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AMC Turn

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Owner Bob Willemstyn in front of the grand fireplace at the Country House in Stony Brook, circa 1712. Photo by Alex Petroski

Culper Spy Day is approaching quickly and the buzz is starting to build. The Three Village area will be celebrating its storied connection to the Revolutionary War and the Culper Spy Ring on Saturday, June 20.

The Country House Restaurant on North Country Road in Stony Brook will be participating in the festivities, offering a spy-themed menu for the occasion. The restaurant’s owner and Stony Brook resident Bob Willemstyn said he is excited to be a part of the historic day.

“It’s really nice to see the cohesiveness of the community coming together,” Willemstyn said. He has owned the restaurant since 2005. Before that, Willemstyn worked at the restaurant for 27 years.

Built in 1710, the house has served many purposes over those 300-plus years. Willemstyn said that every character from the popular television show TURN on AMC, which depicts the actions and inner workings of the Culper Spy Ring in Setauket, physically set foot in the Country House Restaurant around the time of the Revolutionary War. Everyone except for George Washington, Willemstyn admits.

The menu for June 20 features dishes with Culper Spy Day-related names. Yankee Doodle Chicken Fingers & French Fries, Secret Spy Ring Cheese Ravioli and George Washington’s Flatbread Cheese Pizza will surely be favorites on the kid’s menu. Members of the Culper Spy Ring are paid homage on the adult menu with items like the Anna & Selah Strong Twin Maryland Crab Cakes, Mary Woodhull Chilled Poached Salmon Fillet over Greens and the Caleb Brewster Cavatelli Pasta & Braised Beef Short Rib Ragu.

There will be some extra-added fun with the kid’s menu, Willemstyn said. There is a secret code within the menu that if cracked will earn the sharp, young revolutionary a free dessert.

“We hope to draw some people into the village with this menu,” Willemstyn said. The Country House Restaurant is not quite within walking distance from some of the other Culper Spy Day festivities, but it is the only place that will boast a spy-themed menu and more than 300 years of history and tradition.

Willemstyn said he plans to decorate the restaurant with an American flag bunting to draw in other revolutionaries enjoying the special day. He also recommended that anyone interested in dining at the Country House Restaurant on Culper Spy Day should make a reservation in advance because space is limited. The commemorative menu will be available from noon until 4 p.m.

The Country House is located at 1175 North Country Rd., Stony Brook. For reservations, please call 631-751-3332. For more information, visit www.countryhouserestaurant.com.

Historian Beverly C. Tyler and Donna Smith, Education Director of the Three Village Historical Society, stand next to the grave of Abraham Woodhull at the Setauket Presbyterian Church. Photo by Heidi Sutton

By Barbara Russell

“By the 29th inst I expect to hear further from C_; his Dispatches shall be duly forwarded I would take the liberty to observe that a safe conveyance may be had, by the bearer, for the ink which your Excellency proposed sending to C_”

The writer was Setauket native Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, and the letter was sent to General George Washington July 25, 1779. Tallmadge is assuring the general that he is expecting information soon from C_, alias Samuel Culper, alias Abraham Woodhull, and is referring to an invisible ink provided by Washington to be used by members of the Culper Spy Ring.

Born in Setauket in 1754, Benjamin Tallmadge left Setauket as a teenager to enter Yale College, became a school teacher after graduation, and subsequently joined the Patriot forces. He served as the chief intelligence officer for General George Washington and relied on his childhood friends from Setauket for the intelligence reports so vital to Washington’s success.

The Culper Spy Ring is not a tale but a real and factual account of spying during the American Revolution. Its epicenter was nestled right here in Setauket. Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Austin Roe and Caleb Brewster all lived here and knew each other growing up. Tallmadge leaned on his trusted friends to create the web that brought information from New York City out to Long Island and across the Long Island Sound to him in Connecticut. From there, it was transmitted to General Washington.

Spying is very risky, and every person involved knew it. All but Caleb Brewster used fictitious names; invisible ink was provided; a dictionary of code words invented; and success depended on trusting that each person was committed to the fullest. The Culper Spy Ring operated from 1778 through 1783, with additional agents beyond the Setauket friends. One known agent was Robert Townsend of Oyster Bay, who had a business in New York City, allowing him to pick up information on British troop strengths and movements and then pass it on to either Austin Roe, an innkeeper, or Abraham Woodhull, a farmer and business operator. Both traveled to New York City in the course of their businesses.

