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Culper Spy Day

By Kevin Redding

‘Lucky is the child who listens to a story from an elder and treasures it for years.’

— Barbara Russell,

Town of Brookhaven historian

Margo Arceri first heard about George Washington’s Setauket spies from her Strong’s Neck neighbor and local historian, Kate W. Strong, in the early 1970s. Arceri lights up when talking about her favorite spy, Anna Smith Strong.

“Kate W. Strong, Anna Smith Strong’s great-great-granddaughter, originally told me about the Culper Spy Ring when I used to visit her with my neighbor and Strong descendant Raymond Brewster Strong III. One of her stories was about Nancy (Anna Smith Strong’s nickname) and her magic clothesline. My love of history grew from there,” she said.

Six years ago Arceri approached the Three Village Historical Society’s President Steve Hintze and the board about conducting walking, biking and kayaking tours while sharing her knowledge of George Washington’s Long Island intelligence during the American Revolution.

Today, Arceri runs Tri-Spy Tours in the Three Village area, which follows in the actual footsteps of the Culper Spy Ring. “I wanted to target that 20- to 60-year-old active person,” she said.  “I have to thank AMC’s miniseries ‘Turn’ because 80 percent of the people who sign up for the tour do so because of that show,” she laughs.

It was during one of those tours that Arceri came up with the idea of having a Culper Spy Day, a day to honor the members of Long Island’s brave Patriot spy ring who helped change the course of history and helped Washington win the Revolutionary War.

“Visiting places like the Brewster House, which is owned by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the grave site of genre artist William Sidney Mount at the Setauket Presbyterian Church cemetery (whose paintings are at The Long Island Museum) and the Country House, which was built in the 1700s,” Arceri thought “there has to be a day designated to celebrating all these organizations in the Three Villages and surrounding areas; where each of us can give our little piece of the story and that’s how Culper Spy Day developed.”

After a successful four-year run, the fifth annual Culper Spy Day will be held on Saturday, Sept. 14 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. offering self-guided tours of over 20 locations including the addition of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot encampment with musket firing and battle drills on the Village Green for the ultimate Culper Spy Day experience. “The more the merrier,” laughs Arceri.

One of the highlights every year during the daylong dive into history is the opportunity to visit two neighboring and active churches in Setauket — the Caroline Church of Brookhaven and the Setauket Presbyterian Church, both on the National Register of Historic Places and prominent stomping grounds for soldiers and spies during the Revolutionary War. There will be docent-led tours through the historic structures and their premises, and visitors will be free to roam each church’s expansive cemetery, where some of the weathered gravestones stacked alongside each other belong to those who helped win our independence.

While the congregations have a good relationship these days, and together co-own and maintain the Setauket Village Green that separates the two sites, there was a time when the churches couldn’t have been more opposed. In fact, the conflict of the American Revolution was represented quite well, on a local front, by the two Setauket buildings.

Caroline Church of Brookhaven

The Caroline Church of Brookhaven. Photo by Anthony White

The Caroline Church’s congregation began in 1723 and was officially erected as a building six years later in 1729. Aside from some modern renovations, including the installation of colored glass windows around the interior of the church in the late 19th century, in terms of what it looked like during the war, “What you’re looking at was here,” Town of Brookhaven historian Barbara Russell tells church tourists when they inevitably ask upon enter the historic building.

“The original wood beams are still here,” said Russell, pointing out the hull-shaped ceiling of the beautiful and age-scented church. “I think it’s important to say that we’re still a church. Believe it or not, there are people who walk in here on Culper Spy Day thinking we’re just some kind of museum and we’re not. We value our historic building, but we’re still an active Episcopal congregation.”

“This is a special place,” Russell continued. “We’re coming up on the congregation’s 300th anniversary. Our country isn’t even that old yet!” According to the town historian, the Episcopalian church was an Anglican one before the Revolution, and was the house of worship for Loyalists in the area, those American colonists who remained supportive of the British crown during the fighting.

In fact, the original congregation’s staunch loyalty to Britain gave the building its current name. It was originally Christ Church, but, according to Russell, it is alleged that someone wrote to Queen Wilhelmina Karoline of Brandenburgh-Anspach, queen of George II throughout the early 18th century, informing her of the church when it was brand new, compelling her highness to send its members a silver communion service.

Barbara Russell outside the Caroline Church of Brookhaven. Photo by Kevin Redding

Although Russell said the royal gift is nowhere to be found within the church, there are Vestry minutes that record the unanimous decision “…that this Church and parish Shall in honour of our gracious Queen, her most Serene Britannic Majesty be hereafter called Caroline parish and Caroline Church, and this be entered upon record in Our Vestry books ad futuram rei Memoriam.”

A portrait of the queen hangs on the wall of the church’s lobby, on the left side when you enter. Also in that first room, encased in plexiglass, is a musket ball that was found embedded in a wall near the building’s southwest corner when the church was being restored by philanthropist Ward Melville in 1937. Assumed to be a remnant of the Raid of Setauket in 1777, the single, approximately 69-caliber projectile was, according to historians at the site, most likely fired from an American soldier’s French musket during the raid.

“It was either somebody firing at the church steeple or a soldier that didn’t have very good aim,” Russell laughed.

Among the gravestones in the church’s cemetery is one for Mary Longbotham Muirson, wife of Dr. George Muirson, a Setauket resident, physician, Loyalist and worshipper at the church. Although he was a medical doctor, Dr. Muirson was not welcome to stay in the town after the war due to his Loyalist beliefs; his lands were confiscated and he was banished. It’s not clear what happened to Mary Muirson, but there’s a letter that was sent to her from her husband in April 1784, so it’s most likely that she remained in Setauket.

