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Cumsewogue Historical Society

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E.H. Rogers Feed and Grain, circa 1910. Photo from Ken Brady Collection

Revitalization plans between the train tracks and Route 347 in Port Jefferson Station have an eye toward the future, but those who have dedicated their lives to the community’s history have a message: not so fast.

Five buildings with historical roots in Port Jefferson Station that fall squarely within the bounds of Town of Brookhaven’s territory slated for redevelopment, as indicated during its planning board’s July 24 presentation during a Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association meeting, could be at risk of being demolished. Two of the buildings, 101 and 105 Main St., adjacent to the south side of the train tracks, could be in more imminent danger, according to Jack Smith, president of Cumsewogue Historical Society, based on a phone call he said he had in March with Charlie Lefkowitz, a real estate developer who owns many of the buildings in the area personally or in part with business associates.

The present day Costigan building, which operates as a law office. Photo by Jack Smith

The buildings, dating from the early 1900s, one of which housed E.H. Rogers Feed Mill, serve as links back to the area’s agricultural roots, according to Smith.

“We worked with the community and town for several years,” Lefkowitz said in a phone interview about the proposed redevelopment as a whole, though he declined to comment specifically on the historical buildings other than to confirm he spoke with Smith in March. “We will continue to work with the community and the town to create the best product and vision for Port Jefferson Station.”

In 2014, the findings of the Port Jefferson Station Commercial Hub Study commissioned by the town to compile community feedback and detailed analysis from professionals to determine what redevelopment of the area might entail were released to the public. Though the study has no legal bindings, it contains recommendations from Port Jefferson-based architects and consultants for the study, Campani and Schwarting Architects founders Frances Campani and Michael Schwarting, as well as longtime Suffolk County planner Lee Koppelman, calling for the preservation and incorporation of the five buildings into future redevelopment plans.

Smith said Lefkowitz told him the two buildings nearest the train tracks specifically are in a state of disrepair and cannot be preserved, despite the fact that they are occupied by businesses currently. Smith said the developer was willing to preserve relics from the historical structures and even establish a museum to memorialize the history, which Smith called “nonsense” and “insulting.” Schwarting said he disagreed with Lefkowitz’s assertion, relayed to him by Smith during a joint interview July 20.

“They’ve got good bones,” the architect said of the buildings.

Schwarting’s partner Campani said she understood the dilemma developers like Lefkowitz face in situations like these, though she agreed she does not see a case for needing to knock the buildings down rather than refurbishing them and incorporating them into revitalization plans.

“These buildings should be celebrated not simply demolished.”

— Nick Acampora

“Part of the problem, which is one of the things we tried to address in the study, is that it’s not a very pedestrian-friendly area right now, and you sort of have to slow down to a pedestrian pace to start to appreciate these things,” Campani said. “If you’re flying by at 40 miles per hour, you’re not going to.”

Sarah Kautz, preservation director of Preservation Long Island, a nonprofit that advocates for the protection and stewardship of historic sites, said the buildings’ location on a state road and proximity to a Long Island Rail Road station would trigger review by New York State as part of the State Environmental Quality Review Act prior to demolition, though getting the sites listed on state or national historic registries would go a long way toward securing their protection.

“It doesn’t prevent [demolition], but it does put it on a longer path, and it can bring private owners to the table in a serious way and kind of leverage a little bit of a negotiation,” she said, adding that public support and collaboration between the two historical sites would ultimately serve as strong deterrents against the approval of any plans ultimately necessary from the town’s planning board when a site plan is eventually weighed. Kautz said the organization would support a push to preserve the buildings. “They’re important buildings. The local community will benefit more from a rehab than it would by a total blitz.”

Nick Acampora, president of the Historical Society of Greater Port Jefferson, pledged to support Smith in his efforts, even if it comes to “laying down in front of a bulldozer.”

“These buildings should be celebrated not simply demolished,” Acampora said.