The residents of Brookhaven attempted to carry on with their lives, while British soldiers were assigned to the Setauket area, following the disastrous Battle of Long Island in August 1776. Town board minutes of the time do not refer to the war but to the general running of a municipality with tax collecting, electing officials, land ownership, and responsibility for the indigent. Newspapers of the time did report unpleasant raids and indignities imposed on the residents. In December 1776, William Tryon, provincial governor of New York, traveled to Setauket to secure the support of Brookhaven residents for his majesty’s government.

Eight hundred one men pledged their support for the British Crown on the Setauket Village Green, then Brookhaven’s central meeting place. Among the signers was Abraham Woodhull, perhaps a move that would reduce suspicion for his intelligence work. Some residents, who feared for their safety, did flee to Connecticut, and remained for the duration of the war. Those who stayed were subjected to British occupation, often having soldiers billeted in their homes, and their livestock and crops seized for use by the British.

Woodhull and Roe continued to live in Setauket throughout the war years, settling into their occupations and carrying on their intelligence work, probably not without fear of being discovered. Brewster, a determined and fearless man, made many trips across Long Island Sound to support the Patriot cause but never returned to Setauket to live.  Tallmadge owed the success of his intelligence work to his friends and likely to others whose names are still unknown or unconfirmed.

Although the information about the Culpers was publicized over 80 years ago by former Suffolk County historian, Morton Pennypacker, it has received national attention in the last 10 years. Its rightful place among the history of the American Revolution was aided by the publication of “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring” by Alexander Rose in 2006, “George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution” by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger in 2013 and the AMC series “TURN,” now in its second season. And it all happened here.

Lucky is the child who listens to a story from an elder and cherishes it for years. Margo Arceri first heard the Culper Spy Ring story from her Strong’s Neck neighbor and local historian, Kate W. Strong in the 1970s.

“Kate W. Strong, Anna Smith Strong’s great-great-grandaughter, originally told me this story as a child when I used to visit her with my neighbor and Strong descendant Raymond Brewster Strong lll,” said Arceri. “She wrote for The Long Island Forum ‘The True Tales of the Early Days on Long Island.’ One of her stories was about Nancy [Anna Smith Strong’s nickname} and her magic clothesline. That’s where I first heard about the Spy Ring and my love grew from there.”

Today Arceri runs Tri-Spy Tours to share her knowledge of George Washington’s Long Island intelligence during the American Revolution. Her perseverance has inspired the upcoming Culper Spy Day — Our Revolutionary Story, on Saturday, June 20.

Barbara Russell is the Town of Brookhaven’s historian.

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By now, many people have heard of the Setauket Spy Ring and its leader, Benjamin Tallmadge that operated valuably during the Revolutionary War. For that and for putting Setauket “on the map,” so to speak, we can thank AMC’s “Turn,” the cable television program soon to begin Season 2. That these adventure stories have made our village famous I can vouch for personally. Many times, when I have been asked where I am from and have

answered, “Setauket,” I have then had to explain, even to Long Islanders, my hometown’s location as being between our better-known neighbors, Stony Brook and Port Jefferson. Now people will sometimes respond, “Oh, the Setauket spies.” They may still not have a geographic grasp, but at least they are impressed.

“Turn,” however, is just that, a series of adventure stories whose goal is to entertain and only accidentally teach. Unlike the popular series, “Downton Abbey” on PBS, where there is a full-time historian employed to assure accuracy of even the smallest details concerning the table settings, “Turn” makes up the narrative when the historic details aren’t convenient for the plot.

That is not to say that all characterizations and facts are not correct in the TV series. We learned of some that are and some that are not at a panel Sunday afternoon in the Emma Clark library in “famous” Setauket. The event, directed and moderated by reference librarian, Carolyn Emerson, featured five distinguished historians who answered questions from the moderator about the lives of citizens, soldiers and spies at the gathering titled, “Setauket During the Revolution.”

The five were town historian Barbara Russell; Three Village Historical Society’s Beverly Tyler; Suffolk Cooperative Library System’s Mark Rothenberg; Third Regiment, New York historian Bob Winowitch; and Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan, lecturer and curator of the “Spies” exhibit at the historical society. Each panelist spoke for a few minutes, then answered questions from the standing-room-only crowd. For fun and instruction, most of the panel came dressed in clothes reminiscent of the Revolutionary War era.

