History

History came alive on July 23 at the second annual Culper Spy Day, a collaboration of 18 organizations including Tri-Spy Tours, the Three Village Historical Society, The Long Island Museum, the Ward Melville Heritage Organization and Stony Brook University’s Special Collections. Hundreds of community members endured the heat to come out and learn about the amazing story behind George Washington’s Setauket Culper Spy Ring. Activities, which took place in Setauket, Stony Brook and Port Jefferson, included tours, battle reenactments, colonial cooking demonstrations, live music, crafts and more.

The historic Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum is open to the public. Photo by Wenhao Ma

By Wenhao Ma

Port Jefferson history buffs got a sneak peak back in time at an event July 21, which previewed new additions at one of the village’s most historic sites.

The exhibits on display at the historic Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum were revealed for those in attendance at the special event. The museum contains artifacts, including a handwritten letter legitimizing the involvement of Port Jefferson in George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring during the Revolutionary War.

The historic Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum is open to the public with some added attractions. Photo by Wenhao Ma
The historic Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum is open to the public with some added attractions. Photo by Wenhao Ma

The museum was first opened in 2011, though it was closed shortly after. The re­opening of the house in 2015 was tied to the discovery of the letter, which is displayed at the museum and was written in 1780 by Loyalist solider Nehemiah Marks. The July 21 event also debuted the museum’s second floor, which had never previously been safe for occupancy, according to Georgette Grier-Key, village historian and curator of the house. She described the new addition as a “peek-a-boo deck” because visitors of the second floor can see some of the house’s exposed architecture, in addition to more exhibits that demonstrate the house’s history.

“It’s very significant to our shared American history,” Grier­-Key said of the museum. “It’s a surviving Revolutionary War structure circa 1755.”

The house belonged to Philips Roe. He and his brother, Nathaniel Roe, according to the letter, were providing intelligence and supplies to Washington’s army.

The house, located today at West Broadway and Barnum Avenue across from Port Jefferson Harbor, has been moved several times during its history. The most recent move took place in 2008 when the house was restored and made into a museum with the help of Robert Sisler, Port Jefferson’s first historian who passed away earlier this month.

“It’s very significant to our shared American history…it’s a surviving Revolutionary War structure circa 1755.” —Georgette Grier-Key

A foundation had to be built under the house to raise it high above the ground because the house is in a floodplain, according to Jim Szakmary, who has been assisting Grier­-Key in setting up the museum. Szakmary also said the house is so old that when restoring it they had to use steel rods that went all the way from the roof to the cement foundation to secure it.

Szakmary said private collectors and other museums donated or lent their collections to the Drowned Meadow Cottage museum in advance of the re-opening July 21.

“With the significance of the Culper Spy Ring,” said Mayor Margot Garant, who attended and spoke during the event, “it’s really mind-blowing to actually be standing in the house.”

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Former Port Jeff Village Historian Robert Sisler leaves behind a lasting impact. File Photo

By Wenhao Ma

Port Jefferson Village mourned the death of its first historian and a proud, devoted community member earlier this month. Robert Sisler died July 2 at the age of 88.

Sisler was a Spanish teacher at Port Jefferson High School from 1953 to 1984 and headed the school’s Foreign Language and Reading departments. He served as a member and eventually became the chairman of the village’s Zoning Board of Appeals. He was also the chairman of the Harbor Committee, a village trustee and the deputy mayor in addition to being the first historian of the village.

“[Sisler] was a constant lover of the village…his love turned into action.” —Nomi Solo

“He was an integral and driving force for exploring, recording and documenting our local history,” Mayor Margot Garant said in an email. “His writings and lifelong work of preserving Port Jefferson will ensure that our children for generations to come will learn about our ship-building heritage, our car-building years and our influence and impact in the American Revolution.”

As a historian, Sisler wrote several books on the early years of Port Jefferson. Topics included shipbuilding, automobile manufacturing, moral ethics, the development of radio and television at RCA Radio Central in Rocky Point and other historical articles for TBR News Media.

Jack Smith, historian from the Cumsewogue Historical Society, shared an anecdote about one of his experiences with Sisler. He said he read an article on an automobile factory in Port Jefferson about eight years ago. He then contacted the author, who was Sisler, hoping to invite him to the society’s annual Heritage Day, which is meant to celebrate the history of the community, to give a group of fourth-graders a lecture. Sisler agreed.

