History

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The former Tyler Brothers General Store at the intersection of Main Street and Old Field Road in Setauket is an example of a third place. Locals would congregate at the store to talk about the day’s events and to keep in touch with each other Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

In the first two hundred years of English settlement in Setauket and Stony Brook, work and home were, for most residents, synonymous. Each family owned enough land to farm, and the land provided them with the necessities of life — food, clothing and shelter. The community provided the formal and informal gathering places. These places, such as the Presbyterian meeting house, the Village Green, the general stores and the mills, were at the center, at the very heart of the Setauket and Stony Brook communities. These “third places” — home and work being first and second — provided the spiritual, social and societal needs of the early settlers.

“Community keeps us accountable and compassionate. It prevents us from thinking too highly of ourselves and taking too much on. It reminds us that we need one another, that we’re not alone.”

— Rachel Held Evans

By the second half of the 20th century, following World War II, all of that changed. The deterioration of the cities combined with the lure of the country caused a new phenomenon, a building boom that created housing developments for returning veterans under the GI Bill as well as for many others. At first, these new “communities” worked. The men went off to work taking the family car with them. The women, without a car to get them out of the development, met, talked, borrowed and swapped for what they needed until the weekend when the family could shop in the new shopping centers that faced outward toward the roads rather than inward toward the community. After school, the children played together in the parks and on the streets of the development. These families, devoid of the traditional third places, created their own.

This worked for the first generation of residents in developments such as Levittown, but as different people moved in who didn’t share work and family, the developments became sterile places where neighbors no longer knew each other. They became places without soul, without the informal gathering places that define community — without third places.

“Community keeps us accountable and compassionate. It prevents us from thinking too highly of ourselves and taking too much on. It reminds us that we need one another, that we’re not alone” (blog entry by religious author Rachel Held Evans, March 1, 2017).

We have, in the Three Village area, the building blocks of community. We also have a fine school district and a university campus that can help to draw us closer together. How we care for all of these parts of our community and in turn how we care for each other determine how much of a community we are.

“The process of seeking common ground is also the process of composing good narratives in which all can find themselves represented. Only through this process can the civic enterprise proceed and communities flourish” (Robert A. Archibald, “A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community,” 1999).

A good definition of community is offered by Richard Moe and Carter Wilkie in their book “Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl,” 1997: “As habitats for community have eroded, so too has the true meaning of the word. Today ‘community’ more commonly describes any rootless collection of interests rather than people rooted in a place — people tied by fellowship or even kinship to one another, to a shared past, and to a common interest in the future.”

The last part may be the real key. If we really do want what is best for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren, then we do need to spend less time being concerned with our differences and more time studying and applying what we have in common, our shared past and common interest in the future. Regardless of how long we have lived here, we share in our history and are concerned about our future.

The exact opposite of community is represented most distinctly today by television shows that tout the importance and effectiveness of individual action. In these venues, community exists only as a means to demonstrate the superiority of the individual. Working together to achieve a common goal is devalued and the object, by whatever means possible, is to win everything for oneself.

Dr. Jerri Nielsen, in a “Book TV” interview about her book “Ice Bound” (2001) and her struggles with breast cancer in the Antarctic community in which she lived for many months, commented that the most special and lasting effect of her time in Antarctica was the close personal bonds that formed there and how disconnected and alone she felt after she was taken out of that community. She noted that they virtually depended on each other for their survival and became closer in a few months to vastly different people than she had been to family or lifelong friends.

“Without formal and informal gathering places where we share experiences and make common memories, and thus establish a common identity buttressed with familiarity, community is devalued and only individualism remains.”

— Robert A. Archibald

Nielsen also said that she later met senator and astronaut John Glenn for the second time in her life, and he noted the importance of unit cohesiveness (community) in the military. Glenn reportedly told her that, in the service, “We don’t throw people out, we carry them out.”

“Without formal and informal gathering places where we share experiences and make common memories, and thus establish a common identity buttressed with familiarity, community is devalued and only individualism remains” (Archibald, 1999).

The hectic pace of life has us traveling from place to place in and around our community in our closed boxes with wheels, which provides a sort of community isolation that simply did not exist on Long Island in past centuries. The automobile has become the vehicle for both separation and connection in modern society. Now, in addition, we can shop and travel on the Internet, the computer providing a wide range of products and services and adding to our community isolation.

Yet, in Setauket and Stony Brook, we value our local history and the homes, barns, farms, ponds, woods, open spaces, public buildings and businesses that are the tangible and visible representations of that history. Many are also the touchstones of our historic memory. Whether we are eight years old or 80, they define our existence at a certain time in our lives, and they help to bring into focus the relationships that we value — our family, friends, neighbors and fellow workers.

“Sandy, sandy roads and trees … just paths like Indians had … you know, through the woods … that’s the truth. Everybody walked. Didn’t matter what you owned or how much you had … you wouldn’t be surprised to see anyone on foot … that was part of daily life.” (Hazel Lewis, The Three Village Historian, “Eel Catching at Setauket,” May 1988).

Over the past century our community has grown and changed from a rural area of farms and vernacular architecture into a suburban environment of historic areas, housing developments, commercial strip developments and university complexes. What we have lost is a part of our connection to each other in the community. In the past, our local stores, schools, libraries, community gathering places and places of worship were usually within walking distance of our homes. These life-sustaining places were often an integral part of our streets or neighborhoods. In fact, in most communities a 30-minute walk would take us from one end of town to the other, and while we were walking, we would see our friends and neighbors and they would see us. We knew each other and to some extent we knew each other’s habits and relationships, likes and dislikes.