The grave of Patriot Samuel Longbottom at the Caroline Church of Brookhaven

Most interestingly, Muirson’s son, Heathcote Muirson, from a previous marriage, fought on the Patriot side; he took part in the raid on Fort St. George in Mastic in 1780 under the command of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge — of course, East Setauket’s most famous hero and leader of the Culper Spy Ring — and ultimately died from wounds suffered at Lloyd Neck.  Muirson’s other son was a Loyalist.

“So there was a father and son on either side of the conflict. We saw that happen again and again, right?” Russell observed, overlooking the gravestones that include Revolutionary War veterans and Suffolk County Militia soldiers.

Russell said there are a total of six Patriot graves in the Caroline churchyard including Israel Bennett, Robert Jayne, Samuel Jayne, Benjamin Jones, Vincent Jones and Samuel Longbottom, all of which can be visited on Culper Spy Day. Participants are encouraged to walk through and explore the area on their own. However, docents will be in the church and in the church’s History Center on the lower level of the Parish House for tours and to answer questions.

Setauket Presbyterian Church

Setauket Presbyterian Church. Photo by Anthony White

High among the list of helpful experts on the premises is Art Billadello, a longtime member and past president of the Three Village Historical Society and the Setauket Presbyterian Church’s go-to representative. He’s been a member of the congregation since 1986 and, for more than 30 years, Billadello has taken great pride in preserving and sharing the history of the Federal-style church — as well as debunking any and all myths that surround it, of which there have been plenty.

Many of these falsities can be linked to “TURN,” which has been a blessing and a curse for the site, according to Billadello.

“When that [mini-series] was running, if I had 30 people on a Revolutionary History Walking Tour, the first thing I’d ask as soon as they got out of their cars was, ‘How many of you watched ‘TURN’?’,” Billadello recalls. “Out of those 30 people, 20 hands would go up. Then the second thing I’ll say to them is, ‘Well, I’m gonna turn you around 180 degrees to the truth …’ because they would believe everything on the show, which isn’t all accurate … that’s Hollywood.”

Despite letting down some faithful viewers of the AMC program by dispelling the “sexier” and more fabricated aspects of the show in favor of what really happened, Billadello agrees with Arceri that “TURN” has been beneficial by bringing hordes of visitors from all over to the church.

Art Billadello inside the Presbyterian Church. Photo by Kevin Redding

The truth is, the Presbyterian Church that stands at 5 Caroline Avenue today is not the one that was there during the American Revolution. “The new church,” as Billadello calls it, is at least the third structure on the site. The Revolutionary-Era Church, built circa 1714, looked more like the Caroline Church. It was destroyed and fortified in 1777 by the Loyalists who worshipped across the street and looked down on the Presbyterian, a congregation that was occupied by supporters of America’s independence.

In fact, Benjamin Tallmadge’s father was a pastor at the church from 1754 — the year of Tallmadge’s birth — until he died in 1786. His father and mother are among those buried in the church’s graveyard, along with Abraham Woodhull, another leading member of the Culper Spy Ring, whose commemorative monument is one of the most impressive on the property.

Arceri’s hero, Anna Smith Strong, is buried in the neighboring St. Georges Manor Cemetery in Strong’s Neck. According to Billadello, she once used her Loyalist connections to get her husband, Selah Strong, released from the prison ship where he was confined. The two lived in Setauket for the duration of their lives following the war.

“This history is so important because it was ordinary civilians, from this town, doing extraordinary things,” Billadello said. “All school kids know about George Washington, but these regular people who helped win  our independence are virtually unknown.”

Indeed, Woodhull was a farmer and Caleb Brewster was a blacksmith while Austin Roe was a tavernkeeper. “They could’ve been caught and hung,” explained Billadello.

The Presbyterian Church was built back up around 1781, but in 1811, it was struck by lightning and most of it burned down as a result. The structurally sound beams, which were exposed to the fire and appear charred, were re-used in the steeple of the church and remain on the property.

By the end of 1811, the church was rebuilt for a third time and was officially dedicated in the spring of the following year. While, as in the case of the Caroline Church, there have been some modern renovations of its interior, like carpeting, rail and pew replacements, the Presbyterian Church is irrefutably historic inside. There’s even a pew door from 1811 on display.

During Culper Spy Day, docents will be on hand to give tours of the historic church and cemetery.

Arceri’s favorite part of the day is “seeing all these different organizations coming together as a whole. It really is our Revolutionary story,” she said. “Everywhere you turn in the Three Villages you are looking at an artifact, and as the historical society believes, the community is our museum and I would really love to put that on the forefront of people’s minds.”

Tickets are $25 adults, $5 children ages 6 to 12 and may be purchased in advance at the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS), 93 North Country Road, Setauket, by calling 631-751-3730 or by visiting www.tvhs.org. Veterans and children under the age of 6 are free.

Tickets may be picked up at the TVHS from Sept. 10 to 14. At that time, participants will receive a bracelet and a copy of the Culper Spy Day map with all event listings and include access to 21 Culper Spy Ring locations. If available, tickets may be purchased at the historical society on the day of the event.

