Kowabunga, Gentlemen

The East Hampton Library has been scanning old pages of The East Hampton Star at a rate of 1,000 per week, and they’ve been doing this for about 16 months now. It’s the final sprint of an exhaustive, decade-long effort to make every issue of the newspaper of record, from 1885 until the present, available to the public online. Anyone can clickity-clack in a key word and discover amusing esoterica about our town. 

Try it yourself, at nyshistoricnewspapers.org. Try it now. Type in, oh, jellyfish, or underdrawers, or your own last name. Fun, right?

While researching something entirely different, and more boring, on a recent afternoon, we were distracted by a morsel of information that piqued our interest and, we expect, might interest at least a few of our fellow oceangoing South Forkers: a reference to what must have been the very-first-ever surfing session on Eastern Long Island. 

Go ahead and guess when that might have been: 1960? 1949?

Wrong! It happened at Georgica between 1900 and 1908. 

The evidence is this. 

In 1955, the poet John Hall Wheelock, then a gray-haired dean of American letters, told the editor of The Star, Jeannette Rattray, that when he was a child in knickerbockers, a man named Professor Robert W. Wood— “the most boyish man I have ever known,” a neighborhood Pied Piper who led summer-colony kids on expeditions to find warrior ants and to construct box kites that would carry aloft instruments for science experiments — made “South Pacific surfboards” for his children and his children’s friends (including, you see, John Hall Wheelock).

So, remind us: Who was this John Hall Wheelock, again? 

And who was this Professor Wood? 

And when was Wood likely to have been carving surfboards for the freckle-faced crew south of the highway?

Let’s start with Wheelock.

John Hall Wheelock, the poet, kept memory alive of a boyhood surfing adventure at Georgica. He is seen here alongside a chauffeur, squiring a sedanful of bemused lasses in an East Hampton Fourth of July Parade in 1915.  The Long Island Collection, East Hampton Library. 

His was a household name hereabouts a century ago, and, indeed, his poetry often harked back to the East Hampton of his boyhood — the ocean beach, the bathing pavilion — back when this was an underpopulated village with an unkempt main street and no streetlights; he remained a seasonal resident throughout his life. Wheelock was born in 1888, long enough ago that he once saw Walt Whitman in the flesh. (“My father held me up on a ferryboat. . . . and said: ‘Do you see that man?’ He turned my head . . . toward Whitman, who was standing in the bow of the boat, and he said, ‘That is the great poet Walt Whitman.’ Apparently — as my father described it — I refused to look at him, and kept turning my head the other way.”)

Robert W. Wood, the man who built the homemade surfboards, was a physicist, born in 1868, who was sometimes called “the Wizard of the Light.” 

Wood invented an ultraviolet lamp, photographed sound waves, co-wrote a science fiction novel that described an atomic explosion decades before the A-bomb was invented, and, toward the end of his career, was a consultant to the Manhattan Project. Wood and his similarly learned wife owned an ancient house, dating to the 1700s, on Apaquoque Highway (as the lane was then known). He kept a makeshift laboratory out back, in the barn, where, in addition to making “South Pacific surf boards,” Wood taught the neighborhood kids how to throw a boomerang, having brought one back from his travels to Australia and Polynesia.

(And we know all of this how? From wasting time during a workday reading old newspapers, of course.)

Prof. Wood’s only son, Robert Jr. — who would serve in a volunteer ambulance corps in France during the Great War  — was six years younger than his daydreamy neighbor John Hall Wheelock. In 1900, the budding poet would have been 14 and Robert Jr. only 6. 

So let us set the date for the Dawn of Surfing between that year and, say, 1908 — by which point the captivating professor would have been 40 and John Hall Wheelock “aging out” at 20.

Now, it’s true that other men living in East Hampton, Amagansett, and Wainscott had traveled to the South Pacific well before Professor Wood ever did, and that some of them no doubt did witness surfing in these exotic climes; more than a few local lads went on deep-sea whaling voyages in the mid-19th century that took them to Hawaii. However, it is also well documented that many of these self-same mariners either didn’t like to or in fact could not swim. The professor, on the other hand, was a graduate of Harvard, where members of the crew team had to pass swimming tests, and — hence and therefore and in conclusion — the evidence does suggest that not only was Wood the Wizard of Light, he was the Father of Hamptons Surfing.

Isn’t it funny to think of young folks surfing at Georgica or Main Beach more than a hundred years ago in their drooping woolen suits? 

We like to imagine that people were more uptight back then, and less adventurous, but as a wander through the newly digitized archives proves, some of them, at least, were more wild and more energetically daring than most of us modern couch-sitters have the spark to be.


Top Photo Caption: Wizard of Light: Wood is seen at Johns Hopkins in 1938  with a “mosaic replica diffraction grating.” He introduced surfing here between 1900 and 1908, having made “South Pacific surf boards” in the barn behind his ancient house on Apaquogue Highway. AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Gift of David L. MacAdam.

Bess Rattray

After nearly two decades toiling in the Manhattan media trenches as an editor for Vogue magazine (followed by a few years' interlude as a volunteer firefighting captain in Nova Scotia), Bess Rattray returned home to East Hampton in 2015, and in 2017 took over as editor of The Star's magazine, EAST.