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History

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Comsewogue library takes up task of preserving history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Library’s new historical role

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical advocacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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People of all ages enjoy Heritage Park for its sizable number of amenities. Photo by Kyle Barr

A flash of green among the gray, the short hills that roll along the side of Route 25A in Mount Sinai are strewn with people. Men and women jog, kids scream and laugh playing baseball and soccer. Children run up those green hills, then fall and let themselves tumble down the gentle slopes. 

A mockup of what the park would look like upon completion. Image from Lori Baldassare

Some developers have talked about creating a “town square” for the hamlet of Mount Sinai, but for lovers of Heritage Park, there already is one.

“There it is, Heritage Park — it’s one of the most beautiful parks of its kind that I’ve ever seen,” said New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket). “It came together from the cooperation of so many wonderful people willing to pull together.”

Nearly 20 years ago, local residents became heated about plans to develop the site for the home improvement giant, Home Depot. The site, which was once a pumpkin farm, joined with other properties like the Davis Peach Farm in an agrarian setting. Decades of home development turned the area into small strips of business sandwiched in between residential neighborhoods.

Heritage Park went in the opposite direction. A successful agreement between Suffolk County and the Town of Brookhaven meant the county bought the site by using the Community Greenways Fund, while the town built the park amenities like the baseball and soccer fields. The nonprofit organization Heritage Trust continues to operate the park, along with Brookhaven town. The trust hosts multiple carnivals and other events throughout the year as a means of raising money. The trust also rents out the Heritage Center for public events. 

But more than that, the trust has become a lightning rod for Mount Sinai, and even well beyond. 

The history of Heritage

Very few dreams become reality, at least to specific designs.

But original plans for Heritage Park, known also as The Wedge, and mockups bear a striking resemblance to how the park has shaped up 20 years after those original designs. 

A contractor installs the irrigation system just north of where the playground is now located back in early 2003. Photo by Fred Drewes

Fred Drewes, a longtime park volunteer and Mount Sinai resident, originally came to the Mount Sinai Civic Association back in 1988 with the idea of a hamlet study, and the idea was resurrected in the late 1990s, co-chaired with then civic president Lori Baldassare. Within those designs, he proposed a park, one that would become the focal point for the North Shore that had once been McGovern Sod Farm. 

This was during a time when the rural past of the hamlet was being laid over with brick and concrete. One housing development after another changed the tenor of Mount Sinai. The last few farms on the south side of Route 25A started to close and look to sell their property, and a few big names started eyeing those parcels. 

“The development pattern of western Long Island was going to make it impossible for Mount Sinai to escape being visually damaged and swallowed up,” Englebright said.

Among the legal action taking place at the location of the Davis Peach Farm, one of those maligned developments was a potential Home Depot on a plot of land that had been a pumpkin and sod farm.

At the southern tip of The Wedge, a space of only about one acre that had commercial zoning, representatives of Home Depot approached the property owners who were looking to sell. The rest of the property was zoned residential.

Baldassare, who has spent the past 20 years as the on-and-off again Heritage Trust president, has long been in the trenches over the fate of The Wedge. Home Depot would end up the line in the sand for Mount Sinai residents. As civic president, she asked Drewes to revive his hamlet study and plan for a park. She also was a leader among residents campaigning against the home supply chain, getting people to tie green ribbons around their mailboxes all across the hamlet to show their support.

“We ended up competing for them with land,” Baldassare said. “We had thousands of ribbons up all over the place.”

The next task was to make sure, as Englebright put it, “the same thing didn’t come back in some virulent form.”

In 1999, the civic authored a proposal for Suffolk County to buy the parkland. Of course, in government, nothing is ever that simple.

A state, a county, a town, a civic

Rare is it that all levels of government from the top down work together on such a large project as was Heritage Park, and while it wasn’t all easy, the results stand.

Volunteers from Girl Scout Troop 004 help plant a garden in the fall of 2004 in what is now the Butterfly Triangle, though plantings later failed due to not breaking up the compacted soil. The same day, volunteers planted crocuses. Photo by Fred Drewes

Still, the process was grueling at times. Both Brookhaven town and the county wanted active recreation, namely baseball and soccer fields. The town, especially, wasn’t into designing passive space with ingredients of a walking path and playground, but mostly a space for, as Drewes called it, “free play.” He remembers the then town parks commissioner mentioning he would never use such a space for jogging, so close as it was to two major roads.

“The way the greenways program worked is they needed a partner to maintain it,” Baldassare said. “They weren’t willing to develop it, they needed a partner, and the county said they wanted a municipal partner, but the town was not willing to do all the things we wanted in the park.”

Before they were willing to sign on to the county, the town also wanted to have a civic partner.

The assemblyman came into the picture, agreeing with the civic about needing to maintain the heritage of the area. He said he reached out to his colleagues at the state, county and town levels to help open those conversations. 

One difficulty they encountered was finding funds to buy the particular section of The Wedge that was still zoned for commercial.

The property was owned by Vinny Bove, a local entrepreneur and developer. Englebright recalled him as a “rather rugged individual,” and didn’t expect that he would be such a kindred spirit. Speaking with him, he found Bove was more than willing to keep the property up for sale until the state could gather the funds for the civic to buy the property.