Participating organizations:

The fifth annual Culper Spy Day is presented by Tri-Spy Tours, the Three Village Historical Society, The Long Island Museum and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization in collaboration with The Benjamin Tallmadge District of the Boy Scouts, Brewster House, Campus Bicycle, Caroline Church of Brookhaven, Country House Restaurant, Custom House, Daughters of the American Revolution Anna Smith Strong Chapter, Discover Long Island, 1750 David Conklin Farmhouse Museum, 1795 Dr. Daniel Kissam House Museum, Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum, Incorporated Village of Port Jefferson, East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection, Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, Fairfield Historical Society, Fairfield Museum & History Center, Frank Melville Memorial Park, Fraunces Tavern Museum, Gallery North, History Close at Hand, Huntington Historical Society, Joseph Lloyd Manor House, Ketcham Inn Foundation, Litchfield Historical Society, Old Methodist Church, Paumanok Tours, Preservation Long Island, Raynham Hall Museum, Rock Hall Museum, 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot, Setauket Elementary School, Setauket Harbor Task Force, Setauket Neighborhood House, Setauket Presbyterian Church, Sherwood-Jayne Farm, Special Collections Stony Brook University Libraries, Stirring up History, Stony Brook Grist Mill, Three Village Community Trust, The Three Village Inn, The Thompson House, Times Beacon Record News Media and the Underhill Society of America.

Meet historical figures including Anna Smith Strong, left, and Benjamin Tallmadge at Culper Spy Day
Meet Big Bill the Tory during Culper Spy Day

On Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tri-Spy Tours, the Three Village Historical Society, the Long Island Museum and the Ward Melville Heritage Organization will present a day of spy-related tours and activities for the 5th annual Culper Spy Day.

The event is named for the Culper Spy Ring founded by Benjamin Tallmadge of Setauket, which provided Gen. George Washington with the information he needed to turn the tide of the American Revolution.

A collaboration of more than 40 historical and cultural organizations, from Montauk to Manhattan, will gather in the Three Village area for a day of community events. Participants will have the opportunity to build their own Revolutionary War story and to visit the places where history was made during this self-guided tour. Activities throughout the community will include tours, a Revolutionary War encampment, Colonial cooking demonstrations, musical performances, crafts and more.

Featured events

The Three Village Historical Society will host Anna Smith Strong and her famous clothesline, invisible ink demonstrations, a Spies! exhibit, children’s book signing, Colonial music by the Three Village Chamber Players from noon to 4 p.m., an outdoor gift shop and Tavern on the Field featuring food trucks Eat Me, Drink Me, Fat Boys BBQ Bus and Food Nation Generation.

The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook will hold blacksmithing demonstrations in the Samuel West Blacksmith Shop from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. LIMarts artists Joseph Rotella and Lori Scarlatos will paint plein air in the carriage shed at the Caroline Church in Setauket from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Meet historical figure Robert Townsend, center, during the event

The Ward Melville Heritage Organization will have costumed docents guide visitors through their c. 1709 Thompson House and their c. 1665 Joseph Brewster House. Living historian Diane Schwindt of Stirring Up History will be serving up some tasty and authentic 18th-century treats from America’s past on the front lawn of the Brewster House. A miller will be on hand to demonstrate the workings of the c. 1751 Stony Brook Grist Mill throughout the day.

George Washington’s original letters to members of his spy ring will be on display at the Stony Brook University Library’s Dept. of Special Collections between 10 a.m. and noon.

The Three Village Inn and the Country House Restaurant in Stony Brook will feature a spy lunch for an additional fee. Reservations are required (not included in Spy Day ticket price).

Other Culper Spy Day sites and activities include historical cemetery tours, tea with Big Bill the Tory, viewing of the Vance Locke murals at the Setauket Elementary School and new this year, the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot encampment with musket firing and battle drills on the Village Green for the ultimate Culper Spy Day experience. Build your own Revolutionary War story and see history come to life at this fun-filled event.

If you go:

Tickets, which are $25 adults, $5 children ages 6 to 12, children under the age of 6 and veterans are free, may be purchased online at www.tvhs.org or in person at the Three Village Historical Society at 93 North Country Road in Setauket. Participants will receive a bracelet and a copy of the Culper Spy Day map with all event listings. Tickets are good for admission to participating organizations on Sept. 14. Some organizations include additional dates. 

For more information, please visit www.culperspyday.com.

All photos by Anthony White

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Tri-Spy Tours owner Margo Arceri with two young volunteers Culper Spy Day 2018. Photo from Margo Arceri

Her business activities may be associated with warmer temperatures, but a Strong’s Neck resident is keeping busy even in the colder weather.

Margo Arceri is known in the Three Village area for creating Culper Spy Day, an annual event in September, and Tri-Spy Tours, which takes participants to local historical sites. While the excursions include participants walking, biking, kayaking and paddle boarding — activities many may associate with summer — Arceri said the business keeps her busy year round. This year she was booked for private tours up until Thanksgiving, and she will be sponsoring the screening of TBR News Media’s “One Life to Give” at The Setauket Neighborhood House Monday, Dec. 10, which will be hosted by the Three Village Historical Society, something she said she’s looking forward to.

“I love the storyline, and the Times Beacon has been an incredible partner with Culper Spy Day,” she said. “In general, it’s kind of my way of giving back and also supporting something near and dear to my heart.”

Participants on a Tri-Spy tour visit Abraham Woodhull’s grave. Photo from Margo Arceri

During December, January and February, Arceri said she thinks about new ideas for the next year. Recently, she was inspired to apply for a grant for a trolley to use for tours after members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and Children of the American Revolution traveled from Connecticut to Long Island, and Arceri conducted a tour for them on a Coach USA bus.

She is also hoping to extend Culper Spy Day to a weekend and would love to coordinate a bus trip into New York City where ticket holders can visit the Fraunces Tavern Museum and go on a Revolutionary War-era walking tour in the downtown area with Patriot Tours, she said.

For Arceri, the winter months are ideal for researching in places like Fort Ticonderoga, West Point, Boston, Williamsburg and Philadelphia. She said there is always new information to discover.

“Somebody will ask me something on my tour, and like a good detective, I’ll have to find out the answer,” she said.

