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Caleb Brewster

On Dec. 3, legends and spies from history such as Culper Spy Ring members Major Benjamin Tallmadge and Caleb Brewster, prominent shipbuilder Jonas Smith and philanthropists Ward and Dorothy Melville joined Stony Brook and neighboring residents to ring in the holiday season.

The village’s 38th annual holiday festival featured the historic characters in giant puppet form, created by Processional Arts Workshop, during the event’s Puppets Processional led by The Jazz Loft owner Tom Manuel and his band. Santa was on hand to hear all the children’s’ wishes and take photos. Additional activities at the event organized by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization included live music with WALK Radio; a performance by Roseland School of Dance; carolers; a holiday train display at the Cultural Center; and Wiggs Optician’s holiday windows.

One of the 26 signs along the Route 25A corridor from Port Jefferson To Great Neck, which now designate Route 25A as the Washington Spy Trail. Photo by Rita J. Egan

By Rita J. Egan

George Washington and the Long Island Culper Spy Ring continue to make history on the North Shore.

A press conference was held May 18 on the lawn of the Brewster House in East Setauket after the installation of 26 signs along the Route 25A corridor from Port Jefferson To Great Neck, which now designate Route 25A as the Washington Spy Trail. One of the signs, unveiled at the end of the event, is located in front of the Brewster property.

A press conference was held May 18 on the lawn of the Brewster House in East Setauket after the installation of 26 signs along the Route 25A corridor from Port Jefferson To Great Neck, which now designate Route 25A as the Washington Spy Trail. Photo by Rita J. Egan

The installation of signage and the designation comes after almost two decades of work on the part of the North Shore Promotional Alliance. The state road was chosen because President George Washington once traveled it to thank the patriots for helping him win the Revolutionary War, and it was also a route that spy Austin Roe used to pick up and deliver secret messages to military officer and spy Benjamin Tallmadge in Connecticut.

Gloria Rocchio, President of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and North Shore Promotional Alliance, said that during the days of the Culper Spy Ring in the 1700s the Brewster House was one of only a few homes, and at the time of the American Revolution, the area was occupied by 300 British troops.

“Our community was divided between Loyalist and Patriots who supported the revolution in secret,” she said. “This history is the very history of America. Our efforts over the past 17 years have been to shine a light on our American Revolution and to encourage people to visit those important sites on the North Shore where history was made — the George Washington Spy Trail, Route 25A.

In addition to thanking her fellow members of the NSPA and others for their work, Rochhio acknowledged State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) for introducing a legislative resolution in both the New York State Senate and Assembly that recognizes the dedication of the trail as well as the service of the spy ring members. On the same day, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) were presenting a similar resolution in congress.

Flanagan thanked those who gave up their free time to dedicate themselves to the project. The senator said he and the other local legislatures who were on hand for the event are proud of their towns.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright and Supervisor Ed Romaine present a proclamation to President of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, Gloria Rocchio, making May 18 North Shore Promotion Alliance Day in Brookhaven. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“We brag about the places that we come from,” he said. “We like telling people about these types of things.”

Flanagan said he hopes that residents, as well as those who travel to the area will take advantage of the educational experiences the signs call out along the way.

When Englebright stepped up to the podium, he asked State Assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) to join him and said he appreciated the partnership with his neighboring assemblyman as well as Flanagan when it came to the legislative resolution that recognizes the area’s historical significance.

“This is a special place,” Englebright said. “Patriots lived here. People put their lives on the line as the first espionage ring for service to our nation.”

Englebright echoed Rocchio’s sentiments of the importance of the signs that pay tribute to the area’s history.

“The memorialization of that through this signage that Gloria referred to, is a chance for us to celebrate that reality, that wonderful beginning of our nation, the role that we played in it,” the assemblyman said. “It’s also important to give a sense of place and sense of context for this and future generations.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) presented a proclamation to Rocchio, which made May 18 North Shore Promotion Alliance Day in Brookhaven. Romaine also reflected on the historical importance of the day.

Local politicians following the enveiling of the Washington Spy Trail sign along 25A. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“Today we remember our history,” he said. “Today we remember ordinary people, living ordinary lives, who were called upon to do extraordinary things.”