“His welcoming attitude and his willingness to embark on the journey of uncertainty that was worthy of the community’s heritage, made it possible,” Englebright said.

This first Smiley Face at Heritage Park was a display of 7,500 crocuses planted in the Fall of 2004. The present Smiley Face is a result of planting 2,250 daffodils in the fall of 2012 with the first daffodil Smiley Face blooming in spring of 2013. Photo by Fred Drewes

Of course, the next issue was that the civic had to be legally able to accept state funds, needing to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, categorized as a land trust. It was then the Heritage Trust was formed, which incorporated in 2000.

The past trust president and now treasurer recalls much haggling over which municipality would fork over the funds for which part of the project. After the section was designated for park, it would be years before the first shovels finally entered the ground in 2003 when it all started to come together.

The county would buy most of the land, with one section now owned by the trust. The town would build the walking paths and baseball and soccer fields, and town lawnmowers continue to maintain the space.

“All the voices were speaking of the green space,” Englebright said. “Just amazing loving work the parks department of the town invested itself into.”

20 years, 20 more

From a few baseball fields and passive green, the park grew. More state assembly grants and loads of private fundraising helped gather the money to build the barnlike structure that has become the Heritage Center, the main headquarters not just for the trust but also for  the civic groups and a gathering spot for other local groups and events.

Amy Satchell was a volunteer since almost the beginning, helping to fundraise for the center and installation of the playground, which went up years after the park was fully built. Every year around the holidays Satchell goes to help decorate the center and the large pine tree just outside its doors.

Heritage Center at Heritage Park is used by the trust for its events. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Many people had an idea that it would be the town center, the town square of Mount Sinai,” she said. “You can see now after all this time all the wonderful amenities that are provided.”

Drewes has seen more and more amenities come to the park, including his own idea for the now-annual parade of flags, a display of flags from nations across the world on the Avenue of America, a stretch of the walkway that encloses the park.

The longtime Mount Sinai resident, now 83, is retired. He can lean back on a park bench and look at all the work he and his civic compatriots have helped accomplish.

“I’m gratified and extremely happy that what we as citizens proposed and volunteers worked tirelessly to create is valued by so many people,” he said.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said she has seen the effectiveness of the project and has proposed a similar agreement for a spot in Middle Island. The location is the site of a now-demolished K-Mart across from Artist Lake along Middle Country Road. 

“It has inspired me to take the model and replicate it,” Anker said.

Baldassare said that as the park reaches its 20th year, very few things remain as part of the original design, with only a splash pad and a few other odds and ends left. For the trust, it means the end of an era, and the start of a new one.

Fundraising has always been a difficulty, with the trust having an annual budget of around $300,000, the members have to fundraise what they don’t get through sponsorships and grants almost all by themselves. These funds also help to pay the several part-time staffers the trust needs for its ongoing efforts.

“People think it must be taxpayer dollars that take care of the center, and it’s not, we always have to raise money,” Satchell said.

They host events every year like the spring and summer carnivals, but those are dependent on weather. The trust treasurer recalled one year that was incredibly lean because of adverse weather conditions during one of its main fundraising events.

The park always requires more volunteers and is looking for more ideas to take the park through the next 20 years. 

Though many who visit the park assume that it must have always been there, for the trust and its volunteers, that can only be a good thing.

“When people say that, for them, the park has always been there, that’s fantastic,” Satchell said. “We want it to be that anchor in the community that people think it’s always been there. I do hope it always will be.”

This article was amended Oct. 2 to change the captions within the pictures to better reflect what they present. Several pictures were changed to say they were taken by Fred Drewes.

Jo-Ann Raia at home in her garden. Photo by Donna Deedy

Jo-Ann Raia took a job 39 years ago, and the Town of Huntington hasn’t been the same since. Elected town clerk for 10 consecutive terms, she’s served office under six town supervisors. As she prepares to retire at the end of this year, her own legacy, some might say, overshadows them all. 

Jo-Ann Raia begins to sort through records in the Town of Huntington’s basement in 1984. Photo by Donna Deedy

“Huntington’s longest-serving town clerk, Jo-Ann Raia is an institution. Her handiwork is woven into almost every one of our major life milestones, from the beginning of life to marriage and the end for generations of Huntingtonians over the past four decades,” Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) said. “She has set a very high standard for her successor to live up to.”

Town clerks are responsible for keeping records, charged with documenting every birth, death and marriage in the town’s boundaries, and safely handling and processing all other information, such as commuter parking and shellfishing permits. Her natural instincts and attention to detail have served the town well. 

“I’m somewhat of a hoarder,” she said jokingly. “I have a hard time throwing things out.”  

New York State now dictates the retention rules for certain records. That was not the case in 1984 when Raia first stepped foot into Town Hall as an elected official at age 41. She learned all she could about organizing and archiving documents, joined an international organization of town clerks and then developed a record system. What she has created, and will leave behind when she retires at the age of 79, is a record center and archives containing museum-worthy artifacts that may have otherwise been lost or damaged. 

