History

By Beverly C. Tyler

Many Long Islanders had the opportunity this past Saturday, on a beautiful fall day, to enjoy the stories of four Revolutionary War era women set in four historic buildings in Stony Brook and Setauket that are owned by the Ward Melville Heritage Organization. Titled Courageous Women of the Revolutionary War, the theatrical event presented a charming glimpse into the lives of these women portrayed by costumed professional actors.

Those who attended one of the three scheduled two-hour tours met at the WMHO Educational & Cultural Center in Stony Brook, received a bag containing program and historical details, WHMO materials and a snack and were directed to board one of four trolleys.

Assigned Bus A for the 11 a.m. tour we were greeted by Nancy Dorney, an active member of the Daughter of the American Revolution who explained the program and answered questions. At each stop we were greeted by another guide who ushered us into the historic building.

Our first stop was the circa 1725 Hawkins-Mount house in Stony Brook. We sat in the parlor and were soon greeted by Ruth Mills Hawkins who told us how difficult it was to raise her children, assist her husband Jonas in running the general store from their home, help cover his activities as a spy for the Culper Spy Ring, and do all of this with British forces in control of Long Island, watching their every move.

Outside the Hawkins-Mount house, WHMO’s Gabrielle Lindau showed tourgoers photos of the paint samples tried out on the walls of the upstairs room where William Sidney Mount worked on many of his paintings.

Next was the circa 1665 Joseph Brewster house where we met his wife Rebecca Mills Brewster, a fiery Irish lass who helped her husband run their tavern and inn while being reviled and insulted by British authorities.

In the circa 1709 Thompson House, we met Phebe Satterly Thompson, wife of Dr. Samuel Thompson, who was quite ill and described her symptoms, her husband’s work as a doctor and how she was dealing with her disease at a time when many of her neighbors were also infected.

Our last stop was the circa 1751 Stony Brook Grist Mill where we enjoyed the byplay between Miles the miller and Katie, an indentured servant from Cork, Ireland, who was living rough after the home she lived in was taken over by British troops. Everyone on our trolley thoroughly enjoyed the pleasant, instructive and well-organized tour, and the weather was delightful.

All photos by Beverly C. Tyler

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Percy Smith's Market and Butcher Shop circa 1940. Photo provided by Beverly C Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

In Stony Brook, before World War II and before the changes made by Ward Melville, there were stores and shops spread out along Main Street, Shore Road and Christian Avenue. Main Street in Stony Brook during the 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries was an active commercial area with a variety of shops.

South of Harbor Road and the mill pond there were several small homesteads and farms, a harness-maker’s shop and blacksmith shop, and a schoolhouse. The business area really began at the Grist Mill, and except for Jacinsky’s Saloon and a bakery opposite Harbor Road, all the stores were between the mill pond and the harbor. Shops included an ice cream parlor, drugstore, hardware store, tearoom, second-hand clothing store, Chinese laundry, a tailor shop and harness-maker’s shop that became a butcher shop and grocery store about 1900, a barbershop, livery stable, shoemaker’s shop, post office and at least two general stores.

The butcher in Stony Brook at the turn of the century was Orlando G. Smith. His brother, Charles E. Smith, ran a butcher shop and general store in East Setauket. Percy Smith, in his booklet “A Century of Progress,” noted that in the 1890s Stony Brook farmers began decreasing their livestock, and Orlando Smith had to buy meat from Bridgeport. His order was shipped by boat to Port Jefferson, loaded into a wagon and brought to Stony Brook. “During this time, Orlando bought what meat he could, but this had dwindled mostly to calves, lambs and pigs,” Percy Smith wrote. Born in 1892, he took over in 1913 the butcher business that had been owned for a short while by Capt. Robert F. Wells and then by Percy’s father, W.H. Smith.

In 1922 Percy Smith moved to a new location in the old post office building. A Stony Brook resident his entire life, he remembered in an interview in 1976 how the local families relied on each other for many of their necessities of life. The farmers supplied the food products, and the ship captains supplied transportation for the goods that were sold in New York City and Connecticut. The coastal schooners also brought to Stony Brook many items that were not grown or manufactured here. The merchants then bought and sold from both the farmers and the schooner captains. Smith noted that his grandfather Joseph Smith Hawkins, born 1827, used to make butter and take it to the store and trade it in and get groceries: “Farming used to be a mainstay of the village, plus the boats that used to bring things in and take things out. My grandfather used to cut and ship cordwood to New York City. The dock at Stony Brook used to be covered with hundreds of cords of wood.”