Tallmadge, founder and head of the network, was a major, active in the Revolutionary battles in the north, even as he organized and oversaw the spy ring they called Culper. Abraham Woodhull was the resident spy, later replaced by Robert Townsend, and Caleb Brewster served as a courier, ferrying messages across the Long Island Sound to Washington in Connecticut. Others were deeply involved, including Austin Roe and Anna Smith Strong. The spy work was stressful and dangerous and involved the use of “invisible ink,” messages written between the lines of legitimate bills of sale whose words could be read only with the application of a special reagent. Much of the intelligence garnered came from mingling with the British in New York City, and so those spies had to have apparent reason to travel back and forth.

One significant accomplishment of the spies was to alert Washington that the British were sailing with a superior force to greet the French, who had entered the war and were due to disembark in Newport, R.I. Washington was then able to plant a fake set of plans for the invasion of New York City where the British would discover it. Intent on keeping control of New York City, which they viewed as key to their success, the British fleet turned around in the Sound to rush back for the anticipated battle. As a result, the French landed without opposition.

Life on Long Island under eight years of British occupation was hard. Residents were routinely subjected to forays by British troops for food and valuables. The population at the time was agrarian, with hard farm labor the order of the day, and the British viewed Long Island as their breadbasket. No one was safe, and as a result many who started the war as Loyalists became Patriots — hence the title “Turn.”

To judge the difference a TV series makes, in 2013 there were up to three visitors a week to the spy exhibit at the historical society, sometimes none; in 2014, there were 30. If you watch the AMC series, as I will on DVD, be sure to check the facts on any number of relevant websites.

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From left, Daniel Henshall as Caleb Brewster, Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull, Heather Lind as Anna Strong and Seth Numrich as Benjamin Tallmadge. Photo from AMC Networks

The history of the Culper Spy Ring is nothing new to Setauket and North Shore of Long Island residents. This Sunday, April 6, thanks to the new AMC show “Turn,” Setauket and some of its most legendary residents will become household names throughout the country.

Based on Alexander Rose’s 2006 book, “Washington’s Spies,” the show stars Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull, the Setauket farmer turned spy for Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Enlisted in 1778 by Major Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), Woodhull along with Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) and Anna Strong (Heather Lind), among others, worked together to send messages — often in code — about the British troops to Washington.

In a telephone interview, show runner and executive producer, Craig Silverstein — responsible for The CW Television Network series, “Nikita” — said he had heard about the Culper ring before, but didn’t know exactly what they had done until fellow executive producer, Barry Josephson, introduced him to Rose’s book in 2008 while they were working together on Fox’s “Bones.” He thought it would make a great show. “They were very good at what they did,” Silverstein said of the spy ring.

Silverstein, who admitted to not being much of a history buff prior to working on the show, described the show as “a spy thriller,” with a great international cast. He said one of the most surprising things to learn about was how intimately connected the characters were to George Washington.

“There weren’t a ton of layers,” Silverstein said. “[That] brought him more down to earth.”

Interestingly enough, Bev Tyler, the historian for the Three Village Historical Society who runs the SPIES! exhibit at the society’s headquarters, agreed often times films and shows based on the American Revolution make Washington the opposite of what Silverstein described. “They can’t do it without deifying him, without making him larger than life,” Tyler said.

Silverstein said he found it interesting how few American Revolution-based films and television shows exist. He said much of what is out there is “very ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’” referring to children’s-type programming. “The real truth is much more complicated,” he added.

While maintaining historical accuracy was important, Silverstein said writers could take some creative license because a lot of what the spies did is still unknown.

However, in an effort to get the facts right, Rose is working as a consultant on the show. Silverstein said some the crew visited Setauket; Tyler, who said he would definitely be watching on Sunday, took one of the show’s writers on a society walking tour.

Silverstein said he thinks everyone, even those who aren’t history buffs, will enjoy the series as it is an exciting depiction of the American Revolution. “It’s only a world that you thought you knew,” he said.

“Turn” premiers with a special 90-minute episode on Sunday on AMC Networks, Optimum channel 43, at 9 pm.

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