Arceri said Brookhaven Town historian Barbara Russell once wrote, “Lucky is the child who listens to a story from an elder and cherishes it for years.” It’s a quote she always starts her tours with because she said she is that child.

The Tri-Spy Tours owner said her love for history began while growing up in Strong’s Neck where she would listen to the stories of Kate Wheeler Strong, a descendant of Culper Spy Ring member Anna Smith Strong who was known for using her clothesline to send coded messages to her fellow spies.

Arceri initially volunteered giving walking tours with the Three Village Historical Society and served on its board three times through the years in roles such as vice president and recording secretary. Arceri said she is always grateful for former society president Steven Hintze, who helped her launch Tri-Spy Tours, and current historical society president Steve Healy for helping her take the business to the next level.

“He has been incredibly supportive, and he’s always listening to my ideas and giving me his feedback and his ideas,” she said. “They’ve just been incredible partners.”

“Somebody will ask me something on my tour, and like a good detective, I’ll have to find out the answer.”

— Margo Arceri

She also credits everyone at the historical society for always being helpful, and archivist Karen Martin, historian Bev Tyler as well as Russell for assisting her with research.

Healy said the admiration is mutual, as Arceri is always looking for new ideas and seeking to expand. He said he would love to see the historical society grow, and he credits Arceri with helping it do that.

“She has the vision to look at the bigger picture, and how we can tie things together,” Healy said.

Arceri said during her tours she intertwines Culper Spy history with fun facts about philanthropists such as the Melville family and Eversley Childs, because she said she feels that it’s important to point out that so many structures in the area are preserved because of someone’s generosity.

“I always like to stress on the tour from the natives, that people arrive here, and they fall in love,” Arceri said. “The early settlers did, the Melvilles did, and I try to make sure that anybody who comes on our tour falls in love a little bit with Setauket.”

From left, Major Benjamin Tallmadge (Art Billadello) and Abraham Woodhull (Beverly C. Tyler) read a copy of The Royal Gazette dated July 21, 1780 on the grounds of the Sherwood-Jayne Farm in East Setauket as Big Bill the Tory, aka William Jayne II (David Burt), looks on. Billadello is wearing a dragoon coat from the AMC television series ‘TURN’ that will be auctioned off at Gallery North’s Studio during Culper Spy Day. Photo by Heidi Sutton

 ‘Lucky is the child who listens to a story from an elder and treasures it for years.’

Barbara Russell, Town of Brookhaven Historian 

By Heidi Sutton

Margo Arceri first heard about George Washington’s Setauket spies from her Strong’s Neck neighbor and local historian, Kate W. Strong, in the early 1970s. Arceri lights up when talking about her favorite spy, Anna Smith Strong. 

“Kate W. Strong, Anna Smith Strong’s great-great-granddaughter, originally told me about the Culper Spy Ring when I used to visit her with my neighbor and Strong descendant Raymond Brewster Strong III. One of her stories was about Nancy (Anna Smith Strong’s nickname) and her magic clothesline. My love of history grew from there,” she said.

Five years ago Arceri approached the Three Village Historical Society’s President Steve Hintze and the board about conducting walking, biking and kayaking tours while sharing her knowledge of George Washington’s Long Island intelligence during the American Revolution.

Today, Arceri runs Tri-Spy Tours in the Three Village area, which follows in the actual footsteps of the Culper Spy Ring. “I wanted to target that 20- to 60-year-old active person,” she said.  “I have to thank AMC’s miniseries “TURN” because 80 percent of the people who sign up for the tour do so because of that show,” she laughs. 

It was during one of those tours that Arceri came up with the idea of having a Culper Spy Day, a day to honor the members of Long Island’s brave Patriot spy ring who helped change the course of history and helped Washington win the Revolutionary War.

The Brewster House, considered to be the oldest house in the Town of Brookhaven, will be open for tours on Culper Spy Day.

“Visiting places like the Brewster House, which is owned by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the grave site of genre artist William Sidney Mount at the Setauket Presbyterian Church cemetery (whose paintings are at The Long Island Museum) and the Country House, which every one of the spies visited,” Arceri thought “there has to be a day designated to celebrating all these organizations in the Three Village and surrounding areas; where each of us can give our little piece of the story and that’s how Culper Spy Day developed.”

After a successful three-year run, the fourth annual Culper Spy Day will be held on Saturday, Sept. 15 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. offering self-guided tours of 24 locations including eight new spots for the ultimate Culper Spy Day experience. “The more the merrier,” laughs Arceri.

One new event you won’t want to miss is an interactive tour at the Sherwood-Jayne Farm in East Setauket where you’ll experience a different spin on George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring. Maintained by Preservation Long Island, the property boasts a 1700s saltbox home, apple orchard, barn, an ice house, corn crib, a pasture and nature trail.

According to Darren St. George, education and public programs director at Preservation Long Island, the farm was originally owned by the Jayne family.

“The property was purchased by Mathias Jayne in 1730 [who built a lean-to saltbox dwelling] which is eventually passed down to William Jayne II in 1768 who expands the house after his second marriage,” he said, continuing, “[William] was involved with local government, he was a constable, so he had some stature and clout in the community and it was nice to have a more substantial home.”

However, when the Revolutionary War broke out, Jayne chose to remain a Loyalist and a steadfast supporter of the crown.

Meet Big Bill the Tory at the Sherwood-Jayne Farm in East Setauket on Culper Spy Day and learn the TRUTH about George Washington’s pesky band of renegade spies! Photo by Darren St. George, Preservation Long Island

“William Jayne II was a known Tory in the neighborhood,” said St. George. “Long Island was occupied by many Tories, many people still supported the king and didn’t want to upset the status quo, but as the war concluded, most Torys moved to Canada or Connecticut or they turned their back on the king entirely, but Jayne doesn’t. He still stays a Tory, he has his reputation and still thrives in the community,” eventually acquiring the nickname Big Bill the Tory.