The 19th century brought many changes that affected the close interdependent relationship of the farmers, ship captains and merchants. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the subsequent building of canals brought coal for fuel from Pennsylvania and other states and hastened the decline of the use of cordwood for fuel in New York City. In addition, wheat and other grains from upstate New York and the Midwest were shipped on the Erie Canal and began arriving in New York City in large quantities. Most of the local grist mills found it difficult, if not impossible, to match the low price of Midwest grains and either adapted or went out of business. Percy Smith commented on these changes: “The older people died off and the younger ones didn’t want to bother with farming because they could make more money doing something else … so the farms were sold off.”

Thus, ended most of the small individual farms in the Three Village area. The local farmer was always a hardworking individual who took a great deal of pride in his work. The farms are gone but many of the farmhouses remain as witness to a lifestyle that has passed on.

Beverly C. Tyler is 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.

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Comsewogue library takes up task of preserving history

A number of artifacts now being displayed at the Comsewogue Public Library. Photo by Kyle Barr

If the old, black-and-white photos could speak, some would be crying. Others, perhaps, could be looking forward to the future.

Past Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld and Cumsewogue Historical Society President Jack Smith on a recent trip to the Gentlemen’s Driving Park in Terryville. File photo by Elana Glowatz

For 10 years, Jack Smith, a Port Jefferson Station resident and retired teacher, built the historical society from the ground up. He collected countless documents and materials and became a leading figure in local history. The Cumsewogue Historical Society, named to reflect the old spelling of the original Native Americans in that area, would be at the head of numerous outreach projects, from advocating Brookhaven town buy the Gentleman’s Driving Park in Terryville to fighting to preserve two historical structures on Main Street in Port Jefferson Station. Smith was named one of TBR News Media’s persons of the year on two separate occasions.

But by the end of 2018, Smith said he had no real choice but to dissolve the historical society, leaving thousands of artifacts to the care of the Comsewogue Public Library.

Smith said the historical society’s near 10-year run ended for a number of reasons. One was the society’s space at the Comsewogue Union Hall had mold problems and was an ill place to store items of historical significance, it not being climate controlled with structural issues. The other was the charter renewal for the historical society required that the society have five board members to vote. Smith added it had gotten harder and harder to find people willing to serve. At the start of 2019, he was also planning a half-year-long trip, and there would be very few people who could have taken care of the artifacts.

“It was just a perfect storm” he said. “I was very disappointed it couldn’t continue.”

Smith, 69, said it had grown increasingly hard to get the community active in its events.

Nick Acampora, the president of the Greater Port Jefferson Historical Society, had worked for years alongside Smith on a number of projects. He said people are busy in this day and age with work, and many have little time for volunteering. While he added his group is fortunate in the amount of support it gets, he’s always worried for the future.

“It’s a tough time for all volunteer organizations,” Acampora said. “Even some of our board members, some of them have been doing it for 30 years. When one of them steps back someone needs to take over, and who do we have to pass the baton onto?”

Brookhaven town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said town officials will continue to work to preserve historical sites in the area, all the while praising Smith for his past work.

“The Cumsewogue Historical Society has laid the foundation for us to continue to highlight history,” she said.

Instead of letting all the artifacts fall to the wayside, Smith presented all artifacts as a deed of gift to the Comsewogue Public Library, which he described as one of the real community centers in the PJS/Terryville area.

Library’s new historical role

Debbie Engelhardt, the library’s director, said she has long agreed that should the historical society dissolve for any reason the library would take in its artifacts.

“So while they understood the town historian would take very good care of the items, there was concern they wouldn’t be as readily available to the local residents,” she said. 

Lori Holtz, the exhibit coordinator and head of adult services at the library, made the connection that other historical societies often have deep roots and foundations in a community, leading to greater support, while the Cumsewogue Historical Society was born out of passion, it had that much more work to do, and needed that extra community support.