With all the changes that communities have gone through, however, we still have places where community relationships are initiated, nurtured and developed, places where we can share our experiences and explore our collective memories. These are the places that Ray Oldenburg, in his book “The Great Good Places: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day” (1991), refers to as third places to distinguish them from work and home. We simply don’t always recognize them. They can be any place we come together to share our thoughts and ideas where there is, as expressed in the hit musical “Come from Away: Welcome to the Rock,” “a spirit of compassion, resourcefulness and generosity.”

In the Provincial Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador in Gander, where 38 commercial aircraft landed Sept. 11, 2001, and deposited more than 6,500 people into a town of about 10,000 residents, is written, “Contact is one of the most powerful agents of cultural change.” This quote defines what welcoming “Come-from-Away’s” (visitors) means to local residents. For five days these sudden visitors were accepted without reservation, without hesitation, by Newfoundlanders who fed their bodies as well as their souls. This is the definition of a third place.

Beverly C. Tyler is a Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

Above, the repaired column is lowered onto its new base. Vanderbilt Museum photo

An ancient column from Carthage (modern-day Tunisia), toppled and broken during a fierce windstorm on Oct. 30, 2017, has been repaired and reinstalled at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum.

The company that repaired the two-ton column reinstalled it recently on a new, reinforced-concrete base.

The stately, thousand-year-old column, one of six near the entrance to the Vanderbilt Estate, was damaged when the storm uprooted a massive tree next to it.

The falling tree knocked down the column, which hit the curving stone wall that overlooks the Vanderbilt Boathouse and Northport Bay. The impact broke off the carved top, or capital. Experts from the A. Ottavino Corp. used a crane to lift the column onto a large flat-bed truck and took it to their stoneworks in Ozone Park, Queens for repair.

Ottavino, a third-generation family business founded in 1913, has worked on significant projects that include the Statue of Liberty, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the main branch of the New York Public Library, Columbia University Medical Center and Brooklyn Borough Hall.

Each column is 14 feet high, 59 inches in circumference and weighs 4,000 pounds. The Cipollino marble was quarried on the Greek island of Euboea. Sometime after William K. Vanderbilt II (1878-1944) began building Eagle’s Nest, his Centerport estate and the home of the Vanderbilt Museum, in 1912, he relocated the columns from his first Long Island home, Deepdale in Lake Success.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. Winter hours for the museum, mansion and grounds are Tuesdays from noon to 4 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from 11:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Monday, Jan. 20 from 11:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. For further information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

How the U.S. Made the Fateful Decision to Enter WWI

Above, President Woodrow Wilson addresses Congress in 1917, speaking on entering the war. Photo from Library of Congress

By Rich Acritelli

With the movie “1917” soon to be widely released in theaters, it’s interesting to look back on how Long Island was a key strategic reason the U.S. entered what was known as “the war to end all wars.”

Over 100 years ago, then President Woodrow Wilson agonized over the rationale for the United States to break with its historic policy of neutrality before America entered World War I against Germany. There were many dangerous periods within our history that surely tested our national leadership. This was no different in 1916-1917. At the end of his first term in office, Wilson sought economic and social reform in the U.S., but he had to contend with the terrible conflict over in Europe. Although the Atlantic Ocean separated the U.S. from the brutal fighting on both the eastern and western fronts, Long Islanders did not have to look far to identify the German military presence of U-boats that operated near their shores. During World War I and II, it was common for the U.S. government to order “light discipline” on the coast. German “Wolf Packs” operated near major cities like New York, surfaced, and were able to determine how close they were to the city by utilizing well-lit homes in waterfront locations like Fire Island. For three years, American ships operated within these hazardous waters to conduct trade with the Allies, where these vessels took heavy losses.

A man buys a paper announcing the U.S. has declared war on Germany. Photos from Library of Congress

It was an extremely complicated time for Wilson, who tried to keep the country out of this war. The horrific losses seen by the British, French and Germans were well publicized in American papers, and many citizens did not want their sons, friends and neighbors to be killed in what was thought of as a European dispute. Before he was reelected by an extremely close margin in November of 1916, Wilson campaigned on the promise that he kept “Our boys out of this war.” But behind closed doors, it was a different situation. Since the days of George Washington the U.S. economy was built on trade that always saw American ships traveling to Europe. Germany had most of its own ports blockaded by the strength of the British navy, and this warring government did not believe America was neutral through our business dealings with the Allies.  

The Germans believed they were forced to attack any civilian, commerce or military shipping that sailed toward British and French harbors. Wilson, like the presidents before the War of 1812, was unable to completely halt American maritime toward these hostile waters. Right away, cruise liners like the Lusitania was attacked off the coast of Ireland, and of the 1,198 people that were killed on the ship, 128 Americans were lost. The German government stated it gathered known intelligence that many of these civilian ships were carrying weapons to the Allies. As Wilson was expected to protect the American people, his own secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, opposed any offensive actions to arm U.S. ships or any threats toward the German leadership. In 1916, the Sussex was sunk, more American lives were lost, and Wilson was conflicted on how to respond against this German adversary who seemed unwilling to halt its policy of targeting American freedom of the seas.