John Tsunis, Chairman and CEO of Gold Coast Bank and owner of Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook, introduced Harry Janson, Sr., who was wounded in Vietnam and received the Purple Heart, a medal that originated from Washington’s Badge of Military Merit. Janson, who is on the board of the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University, said he believed the members of the Culper Spy Ring — Tallmadge, Roe, Robert Townsend, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and Anna Smith Strong — were worthy of the award as well.

“The difference is the example of their bravery,” Janson said. “They performed their bravery in covert, and they took their secrets to their graves.”

Before unveiling the Washington Spy Trail sign in front of the Brewster House, Janson had the same wish as others who worked on the installation of the signage.

“We hope that many of you drive the trail and learn about these brave men and women, and what they did for our country,” Janson said.

Additional Washington Spy Trail signs include ones located on the westbound side of Route 25A at West Broadway in Port Jefferson, by the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, before the Smithtown Bull in Smithtown and at Lawrence Hill Road in Huntington Station.

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An interactive historical experience powered by TBR News Media

George Overin as Caleb Brewster. Production still from Circadian Studios and TBR News Media

By Alecsa Kazenas

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 a handicap-accessible edition! Join the revolution later this summer!

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with George Overin who plays Caleb Brewster in this interactive journey.

Tell us a little bit about Caleb Brewster. Who was he?

Caleb was a former whaler who didn’t like a humdrum life. He was an adventure seeker! He was his own man. He wouldn’t wear a uniform while serving his country and would fire at the British whenever he could. Being a trained whale boat captain, he could pilot his boat out of reach of the British guns quickly and safely. Though they wanted to capture him, the British never could.

What is your favorite memory from filming the “Culper Spy Adventure”?

Working with this wonderful cast and crew has been a joy that I will always remember! We all helped each other. Whether with character development or with something technical. The whole filming process has been a treat! Every scene I was involved in, every cast member I worked with, every direction given, everything just seemed to come together perfectly. Like it was meant to be. I hope we’ll be filming more in the near future!

What was it like bringing a character back to life two centuries after his death?

This was an honor for me! Growing up, I never even heard of a Long Island spy ring during the Revolutionary War. When I was approached by Michael Tessler about filming the “Culper Spy Adventure,” I knew I had to find out who Caleb Brewster was. I had gotten three books about the spy ring to read,watched the first season of “Turn” and attended a lecture on the subject. While I still only feel like I’ve just scratched the surface, I was able to start to “feel” Caleb. I will be looking for information on him for as long as I play him.

What do you think Caleb Brewster would think of this project?

I truly think Caleb would be proud of the efforts made. I’m sure he’d take me aside to discuss how he did what he did. Wouldn’t THAT be a great class to sit in on! When the Revolutionary War ended, the Culper Spy Ring just kind of dissolved. Everybody went their own way. Nobody really discussed what they did and the parts they played to help win the war. There were no parades or big honors given. If Caleb Brewster and the rest of the group could be here and see their history, their lives being exalted today, I believe they would be pleased. They would be modest and maybe a little embarrassed. After all, they were serving a Great Cause! And they all had the hearts to do what they did!

The Brewster House in Setauket will host ‘To Spy or Not to Spy’ on June 18. Photo by Dr. Ira D. Koeppel

By Michael Tessler

“I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country” are the immortal words (supposedly) spoken by American hero and spy Nathan Hale. After he was hung by the British in 1776 for treason and espionage, his words of resilience and patriotism inspired our young nation.

No one was inspired more than his best friend, Yale classmate and Setauket local — Benjamin Tallmadge. This well-educated student turned Continental soldier used the death of his friend to inspire the creation of a secret spy ring that played an important role in the American Revolution and helped bring the British Empire to its knees.

In conjunction with the I LOVE NY Path Through History weekend, the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Youth Corps Theater Troupe will present a theatrical performance on Saturday, June 18, showing the creation of the Culper Spy Ring in, fittingly, the oldest standing home in the Town of Brookhaven, the Brewster House, circa 1665, in Setauket which was home to six generations of Brewsters.

According to the WMHO’s website, Joseph Brewster operated the house as a tavern and general store during the American Revolution, entertaining British troops. American Patriot Caleb Brewster, cousin of Joseph Brewster and presumably a frequent visitor to the house, was a member of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring.

Deborah Bourdeau, the coordinator of the project, has been helping this wonderful company of young teens in their production of “To Spy or Not to Spy: That Is the Question!” originally written in 2012 by Professor Lauren Kaushansky of Stony Brook University.