A number of artifacts now being displayed at the Comsewogue Public Library. Photo by Kyle Barr

“What he [Smith] was doing which was really noble — he was trying to gather things that really haven’t been gathered all this time and trying to create something,” she said. 

The library has displayed numerous items from the old historical society’s collection, including pictures and artifacts from the Comsewogue school district, pictures of the Gladyz family on their farm and even the rusted shell of binoculars from the old Gentleman’s Driving Park. The library plans to rotate these items in and out throughout the year.

However, the library isn’t stopping there. Holtz said they have future plans, including some things the historical society wouldn’t have been able to do, including scanning and digitizing some of the artifacts to make them available on the library’s website.

In honor of October being American Archives Month, the library is planning to put together an exhibit of several of the historical pictures and artifacts still not available at the library. The display will be available during regular operating hours. 

“We’re thinking it’s not going to be a really heavy lift to continue what we were doing and hopefully do a little bit more,” Holtz said. “Hopefully more people in the community do come forth.”

Barbara Russell, the Brookhaven town historian said the group did the right thing by donating all its materials to the library. 

“It takes a group of people to maintain a historical society,” Russell said. “They had a nice group of working members, but it was small, and you can’t have that small a pool of volunteers.” 

Smith continues to be involved with his artifacts, taking the trip to the library when the directors need help identifying artifacts. Both library and Smith have long worked together since the beginning of the historical society doing displays and lectures, but the president of the dissolved society said even then he would have a hard time getting people to come to events. 

Historical advocacy

Smith said while he will still continue to be active in the area, his advocacy days are largely over.

He and the historical society were involved in several projects, having been at the head of Brookhaven buying the Gentleman’s Driving Park property to help preserve it. Last year, Smith made a huge push to preserve 101 and 105 Main St. adjacent to the south side of the train tracks in Port Jefferson. Those buildings date to the early 1900s, one of which housed E.H. Rogers Feed Mill, a relic of the area’s agricultural roots. While the 2014 Port Jefferson Station Commercial Hub Study contained recommendations from local architects for preserving a number of those buildings, Smith had said last year they were under threat by local developers.

The above photo, taken in the early 1900s, is of the Rogers Grain and Feed Mill (a.k.a. the Remz Feed and Grain Mill) in Port Jefferson Station which serviced local and far-reaching businesses, farms and families throughout Long Island including the Brookhaven National Laboratory. This photo, along with others of the era, is on view at the Terryville Union Hall. Photo courtesy of Cumsewogue Historical Society

Sarah Kautz, the preservation director of Preservation Long Island, a nonprofit that advocates for protection and stewardship of historic sites, said Cumsewogue had reached out to them over those buildings looking for support. She added lacking support like the now defunct historical society to keep tabs on such projects impacts their ability to try and preserve such properties.

“For the work we do in helping to advocate for preservation across Long Island, we really depend on partners like that in local communities, because they’re the ones on the ground, they find out about these new proposals,” she said. “Advocacy really comes from them, the grass roots.”

Cartright said there are no new plans presented to the town about those properties on Main Street, but said she will work to protect those historic sites, along with maintaining the town-owned properties of the Gentleman’s Driving Park and Terryville Union Hall.

Acampora said he had conversations with Smith last year about those particular properties and had promised to work to preserve them. The news that his neighboring historical society had dissolved came as a shock to him and to the rest of the historical society’s board. He said his group will do its best to try and preserve those properties, along with other historical sites in the PJS/Terryville area.

“I’m hoping we can do something with those buildings on the south side of the tracks,” he said. “It’s going to be up to us, and that’s what we try to do with any of our old buildings — keep an eye on it and do what we can.”

The community came out in droves for the 5th annual Culper Spy Day on Sept. 14. The interactive self-guided tour of the Three Villages and Port Jefferson celebrated the members of Long Island’s courageous Culper Spy Ring who helped change the course of the American Revolutionary War. The event featured tours of historic homes and churches, Colonial cooking demonstrations, military drills, children’s activities, blacksmith demonstrations, book signings and more.

More than 40 organizations took part in the historical event which was hosted by Tri-Spy Tours, the Three Village Historical Society, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and The Long Island Museum.