Closer to home, in 1916, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, where 19 American lives were lost. With the tense relations between the U.S. and Mexico, Wilson ordered General John J. Pershing to lead 16,000 soldiers to capture or kill Villa and his men. This U.S. expedition into Mexico demonstrated how unprepared the government was to conduct modern military operations. Pershing was unable to locate Villa within the Mexican terrain and the expedition was considered unsuccessful. This intervention also enhanced resentment by the Mexicans who gravitated closer to the Germans. The “Zimmerman telegram” by the German foreign minister openly stated that if Mexico went to war against the U.S., it would receive German assistance. These words were intercepted by the British and delivered to Wilson who was startled at the extent of German beliefs that Mexico had the ability to regain some of its lost territories that were now American states. Wilson’s fears were abundant, as he bolstered the U.S. defense of Cuba with an additional division of soldiers to guard against a possible German invasion.

Wilson was in a precarious situation, as there were known antiwar feelings against helping the British and French on the western front. During the election year, Wilson fully understood that the two largest immigrant groups in the country were the Irish and the Germans. He knew that some of these citizens had strong ethnic ties to their home countries and were not overly pleased to support the British Empire. While today we see Spanish as a common secondary language, during the early part of the 20th century, German was widely spoken in the Midwest and West. There was a huge German influence among American cities and towns that had ties back to this European power, and Wilson had to analyze the economic relation to this war of the many industrialists and financiers who looked to push the United States to support the Allies. They knew they could surely profit from the massive amount of weapons sold to these warring countries.

On the eastern front, there was the delicate situation with the ability of Czar Nicholas II to fight the Germans. His government’s conduct of the war was disastrous, and the Russians had abundant shortages of weapons, leadership and food at home. Before declaring war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Wilson watched Russia fall into chaos, as communist groups campaigned on the slogan that they were determined to quickly pull out of this destructive conflict. Although Wilson sided with the Allies and declared war against Germany, it was not without many internal strains. He was surely tested over the eventual American decision to abandon our foreign policy of neutrality that was established in 1789 to side with one European nation over another.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

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Hospital Prez Looks Back at His 34 Years, End of Community Hospitals Across LI

Kenneth Roberts, Mather Hospital president, signs a banner that will be hung shortly outside the hospital to celebrate its 90th year. Photo by Kyle Barr

It all started with a dream from a local businessman and third-generation shipbuilder who lived in Port Jefferson. 

John Titus Mather passed away in 1928, but he was a huge part of the shipbuilding community during the later 19th century and early part of the 20th century. Before he died, he knew that he wanted to leave a legacy that would help the Port Jeff community for years to come. If only he could see it nine decades later. 

Mather held its cornerstone dedication ceremony May 4, 1929. Photo from Stu Vincent

This year celebrates the 90th anniversary of Mather Hospital, formally known as the John T. Mather Memorial Hospital, named after the man who envisioned the institution. His will clearly outlined that his family and loved ones were to be taken care of, and instructed his executor to “incorporate under the laws of the State of New York a nonsectarian charitable hospital, to be located in said village of Port Jefferson … so designed and constructed as to permit future enlargement, assuming that future needs may justify such action. It is my sincere hope that the citizens of Port Jefferson and vicinity will give their liberal and devoted support to said institution and endeavor to make it a success and a credit to the community,” the Mather website stated. Today, the hospital is decorated with a nautical theme to honor its founder. 

Opening Dec. 29, 1929, the hospital became a staple on Long Island, featuring 54 beds and state-of-the-art technology of its time. 

“Mather Hospital was the first community hospital in the Town of Brookhaven,” said Kenneth Roberts, president of the hospital. “So, for a long time, it was the gem of the community and it remains so to this day.”

And every 10 years or so, it seems like the hospital is adding a new service or wing, constantly evolving to become better than before. In 1962, a new surgical suite, emergency facility and an intensive care unit joined in. The expansion resulted in additional beds, totaling 110. A new psychiatric unit was added in 1973, upgrading the hospital to 203 beds and by 1997, the hospital reached its
current bed count of 248 spots. 

The reason for the constant upgrades was to continue better serving the community, the hospital president said. 

“Technology has changed dramatically,” Roberts said, “And has changed the delivery of health care here.”

Roberts became president of Mather in 1986 and has pioneered dozens of changes throughout the campus. For starters, people don’t smoke on the campus, anymore, which if one weren’t around at that time, came as a shock to the multitudes of hospital staff who weren’t shy of smoking. 

Mather Hospital was also the first hospital on Long Island, including Brooklyn and Queens, to have a successful in vitro fertilization program that started up in 1988. Being a leader in that program, it eventually became available elsewhere, so in 2008, the program closed to make room for others. 

“We just change with what the community needs,” Roberts said. 

Alongside the hospital, Roberts has also seen the community expand. 

Mather Hospital’s original facade. Photo from Stu Vincent

“I think it’s grown a lot,” he said. “Obviously the traffic, the expansion, the adding of lights on 347, the construction of the third lanes… there’s been a lot of growth in housing and in population out in this area. So basically, we made an attempt to change with the needs of the population.”

As the area grew, so did the competition from St. Charles Hospital down the road, and Stony Brook University Hospital just 15 minutes away. 

“We were the first community hospital and then St. Charles converted itself from a polio institution to a community hospital and we work closely with them to not compete in major services,” Roberts said. “But at the same time, to provide all the services that the community needed.” 

When St. Charles redesigned itself to a hospital in the 1940s, it actually ended up helping Mather which was at 120 percent patient occupancy. 

In 2013, it was recognized as a Magnet-designated hospital by the American Nurses Credentialing Center, which recognizes health care organizations for quality patient care, nursing excellence and innovations in professional nursing practice. 