Under Raia’s leadership, the town archives have preserved historical documents that include the original deeds, showing the town’s first purchase of property in 1653 from Native Americans. Other records include Revolutionary War artifacts, a slave registry and a docket showing the names and other information about residents who signed up for military service during the Civil War. 

Currency from 1779 stamped with a stein and the words Platt’s Tavern. Photo by Donna Deedy

The Revolutionary artifacts include coins from 1779 and a book of war claims, essentially a ledger full of IOUs from British government. Each page shows in detail how British soldiers in an effort to defend the colonies took whatever they needed from town residents:  ox, horses, saddles, etc. Because the British lost the war, residents were never compensated for the items taken, said Antonia Mattheou, the town’s archivist, who has worked alongside Raia for 26 years.

One of the town’s prized possessions is a 2 ½-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, a schoolmaster and spy for the Continental Army, who was captured in New York City and hung by the British at the age of 19. The sculpture was carved by Frederick MacMonnies, the same man whose 8-foot bronze Nathan Hale statue stands in front of City Hall in New York City. “Artists used to carve smaller versions of their work to earn income,” Raia explained. “Only three exist.”  

The statue used to be on permanent display in a prominent vestibule at Old Town Hall, which the town vacated in 1979.   MacMonnies’ widow Alice bequeathed the statue to the Town of Huntington in 1919. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. own the two other statues.

The preservation quest 

When Raia first took office, she noticed important documents were subjected to extreme moisture and heat, with some record books browning from being stacked over ventilation grates.  

The conditions prompted her to seek funding to renovate what was once a basement gymnasium.

“What is she doing down there?” she recalled people saying. Previous town clerks, she said, must have been overwhelmed or saw little value in organizing it all. 

Raia began securing grants to establish and grow a record center and archive her first year in office, when some of the town’s most important and valuable records were scattered.  

Over the years, Raia has become notorious for record-keeping and archiving. A long list of organizations and government entities have honored her for putting in place respectable record-keeping practices. People from the state’s police commission, for instance, have visited the town’s records center striving to duplicate her  model. 

Exhibits

Raia regularly curates exhibitions with the town’s archivist.

British war claims indicating items that British soldiers borrowed from Huntington residents during the Revolutionary War. Photo by Donna Deedy

Currently, Raia’s office is pulling together a tribute to Huntington’s shellfish culture. Its showcases include an old map of the bay floor depicting gridded parcels, where residents once staked claim to the sea floor, a commodity that shellfishermen passed on from generation to generation. 

The shellfish exhibit also includes a chart of the annual oyster harvests from 1880 to 1972 for the states of New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The chart that Raia has preserved and is now exhibiting shows dramatic declines in the bounty of New England oysters over time. 

“Jo-Ann Raia is the best town clerk ever,” said George Doll, a shellfisherman and former Northport mayor. “If you need something from Jo-Ann, you got it.”

He said that he’s going to miss her after she retires at the end of the year. 

Dedication and inspiration

“The town clerk needs to be available 24/7,” Raia said. Over the years, the phone would ring at all hours, sometimes from local funeral directors who needed deaths recorded so they could arrange for a burial. That aspect of the job sometimes entailed big black hearses with body bags pulling into her driveway at night. 

“I just wonder what the neighbors thought,” she said. “People didn’t have SUVs years ago.” 

The decision to not run for office again, Raia said, required serious consideration. 

Jo-Ann Raia today, 39 years into her job as town clerk. Photo by Donna Deedy

“My son said to me, ‘Mom, it’s time for you’,” she said. Her eyes welled up as she contemplates retiring in December.  

“My sister died at age 84,” she said. “If I run for another term, I’ll be her age.”  

Raia is an avid gardener and people tell her that her own property resembles an arboretum. She may help other people with landscaping in her retirement years and she may write a book. But she will remain living with her daughter Diane in Huntington. 

Raia’s son Andrew has been a state legislator representing Northport for the last 17 years. In November,  his name will be on the ballot for town clerk. 

“As much as I love being an assemblyman — I’d do it for another 17 years —you might say that I’ve been in training for the town clerk job since I was in 8th grade,” Andrew Raia said. “I can honestly say that I know this job backwards and forwards.”  

The job is purely a public service position, he said. 

“My mother has been so dedicated,” he said.  “She’s been the clearinghouse for problems.”

Raia’s staff members show similar devotion and are quick to agree that she runs a tight ship. 

“They stay because they like me,” Raia said.  

Her comment drew enthusiastic agreement from her office staff, during a recent interview. 

“Whoever  takes over the town clerk job better be good,” Raia said. “And I hope their initials are A.R.”

Allied troops in WWII fought through thick casualties the week of July 4, 1944

British Gen. Bernard Montgomery, right, with American generals George Patton and Omar Bradley July 7, 1944. Photo from Institute for Historical Review

By Rich Acritelli

As Americans enjoyed a beautiful Independence Day with the opportunity to watch ball games, barbecue, go swimming and enjoy fireworks, at this time of year and in the many years prior, our nation has always preserved freedom during times of peace and war. Today, American military forces are in every corner of the world serving in Afghanistan against the Taliban, at the Korean Demilitarized Zone and through an expanded naval and air power in the Persian Gulf to guard against potential Iranian aggression. But around this time, many decades ago, American soldiers spent their July 4 weeks overseas in active conflict.