Photos by Anthony White

Image courtesy of the WMHO

By Melissa Arnold

Picture this: It’s August of 1776, the air is thick with humidity, and the road we now call Route 25A is made of dirt, not asphalt. Americans secretly loyal to the Patriot cause are traveling on horseback from Setauket to New York City, where Gen. George Washington is stationed. These brave men are on a mission to deliver critical information to help win the Revolutionary War, some of it written in invisible ink.

Image courtesy of the WMHO

We know these stories and many like them from historical literature, but can you recall many stories about the brave women who supported the war effort? On Saturday, Sept. 28, the Ward Melville Heritage Organization invites the community to take a trip back in time to see what it was like to live on Long Island during that time period and explore local treasures with a unique living history event titled Courageous Women of the Revolutionary War.

In the summer of 1776, the British forces were able to take control of the area, radically affecting the lives of local families, especially those Patriots who supported American independence. Many husbands and young men were arrested and enslaved on prison boats in New York Harbor, and boys were forced into service for the British Army. Meanwhile, wives, mothers and daughters were left to protect their children and property alone.

In the Three Villages, four historic properties purchased and lovingly restored by philanthropist Ward Melville will become the center of the action for the Courageous Women living history performances. Guests will travel to each site by trolley and hear stories of struggle, hope and patriotism directly from the women who lived at that time.

The event is the first of its kind in our area and is a labor of love for the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year.

“This was a group effort that started at a staff meeting more than a year ago,” said Gloria Rocchio, president of the WMHO. “We felt that women weren’t really focused on in explanations of the Revolutionary War, and since next year is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, we felt it was time to bring [the female perspective] out of the shadows.”

The tour’s mission, made possible by a grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, is to inspire and educate the public about the contributions of these valiant women while fostering an appreciation of the Three Village region and its cultural heritage.

Using historical literature and oral histories from the Three Village area as a guide, the WMHO has worked to create realistic stories of four women who lived during the war. The organization also relied on the expertise of the Anna Smith Strong Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a lineage-based service organization for women whose ancestors lived during that era.

Tour guests will be greeted by an actor in period dress at each of the historic properties, which are listed on the National and State Register of Historic Places. At the Thompson House (circa 1709) in Setauket, visitors will meet Phoebe Thompson, a chronically ill woman and wife of 18th-century physician Dr. Samuel Thompson.

The tour will also feature the oldest house in the Town of Brookhaven, the Brewster House (circa 1665), also in Setauket, which operated as a tavern and general store during the war. Rebecca Brewster, wife of Joseph Brewster whose cousin Caleb Brewster was a member of the Culper Spy Ring, will greet visitors. Rebecca helped to run the tavern, which was frequented by British soldiers.

In Stony Brook, the Hawkins Mount House (circa 1725) will host Ruth Mills, wife of Culper spy Jonas Hawkins. Ruth witnessed firsthand the stresses and danger of opposing the British. At the Stony Brook Grist Mill (circa 1751), participants will meet Katie, an indentured servant from Ireland who is working to pay off a debt her family owed to the British government as a Grist Mill “Dusty.”

“We wanted to create an event that was more than just fun and entertaining,” said Gabrielle Lindau, director of development at the WMHO. “How many people realize that the Culper Spy Ring was right in their backyard? It was easy to go back into the historical records and learn a bit more about these women.”

To ensure historical accuracy and high-quality talent, the WMHO hired professional actresses from St. George Living History Productions, a Medford-based living history troupe.

WMHO education director Deborah Boudreau said that the organization believes this event captures the spirit of Ward Melville’s dream to help the community engage with local history in a personal way.

“Ward Melville spoke of history as something that you live with and lives with you,” Boudreau explained. “Visually, the properties bring you back to the 18th century. They give you a sense of what Long Island would have looked like at that time. I’m excited for people to learn about these stories, and for the opportunity we’ve had to imagine what such a defining moment in our country would have meant through the eyes of women. The Revolutionary War planted a seed for the Women’s Rights Movement. It brought visibility to what women are capable of.”

Courageous Women of the Revolutionary War will be held on Sept. 28 (rain date Sept. 29) with trolley tours departing from the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main St., Stony Brook at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Each tour lasts approximately 90 minutes. Tickets are $40 per person and reservations are required. For further information, please call 631-751-2244.