Mather employs over 2,600 people, and has more than 600 staff and affiliated physicians. In 2016, the hospital cared for more than 12,500 inpatients and over 40,000 emergency patients. 

In December 2017, Mather formally joined the Northwell Health system as its 23rd hospital, something the hospital president constantly lauded. 

“It was a once-in-a-century decision going from an independent hospital to joining a larger system,” Roberts said. “Once you join a larger system, you’re in that larger system forever and it’s a big decision to make. We were extremely happy and pleased with the amount of resources that Northwell brings to the table.”

A group of nurses at Mather during its early years. Photo from Stu Vincent

Roberts added that there are no independently owned community hospitals on Long Island anymore. It’s a trend that’s predicated on costs and need, something, he said, a single standalone hospital would have a very difficult time doing on its own. Roberts said he sees a future where all hospitals and similar institutions are consolidated under just four or five health care companies.

“There’s a whole host of reasons why hospitals are going the same route, like all the other industries,” he said. “We see in the whole economy everybody’s changing: Airlines are basically consolidating, the big accounting firms … newspapers are consolidating.”

And although things have changed at Mather, Roberts is happy with what the
future holds. 

“I think that the future of Mather Hospital looks very good because of our affiliation with Northwell,” he said. “The services we will provide on a very high-quality basis, and we will continue to innovate and provide the services that the community needs.” 

He added that he is waiting on an approval to start a cardiac catheterization and electrophysiology service at Mather, and plans to grow its outpatient care over the next decade.

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By Beverly C. Tyler

The first Christmas card was designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole of England, later Sir Henry Cole. Cole was the organizer and first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London The card was printed in London by a method called lithography and was hand colored by a professional “colourer” named Mason. It was sent in 1843.

It was the custom at the time to send letters to relatives and friends at Christmas. Cole’s cards were to take the place of the letters that he would have to write to his large number of friends and family. A total of about 1,000 of these cards were printed.

Christmas cards were becoming popular in the United States by the 1870s, and by the 1880s they were being printed in the millions, and were no longer being hand colored. Christmas cards during the late 1800s came in all shapes and sizes and were made with silk, satin, brocade and plush, as well as with lace and embroidery surrounding the printed card. These cards were just as varied as those we have today and included religious themes, landscapes from every season, animals, the traditional Father Christmas, children and humor. The cards were very colorful and usually included some verse in addition to the greeting. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, humor was a favorite theme for postcards and Christmas postcards were no exception.

A modern take on a Christmas card poem:

GOD’S PROCLAIMING STAR

Three wise men from the east came following

God’s proclaiming star

It led unerring to the presence of our Lord

God’s proclaiming star

It brought God’s message of peace on earth

God’s proclaiming star

and showed the world God’s promise

God’s proclaiming star

that through God’s son our sins are forgiven

God’s proclaiming star

and introduced us to God’s first GPS

God’s proclaiming star

Poem by Beverly Tyler

Christmas cards were eventually sent through the mail as postcards. The lower price of postage — one cent for a postcard — was one of the reasons for the popularity of the postcard-greeting card. The postcard was most popular during the years between 1895 and 1914, when the craze for collecting cards was at its height. The beginning of the use of postcards probably goes back to the influence of the trade card, used to promote business and trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the visiting card, which included the sender’s name prominently added to the card, and was used to send a greeting.

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the collecting of picture postcards was the most popular hobby in the world. In the United States there were more than a half a million postcards mailed each year leading up to World War I. Many of these cards were postmarked at both the senders and the recipients post office. One postcard was postmarked Dec. 23, 1907, at 6 p.m. in Putnam, New York, and in East Setauket Dec. 24 (no time listed).

Beverly C. Tyler is a Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

 

 

Half Hollow Hills senior writes children’s book celebrating local history
Author Jay Nagpal;

Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

It’s Jay Nagpal’s senior year at Half Hollow Hills High School in Dix Hills, and like everyone else in his grade, he’s got a lot to do. There’s classwork to finish, college applications to mail, a social life to keep up and the future to consider. But in the midst of all that, he’s also taken up an unexpected task. 

On Nov. 30, Nagpal published his debut book for children, “Miss Kim’s Class Goes to Town.” The 17-year-old wrote the book in hopes of sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for local historical sites with the next generation. The book plays out just like a real class trip, with questions from students and helpful commentary by “Mr. Robert,” an actual historian in Huntington. 

The informative storyline coupled with cartoonish, fun illustrations will capture the imaginations of local children.

What came first for you, the interest in writing or history?

 It was history. From a young age, I was lucky enough to do quite a bit of traveling with my family, and we would always make a point of going to the historical sites or museums in the places we were visiting. We’ve gone to Rome, Paris, London and many other places in Europe that are rich in history. I think being exposed to that at such a young age is what’s given me such a great interest in history now.  

Do you have a favorite historical time period?

It bounces around, but years ago I was very interested in ancient history like you would see in Rome. Later on, I became more interested in the American Revolution, and last year I spent a lot of time focusing on World War II and postcolonialism.  

Why did you decide to write this book?

Last year, I started to see that while I was really passionate about history, a lot of other people just aren’t. In my history classes, I noticed that many of the other students weren’t engaged in the material, and I started to wonder if there was something I could do to engage kids in a meaningful way. I thought that I could create a platform that focused on local history and stir up interest around that for people my age.

Ultimately, I founded the Dix Hills-Melville Historical Association. It was uncharted territory for me, but I had tremendous support from the Huntington Historical Society and the local school district. Robert Hughes from the Huntington Historical Society supported me from the very beginning. I compiled all the important historical sites, landmarks and archives with their help, and created a website that would provide me with a forum to write features and blog posts about history. For example, we just celebrated Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday in May, so it was important to write about that on the website.