These military actions were seen during the weeks that followed the D-Day landings at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. While the casualty estimates were far less than what was expected by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, he did not expect the terrible warfare that was waged against his forces as the Allies moved inland from the beaches. The Germans masterfully utilized the French terrain of the “hedgerows” to slow down the mostly American, British and Canadian forces. For a time, Hitler still expected the main assault to be led by the controversial, but powerful presence of Gen. George S. Patton’s tanks at Calais. At this moment, Hitler’s senior generals widely protested against his belief that Normandy was only a secondary assault. Hitler wasted precious time and committed serious military blunders by not adhering to their advice to wage a counterattack against the invading forces who were pushing out from Normandy. The German Wehrmacht had 19 divisions and 800 tanks that were waiting for an assault that never took place at Calais. This powerful force played no major role in attacking the earliest actions of Eisenhower during the opening stages of liberating France.

As the Allies pushed forward from the beaches, Hitler ordered the use of the V-1 and V-2 rockets that established a new “blitz” against London. Unlike the German bombers and fighters that reigned havoc on the city earlier in the war, there was little defense that could be conducted against these “buzz bombs” that terrorized the British civilians toward the end of the war. Again, Hitler’s senior generals stated that if these weapons were to be used, they should be deployed against the Allied ports in England that shipped over a tremendous amount of resources to aid their soldiers in France. However, Hitler believed that it was entirely possible for these “wonder weapons” to achieve a victory for Germany, even though the Allies were militarily established in France.

The German dictator refused to adhere to any military information from his generals who continued to tell Hitler that the situation was bleak. As Eisenhower had to deal with setbacks from the hedgerows, he knew that it was only a matter of time before his forces could break out against the Germans who were barely holding their own ground. Hitler refused to realize how desperate the situation in the west was. He decreed that every inch of this ground should be contested, that his soldiers should fight to the bitter end to cause horrific casualties against Eisenhower, which he hoped would move the Allies to withdraw back to England. Hitler’s once favorite leader, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, observed that it was not possible for Germany to defeat the superior resources that Eisenhower had at his disposal. Rommel pleaded with Hitler to end the war on the Western Front to prevent utter defeat and destruction. Rommel understood that while the Allies were marred by the terrain, it was only a matter of time before Patton pushed eastward toward Paris. Hitler scolded Rommel, saw him as a defeatist, and refused to adhere to any talk of ending the war and making peace. 

Like Rommel, a disgruntled Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt understood that the hedgerow fighting would be overcome by the Allies and there was no chance of victory. After he was relieved by Hitler, he told his military peers, “Make peace you idiots,” before all is quickly lost. About two weeks after July 4, 1944, a small group of German military and civilian leaders carried out an assassination attempt of Hitler at his headquarters in East Prussia. Rommel was tied to this failed plan and he was given a choice by Hitler to stand trial or commit suicide. To protect his family, he took his own life under the fake deception that Rommel died from wounds that he received from an Allied aerial attack against his car.

Even as Eisenhower had the upper hand against Hitler, his forces endured terrible losses against the German defenses. It hurt the Americans and British that the poor weather, which had stymied Eisenhower’s D-Day decision about when to land at Normandy, carried over during this campaign. The Allies had a difficult time coordinating air support against enemy positions through heavy rain and clouds. During the early days of July, the American military had 27,000 casualties among its 413,000 soldiers. Resembling the warfare that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant saw against Robert E. Lee in the 1864 fighting in Virginia, the Germans used the thick natural growth of trees, bushes and terrain to their bloody advantage. In order to support these operations, Eisenhower needed to have a large harbor to collect the vital supplies that were used on a daily basis by his men. By July 1, 1944, the French port of Cherbourg was taken, which allowed Eisenhower to bring in an additional 1,566,000 soldiers, 333,000 vehicles and 1.6 million tons of food, equipment and ammunition.  

General Omar N. Bradley commanded all of the American ground forces and he was shocked at the extreme losses that his army sustained. “The G.I.’s General,” as Bradley was known by his men, believed that Allied movements progressed at a “snail’s pace” against the enemy. Both Bradley and Eisenhower relied on the aggressiveness of Patton’s efforts to push his armor inland to create weaknesses and chaos within the German lines. The brief hedgerow warfare frustrated the American desire to hit the enemy hard and use their advantages to coordinate air and land warfare. As Patton was disciplined by Eisenhower during the “slapping incident,” in Sicily, they desperately sought his armor tactics to end this stalemate and push the enemy back on their heels.

It was almost 75 years ago this week that American military forces moved slowly against the determined resolve of the German army to push forward beyond the Normandy landings. While the war would be over within a year and Hitler’s Third Reich would be completely destroyed, American soldiers endured high casualties within the first stages in liberating Western Europe of Nazi control. At a time when the German military had slowed down Allied advances, even their key military figures understood that they could not match the strength of Eisenhower and the war machine that was created to defeat them during July of 1944.  