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Port Jefferson and Port Jefferson Station vets have shown dedication to a local institution for just over 100 years.

The American Legion Wilson Ritch Post 432 held its 100th Anniversary Dinner/Dance at the Port Jefferson Moose Lodge Sept. 14. Local veterans and members of the lodge celebrated the centennial achievement alongside residents and local elected officials. 

The post was named after the late Cpl. Irving Wilson Ritch Jr., who made the ultimate sacrifice Sept. 6, 1918, on the Vesle River during the Oise-Aisne campaign during World War I. On Sept. 1, 1919, 15 of the original members came together to form the post, which was formally chartered Sept. 16 that year.

Their first meetings were held at the Port Jefferson Hook and Ladder House on Jones Street, presided over by A.C. Fiske, who was the post’s first commander and president.

Later, meetings were held at the local YMCA, the Port Jefferson court room, the K. of C. rooms and the rooms over the Port Jefferson Free Library. The group has now been meeting out of its new formal headquarters located at 1450 Hallock Ave. in Port Jefferson Station.

Since its start the post has been very active in the Port Jefferson Station and surrounding communities: attending and participating in various activities, ceremonies and events such as the annual wreath laying ceremonies on Memorial Day and other remembrance ceremonies on Veterans Day. Recently, the group has been working alongside other local vet groups and with Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) raising funds to revitalize local veteran memorials.

Members of the post said they look forward to serving and celebrating in local communities for another 100 years. 

Information provided by post historian Richard Knutson.

On Aug. 30, the American Association for State and Local History presented an Award of Excellence to the Three Village Historical Society for the society’s Founders Day program. The program is conducted each spring for Three Village Central School District fourth-grade students.

Donna Smith and Steve Healy (center) receive the AASLH Award of Excellence on behalf of the Three Village Historical Society at the AASLH Awards Dinner in Philadelphia, PA on Aug. 30 in photo with John Fleming, AASLH Chair on the left, AASLH Predient & CEO John R. Dichtl on the right.

As a direct result of the program, during the 2017-18 school year, Setauket School fourth-grade students produced videos about each of the 12 Vance Locke murals in the Setauket School Auditorium. The students, with the assistance of their teachers and Andy Weik, lead teacher for instructional technology for the district, wrote and produced the videos.

Because of the work of the students, the  auditorium was opened to the public for the first time on the 2018 Culper Spy Day. To make the videos available to anyone visiting the auditorium, a QR code was added below each mural. The follow-up to the Founders Day program by Setauket School fourth-grade students gave an added impetus for the decision to present the Three Village Historical Society with the AASLH Award of Excellence.

On Sept. 10, members of the Founders Day Committee Donna Smith, TVHS education director; Beverly Tyler, TVHS historian; Karen Mizell, Setauket School principal; Lindsey Steward-Goldberg, TVHS committee member; along with Steve Healy, TVHS president  met with the 110, now sixth-grade, Setauket School students and teachers to congratulate them on their part in the Founders Day Award.

Smith and Tyler thanked the Setauket School, Principal Karen Mizell and the Three Village Central School District for their partnership with the Three Village Historical Society and the Founders Day Committee over the 14-year (2006-2019) existence of the Founders Day program. The event was also attended by Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine and Leg. Kara Hahn.

Supervisor Ed Romaine thanks the students.

Supervisor Romaine spoke briefly to the students before presenting the Three Village Historical Society with a proclamation officially announcing Sept. 10 as Three Village Historical Society Day for its efforts in promoting local history. “Two years ago when you were in fourth grade you were able to take videos photos of the Grist Mill and other historic sites around town … and members of the Three Village Historical Society took your work to the AMA and they won an award which says one thing — you’re all great historians,” Romaine told the students.

“Our history is so important to us as a community in establishing our sense of place and understanding where we came from and how the people who founded this community helped to make it the great place that it is today,” said Leg. Hahn. “And so I hope you are learning a lot about our local community thanks to the wonderful volunteers at the historical society and all of your teachers … to help you understand how important Setauket was to the founding of this nation.”