Are any of the children in the book named after people you know?

A lot of the names in the book have meaning to me. Early on, one of the students mentions a teacher named Miss Martin. That’s a reference to Karen Martin, who is the archivist at the Huntington Historical Society. Mr. Robert, the town historian, is directly based off of the real Robert Hughes. Dylan is my friend’s brother, whose parents published the book, and some of the other students are also named after friends of mine.  

What was it like to see the book for the first time?

It was a surreal feeling, for sure. After months of going through the entire process of publishing and putting everything together, it was so rewarding to finally see the finished product. 

How long did writing take?

I started over the summer, and the book was published about six weeks ago. A lot of the research had already been done in founding the historical association, so I already had the information I needed.

How did you go about getting it published?

A close friend’s parents actually run a publishing company called Linus Learning, and they were very open to the idea of publishing my book. 

What about the illustrations? Did you do them, or did you work with someone else?

I’m definitely not an artist, and one of the great challenges of the project was finding the right illustrator. I ended up going online and using a service called Fiverr to connect to a very talented illustrator who lives in Sri Lanka. Her name is Thushari Herath, and she really did a phenomenal job. There are a lot of cultural differences between us, so we had to talk about things like what side of the road the bus would drive on, what classes would look like, how people would dress and so on. It took a bit of extra effort, but it was all worth it because she’s so talented.  

What is the recommended age for this book?

Older elementary school kids will probably get the most out of it, starting at about third or fourth grade. My goal was to be as accessible as possible, though, so people older or younger than that shouldn’t feel discouraged to read it.

What’s next for you? Do you want to write more books?

Right now, I’m focusing on finishing up my college applications. I’m looking to stay somewhere in the Northeast that has a strong history program − I’d like to pursue some kind of research track through graduate school and maybe a Ph.D. down the road. I’m not totally sure about anything yet, but that’s what I’m thinking about lately. 

I hope to do something like this book again in the future, especially if it makes an impact on local students.

Where can we learn more about you?

I share information and thoughts about local history at www.dixhillsmelvillehistory.org. 

“Miss Kim’s Class Goes to Town” is available online at Amazon.com, at Huntington Historical Society events and at the gift shops of historical sites around Huntington.

View of Old Roe’s Tavern in Setauket, 1914, by Arthur W. Strong, gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck Sr. Photography ©New-York Historical Society at http://www.nyhistory.org

By Corey Geske

Now through Jan. 16, 2020, the New-York Historical Society is featuring an exhibition Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere, while in East Setauket there’s reason to celebrate a find related to the home of courier and spy Capt. Austin Roe, known as the “Paul Revere of Long Island.” 

Roe Tavern, Robert S. Feather Photo Postcard, c. 1916-1918. Photo courtesy of Three Village Historical Society

For the first time in a century, sketches of Old Roe’s Tavern in its original location in East Setauket have come to light courtesy of the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) after an ongoing search, at my request, for catalogued entries that initially evaded art handlers. Gifted in 1954 to the N-YHS, the sketches remained unheralded for 65 years until brought to light this September on the eve of the recent fifth annual Culper Spy Day sponsored by the Three Village Historical Society, Tri-Spy Tours, The Long Island Museum and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization. 

Dating from 1911 to 1917, the sketches in graphite (pencil) with touches of white chalk on buff paper are by Arthur W. Strong, an interior designer and third-generation American sign painter. At my request, they have been photographically digitized for the first time. 

Spy Trail captured in Strong’s sketches

On his sketches, Strong inscribed a date of circa 1702 to the future tavern, a year before it’s now believed the first Selah Strong in Setauket built the one-story section seen to the right (east) in the top photo. The Strongs sold to the Woodhulls who, in turn, sold to the Roe family, who added the main section in 1735 and turned it into a tavern. Under cover of his livelihood as tavern-keeper, Roe acted as a courier for George Washington’s spy ring, carrying information between New York City and Setauket at great personal risk during the American Revolution, when Long Island was occupied by the British. 

Among the few known views of Roe Tavern in its original location (now marked by a sign), Strong’s sketches predate Route 25A road changes that necessitated the tavern’s move a mile away in 1936. Strong’s 1914 sketch of the tavern conveys the same basic undulations of land and roadway so familiar today on the Spy Trail, which extends from Port Jefferson to Great Neck along 25A, known as the King’s Highway during the Revolution. 

Today it’s known as the Culper Spy Trail after Washington’s chief spies on Long Island — Abraham Woodhull, alias Samuel Culper Sr., and Robert Townsend, Culper Jr., who provided key intelligence to Washington in 1780 that helped save West Point from Benedict Arnold’s treason. Also, thanks to the horsemanship of Roe that year, the French Navy was spared at Newport, Rhode Island, so it could sail south to assist Washington in achieving the ultimate Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown, Virginia, the following year. 

In 2017, the New York State Legislature recognized the contribution of the Culper Spy Ring, and commemorative Spy Trail signs were installed by the North Shore Promotion Alliance. 

Arthur Strong’s 1914 sketch provides the earliest known perspective of the Roe Tavern from the northeast looking west along the dirt road to New York City as it was likely laid out when traveled by Roe as he couriered coded messages for Washington. Riding horseback 110 miles round trip at least once a week, on roads patrolled by British soldiers and frequented by highwaymen and British spies and couriers, the danger persisted when Roe returned home where the enemy, drinking at his tavern, would hopefully drop an unguarded comment on military plans that warranted transmittal to Washington. 