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

How Eisenhower made the choice that would lead to the end of the Third Reich

General Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American troops before the D-Day invasion. Photo from the Library of Congress

By Rich Acritelli

In the early morning hours that led up to the D-Day landings, former general and later president Dwight D. Eisenhower had to make one of the most vital military decisions to determine the fate of plans to invade Normandy, France. While tens of thousands of men were waiting on ships that were being loaded with everything from blood to tanks, Eisenhower was delayed by hazardous weather. It was determined that the water conditions were too rough to launch and land the soldiers who were expected to make it ashore with tons of gear and against the fire of the German army.  Senior officers Gen. Omar N. Bradley and Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, and chief of staff Gen. Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith, watched as Eisenhower was completely alone in determining if the Allies should carry out this attack.

Troops off the boats at the Normandy Invasion. Photo

As Eisenhower walked around the room, he was briefed by his meteorologist about a brief break in the weather that would possibly allow the Allied landings to reach the beaches of Normandy. The general heard Montgomery’s beliefs that all should be risked at this point. He also learned that if they did not go at this moment, it was likely that the Allies would have to wait until July to attack the shores of France due to poor weather reports. While these forces waited in large numbers, Eisenhower fully understood that Hitler was bound to learn of his plans to attack Normandy. He refused to allow noted Field Marshal Erwin Rommel the time to strengthen the French coastline with additional armaments, fortifications and resources to halt this Allied assault. Even as Eisenhower watched the success of Operation Fortitude’s ability to deceive Hitler of the Allies’ false accounts to attack the French location of Calais in the south and Norway in the north, this was too much of a secret to hold on to much longer.

In Germany, Hitler refused to listen to his generals in allowing flexibility within the deployment of Panzer tanks situated in Calais. Eisenhower tricked Hitler into believing that he would attack Calais, which was the closest French landing spot on the English Channel, but as he prepared for D-Day, the American general continually worried about this information being leaked out to the enemy. These fears were presented through a West Point classmate of Ike. Maj. Gen. Henry J.F. Miller was the commander of the 9th Army Air Force Service Command. He made a serious blunder that could have been extremely costly. Drunk, he was overheard speaking about these sensitive invasion plans in a busy English restaurant.  It was described by a younger officer that Miller spoke in an arrogant manner and that he showed no discipline in loudly addressing top secret plans to civilians. Right away Eisenhower questioned him and quickly sent his good friend home to the United States, where he was demoted to his previous rank of colonel. 

As he was surrounded by the likes of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the deposed President of the French Republic Charles de Gaulle and Montgomery, his thoughts were never far away from the rank and file who were tasked to carry out his directives. Although Eisenhower was confident of success against the German army, he feared that his men were bound to suffer heavy casualties against the enemy that was waiting for them at Normandy. At this time, Eisenhower’s son graduated from West Point as a second lieutenant on June 6, 1944, during the very moment that the Allies carried out this risky operation. He was always troubled that he was ordering soldiers younger than his own boy to their possible deaths. To soothe the stress that he felt from his heavy burden of command, Eisenhower smoked almost five packs of cigarettes a day.

There is a famous picture of Eisenhower meeting members of the famed 101st Airborne Division, taken in the hours before he approved the invasion. He was alarmed over the estimated reports that the paratroopers would endure heavy losses. Most of these fears were put to rest when Eisenhower personally asked the airborne where they were from in America, the college teams they followed and their lives before the army. This commanding general always searched for soldiers who were from his own hometown of Abilene, Kansas. Whereas Eisenhower was immensely powerful, he was a well-rounded officer, who enjoyed playing cards and sports, and was extremely well-liked. These junior service members calmly told Eisenhower not to worry about the air drops, as they were determined to defeat the Germans.

Miller’s behavior was contrary to the views of Eisenhower, who preached that every member of the armed forces from private to general was needed to operate as a team to win this war in Europe. The moments leading up to D-Day were perhaps the most difficult that he had to handle through his extensive time in the military and his two-term presidency. Whereas Miller flaunted his rank, he failed to understand that World War II impacted every type of American. Higher command figures like Gen. George C. Marshall lost his stepson during the fighting. Former President Theodore Roosevelt’s younger son Ted was a brigadier general who landed at Normandy and died five weeks after this assault of a massive heart attack. Even FDR’s four sons were all in uniform, where they saw combat duty in Europe and the Pacific.  

As he pondered this vital decision, Eisenhower was constantly reminded of the poor conditions as the rain was heard hitting his headquarters in England.  With his arms folded behind him, Eisenhower looked at the American and British officers and stated, “The question is, just how long can you hang this operation on the end of a limb and let it hang there?” With the risk of the weather, Eisenhower continued, “I am quite positive we must give the order. I don’t like it, but there it is … I don’t see how we can do anything else.” This directive by Eisenhower cut the tension in the room, as his key air, naval and army officers carried out their D-Day responsibilities. Eisenhower wrote a detailed letter accepting the failure of this operation if his forces were pushed back into the English Channel.