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Artifacts gathered at the Fischetti Site along West Meadow Creek. Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Long Island, Brookhaven Town and the Three Village area have a rich history, with a population dating back thousands of years before the first white settlers. The first humans to set foot on Long Island were of the Paleo-Indian and Archaic cultures. These hunter-gatherers came to Long Island between 12,500 and 3,000 years ago. The first cultural group, the Paleo-Indians (12,500 to 8,000 BP, before present, defined as 1950) hunted the mammoths and mastodons with spear points called Clovis points. Several Clovis points have been found on Long Island.

Artifact gathered at the Fischetti Site along West Meadow Creek. Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

Long Island Native Americans of the Algonquian culture settled in Brookhaven and used the land and the sea to provide all of their needs. These early settlers (3,000 to 1,000 BP, the Woodland culture period) used the rich coastal resources to support their native family groups.

There were basically two family groups of Native Americans in Brookhaven during the Woodland period. The Setalcotts, a name meaning “land on the mouth of the creek,” on the north near Long Island Sound, and the Unkechauges on the south shore near the Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. They were described as tall and muscular with straight hair and a reddish complexion. They lived in simple lodge dwellings. They hunted in the plentiful forests, fished in the well-stocked bays and streams and grew corn and a few vegetables in small farming plots.

In the 1500s, the first European traders and trappers traveled up and down the east coast of North America. They bought food and furs from the Native Americans in exchange for iron goods, cloth goods and trinkets. Gradually the Native American way of life began to change. At the same time, with no resistance to European diseases, the Native Americans were devastated by smallpox and other diseases. The native population decreased by more than 50 percent, leaving fertile lands open to settlement by people of English descent from New England, eastern Long Island and England. In 1609, Henry Hudson landed on Long Island, before beginning his exploration of the Hudson River. He described the Indians as “seeming very glad of our coming and brought greene tobacco and gave us of it for knives and beads.”

From the time of Native American hunter-gatherers through Colonial times, West Meadow Beach, West Meadow Creek and the adjacent tidal wetlands have been a valuable resource. Archaeological excavations have given us most of the details of how people lived in this area as early as 5,000 years ago. One of the most famous sites in New York State was a nearby shell midden named the Stony Brook Site, excavated by the state archaeologist William Richie in 1955.

From archaeological digs by Richie and others, we know that, between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago, the native people were hunters and gatherers, dependent upon hunting local animals and gathering plants, stones and clay for food, shelter, tools, clothes and medicines.

Aunt Amy’s Creek at West Meadow Creek, site of an early Native American village and an archaeological exploration by New York State Archaeologist William Richie. Vance Locke Mural

The Fischetti Site, a prehistoric Indian site for manufacturing tools and spear points, was discovered during a cultural resource investigation of a proposed residential development in November of 1980. Salvage excavations continued through October of 1981.

The site, on the east side of West Meadow Creek opposite the horse show grounds and the new walking trail, was occupied by Algonquin Indians about 3,000 years ago. We know they used this location then because of the type of arrow and spear points and blades recovered. The primary activity here, on the edge of Stony Brook Creek, was making stone tools. We know this by the vast quantities of stone flakes and roughed-out stones.

The almost total absence of food remains at the site shows that this was not the location of a village. However, a village site, the Stony Brook Site, did exist about 800 yards to the south, along what is now known as Aunt Amy’s Creek, during the same time period.

For thousands of years, the Indians used natural resources, wood, stone and animals to make their housing, tools and clothing. About 3,000 years ago, their way of life changed with the introduction of three things: pottery, the bow and arrow and horticulture (farming). Like the earlier Indians, the Woodland Indians continued to rely on natural resources.

The artifacts taken from the Fischetti Site are part of the collection of the Three Village Historical Society. Artifacts from the Richie site are a part of the collection of the New York State Museum.

Beverly C. Tyler is 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.

Rocky Point's Rob Bentivegna was the driving force in reconstructing a historic building. Photo by Kyle Barr

At the tip between Hallock Landing and Rocky Point Landing roads, the old schoolhouse building, known as the Lecture Room, stands with its luminous white siding and large, red door. It’s situated like a moment out of time.

Rob Bentivegna points to the windows that had been reinstalled in the old Lecture Room’s interior. Photo by Kyle Barr

For Rob Bentivegna, a member and general handyman at the Rocky Point Fire Department, it’s a beaming example of more than two years’ worth of work to restore a historic property.