Much of the Port Jefferson Station community, and all of the Comsewogue Public Library’s past director’s were on hand Saturday for a day of celebration to commemorate the facility’s golden anniversary.

As part of the event, the library’s community room was dedicated to its first director, Richard Lusak, who served in that position from 1966 to 2002. In its 50-year history, the Comsewogue Public Library has had just three directors. The 50th anniversary celebration Oct. 14 also featured games, a bounce house, farm animals, crafts, giveaways, snacks, face-painting, balloon animals, music, a historical society photo gallery and tour and a new gallery exhibit.

“The program says ‘celebrating our past, present and future,’ so that’s what we’re doing all in one day, with the community,” the third, and current Director Debra Engelhardt said during the event. “We thought of it as a community thank you for the ongoing support that we’ve had since day one, across all three administrations.”

Engelhardt’s predecessor, Brandon Pantorno, who served at the helm of the library from 2003 through 2012 and is a Port Jefferson Station native, is a lifetime member of what they each referred to as the library family, as they all worked in several different capacities in the library’s hierarchy before becoming director.

“I remember when Blockbuster video came into the neighborhood right on Route 112 in Port Jefferson Station and people would say ‘videos, they’re going to be the end to libraries,’” he said. “Well, libraries started circulating videos in addition to books, in addition to library coordinated programs, and guess what? Blockbuster video is no longer here, but Comsewogue library and other libraries — the library world — is still stronger than ever. We have evolved; we have very cleverly metamorphosed into different things for so many people.”

Lusak was brought on to lead the library in its infancy in 1966 by its board of trustees at the time. During the summer of 1966, the Comsewogue School District board of education petitioned the community in 1966 to schedule a vote, in which five trustees would be elected and establish a budget of about $68,000. In November 1966, Lusak was hired, and the library’s original grounds were established in a portable classroom at the southern end of Terryville Road, which still exists today. By November 1967, the community overwhelmingly voted in support of funding the building of a 16,000-square-foot facility at 170 Terryville Road, where the library remains today, though it has grown exponentially over the years.

Lusak said he was honored and humbled to have the community meeting room dedicated in his honor.

“I think the community decides whether or not we did a good job,” he said. “I can say this: the community has always been supportive of the library. The board of trustees here has always been dedicated to this institution — totally dedicated.”

The library’s first director tried to sum up what his time at the community institution meant to him.

“The people just love this library for the community, and I take a tremendous amount of pride in being associated with that,” said Lusak, who is still a resident of Port Jefferson. “It made my life a pleasure.”

Lusak’s wife Rosalie also attended the ceremony to celebrate her husband’s lifelong work.

“It was never a job to him, it was just his passion,” she said. “It’s very, very moving that something would be dedicated to him and I’m glad he got to see it.”

The Cumsewogue Historical Society was on hand during the event to share stories of the library’s history. Historical society Vice President Joan Nickeson said the very first library card issued in 1967 was to Thomas E. Terry, the grandson of Edward Terry, who was one of the Terry brothers who founded Terryville.

The historic Terryville Union Hall is the latest recipient of a Little Free Library, thanks to Comsewogue Public Library Director Debra Engelhardt and the library, which stocked and funded the installation.

Pictured with Engelhardt are library staff members and local resident Angela DeRosalia, who hand-painted the kiosk, Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), Northern Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Dzvonar and member Lisa Molinelli, who brought their children to ‘leave a book, take a book.’

Joining them is Terryville Road Elementary School Principal April Victor with supportive parents and students and Cumsewogue Historical Society President Jack Smith, Vice President Joan Nickeson, Treasurer Lou Antoniello and member Jackie Kirsch, who donated a collection of popular tween books.

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

The Cumsewogue Historical Society will host Summer Saturday Museum Days at the Terryville Union Hall, 358 Terryville Road, Terryville every Saturday from June 24 through Aug. 26 from 1 to 3 p.m. Come see artifacts, historic documents, poster-sized maps and photos of historic Echo, Terryville and Port Jefferson Station. Stop by and chat about the old days! Ample free parking next door at Kindercare. For more information, call 631-928-7622.