Eisenhower was a spectator observing the military might of this machine that he molded to destroy the might of the German military that waited behind the “Atlantic Wall.”  This decision encompassed almost a year of intense training by the United States military and continuous day and nighttime bombing missions that targeted resources, bases, railroad lines and key targets that were able to support the enemy at Normandy. By June of 1944, Eisenhower was a seasoned leader who had learned from his own failures in North Africa and during the hard campaign to take Italy. He was extremely determined to defeat Hitler and drive the final nail in the German war machine to destroy their forces in France and move into Germany to gain a final victory. It was at this moment some 75 years ago that Eisenhower made the successful decision that led to the end of the Third Reich’s reign of terror in Europe.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

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The Smithtown Historical Society hosted a Spring Farm Festival in celebration of the season May 4. The family event included children’s games and crafts, pony rides and a petting zoo. 

Artisans demonstrated traditional farm skills, such as sheep shearing, yarn spinning and weaving, wood-working and ironworking. The barn and carriage house were also open for the public to view. 

All photos by David Ackerman.

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A photo of the Schooner Halie & Matthew on the ocean. Photo from Schooner Halie Matthew Facebook

Once upon a time, throughout the 19th century, if one looked down into Port Jefferson Harbor, one could see the tall masts of sailing ships rising high above the surrounding buildings, in a place once called Drowned Meadow. 

Nowadays, the harbor is home to many small vessels, but a new, 118-foot schooner could soon dwarf them if plans to bring in a handcrafted ship built in Maine come to fruition.

Captain George “Butch” Harris, the owner of the Halie & Matthew, a 118-foot-long, gaff-rigged, fiberglass ship, is currently in talks with the Village of Port Jefferson over establishing the harbor as its residence. The village board voted to allow Mayor Margot Garant to try and set up an agreement with the ship’s owner.

If an agreement is reached, the schooner would be moored along the dock in front of Harborfront Park, on the other side of Stony Brook University’s Seawolf research vessel.

“We’ve been looking for a long time to have a schooner call us home,” Garant said during a March 18 board meeting.

According to a draft proposal given to Port Jefferson by Maine Windjammers Inc., the ship would be used free for the village and Port Jefferson Harbor Education and Arts Conservancy as a promotional platform. The village would agree to promote the Halie & Matthew as the village’s “home schooner,” to pay for electric, water and dock maintenance and guarantee exclusive space at the dock for four years.

The conservancy set up a Tall Ship Committee more than a year ago in an effort to get a sizable ship into Port Jefferson Harbor. Harris said he comes from a family of shipbuilders, his father owning a boat shop that he worked in as a kid. He started work on the Halie & Matthew in 2001 and finished in 2006. Since then the ship has sailed as far south as Florida and as far north as Canada. 

Jason Rose, a member of the committee, is breathless with excitement over the prospect of a tall ship sitting in the harbor. Himself an avid sailor, he is currently working with The Boat Place in Port Jeff to revitalize his own 42-foot schooner, the Elizabeth. 

He is also an adjunct professor of political science at Stony Brook University and faculty adviser of the school’s sailing team and he already has students promising to help man the ship if needed.

Port Jefferson village historian Chris Ryon said the masts of the Halie & Matthew could likely be seen from all across the village’s downtown and, along with pennants hanging from the ship’s stays, would attract visitors down toward the park. 

“The harbor used to be filled with tall ships and masts,” Ryon said. “We’ll be able to see them from all over the village. We’re hoping to draw people into the harbor area.” 

Ryon said the committee had been in contact with Harris a year ago about bringing the schooner to Port Jeff, but contact fell through. It was at the start of the year that Harris reached back out to the committee about making Port Jeff a home for the schooner. The ship has a 24-foot beam and a 90-foot main mast. Its max capacity is at 100 people aboard.

The Port Jefferson Tall Ship Committee, a subset of the conservancy, of which Ryon is a member, has been working for years to bring a tall ship into the harbor. The contract would be for four years. Under the initial proposal, after the first year, the village would receive a 20 percent share in net profits of the vessel, which gets revenue through its charter operations and dining and bar services. There is an option to renew after that initial time, under the condition the village would negotiate a profit-sharing agreement.

The ship would have to get access to the village’s water and electricity, but Ryon said he did not believe the ship would use so much resources because, other than for appliances and lights, the ship is sail powered. The Seawolf is already hooked up to the village’s electricity, but water lines may need to be extended to the new schooner. Garant said the conservancy has agreed to pay half of the costs of extending those lines to the new vessel if needed. 

While the village still needs to work out security specifics with Harris, Rose said the ship will have two people living on the ship full time in order to make sure there isn’t any vandalism of the Halie & Matthew.

Garant said the first year would be a pilot, and they wanted to have dates in years 1 through 4 where the owners would commit to giving the village access to the vessel at minimum three times a year for fundraising initiatives. 

Ryon said over 500 large ships were built in the harbor during the area’s shipbuilding heyday. The largest wooden sailing ship built in the harbor was the Martha E. Wallace, built in 1902 and topped at more than 200 feet long. Ryon said the last time the harbor played host to a schooner of notable size was in the 1970s, a ship called the Enchantress.

With a new ship coming in, Rose can’t wait to see Port Jeff’s shipbuilding history come alive again.

“It’s going to be great to see the area’s maritime history start to be honored,” he said. 

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Marie Mack, front, and her family and friends celebrated her birthday Jan. 27. Photo from Betty Mulligan

By Jane Swingle 

Our grandparents Charles Petersen and Anna Kenney were married in 1913 and had three children. Their son, John Anthony, was born in 1917 and lived for 10 days. Their daughter, Marie Gertrude, our mother, was born in 1919 and has been living for 100 years. Mary Catherine was born in 1920 and lived for 24 hours.