“This was all stuff the fire district wanted to do, but the estimates were so high,” Bentivegna said. “I said, ‘Let me do it, it’s what I did for a living.’”

In March 2017, the Rocky Point Fire District bought the 0.92-acre property across from the fire department building on Hallock Landing. The site was to be used in the construction of a new EMS vehicle garage to bring EMTs closer to the Rocky Point/Sound Beach edge of the district line. In addition to the garage site, the property also came with the 2,000 square foot building known as the Rocky Point Lecture Room, also as the community church and Parish Resource Center. The whole property came with a price tag of $250,000.

With occasional help by fellow fireman Frank Tizzano, Bentivegna renovated and transformed what was once a termite-infested ramshackle building north of the Lecture Room. He transformed another building into a maintenance facility. 

But he didn’t stop there. It’s since become part passion project, part public service. The building is now being used for meetings and even for cheerleaders to practice.

When Bentivegna first came onto the project, vines had wormed their way under the walls and were crawling up along its inside. The windows were falling out of their frames and had been covered by plexiglass because they had been broken on the inside. The basement would flood during every storm. The roof was falling apart.

Once work began, the fire district maintenance manager said local residents came forward. They each had old photographs of the building, showing how it looked from the 1940s, and even further back to the 1920s.

“I did this with the love of making something what it used to be.”

— Rob Bentivegna

“That door is the same color door as it was in 1927,” he said.

The Lecture Room now has a completely new roof and new windows. He spent months searching for a company that would re-create the classic look of the crossbars on the windows. Inside is new carpeting, ceiling and walls. He even installed the walls and plumbing for a bathroom to the rear of the structure. 

Outside, the front door gleams with new paint, but all the doors’ glass are the original, hand blown windows. The tower above the front door and chimney to the rear are also original.

Fire Commissioner Kirk Johnson said Bentivegna worked near tirelessly on the project, often using his off time when not doing repairs at district buildings. In one case, the window shutters needed to be replaced, but nothing that could be bought matched how they looked historically. The maintenance worker instead crafted the shutters by hand.

“He really wanted it to look like it did back in the day,” Johnson said.

The handyman has plans come Christmas season as well. A tree in front of the building fell down during a storm earlier this year, landing full across the road. After removing it, Rocky Point-based Long Island Elite Landscaping Construction stepped in to supply a new pine tree, one Bentivegna plans to decorate along with the building for a bright and colorful tree lighting ceremony come December. 

Arnie Pellegrino, the owner of Elite Landscaping, has lived across from the building for more than a decade, saying he had once provided landscape designs to the previous owners, but nothing came of it. Once the fire district and Bentivegna got their hands on the property, he said, things have finally changed for the better.

“He’s a good man, he’s a good contractor,” Pellegrino said of Bentivegna. “He thinks about the neighbors.”

The Rocky Point Historical Society posted to its Facebook page thanking the fire district for keeping the historical building alive.

“We’re happy the fire department has saved the building and preserved it because it is a special historic site for the community of Rocky Point,” said historical society President Natalie Aurucci Stiefel. “We applaud their efforts to take care of the building.”

The Lecture Room’s interior was remade with new walls, ceilings and windows. Photo by Kyle Barr

The building was built in 1849 on land donated by Amos Hallock of the famed local Hallock family. It was built to serve the community as a lecture room and an extension of the Mount Sinai Congregational Church for the local area, getting together to raise $500 to erect the building. Stiefel said once the local one-room schoolhouse became too crowded, people taught school out of the building as well. Later the Long Island Council of Churches declared it as a Parish Resource Center.

Johnson applauded Bentivegna for all the work he’s done, not just with the church but with buildings around the district. He said without the energy of its handyman the district would need to constantly pay outside contractors. Instead, Bentivegna jumps in saying he can take care of it.

“He deserves a ton of credit for the way that place looks,” the commissioner said. 

But the fire district handyman said he doesn’t want to take all the credit. He thanked the district for its years of support and willingness to let him do what he needed to do with little hand holding.