Though the title sounds simple enough, the premise is both fascinating and enlightening. The production explores the annals of local lore while delving into the moral dilemmas of the time. Simply put: How does one abandon one’s country, while assuming the role of traitor and secret agent? This internal dialogue comes to life in a well-paced theatrical skit that resurrects some of our greatest local heroes: Benjamin Tallmadge (Amanda Dagnelli), Abraham Woodhull (Suraj Singh), Anna Smith Strong (Leah Cussen), Austin Roe (Aleena Siddiqui), Caleb Brewster (Ethan Winters) and Joseph Brewster (Emily Wicks).

Though the actors are young, they bring incredible talent to this living history stage show. Emily Wicks, a member of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization Youth Corps, had the great idea of bringing the show from its original stage at the Educational & Cultural Center in Stony Brook Village to the historic Brewster House. This venue adds a wonderful depth to the show, as the home and tavern have been returned to their former glory. Their setup is unique (unintentionally inspired by the Tony-winning production “Fun Home”) in that you’re looking in rather than at. It makes for a very special viewing experience.

What’s so inspiring about this production is that it’s almost entirely led by youth. Young people coming together to tell an important and often forgotten part of our national story and local history. There’s a maturity well beyond their years that left me feeling both prideful and impressed. It’s a show you won’t want to miss and a story that needs to be heard.

Performances of “To Spy or Not to Spy: That Is the Question!” will be held in the Brewster House, 18 Runs Road, Setauket, on June 18 at 1 p.m. and again at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $4 adults, $2 children under 12. Promptly after the show, teen tour guides will provide free tours of the Brewster House. For reservations, call 631-751-2244 or visit www.wmho.org.

The Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Youth Corps, based in Stony Brook, is a volunteer group for youth ages 11 to 17 who participate in stewardship projects in historic and environmental preservation. For more information on how to join or help visit them at: wmho.org/youth-corps.

Gen. George Washington (John Galla) with his headquarter’s flag. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Brian Cea). Photo by Heidi Sutton
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Brian Cea). Photo by Heidi Sutton

The chilly 45-degree weather did not deter almost 300 brave souls who came out for a special walk through local history last Saturday night as the Three Village Historical Society held its 21st annual Spirits Tour, “The Culper Spy Ring: From Secrecy to Victory.”

“The Culper Spy Ring has really been making news lately,” Carolyn Benson, one of the tour guides, said. This tour shows “how many people from this area were involved.”

The host of the tour, Emma S. Clark, whose name graces the library in Setauket and was portrayed by Karin Lynch, set the scene for what was to come.

“The Culper Spy Ring was a group of men known as the Secret Six who helped George Washington win the war. … Their identity was so secretive that Gen. Washington never knew their true identity. Their messages were written in code and their letters were in invisible ink,” she said. “Tonight you will meet with these patriots and some loyalists who will share their stories with you about what it was like during and after the war.”

Helen ‘Morningstar’ Sells and Nellie Edwards of the Setalcott Nation. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Helen ‘Morningstar’ Sells and Nellie Edwards of the Setalcott Nation. Photo by Heidi Sutton

The 1.5-hour tours ran throughout the evening, beginning with the Young Historian tours. Each group, carrying flashlights and lanterns, was led through the cemeteries of the Setauket Presbyterian Church [established in the late 17th century] and the Caroline Church of Brookhaven [established in 1729].

All the key players were present, from the ring’s most active operatives — Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, Anna Smith Strong, James Rivington and Robert Townsend — to Gen. George Washington and Abraham Woodhull, the leader of the Culper Spy Ring, to Gen. Benedict Arnold, the infamous traitor. Woodhull, portrayed by Dennis O’Connor, appeared at the foot of his own grave in the Presbyterian cemetery during the tour.

Lesser-known community spirits made appearances as well, including Bette Harmon, born into slavery to the Strong family; Maj. John Andre, a British spy whose capture exposed Benedict Arnold as a traitor; loyalist Col. Benjamin Floyd; patriot Rev. Zachariah Greene; and a special appearance by  Setalcott Nation members Helen “Morning Star” Sells and Nellie Edwards. In total, 20 spirits were conjured to provide an insight into their lives during the Revolutionary War. The period costumes, provided by Nan Guzzetta, gave the entire event an eerily authentic feel.