Washington’s room at the tavern

Washington’s Bedroom (1790) in Old Roe’s
Tavern, 1917, by Arthur W. Strong,
gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck Sr.
Photography ©New-York Historical Society at http://www.nyhistory.org

Through Strong’s eyes, too, we see the tavern where it stood in 1790 when Washington saw it and recorded in his diary, “thence to Setakit . . . to the House of a Captn. Roe which is tolerably dect. [decent] with obliging people in it.” Washington slept there on the evening of April 22, 1790 during a post-war tour of Long Island to thank those, like Roe, who spied for the American cause. 

Out of a cache of six, five sketches are related to the tavern and a sixth (1915) is of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. Strong’s work features a previously stored-away view of the second-floor front southwest bedroom George Washington slept in when visiting Roe Tavern in 1790. 

The week of Washington’s birthday bicentennial, a Feb. 26, 1932 Long-Islander newspaper article reported that care had been taken to “preserve the original appearance” of the bedroom and that its central feature was the open fireplace “across the northern end of the room.” That is the focus of Strong’s 1917 sketch, made years earlier, showing the first president’s humble accommodations. 

From tavern to tea house

Arthur W. Strong, Front Façade of Old Roe’s Tavern in Setauket, 1911, by Arthur W. Strong, Gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck, Sr., Photography ©New-York Historical Society at http://www.nyhistory.org

According to census records, Arthur W. Strong was born about 1878. He may have moved from Brooklyn to Port Jefferson in November 1911 at about age 32, when he completed his first sketch, which was of the tavern. 

Strong’s sketches appear to have been done during his commissions as a sign painter, and he returned to the tavern on three occasions. The first sketch, drawn in 1911, included an inset of what was likely his proposed sign marking Washington’s visit (that Strong mistakenly recorded as occurring in 1782) and not a word about a tea house. Strong’s last three sketches in 1917 depict the front facade of the tavern without any sign; a proposed sign for the ‘Old Tavern Tea House’ with a full-face picture of George Washington and the correct date of his visit in 1790; and Washington’s bedroom. The latter indicates Strong’s interest in interior decorating that ultimately led to his becoming a partner in his own design business by 1930.  

Strong’s 1911 sketch is reminiscent of similarly composed views found in photo postcards of the tavern by English-born photographers Arthur S. Greene (1867-1955), who came to Port Jefferson in 1894, and Robert S. Feather (1861-1937) a jeweler and watchmaker who arrived in Smithtown after 1900. 

While Greene’s postcard shows a real estate sign on a post like that drawn in Strong’s sketches, Feather’s postcard circa 1916-1918 shows a boxy tea house sign, framing a view taken east of the signpost. Tea houses were a popular venue in 1917: the same year Strong drew Washington’s visage on his Old Tavern Tea House sign for Roe’s, a new tea house was established to the west on Route 25A, at the Roslyn Grist Mill, the oldest Dutch commercial building in the United States (now undergoing extensive restoration by the Roslyn Landmark Society).

Roe Tavern sketches reach N-YHS

Washington’s Bedroom (1790) in Old Roe’s
Tavern, 1917, by Arthur W. Strong,
gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck Sr.
Photography©New-York Historical Society at http://www.nyhistory.org

The N-YHS received Strong’s sketches as a Gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck Sr., historian to the Sons of the American Revolution, collector of documents signed by Washington and father of Syracuse University professor and noted historian and author Oscar Theodore Barck Jr. (1902-1993), whose papers and ephemera the N-YHS also houses. 

Barck Jr.’s book, “New York City During the War for Independence: With Special Reference to the Period of British Occupation” (1931), provides one of the early discussions of Washington’s spy ring, following Suffolk County historian Morton Pennypacker’s “Two Spies” (1930) identifying Robert Townsend of Oyster Bay as Culper Jr. in prelude to Pennypacker’s “George Washington’s Spies” (1939) establishing Abraham Woodhull of Setauket as Culper Sr. 

Pennypacker described how Anna Smith Strong hung laundry on a clothesline to signal Woodhull when and where Capt. Caleb Brewster’s whaleboats beached in various coves to receive messages he would relay across the Sound to Washington’s headquarters. Arthur Strong’s interest in Roe Tavern shows an appreciation for Strong family history in Setauket although his father’s family emigrated to the United States from England in 1851. As “Master Painters,” Arthur Strong’s family established their own business of paper hanging and painting in Manhattan and Brooklyn before Arthur moved to Port Jefferson.

Encoded art and architecture lead to rediscovered sketches

Roe Tavern’s two-story three-bay main section with a door to the right, considered a “half-house,” featured nine-over-six windows, a common yet potentially politically significant configuration, also found in the similar facade of a circa 1752 house once the home of Mary Woodhull Arthur and now owned by the Smithtown Central School District on West Main Street, Smithtown. That suggestive fenestration led me to discover Mary’s father was Abraham Woodhull, aka Culper Sr., one of the Culpers for whom the Spy Trail was named. After leaving Roe’s Tavern on April 23, 1790, Washington traveled to Smithtown past the Arthur House en route to Huntington and dined at Platt’s Tavern, no longer extant, making Mary’s home the only one of the three Washington passed that day still located where it stood in 1790.