Marie, who eventually married to become Marie Mack, always wanted a sibling and was told as a child that if she put salt on a windowsill, she would get a brother and if she put sugar on a windowsill she would get a sister. She said she remembers that at one time she had sugar or salt on 11 windowsills. Unfortunately for Marie, she remained an only child, and Jan. 18 of this year she celebrated her 100th birthday. A surprise birthday party was held for her Jan. 27 with over 90 guests in attendance.

Marie Mack during her birthday celebration Jan. 27. Photo from Betty Mulligan

She was loved dearly by her father who in 1898 joined the Navy during the Spanish-American War at the age of 15. She remembers him having a dry sense of humor (we’re sure she herself got this from him). He was a good cook and she always looked forward to a batch of potatoes, eggs and onions after work. Her dad loved coming out to Long Island to vacation and in 1928, when Marie was 10 years old, he bought the house in which she currently resides. They had spent their summers in the same house beginning in 1924, the same house that was the Mount Sinai Post Office and General Store from 1908 until 1922.

Her mother was very different from her father. She was very melancholic most of the time unless she was taking the Putnam Avenue trolley to downtown Brooklyn to go shopping. She crocheted beautiful baby outfits for her grandchildren and loved going to the movies. Marie said her mother had a beautiful smile and always wondered why she didn’t smile more often. 

They lived at 83 Saratoga Ave. in Brooklyn in what was known as the “Railroad Flats” where they paid a monthly rent of $25. As a child she remembers the iceman delivering blocks of ice two to three times a week to keep their food cold. Milk was delivered at 4 a.m. and they had dumbwaiters so they didn’t have to carry everything upstairs. They lived on the third floor and once Marie even put our sister Elizabeth, “Betty,” in the dumbwaiter so she didn’t have to carry her up all those stairs.

In 1934 Marie saw our future dad, John Howard Rogers,  working in a candy store and continued to eyeball him until they finally started dating in 1935. They went to their first prom at the Hotel George and she remembers wearing a pink taffeta long gown, silver shoes and our dad gave her her first corsage. They continued to see each other and in 1941 they were married and had their reception at her home on Saratoga Avenue. Our sister Ann Marie was born in December 1942, but our dad left soon after she was born for the Pacific front in April 1943. He did not see his daughter again until 1945 when he returned from the war. During the time that he was away our mother moved back in with her parents — she had only 35 cents to her name. She became an air raid warden and was given a certificate for selling war bonds.

When dad returned from the war, they became very busy making a family and in 1946 Elizabeth was born, followed by Nancy in 1951, Jane in 1953, John in 1954 and Thomas in 1956.  With this expanding family they could no longer live in Brooklyn so they moved to Woodhaven in 1948, then to Rockville Centre in 1962 and eventually to Mount Sinai in 1968.

When asked when her favorite years were, Marie told us during the 1950s when she was raising her children. She got us through chicken pox, measles, mumps, ear infections, the teen years and the death of our father in 1969. She went back to work in 1970 at the Probation Department in Yaphank and remained there until 1977 when she married Bernard Mack. She again lived in Woodhaven for a short time after they were married but moved back to her home in Mount Sinai.

In 1996 when going into her attic to open a window she fell through the ceiling and shattered her knee, which required surgery and many months of rehabilitation. During this time Bernard passed away, but she rallied around again with her children pushing her to recover and get well.

She often wonders why she has lived so long. On many occasions she has said: “I’m not good enough to go to heaven, not bad enough to go to hell, so I guess I’m still here to torment all of you.”

Marie Mack during her birthday celebration Jan. 27. Photo from Betty Mulligan

When we think about her life spanning 100 years, we are astounded with all the changes that she has experienced in her lifetime. She was born before most people had electricity in their homes. She remembers gas lamps still being used, when there was no TV, no computers, no cellphones and when it cost 2 cents to mail a letter. She has lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, 9/11 and 18 presidents. She was even born before they started slicing bread in 1928.

She credits her long life to her family for keeping her – in her words – “Alive, alert and stimulated.” She’s had many bumps along the way, especially the passing of our brother John and our sister Ann Marie, but she’s always had a positive attitude and has always wished our father could have been with her to share this journey. What amazes all of us is her incredible memory – she remembers names of friends when she was a child, teachers’ names, games she played, street names where she used to live, movies, actors, books she read and all the places she has ever worked. As a child she enjoyed going to Coney Island for hot dogs, the hurdy-gurdy man who played the accordion with his monkey, putting hot bricks in her bed at night to warm her feet and attending the World’s Fairs in both 1939 and 1964.

When asked what important lessons she wanted to pass on to her children, her 12 grandchildren and her eight great-grandchildren, she told us to always remember how important family is, to be respectful, considerate and always take the time to listen. She was the best teacher of these lesson and we couldn’t have asked for a better mother.

Jane Swingle is a resident of Norwich and echoes the sentiments of her siblings, Betty Mulligan, Nancy Rogers and Tom Rogers. Their mother Marie Mack has lived in Mount Sinai for close to 50 years.