Private David Williams (George Monez), Major John Andre (Pat DiVisconti), Private Isaac Van Wart (Sage Hardy). Photo by Heidi Sutton
Private David Williams (George Monez), Major John Andre (Pat DiVisconti), Private Isaac Van Wart (Sage Hardy). Photo by Heidi Sutton

At each stop, the spirits gave out secret codes that, when compiled and decoded, formed a secret letter for Gen. Washington, who was the last stop of the night.

Nine-year-old Alex Perrone, of Stony Brook, was experiencing the tour for the first time with his mother, Lauren, but came well prepared.

“My mom and I read a book called ‘Redcoats and Petticoats,’” he said.

Alex enjoyed the tour, especially meeting Washington and learning about the Setalcott tribe and their longhouses, and said he would definitely do it again. His mom agreed, adding, “I just thought it was really informative and I thought the actors were wonderful and I think it was a great way to learn about local history and this special place.”

In all, the 21st annual Spirits Tour was a rare historical treat. For more information, visit the historical society at www.tvhs.org.

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New York Royal Governor Tyron, on a white horse, visiting the Setauket Village Green in 1776 to have all men in Setauket sign a pledge of loyalty to the king. Loyalist Benjamin Floyd is pictured left foreground. Photo of 1951 mural by Vance Locke

By Beverly C. Tyler

During the Revolutionary War, a newspaper was published in New York City for the purpose of providing both news and gossip to British troops and American Loyalists. If such a paper existed in Setauket during the war, it might very well be called Setauket’s Loyalist Gazette and contain the following snippets of news.

Tavern keeper Austin Roe has been seen riding from Brooklyn to Setauket. It is such a long ride that he has been observed standing up in the saddle. He needs to be careful; he could fall off and break a leg.

Anna Smith Strong is raising six children by herself on Little Neck, now called Seaton’s Neck, while her husband Selah is in Connecticut. He is known to have Patriot leanings so he is smart to stay away. We don’t need any Washington rabble here on Long Island. When, and if, he does come home, he will find his wife has been doing just fine as a good Loyalist with British officers in her home (St. George’s Manor).

Abraham Woodhull is still a bachelor at age 28 in Setauket. At present [1778] he doesn’t seem to have any love interests at all. One wonders why he travels to New York City so often with Anna Smith Strong, his first cousin’s wife. They are both avid Loyalists, quite strange for Presbyterians. Maybe we should keep an eye on them as well as on all Presbyterians. And why not!

During the Battle of Setauket on Aug. 22, 1777, some of the Patriot troops had a bit of fun firing at the bell in the Anglican Caroline Church tower. The sound of the musket balls hitting the bell was quite loud. Let’s hope our Loyalist troops recover all of the lead bullets as they are now a bit short of ammunition. Get the lead out!

Loyalist Colonel Richard Hewlett has not been seen in Setauket since the fort was closed in the autumn of 1777. In the spring of ‘77, his troops barricaded the grounds around the church, tearing up and breaking off gravestones to use on the barricade. Now Rev. Tallmadge is trying to clean up the church sanctuary where the British stabled their horses. At least there is plenty of manure for Rev. Tallmadge’s garden.

Captain Caleb Brewster, a Continental Army officer, was noticed leaving Long Island’s shore near Setauket. He was obviously here with his whaleboat and crew to spy on British and Loyalist positions. Rumor has it that he has a number of Patriot contacts in Setauket and Old Mans [present-day Mount Sinai], and we do know that he is related to the Woodhulls, Strongs and Smiths in the area. Vigilance is the byword!

Benjamin Floyd, a vestryman at Caroline Church is a Loyalist lieutenant colonel and an all-around great guy. He is also now supervisor of the Town of Brookhaven [1777]. The town board is now solidly Loyalist. Floyd has been supplying vegetables and other farm products to all Setauket residents in need. Let’s hope they are all loyal Tories. Be careful Benjamin! What a guy!

Richard Woodhull, father of Loyalist farmer Abraham Woodhull, was recently attacked and beaten in his home by British soldiers looking for Abraham, who they expected to find at home working on his farm. According to the British soldiers, they really don’t like any Americans; so beating up a defenseless old man because he wouldn’t tell them where his son was is really no big deal.

A British foraging detail recently took all the cows, grain, hay, cordwood and tools from the farm of Setauket resident Jonathan Thompson and his son Samuel Thompson. The Thompsons had fled to Connecticut in 1776, following the glorious British victory at the Battle of Long Island in Brooklyn. Thompson received a chit, tacked to his door, promising payment when the British finally win.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

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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