Tracing the history of a Greenport family at Stirling Historical Society Museum

07/13/2019 6:00 AM |

Up a narrow staircase at the Stirling Historical Society Museum in Greenport Village, a painting greets visitors arriving on the second floor. It depicts a ship captain with a long white beard sitting on a small boat at the water’s edge with two grandchildren next to him.

A hand-written sign beneath the painting reads: “A Greenport Boy and his Family’s History.”

The painting holds sentimental value for Gene Austin of Mastic. It once hung over his grandfather’s bed and later his father’s. Now it belongs to him, and hangs above his bed.

Mr. Austin, a Greenport native, used the painting as the centerpiece for an exhibit he created at the historical society documenting his family’s history and deep roots on the East End, which date back to whaling days and, more recently, the oyster industry.

A Stirling Historical Society member and trustee, Mr. Austin invited family members to a private opening June 28, when he surprised them with a large family tree tracing many ancestors and numerous artifacts related to family history.

Upon first seeing the display, one family member yelled out, “It’s awesome!” Mr. Austin promptly replied: “No, it’s not awesome. It’s Austin!”

The opening coincided with what would have been the 100th birthday of his father, Elbert “Butter” Austin.

Journals on display from Mr. Austin’s father, Elbert ‘Butter’ Austin. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Mr. Austin, whose own 1960 Greenport High School diploma is featured in the exhibit, wrote on one sign: “Thank you, Dad, on this 100th year of your birth for the great life skills you gave us.”

He signed it with his name and those of his siblings, Elaine, Babe and Wayne.

Scrapbooks on a table contained a trove of family photos and news clippings. A bookcase held more than a dozen books, all with links to bits and pieces of the Austin family history.

One display featured daily journals his father kept when he was a deckhand in the oyster industry. He went on to become a captain.

Mr. Austin, who works as a carpenter, said his father’s grandfather was a whaling captain out of Sag Harbor. The historical society’s collection includes many artifacts, such a harpoon, dating back to the whaling industry.

At one point, Mr. Austin picked up a pint container that had once been used for fresh oysters. It was made of waxed paper and Mr. Austin asked the group why that would be. Why not a can?

The answer: It was World War II and companies were facing a shortage of metal.

The display coincided with what would have been the 100th birthday of Mr. Austin’s father. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Resting on an easel was a large framed nautical chart from 1946 that was used by his father. It documents different oyster companies operating at the time and indicates their specific markings in the waters of the East End.

“It took me years to straighten it out,” he said. “[My father] had it rolled up on a shade roller.”

He added: “There’s so much history here and I’m still researching it.”

Mr. Austin’s exhibit can be viewed at the Stirling Historical Society Museum weekends from 1 to 4 p.m. through the summer.

Top photo caption: Gene Austin, a Stirling Historical Society trustee, created a family tree that’s part of a family history display at the Greenport museum. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

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