When Jayne passed away, the home remained in the family until it was sold in 1908 to Preservation Long Island’s founder, Howard C. Sherwood, who used the home to showcase his many antiques. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

During Culper Spy Day, ticketholders will be able to take part in a 20-minute guided tour of the first floor of the home, specifically the Jayne Parlor (which was added after the Revolutionary War), the Sherwood Living Room (which was the original 1730 home) and the Tap Room (kitchen/dining room).

One of the more interesting features of the home are the original late-18th-century hand-painted floral wall frescoes on the walls of the Jayne Parlor. Commissioned by William Jayne II, they were rediscovered underneath wallpaper by Sherwood in 1916 who had them restored by well-known artist Emil Gruppé. “One small panel was left untouched so that you can see how it’s weathered through the years,” St. George pointed out during a recent tour.

The home contains artifacts that specifically relate to the American Revolution, including paneling on the fireplace wall and shutters on a bar in the Tap Room that came from the Tallmadge House of Setauket, believed to be the birthplace of Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, a founding member of the spy ring who would become George Washington’s chief intelligence officer.

As a special treat, Big Bill the Tory, portrayed by David Burt, will make a guest  appearance during each tour and share his views on the Culper Spy Ring and the noble intentions of King George III. “He’ll explain what life has been like for him as a Loyalist — the other side of the story that we’re really not hearing too much of,” explained St. George.

Parking will be in the field next to the property and visitors are asked to line up at the back door for the tour, which will be ongoing from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Apple cider and donuts will be available for purchase.

Arceri’s favorite part of the day is “seeing all these different organizations coming together as a whole. It really is our Revolutionary story,” she said. “Everywhere you turn in the Three Villages you are looking at an artifact, and as the historical society believes, the community is our museum and that I would really love to put on the forefront of people’s minds.”

Admission is $25 adults, $5 children ages 6 to 12 and may be purchased in advance at the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS), 93 North Country Road, Setauket, by calling 631-751-3730 or by visiting www.tvhs.org. Veterans and children under the age of 6 are free. 

Tickets may be picked up at the TVHS from Sept. 11 to 15. At that time, participants will receive a bracelet and a copy of the Culper Spy Day map with all event listings and include access to 24 Culper Spy Ring locations. If available, tickets on the day of the event may be purchased at the historical society.

Participating organizations: 

The fourth annual Culper Spy Day is presented by Tri-Spy Tours, the Three Village Historical Society, the Long Island Museum and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization in collaboration with the Benjamin Tallmadge District of the Boy Scouts; Campus Bicycle; Caroline Church of Brookhaven; Country House Restaurant; Custom House; Discover Long Island; Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum; East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection; Emma S. Clark Memorial Library; Fairfield Historical Society, Fairfield Museum & History Center; Frank Melville Memorial Park; Fraunces Tavern® Museum; Gallery North; History Close at Hand; Huntington Historical Society; Huntington Militia; Joseph Lloyd Manor House; Ketcham Inn Foundation; Northport Historical Society; Old Methodist Church; Paumanok Tours; Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce; Port Jefferson Free Library; Preservation Long Island; Raynham Hall Museum; Rock Hall Museum; Setauket Elementary School; Setauket Harbor Task Force; Setauket Neighborhood House; Setauket Presbyterian Church; Sherwood-Jayne Farm; Stirring Up History; Stony Brook University Libraries, Special Collections; Stony Brookside Bed and Bike Inn; Three Village Community Trust; The Three Village Inn; Times Beacon Record News Media; and the Underhill Society of America Inc. 

Major Benjamin Tallmadge (Art Billadello) gives visitors a brief history about the Culper Spy Ring at a previous event.

On Saturday, Sept. 15 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., The Long Island Museum and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization in Stony Brook and the Three Village Historical Society and Tri-Spy Tours in Setauket will host a day of spy-related tours and activities for the 4th annual Culper Spy Day. 

The event is named for the Culper Spy Ring founded by Benjamin Tallmadge of Setauket, which provided Gen. George Washington with the information he needed to turn the tide of the American Revolution.

The Setauket Presbyterian Church will be open for tours during the event.

Visitors can learn what really happened while enjoying docent-led tours of historic homes, churches and cemeteries, Colonial cooking and blacksmithing demonstrations, reenactments, walking and bicycle tours, Anna Smith Strong’s famed clothesline, invisible ink demonstrations, a children’s book signing, time period music, military drills, a TURN memorabilia live auction and sale, mill grinding demonstrations and many more family-friendly activities in the Three Villages and along the North Shore.

In addition, Revolutionary War artifacts, including George Washington’s original letters to members of his spy ring will be on display in the Stony Brook University Library Special Collections. Ticket holders will have a chance to meet Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Samuel Culper Sr. and Anna Smith Strong as well.  

The Three Village Inn in Stony Brook will feature a spy breakfast (cost is $10 per person plus tax and tip and reservations are required)  and the Country House Restaurant, also in Stony Brook, will serve up a spy-themed lunch (not included in Spy Day ticket price). Call 631-751-0555 for breakfast and 631-751-3332 for lunch reservations. The Three Village Historical Society will also be offering snacks and lunch at its Tavern on the Field. 

Build your own Revolutionary War story and see history come to life at this fun-filled event. 

Tickets, which may be purchased at www.tvhs.org, are $25 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 12. Children under the age of 6 and veterans will receive free admission. Wristbands for entry and maps with the event listings and a schedule of activities can be picked up at the Three Village Historical Society at 93 North Country Road in Setauket from Sept. 10 through Sept. 15. Tickets are good for admission to most participating organizations for Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 15 and 16, and at The Long Island Museum through Sept. 23.