The locating of Strong’s Setauket sketches comes in conjunction with my current research into the possibility that architectural features of Roe Tavern, the Arthur House in Smithtown and the wall paintings of the Sherwood-Jayne House in East Setauket could be highly political in nature. Owned by Preservation Long Island, the Sherwood-Jayne House is believed to have been built about 1730 with the east addition housing the paintings dated to circa 1780-1790. Without giving away details, I’ll say the Sherwood-Jayne House would not be the first American home documented with frescoes of a similar style said to have been painted to express loyalty to either a British or American political stance close to the end of the American Revolution. 

As a clue to understanding the political potential of the Sherwood-Jayne wall paintings, I’ll remind readers of Abigail Adams’ admonition, “Remember the ladies,” written to her husband, John, at a time when he was helping to frame the Declaration of Independence for the new American government in 1776. Abigail’s advice lends meaning to the ciphers that appear to be spelled out on the interior walls of the Sherwood-Jayne House and are repeated in the fenestration of its front facade as well as the windows of Mary Woodhull Arthur’s home and Roe Tavern.

North Shore arts flourish

The southeast parlor, Sherwood-Jayne House, East Setauket
Photo courtesy of Preservation Long Island

Within the 1911 to 1917 time frame that Arthur W. Strong sketched Roe Tavern, painter Emile Albert Gruppé was commissioned in 1916 by antiquarian Howard Sherwood, to restore the wall paintings in a downstairs parlor of his nearby East Setauket home (now the Sherwood-Jayne House). 

Sherwood discovered the paintings beneath the wallpaper shortly after purchasing the house in 1908. 

Strong and Gruppé were working in the East Setauket area while sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey’s early plaster cast of Whisper, the Smithtown Bull (now at the Smithtown Historical Society), was exhibited, beginning in 1913, at the new Smithtown Library (1912), to raise funds for the five-ton bronze Bull. 

Gruppé could have seen the model when he arrived in East Setauket and ironically, in 1919, Emile’s brother, sculptor Karl Gruppé, would become Rumsey’s assistant. After Rumsey’s death in 1922, Karl went to Paris for three years to supervise completion of Rumsey’s unfinished works, which included the Smithtown Bull (National Register Eligible 2018). 

It was cast in 1926, shortly after Emile Gruppé returned to the North Shore and recorded, in April 1925, that he restored “with much care,” the second-floor frescoes at Sherwood’s home. 

The Bull represents not only the time-honored folklore of Richard “Bull” Smith’s famous ride upon a bull circling the land that would become Smithtown but also stands as the secular symbol of the winged ox attribute of St. Luke, patron of painters and architects. 

Standing tall at the junction of Routes 25 and 25A, the bronze Bull installed in Smithtown in 1941 serves as a symbol of the arts along the North Shore from the township of Smithtown to Brookhaven. Little known, but locally significant, Arthur W. Strong, creator of the Roe Tavern Sketches, was a figure in that North Shore arts movement.

About the author: Independent Historian Corey Geske of Smithtown also compared sketches at the N-YHS to an Asher Brown Durand painting at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan, resulting in its correct re-titling as “View in the Valley of Oberhasle, Switzerland” (1842) in the Art Inventories Catalog of the Smithsonian American Art Museums. Geske proposed a National Register Historic District for downtown Smithtown in early 2017, prepared the report resulting in the Smithtown Bull being determined Eligible for the NR (2018) and wrote the successful nomination for recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places of the Byzantine Catholic Church of the Resurrection (1929) designed by Henry J. McGill and Talbot F. Hamlin, and its Rectory, the former Fred and Annie Wagner Residence (1912) designed by Gustav Stickley.

 

The Vanderbilt Mansion library is decked out for the holidays.

The holidays have arrived at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport as the halls of the Vanderbilt Mansion are decked in their holiday finery. From the stately library to the dining room to the bedrooms, the grand house is filled with lighted trees, ornaments, wreaths, ribbons, poinsettias, garlands and elegantly wrapped faux gifts. 

These embellishments are the creative work of designers and garden clubs that volunteer their time each year. Their creative touch brings additional charm and magic to the spectacular, 24-room, Spanish Revival house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The garden clubs and decorators have been with us for many years, and this year we welcomed two new designers. Ethan Allen of Huntington created the Enchanted Flight of the Cardinals installation for us in the Memorial Wing lobby, and Felicia Greenberg contributed her magnificent silk floral sculptures. Our visitors will be delighted with the 2019 holiday season decor,” said Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs.

Designers Mary Schlotter (right) and Krishtia McCord decorate the mansion dining room.

Centerport designers Mary Schlotter and her daughter Krishtia McCord – who operate Harbor Homestead & Co. – brought back the festive holiday dresses they created and displayed in the mansion during the past two years. This year, the dresses adorn Rosamond Vanderbilt’s luxurious, mirrored dressing room. The duo also decorated the dining room.

“Our dining room design was inspired by Downton Abbey,” Schlotter said. “The room and furniture are dark, but the window has a beautiful view of Northport Bay and Long Island Sound. We decided to set the table in simple whites and silver – two silver candelabras flanked by compotes arranged with white magnolia, amaryllis, pine cones and magnolia leaves. In the center of the table is a silver pheasant. We folded the napkins in a bishop’s miter form to give the place settings a royal feel. We think [Downtown Abbey butler] Mr. Carson would approve.” 

One sideboard is set for dinner, she said, the other for dessert and spirits.“The sparkling glasses, and the silver and white design touches catch the light and give a sense that Christmas dinner is about to be served.” 

