklorists like to say, "why let the truth get in the way of a good story?"

Nancy Solomon is executive director of Long Island Traditions, located in Port Washington, New York. She can be reached at 516/767-8803 or info@
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Author:Solomon, Nancy
Publication:Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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