There are still finishing touches Bentivegna is looking to add to both the building’s exterior and interior. The next step is to replace the rotting back deck with new wood, adding ramps to make it accessible for wheelchairs and people with disabilities. He is currently working on the basement, where the district has stored numerous items from the other firehouse located on King Road, which is currently being rebuilt. The plan is to use the basement for washing gear after a fire, which is now mandated by New York State. After replacing the basement windows, he plans to make the basement a sort of training room, with removable walls for firefighters to practice search and rescue.

It’s at least another year of work, but for the Rocky Point handyman, he’s nothing but excited to see the entire project come to completion.

“I never once looked for someone to tap me on the back,” he said. “I did this with the love of making something what it used to be.”

Mark Gajewski a union operating engineer worked six months straight on clearing Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks.

Out of the twisted wreckage of two collapsed New York City skyscrapers, Mark Gajewski helped erect one of the most significant 9/11 artifacts: the steel Ground Zero cross.

The symbol touched people beyond the many emergency responders who found it a source of comfort and divine inspiration. For Gajewski’s only daughter, Crystal, the 17-foot cross is one small part of her father’s legacy. As an operating engineer, he helped clear away the World Trade Center debris. He died 10 years later from a rare form of lung cancer at the age of 52.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it isn’t an artifact or special memento that makes a person a hero, but their innate intent to help others,” Crystal Gajewski said. “My father may not have received a medal and he will not appear in any textbooks, but to me and those that knew him best, he was one of the great unsung heroes.”

Gajewski rushed to the scene four hours after the towers fell, his daughter said, and was one of the first people to assess the situation.

“He worked six months straight without coming home at Ground Zero, nine months total,” she said.

At Ground Zero, Gajewski endured unthinkable trauma, both emotional and physical. He found human body parts in the rubble at the site, his daughter said, including the hands, bound at the wrist, of a flight attendant. And when he came down with strange ailments and coughing, his daughter said that doctors initially were perplexed. Because of his untimely death, the 9/11 cleanup worker never saw his son Sean graduate law school and become an attorney for the U.S. Coast Guard. He never got to meet his first grandchild, Mia.  

Father Brian Jordan, from St. Francis Assisi church in New York City wants people to know that Mark Gajewski represents the thousands of union construction workers who completed the remarkable task of demolishing and removing the fallen building from the site. 

“You hear about the dedication and the sacrifice of the fire fighters and police officers, but not the talented union construction workers: the operating engineers, the electricians, the welders, and others who performed an incredible task on time and under budget,” Jordan said. He also calls them unsung heroes.

Mark Gajewski’s name and the names of more than 1,200 other responders are engraved on a shiny, black granite wall in the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park on Smithtown Boulevard in Nesconset. This year, 206 more responders’ names were inscribed. Last year 163 names were added. So, the effects of 9/11 are still mounting. All of them, uniformed and nonuniformed have died of a 9/11-related illness. As the list grows, so does the crowd that attends the annual 9/11 Responders Remembered tribute. More than 500 people gathered on Sept. 14 for this year’s event.

Crystal Gajewski points out her father’s name at the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park.

Nesconset resident John Feal, a 9/11 responder, served as demolition supervisor for the cleanup and had part of his foot amputated after a steel beam fell on it. The tireless advocate built the park with the help of others. He has said that he has been to more than 180 funerals for responders and wants to ensure that all the people who fell ill and lost their lives as a consequence of responding to the disaster are remembered for their sacrifices. “No Responder Left Behind” is his motto. The Nesconset park, he said, is unique because it’s inclusive. The names of responders who died are not excluded because of where they lived or what job title they held, or whether or not they wore uniforms. 

So, as the tragedy continues to take its toll, Crystal Gajewski and her family and the many other volunteers remain dedicated to preserving the honor and dignity of her father and all the other people who ultimately sacrificed their lives as a result of cleaning up the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. She serves as volunteer vice president of the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park with John Feal and has created a separate foundation Ski’s Open Heart in her father’s honor.

Crystal said she hopes that her father’s story and the foundation she created for him inspires others to look within themselves and find time and the desire to help others.

Feature Photo by Crystal Gajewski

  The Ground Zero Cross plaque welded by Gajewski.
The Ground Zero Cross Photos by Timothy M. Moore.