For more information, please visit www.culperspyday.com.

Margo Arceri, right, creator of Culper Spy Day, poses with Diane Schwindt, dressed as an 18th-century cook at the 2017 event. Photo from Mari Irizarry

By Rita J. Egan

With the help of those who appreciate history, events of the past have a chance to live on. Margo Arceri is one of those history lovers, and her passion has inspired others to learn more about their local landscape.

Arceri didn’t need the AMC series “TURN” to discover how instrumental the members of the Culper Spy Ring were in the Colonies winning the American Revolutionary War. While growing up in Strong’s Neck, she learned about the Setauket spies directly from Kate. W. Strong herself. The great-great-granddaughter of Anna Smith Strong would tell stories of the patriot who used her clothesline to send messages to her fellow spies, and through those tales, Arceri developed a deep curiosity for history and the local intelligence group.

Three Village Historical Society historian Beverly Tyler said Arceri’s passion is so strong her car features “Culper” license plates.

“She loves the Revolutionary War,” Tyler said. “She loves Anna Smith Strong, and the whole idea of the spy ring.”

A few years ago, Arceri, a former vice president and past secretary of the Three Village Historical Society, created Tri-Spy Tours, where participants follow the footsteps of the spies by walking, biking and/or kayaking through the area.

Steven Hintze was the president of the society when Arceri came to him with the idea of the tours. He said he liked the concept and discussed it with the board members.

Hintze said it was while conducting Tri-Spy Tours that Arceri realized there was more to share about local history, so she developed Culper Spy Day, an annual event that sponsors a self-guided tour where attendees visit various structures and museums in the area to learn how the Setauket spies assisted President George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Hintze said the day, which marked its third year in September, has greatly grown in popularity, attracting history lovers from all over the tristate area. According to historical society records, the event attracted twice as many people in 2017 than it did the year prior.

Hintze said he isn’t surprised how popular it has become through Arceri.

“She’s one of those people who has a great personality, she’s friends with everybody,” Hintze said. “She knows a lot of people, and she knows how to put them together.”

Margo Arceri, standing left, with volunteers Janet McCauley, standing right, and Barbara Lynch at the 2017 Culper Spy Day. Photo from Mari Irizarry

Tyler agrees that Arceri has done a wonderful job, especially in getting various organizations involved in Culper Spy Day. Arceri reached out to local groups such as The Long Island Museum, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and Drowned Meadow Cottage in Port Jefferson, which once was owned by the Roe family, members of the ring. The happening has also grown to include organizations outside of the Three Village area, such as Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay and Ketcham Inn in Center Moriches. Tyler said Arceri is working with a historical society in Fairfield, Connecticut, to take part next year.

“I think it’s very important to the area,” the historian said. “It’s starting to bring in people.”

Steve Healy, the Three Village Historical Society’s current president, said when it comes to questions he may have about local history, in addition to Tyler and Town of Brookhaven historian Barbara Russell, he considers Arceri one of his go-to people.

“It’s difficult in today’s environment to dedicate time to history, and she seems to have found a good mix with history and with [her] work,” he said.

Arceri has a knack for getting people to think about history, Healy added, saying it’s apparent during both the Tri-Spy Tours and Culper Spy Day. He said the history buff connects with people by allowing them to ask questions and have a dialogue. She’s known for asking participants: “What do you think happened? What do you think are the elements that drove this situation?” because she doesn’t see historical events in black and white.

“Margo likes to engage people, and that’s one of her strong points, too,” Healy said. “She has many, but one of them is to engage people in a situation where they can have an honest, educated discussion.”

Healy believes the future looks bright for Arceri and her Culper spy ventures.

“I think she’s found a great niche where she can introduce local history to people and grow that further, because she’s always looking to grow,” Healy said. “That’s one of the things that I really like about her. She’ll have a conversation with me and say: ‘Steve, I want to expand. I want to get more people involved in this. I want to teach more people to let them know what happened here.’”

OUR REVOLUTIONARY STORY The weather cooperated as the community came out in droves for the 3rd annual Culper Spy Day on Sept. 16. Ticket holders were able to visit 15 locations in the Three Village and Port Jefferson area and learned how people lived during the Revolutionary War with blacksmithing and colonial cooking demonstrations, and about the infamous Culper Spy Ring which originated from Setauket. Historic churches and the oldest home in Brookhaven, the Brewster House, opened their doors to tours on this rare occasion.

All photos by Greg Catalano

Head of Special Collections and University Archives at Stony Brook University, Kristen Nyitray, with a letter by Nathaniel Woodhull, one of four letters on view during Culper Spy Day. Photo by Jenna Lennon

By Jenna Lennon

‘Lucky is the child who listens to a story from an elder and treasures it for years.’ — Barbara Russell, Brookhaven Town Historian

Margo Arceri first heard about George Washington’s Setauket spies from her Strong’s Neck neighbor and local historian, Kate W. Strong, in the early 1970s. Arceri lights up when talking about her favorite spy, Anna Smith Strong. “Kate W. Strong, Anna Smith Strong’s great-great-granddaughter, originally told me about the Culper Spy Ring when I used to visit her with my neighbor and Strong descendant Raymond Brewster Strong III. One of her stories was about Nancy (Anna Smith Strong’s nickname) and her magic clothesline. My love of history grew from there,” she said.

Four years ago Arceri approached the Three Village Historical Society’s President Steve Hintze and the board about conducting walking, biking and kayaking tours while sharing her knowledge of George Washington’s Long Island intelligence during the American Revolution.

