Shortly after the writers Nik Cohn and Michaela Muntean bought Harbor Inn from Jack and Beverly Cahill in 1985, they began renovations that were part home improvement and part archeology.
“Like a museum of the history of glue,” Ms. Muntean said about layers of linoleum stuck together with a white adhesive, used during the Depression and made with cow’s milk. The insulation was made of horsehair and newspapers. “The place had great vibes,” she said. “If it was full of ghosts, it was ghosts of a really good time.”
Harbor Inn stood in a quiet part of a remote Island. As a location for a business, it defied the real estate maxim of “location, location, location” every time the crowd got to be four-deep at the bar. Charlie Beckwith, who tended that bar for 12 years, said, “It was off the beaten track. You had to know it was there.”
Ms. Muntean noticed it, too. “It wasn’t in the Heights, which made it distinctive,” she said. “An odd and out-of-the-way place.”
People made their way to Harbor Inn in many conveyances. A pair of regulars used to land their airplane at Klenawicus Airstrip, taxi down to the corner of Cartwright and Burns, and walk across the street to the bar. More than one patron remembers Jim Burke (aka “Stony Burke) of Cartwright Road riding his lawnmower when he was no longer able to drive.
Boaters with moorings at Skip Tuttle’s fish station near South Ferry made it there, and sailors in Coecles Harbor left their dinghies at the end of Burns Road and walked up.
Harbor Inn was a place much loved by “the men who worked on the water,” said Town Councilman Ed Brown, who bent the elbow there more than a few times. He recalled listening to the tales the baymen would weave. The last day of any season was a good tme to be at the bar, he remebered, when the baymen would give predictions of what the new season would bring.
For years, it was the magnetic center of Island life, drawing people through its back door as if a force field emanated from the pool table. “For two years after we moved in, people walked in looking for the bar,” Ms. Muntean said. “Boat people would walk up from Coecles Harbor. They hadn’t heard.”
Piano, Washtub and Guitar
Music was an important part of the experience at Harbor Inn during the years Jack and Beverly Cahill owned the place. The jukebox was stocked with country and rock and roll, and a player piano stood by. On weekends musicians were sometimes booked; other times it was completely impromptu.
A man known only as Gus, from Coecles Harbor Marina, came in to socialize and often ended up playing guitar. Islander Fred Ogar played a washtub bass, and others joined in with kazoos.
Jack often hired a local guy, Paul Nichols, (aka “Native Dancer”) to play guitar and sing, occasionally accompanied by a drummer. Paul played rock and roll and “country music” on Saturday nights in the late 1960s.
According to Charlie even the piano got some use. “An old guy would come in,” he said, “with a group of friends and play the piano in the late 1970s.”
The Island After-Party
From the first “Open House” shortly after he began operating, to the final New Year’s Eve farewell party, Jack made Harbor Inn the site of the best parties on the Island.
His St. Patrick’s Day events were remarkable. A green arch announced, “Erin go Bragh” across a doorway. Wearing a vest festooned with shamrocks and a large green top hat, Jack presided over the merriment. A slab of plywood and a plastic tablecloth on the pool table transformed it into a buffet table featuring corned beef and cabbage.
There were always festivities at Christmas. Councilman Peter Reich said, “I remember trimming the Christmas tree. And the fact everyone’s head who was sitting at the bar automatically turned when the door opened to see who was arriving.”
Ed Brown remembered how Jack and Beverly would put hay bales on a truck and ride around the Island with a crowd, singing carols at Christmas for the home-bound.
They always gave back, in large ways and small, to their community, Ed said. When a fire over the course of one night reduced a house to ashes, “Jack and Bev led the charge,” he said,“to get people to chip in” and get the family who had been burned out back on their feet.
After any major Island event, whether joyous or somber, Harbor Inn was the place people gathered. A gathering of mourners, still in their Sunday best out of respect for the departed, often followed wakes and funerals.
Writer and Reporter columnist Joanne Sherman took her kids to Harbor Inn for hot dogs after the Independence Day fireworks in the early 1980s. “Jack was behind the bar,” she said. “He cocked his head back toward the kitchen and told us to go cook them ourselves. While we were in the back, the bar filled with people and for a nearly an hour Jack called back hot dog, hamburger and French fry orders and we filled them.”
Skip Tuttle said at the end of the Shelter Island Fire Department Chicken Barbecue one year, the crowd at Harbor Inn was thick, with such a line out the door for the bathroom, that Jack yelled, “My cesspool is going to overflow!”
The Island’s Den
On ordinary days, Harbor Inn was the Island’s den — a wood-paneled room outfitted with a dart board and tabletop shuffleboard for relaxing with friends and relatives. Carpenters, painters, fire and rescue workers came in after work and drank Rheingold or Schaefer. Once in a while someone ordered a Screwdriver.
Jack kept a big jar of pickled pigs feet and another of pickled eggs on hand. When a farmer brought in an enormous cauliflower, he made a dip and served it. “It was a great place of camaraderie,” said town Building Inspector Bill Banks. “Sitting around talking about the day’s events. People had their disagreements, but they worked them out, usually.”
On weekends the place was often packed. Kids shot pool while their parents were at the bar in the next room. “I heard some of the funniest things I would ever hear in my life at that place,” said Councilman Paul Shepherd. “It was where relationships began and ended, sometimes, but also where they were nurtured.”
The 30 years that Mr. Cohn and Ms. Muntean spent at 45 Burns Road proved to be creative and productive ones. Ms. Muntean wrote award-winning children’s books, including “Stay” and “Do Not Open This Book,” and Mr. Cohn conceived and wrote most of five books, including the forthcoming, “Dirty Pictures.”
The story of Harbor Inn is more than the history of a building or a property. The story belongs to the people who laughed, socialized, drank and found inspiration and camaraderie there.
“It was like something from a fairy tale,” Bill Banks said. “I wouldn’t wish time away, but I’m glad I am old enough to have experienced it.”