The Cumsewogue Historical Society has a ticket to the Gentlemen’s Driving Park from July 4, 1892. Photo by Elana Glowatz

What was once an abandoned and forgotten horse racing track in a stretch of woods in Terryville is now a Brookhaven-designated historic landmark.

The town board voted unanimously during its May 11 meeting to recognize the Gentlemen’s Driving Park, the last Victorian-era harness racing track on Long Island, as an historic landmark and by doing so, solidified the hard work of the local residents and elected officials who helped to make it happen.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Jack Smith, Ed Garboski of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association and Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine examine the Gentleman’s Driving Park. File photo by Elana Glowatz

The half-mile track, before it became hidden among trees, was a popular gathering place for bettors in the late 19th century to watch men race around the loop behind horses in carts. It was part of a circuit of tracks in the Northeast — others sat in Smithtown, Setauket and Riverhead — and is the last remaining one.

“I urge you to recognize it,” Barbara Russell, Brookhaven town historian, said before the board made their decision.

Russell played a huge part in providing historical context to the site when Jack Smith, president and founder of the Cumsewogue Historical Society, initially kicked off the project more than a year ago.

She made all resources of her office available to the historical society, including original photographs of the track donated by the historic Davis family and firsthand accounts of these races through old letters.

Smith discovered the faint outline of the horse track from a satellite image on Google Earth upon hearing of its existence off Canal Road, and eventually went to the site with his wife Pam, to examine it more closely. To his delight, he ended up finding pieces of Long Island history scattered throughout the 11-acre site, including a broken pair of Victorian-era field glasses close to where the finish line of the track would’ve been as well as a race day ticket from 1892.

Smith then reached out to former Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld and other council members about acquiring the site, clearing the overgrown path and restoring it. Rosenfeld, Smith said, saw the value in preserving the site and laid the groundwork to make the project possible.

The Gentlemen’s Driving Park officially opened to the public in October.

“The landmark status recognizes the importance of preserving this colorful and almost forgotten part of Brookhaven Town’s history,” Smith said in a phone interview. “The driving park is now a collective symbol of the many large driving parks that once dotted the Long Island landscape … Long Island being the birthplace of horse racing in America. I’m happy the society as a whole was able to play an integral part in getting this important part of our history preserved.”

Jack Smith takes a closer look at a wrecked car on the Gentlemen’s Driving Park track around the time he first discovered the forgotten historical spot. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Smith said Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) picked up where Rosenfeld left off when she was first elected.

“She took it through some difficult negotiations and brought the whole thing to fruition,” he noted. “Her diligence and hard work, tremendous optimism and skill in bringing everything together have culminated in the preservation … .”

Cartright expressed her excitement about the designation in an emailed statement. She described the endeavor as a three-step process — first the town’s acquisition of the park in 2014, then the reopening in 2016, and finally receiving the landmark designation last week.

“During each of these steps, and for several years prior to my taking office, Jack Smith has been at the forefront of the Gentlemen’s Driving Park project,” she said. “The activism, research and unwavering support of Jack and the Historical Society has been an inspiration. The historic landmark status draws additional attention to Gentlemen’s Driving Park and is an honor the rich history of the location and all those who helped preserve it certainly deserve.”

Smith said the town plans to build a Victorian-style gate as an entranceway to the track.

Jack Smith at his home in Terryville. Photo by Kevin Redding

When it comes to preserving local history, Jack Smith has paved the way — literally.

After he retired from his teaching job of more than 30 years, Smith was free to do whatever he wanted.

But rather than just relax at home and take up a hobby, the passionate 66-year-old founded the Cumsewogue Historical Society instead, which has been integral in keeping the vast history of its surrounding communities in the forefront.