“He was always willing to share,” Smith said. He recalled on that day Sisler didn’t just come talk to the kids about the factory, but brought his own old car. “It’s a very generous thing,” he said.

The historical society once received a unit brick from Sisler as donation, according to Smith. The unit brick is different from normal bricks because it’s shaped like the letter “U.”

“We always had a nice relationship,” Smith said. “He’s a very nice man … he knew so many different things about Port Jefferson.”

Sisler’s most recent contribution to Port Jefferson was the restoration of the two centuries-old Roe houses, named for the family of the first settlers in downtown Port Jefferson, according to the village’s historical society. The original owner, businessman Phillip Roe, used his resources to help George Washington pass information in the Culper Spy Ring during the Revolutionary War.

The reason for Sisler to restore historical sites, according to Nomi Solo, who said she had known Sisler since the 1970s, was because it’s better for people to experience the history themselves than to look at the remaining pieces in a museum.

“He was a constant lover of the village,” Solo said. She added that Sisler was instrumental in the construction of the Village Center.

“His love turned into action,” she said. “He was a very, very, very caring individual. It’s a loss for the community.”

By Wenhao Ma

The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe celebrated Nikola Tesla’s 160th birthday Sunday outside his only remaining laboratory in Shoreham. Hundreds of people joined the celebration to honor the inventor of alternating current electricity and neon lighting.

The center has been holding Tesla’s birthday celebrations since 2013, when it completed its purchasing of the lab. Jane Alcorn, the president of the board of directors, said she believed that it’s important for people to remember Tesla.

“He has contributed so much to modern society,” she said. “Every time you turn on an electrical light or any kind of electrical appliance, it’s because Nikolas Tesla developed the alternating current system that we use today.”

The center also connected online with another Tesla birthday celebration that was taking place in Serbia, at the same time, and the parties greeted one other.

Alcorn and other board members are looking to build a museum on the site that would be dedicated to inventions and new technologies.

According to its website, the museum would complement the educational efforts of the schools within this region, as well as the community outreach activities of other prominent science institutions.

“He’s a visionary,” Alcorn said. “His ideas and what he saw coming in the future and the way he inspires people today to be visionary are all testaments to how important he is.”

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David Morrissey Jr. as Benjamin Tallmadge

By Ed Randolph

The “Culper Spy Adventure,” a special presentation by TBR News Media, is an immersive digital attraction that will allow locals and tourists alike to be recruited into the ranks of General Washington’s secret Setauket spy ring. Accessed by scanning a special QR code on a panel of the Three Village map due out later this summer, you will begin an interactive 45-minute journey that puts you into the starring role of your very own secret spy adventure! Become a time traveler as you arrive in the year 1780, crossing paths with legends and heroes: Abraham Woodhull, Anna Smith Strong, Caleb Brewster, George Washington himself!

Enjoy interactive games between each episode that are filled to the brim with intrigue, action and fun! Created with the whole family in mind, the “Culper Spy Adventure” is great for all ages. We are also offering a special American Sign Language version as well as a handicap-accessible edition! Join the revolution later this summer!

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with David Morrissey Jr. who who plays Benjamin Tallmadge in this interactive journey.

Who was Benjamin Tallmadge?

He’s the young mind who organized the Culper Spy Ring for General Washington. He originally was from Setauket and grew up with Caleb Brewster and Abraham Woodhull and acted as Washington’s direct connection with the spies. For most of the war he led a dragoon (cavalry) unit, and participated in a lot of major battles. He was brave and was the very definition of patriot.

What was the most challenging part about bringing Tallmadge to life?

I’d say it must have been acting like someone with the leadership skills to organize the Culper Spy Ring but yet still be a believable 26-year-old. Yeah, people grew up earlier back then, but it’s still so young to have done so much.

What’s your favorite memory from filming the ‘Culper Spy Adventure’?

My favorite memory is working with the reenactment soldiers (from the Third NY Regiment and the Huntington Militia), those guys are great. They know everything about the subject matter, so if you have a question about dialect or terms or anything they would definitely know it. Also, trying to get the words “whale fodder” out was a tough one for some reason, everyone on set got a good laugh about that one!

What do you think Benjamin Tallmadge would think about this project?

He’d probably think it was pretty cool, I mean you’d have to explain to him the whole film medium thing and how it works, but I’d imagine after introducing him to the concept he’d love the idea. It’d probably be pretty neat for him to relive an interpretation of things that really happened to him!

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