Today Arceri runs Tri-Spy Tours in the Three Village area, which follows in the actual footsteps of the Culper Spy Ring. “I wanted to target that 20- to 60-year-old active person,” she said. “I have to thank AMC’s miniseries ‘Turn’ because 80 percent of the people who sign up for the tour do so because of that show,” she laughs.

Your ticket to the 3rd annual Culper Spy Day awaits!

It was during one of those tours that Arceri came up with the idea of having a Culper Spy Day. “Visiting places like the Brewster House, which is owned by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the grave site of genre artist William Sidney Mount at the Setauket Presbyterian Church cemetery (whose paintings are at The Long Island Museum) and the Country House, which every one of the spies visited,” Arceri thought “there has to be a day designated to celebrating all these organizations in the Three Village and surrounding areas; where each of us can give our little piece of the story and that’s how Culper Spy Day developed.”

After a successful two-year run, the third annual Culper Spy Day will be held on Saturday, Sept. 16 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. offering self-guided tours of 15 locations.

One event you won’t want to miss is the display of historic letters at Stony Brook University’s Special Collections and University Archives located on the second floor of the Frank Melville Jr. Memorial Library. Last year more than 60 people came to see two of George Washington’s letters during the event. This year, they’re hoping for an even bigger turnout with four handwritten letters that illustrate the “history and impact of the Culper Spy Ring,” according to head director Kristen Nyitray. The letters, which were penned by Nathaniel Woodhull, James Jay and Washington, “underscore Setauket’s and the Spy Ring’s pivotal role in the framing of our country,” she said.

The first of Washington’s letters, dated Sept. 24, 1779, addresses issues regarding Robert Townsend, whose code name was Samuel Culper Jr. It was received just a few days later, as noted on the letter, by Washington’s spymaster, Benjamin Tallmadge.

The letter offers methods of gathering intelligence, such as the mention of using “the stain” or the invisible ink believed to be created by James Jay, and the use of code names and numbers. During the war, Washington didn’t know the identities of the spies operating within the spy ring, so they communicated with code names and numbers to assure complete secrecy. At this point in history, the spy ring was “still vetting how best to obtain information without detection,” said Nyitray.

Almost a year later, on Sept. 16, 1780, Washington wrote to Tallmadge again, this time very favorable of Culper Jr., offering him public awareness of his actions or compensation for his efforts. The letter states, “I shall be ready to recommend him to the public, if public employ shall be his aim, and if not, that I shall think myself bound to represent his conduct in the light it deserves, and procure him a compensation of another kind.”

However, Townsend quite literally took his secret to the grave. The existence of the Culper Spy Ring was not made public until the 1930s when historian Morton Pennypacker acknowledged the similarities between Townsend’s handwriting and that of Culper Jr.

Obtaining Washington’s letters from Christie’s New York was a “collaborative effort” by the university, the Three Village Historical Society, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and the Raynham Hall Museum.

In Woodhull’s March 4, 1776, letter, he provides Major General Philip Schuyler updates in regards to officers, battalions and supplies while Jay’s Jan. 9, 1808, letter addresses an unnamed general asking for compensation for his development of a “secret mode of correspondence,” presumably the invisible ink Washington and Townsend used to communicate decades prior.

Nyitray has been contacted from people all over the country looking to make an appointment to view the letters. “I receive calls and emails every week about the letters,” she said. With the Culper Spy Ring at the forefront of the popular TV show, AMC’s “Turn,” it has “brought positive attention and awareness to our region’s history” and “taken on a life of its own … the university provides an opportunity for all to engage in history through the letters, which is a much different experience than reading or watching a television program about it.”

Arceri’s favorite part of the day is “seeing all these different organizations coming together as a whole. It really is our Revolutionary story,” she said. “Everywhere you turn in the Three Villages you are looking at an artifact, and as the historical society believes, the community is our museum and that I would really love to put on the forefront of people’s minds.”

The third annual Culper Spy Day has been made possible through the efforts of The Three Village Historical Society, The Long Island Museum, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, Tri-Spy Tours, Stony Brook University Special Collections, Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, Frank Melville Memorial Park, Three Village Community Trust, Caroline Church of Brookhaven, Setauket Presbyterian Church, Incorporated Village of Port Jefferson (Drowned Meadow Cottage), History Close at Hand, the Country House Restaurant, Times Beacon Record News Media, Raynham Hall, the Smithtown Historical Society, Discover Long Island, Ketcham Inn of the Moriches and Sagtikos Manor in Bay Shore.

Tickets, which are $25 adults, $5 children ages 6 to 12, may be purchased in advance at the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS), 93 North Country Road, Setauket, by calling 631-751-3730 or by visiting www.tvhs.org. Veterans and children under the age of 6 are free. Tickets may be picked up at the TVHS from Sept. 11 to 15. At that time, visitors will receive a bracelet and a copy of the Culper Spy Day map with all event listings and include access to 15 Culper Spy Ring locations. If available, tickets on the day of the event may be purchased at the historical society.

Above, Beverly C. Tyler, Lindsey Steward and Donna Smith stand next to the Samuel H. West Blacksmith Shop on the grounds of The Long Island Museum, which will be open for blacksmith demonstrations on Culper Spy Day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Organizations team up for island-wide event

On Saturday, Sept. 16 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., The Long Island Museum and the Ward Melville Heritage Organization in Stony Brook and the Three Village Historical Society and Tri-Spy Tours in Setauket will host a day of spy-related tours and activities for the third annual Culper Spy Day, named for the Culper Spy Ring founded by Benjamin Tallmadge, George Washington’s chief intelligence officer during the Revolutionary War.

The Three Village area, which includes Stony Brook, Setauket and Old Field, is full of hidden intrigue and stories of how America’s first spy ring came together secretly to provide General George Washington the information he needed to turn the tide of the American Revolution.