“I started to research the history of the area and realized there was quite a bit here,” Smith said in an interview. “So why not start a historical society? There’s a lot here and I thought it would be a fun thing to do.”

Smith even maintained the original Algonquin spelling of Comsewogue for the society; Cumsewogue loosely translates to “the place where many paths meet.”

For all his work in bridging the gap between the past and present for the Port Jefferson area and beyond, Smith is a 2016 Times Beacon Record News Media Person of the Year.

Mike Eiermann, the Cumsewogue Historical Society treasurer, called Smith a true “mover and shaker” in the community during an interview.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Jack Smith, Ed Garboski of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association and Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine examine the Gentleman’s Driving Park. File photo by Elana Glowatz

“We have to try to keep up with him,” Eiermann said. “He’s very dedicated, very knowledgeable and is fully invested in what he does.”

As president and founder of the historical society, which was formed in 2008 and has about 30 members, Smith has accomplished a lot.

He and the group went to great lengths to preserve the old Terryville Union Hall as their main headquarters in the time following the society’s inception. Built in 1887, the union hall stands as the last historical building in Terryville, and Smith convinced local legislators to buy it and obtain funding for interior restoration. Now several showcases dedicated to local historical industries are inside the building, for example, the Porter automobile factory.

There are also roughly 120 vintage photographs of the community on display.

Smith established Heritage Day, a beloved event that exposes students from Comsewogue elementary schools to historical artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and demonstrates what life was like in the community then.

Smith said the program helps give students the unique opportunity to not only learn about the community’s history but also to see, touch and experience what life was like “before all the housing developments and shopping malls.”

But perhaps Smith and the historical society’s greatest achievement so far came in October when the Gentlemen’s Driving Park — the last Victorian-era harness racing track on Long Island where Terryville bettors once gathered to watch horses “race in heats” — officially opened to the public after several years of work to resurrect the nearly forgotten historical site.

The opening was attended by more than 100 people and served as a testament to Smith’s dedication to his cause. He discovered a faint outline of the horse track from a satellite image on Google Earth after hearing about its existence off Canal Road, visited the leaf-covered path in the woods with his wife Pam, and ultimately reached out to then Brookhaven Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld and other council members about acquiring the entire 11-acre plot, clearing the overgrown path, and actively working to restore the track as close to the original 1880s footprint as possible.

“I am proud that our society has been able to preserve so much of our history that came perilously close to being lost,” Smith said.

He also uncovered various artifacts surrounding the track, including a pair of field glasses where the finish line was on the track, as well as a ticket to a race at the Gentlemen’s Driving Park on July 4, 1892, which is now on display at the historical society’s headquarters.

A ticket from a race day in 1892 was among Smith’s discoveries; and Smith at his home in Terryville. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Without Smith, the horse track and its history would certainly have been erased, according to Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell.

“He was very diligent in doing the research and finding all the information he could on the track and he’s been that way with all of his endeavors,” she said.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), who worked alongside Smith to restore the track, said in an email statement Smith’s work in the community makes him more than deserving of the Person of the Year honor.

“His passion, meticulous care and diplomacy are appreciated by all who know him,” Cartright said. “His efforts to create and implement the annual Heritage Day, his comprehensive background and the lectures he gives at the library and his work and research to preserve the track are all done to celebrate the history of our community. I’ve had the privilege of knowing [him] both personally and professionally for many years.”

Smith said his love of history can be traced back to when he was in fifth grade, where his younger self first took an interest in consuming maps and all things geography related. He went on to receive his bachelor’s degree in history and master’s in special education, which would be utilized at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, where he taught high school students from 1974 until 2005.

It was there he met his wife Pamela, a secretary at the school. She said they didn’t realize it at first but the two actually grew up around the block from one another in Centereach and even went to the same high school.

She said her husband is “very caring and extremely interested in helping the community.” History, including his own personal history, is a part of his daily life.

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

By Wenhao Ma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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