Other participants include the Dix Hills Garden Club, Honey Hills Garden Club, Nathan Hale Garden Club, Asharoken Garden Club, Three Village Garden Club, Centerport Garden Club, volunteers from the Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners Program of Suffolk County, Felicia Greenberg of Table Art and Event Designs and Vanderbilt staff members Killian Taylor and Maryann Zakshevsky.

Lance Reinheimer, executive director of the Vanderbilt Museum, said, “We’re grateful each year to these creative and generous volunteers who use their creative skills to bring enchanting holiday grandeur to this grand house.”

Visitors can see the captivating results from now through Dec. 30 by tour on Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday (and Thursday to Monday, Dec. 26 to 30) at regular intervals between 11:15 a.m. and 4 p.m.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

Photos courtesy of the Vanderbilt Museum

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Downtown Port Jeff circa 1906. Both original photos by Arthur S. Green. Digitized images from Preservation Long Island.

Time destroys all things. Photos fade, film degrades, buildings crumble. To stop entropy and the inevitable march of time, local historians, both local and regional, have been working to digitize a number of vintage Port Jefferson films and photos for more people to enjoy.

The Port Jefferson Train Station circa 1900. Original photos by Arthur S. Green. Digitized images from Preservation Long Island.

Cold Spring Harbor-based Preservation Long Island purchased a collection of glass slide photographs from renowned late 19th- and early 20th-century photographer Arthur S. Greene, who took photos from all over Brookhaven Town, many of which ended up on postcards and in books promoting Long Island as a tourist destination. 

It wasn’t until 2018 that Preservation LI curator Lauren Brincat said the historical nonprofit was able to place the very delicate glass slides where people could see them. The Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University supplied Preservation with a grant as part of the school’s Digitizing Local History Sources project, funded by the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation. The grant brought two LIU students to Preservation’s headquarters to digitize the photographs. 

Only one problem, there was no guide or template on how one should scan something as fragile as a glass slide. Brincat said the two LIU students had to start from scratch, creating their own guides and frames for photos of different sizes, 4×6, 5×7, etc. The group covered the flatbed with Mylar and used spacers to prevent the scanner from touching the artifacts. 

It was a “tedious and labor-intensive” job, Brincat said, but the result is worth it. Hundreds of images are now stored online for anybody to peruse. 

The Port Jefferson Train Station circa 1900. Original photos by Arthur S. Green. Digitized images from Preservation Long Island.

“There are great benefits to this,” the curator said. “It prevents having to go back to the original material, which could result in breaking them, emulsion or impact on the negative which are very light sensitive.”

The collection of photographs, Brincat said, captures the Island at a different time, especially how it developed from an agricultural, rural setting into its suburban commercial-based future.

“These pictures show the introduction of electricity and the automobile,” she said. “Many of the streets were dirt roads, which is hard to imagine today.”

Other people closer to home have also set themselves to the task of digitizing Port Jefferson history, items that have helped both village residents and historians understand their roots. 

Chris Ryon, the Port Jefferson Village historian, has been working with Belle Terre historian John Hiz on numerous projects, including getting a number of donated film reels from the Childs family digitized. Ryon said Hiz was instrumental in negotiating that donation to the Port Jeff archive. 

“I just wanted to make sure they were kept in the community,” he said.

A video of Belle Terre includes reels of pergolas, things that Hiz said he’s only seen in print. Without such items, he said, historians don’t have that tangible way to look back on the locals’ past.

“It makes things come to life,” he said. “Having access is the most important thing. There’s probably tons of materials stored in people’s attics or basements, but being able to have access is critical.”

A woman and child burn leaves in a digitized film reel gathered by local historians. Video from Port Jeff Maritime Facebook page

The reels depict numerous scenes from 1928 through 1940, including of a woman in a fur coat burning leaves in Belle Terre, of parades, and even of a picnic in Montauk, among others. One reel even shows flooding in Port Jeff reminiscent of recent events from this year and last.

The reels were sent to a historical group in Chattanooga, which has digitized the reels at $15 a piece. The Port Jefferson Harbor Education & Arts Conservancy provided funds. 

“It blew my mind once I first saw it,” Ryon said. “Everyone I showed it to had the same reaction — to see it come alive is another level, another dimension.” 

The PJ historian is still waiting on five more reels to come back, which he expects will be in a few weeks. The videos are all being displayed in the public Facebook group Port Jefferson Maritime, though Ryon said he may look for some video to be posted to the Port Jefferson website. 

“Once it becomes digitized, we can send it all over the world,” Ryon said. “Everyone who wants to can see it.”

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Members and family of the Sound Beach spanish colony visit the Sound Beach civic to talk history. Photo by Bea Ruberto

Twenty members and descendants of the Spanish Colony came to the Sound Beach Civic Association’s monthly meeting Nov. 11 to help share memories of Sound Beach. 

People who emigrated from Spain came  to participate in speaking of the hamlet’s history. Bea Ruberto, the president of the civic, said the gathering was sparked by an article in the Village Beacon Record about civic members looking to consolidate Sound Beach history. 

The colony members all came from the cities of Alhama de Almeria and Tabernas in southeast Spain, which had been a favorite of films and television, having been featured in season six of “Game of Thrones,” “Cleopatra” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

Luisa Lopez, the daughter of Vicky Lopez, a Spanish teacher in Miller Place who often shared the rich culture and love of the Spanish culture with the upper level Spanish classes was there. Lopez brought two books, one written in Spanish, the other an English translation, about the colony.

The Manas family recently came from Spain, and for years, Ruberto said, Carlos Manas has maintained the civic website and aided the group in a variety of ways.