The 3rd New York Regiment demonstrates musket firing on the Village Green in Setauket at last year’s event.

This year’s event has expanded to include other areas that played key roles in the Culper Spy Ring. Fans of the AMC hit series “Turn,” which has completed its final season, are familiar with Hollywood’s version of the Long Island-based spy group. On Sept. 16 visitors can learn what really happened while enjoying tours, Colonial cooking demonstrations, reenactments and many more family-friendly activities in the Three Villages and across Long Island.

The Long Island Museum will host a lecture at 2 p.m. with John Staudt, adjunct assistant professor of history at Hofstra University. Staudt will present “The Terrible Force of War: Eastern Long Island in the American Revolution.” In addition, blacksmith demonstrations will be ongoing from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and a special display of Revolutionary War artifacts will be on display.

Among other Culper Spy Day activities, the Three Village Historical Society hosts an interactive Culper SPIES! exhibit and a book signing with award-winning novelist and nonfiction author Selene Castrovilla. Visitors will also enjoy invisible ink demonstrations and Anna Strong’s famed clothesline, used for sending signals to Culper spies working off Long Island’s shores.

Above, living historian Diane Fish will give a Colonial cooking demonstration at the Brewster House during the event. Photo by Heidi Sutton

Ward Melville Heritage Organization will host Colonial cooking demonstrations and tours of historic structures that served as home bases for several spy ring members. Stony Brook University’s Special Collections department will display original letters written to Benjamin Tallmadge from George Washington, and the 3rd New York Regiment will demonstrate musket firing and marching drills on Setauket’s Village Green. The Country House Restaurant will offer a spy-themed lunch and the Ketcham Inn of the Moriches will host a guided tour and dinner at the home of noted spy Benjamin Havens.

Organizations participating in the Culper Spy Day event include The Long Island Museum, the Three Village Historical Society, the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, Tri-Spy Tours, Stony Brook University Special Collections, Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, Frank Melville Memorial Park, Three Village Community Trust, Caroline Church of Brookhaven, Setauket Presbyterian Church, Incorporated Village of Port Jefferson (Drowned Meadow Cottage), History Close at Hand, the Country House Restaurant, Times Beacon Record News Media, Raynham Hall, the Smithtown Historical Society, Discover Long Island, Ketcham Inn of the Moriches, and Sagtikos Manor in Bay Shore.

Tickets, which are available at www.tvhs.org, are $25 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 12. Children under the age of 6 and veterans will receive free admission. Tickets may be picked up at the Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket from Sept. 11 to 15. At that time, visitors will receive a bracelet and a copy of the Culper Spy Day map with all event listings. Tickets are good for admission to participating organizations for Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 16 and 17. Additional fees may apply for meals. For a full list of Culper Spy Day activities please visit www.culperspyday.com.

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This might sound peculiar since I am in the news business, but for over the past weekend I disconnected myself from all news reports. I was unplugged, you might say. Now this is a confession from an ultra news junkie. I’m normally so addicted that if I wake up in the middle of the night, I’ll switch on the bedside radio to catch up on what has happened since I went to sleep. But the past week, with the excruciating racist events and senseless killings, here and abroad, were more than I could process.

So I just turned off, or rather I didn’t turn anything on — not my radio, not the television, not the news apps on my cellphone. I didn’t even talk about the news with friends and neighbors.

What a luxury to be able to withdraw from global events for a couple of days.

I have a further antidote for all that has been happening in the world, and it’s even great fun to pursue. This Saturday is Culper Spy Day in Setauket, and it is the work of a number of local organizations committed to bringing history to life. The Culper spies, as you may know, were a small band of close friends who provided George Washington and the colonists with critically important information throughout the Revolutionary War at great risk to their lives. So engaging were their exploits, and so valuable to the eventual outcome of the war, that AMC has a cable TV drama, “Turn,” which has been drawing large audiences for three seasons to date. The series is what we call historical fiction, with the emphasis on fiction loosely — very loosely — based on real events. Those events belong to us because they are part of our local history and are a source of community pride.

This Saturday, July 23, you will be able to walk or bike or drive a designated route that offers views of key locations in the Culper story. There will be “colonists” in costume and signs along the way, helping the stories come alive. And we at Times Beacon Record have produced a multimedia map to enhance your experience. I refer to the newly released Three Village Map, complete with local roads and information from our business community. On this map is a QR code and also a link that, if you click on it with your mobile phone, will open up onto our website to seven different dramatizations of Culper stories — that we promise are historically accurate. In fact, the truth, we think, is more riveting than fiction, as we watch the dangerous exploits of these American heroes and heroines.

The actors in these episodes may be recognizable to you, and they do a fine job of conveying the gist of the story. We have used the services of a professional film crew, who shot the local scenes over the past several months. Community leaders introduce each film segment to set the scene. And in between episodes, if you are walking the route with your family, there are fun arcade-like games to play on your smartphone or laptop. The games, like the scenes, are our original creations and lots of fun. I predict your children — and you — will return to them many times to improve your score. I have.

Special thanks go to the participating organizations and their members for the vision to mount such an ambitious event and the enormous amount of time and effort that went into making history come alive. These include the Three Village Historical Society, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and The Long Island Museum.

The Times Beacon Record has put together a special pullout within this week’s Arts & Lifestyles section with additional information about Culper Spy Day. Copies will be distributed for free in the historical society parking lot; our multimedia map is $3. Tickets for the more-than 16 attractions, including battle reenactments and colonial cooking demonstrations, are $25, with children under 12 free, from the historical society, WMHO Educational & Cultural Center in Stony Brook village and The Long Island Museum.

Have yourselves a worry free and wonderful day!