Above and below, scenes from the film

By Heidi Sutton

Peter Jackson’s latest endeavor has been a labor of love. The award-winning director, best known for the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies was recently enlisted to create a unique documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” featuring many never-before-seen archive footage of the Great War, a four-year conflict that claimed the lives of over 16 million soldiers.

Produced by WingNut Films and released by Warner Brothers, the project, which took five months to complete, was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and BBC, who gave Jackson access to over 100 hours of footage and 600 hours of audio, including interviews with hundreds of veterans in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jackson chose to focus on the daily lives of British foot soldiers who had been sent to the Western Front – from their experience at boot camp to being shipped to France and living in the trenches, to a few days of rest and then off to the front lines where they are told to hand over any personal effects to their officers before heading off into no man’s land.

The documentary reveals many of the soldiers were mere children, volunteering at the age of 15 and 16 out of patriotic duty, and how many were excited to serve. By the end of the film, however, all romantic ideas of war have completely vanished. “History will decide in the end that this war was not worthwhile,” you hear a retired soldier say.

Every scene is accompanied by narration from army veterans who describe their uniforms and complain about their heavy boots; the food they ate; dealing with rats, lice and dysentery problems; coping with trench foot and mustard gas; capturing German soldiers; and the constant smell of death.

The genius that is Peter Jackson then goes two steps further, (revealed about 20 minutes into the film) when suddenly the black and white film comes to life in a myriad of colors and sounds. The soldiers’ personalities are revealed as they speak and laugh and you hear the shells being loaded into the cannons, artillery fire and the tanks rolling along the open fields. The sudden transformation takes one’s breath away.

The stunning effect was achieved using digital technology, researching uniforms and locations, recruiting forensic lip-readers who studied the original film, and actors who then voiced the parts in various dialects. “Smile! You’re in the pictures,” one man tells his mates as he points excitedly to the camera.

For Jackson, who has long been interested in World War I, (the film is dedicated to his paternal grandfather who was wounded in the Battle of the Somme) the spectacular documentary slowly evolved into capturing the human experience of war. 

He described his vision best in a recent interview with BBC-owned HistoryExtra magazine. “We let them tell their story, of what it was like as a soldier,” adding that these experiences would’ve been similar to those of many other troops. “And the men saw a war in color, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white,” Jackson explained. “I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more.”

Rated R, “They Shall Not Grow Old” is now playing in local theaters.

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.

Mount Sinai Scout Michael Muroff stands with his completed Eagle Scout project Sept. 29, the front door of the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society. Photo by Alex Petroski

A Mount Sinai Boy Scout literally restored an entryway to local history to complete his Eagle Scout project.

The front door to the William Miller House on North Country Road, a centuries-old building that has long served as the headquarters for the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society, was in a state of disrepair for longer than historian Edna Giffen could remember. Now, thanks to 17-year-old Scout Michael Muroff from Troop 1776, a brand new door constructed with a nod to history in mind hangs from the hinges, serving as a refurbished entry to local history.

Boy Scouts hoping to achieve Eagle status, the highest rank attainable by a male Scout, are tasked with completing a project that demonstrates leadership and benefits the community. Repairing the front door of the historical society met the criteria for Muroff, who said he and his family had been attending events — like the annual Country Fair that took place Sept. 29 during Muroff’s project unveiling — at the house since he was a kid.

Eagle Scout Michael Muroff, center, receives a proclamation from Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner, third from right, after unveiling is project Sept. 29. Photo by Alex Petroski

“I’ve always had an interest in local history, and it was always a subject I excelled at in class, and I thought by doing this project it would be a good way of giving back to the community and something that I really enjoy,” he said.

The work started with four to five weekends dedicated to just stripping the old paint off of the door frame using a heat gun and metal stripper, according to the Scout. With help from a local woodworker and others, a new, yet true to the original batten door was constructed. Batten doors traditionally have between six and eight wooden planks bound together. Muroff’s door features seven planks and includes the door’s original hinges, restored and repainted as well as part of the project. He also found authentic galvanized nails to match the original and maintain the new door’s historic integrity. The door’s original handle was left as is though, according to Muroff.

“The old door was falling apart and dilapidated, so we had to just completely make a new one,” Muroff said.

Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) attended the event and joked she had never seen the front door of the building hang so straight and close so tightly.

“We always like to take time out of our day to recognize and honor our Scouts,” she said. “So much attention is focused on the bad things our kids are doing and not on the good things they’re doing. It makes me feel good to know that we’re surrounded by some really great kids.”

In August, Muroff’s sister Rebecca completed her Gold Award project, the equivalent to the Eagle project but for Girl Scouts, which entailed cataloging the historical society’s vast collection of historic photos. The Scouts’ dad Greg Muroff served as Michael’s Scoutmaster throughout his time working through the program.

“It’s just wonderful that many years coming down to the Country Fair and to see Postman Pete, just to have my children Rebecca and Michael give back to the historical society and the community is just a wonderful thing,” he said. “Mike has a tremendous love of history and this was an ideal project for him.”

He said it will be special for both him and his son to drive past the house on North Country Road for years to come and see his hard work front and center.

“I have to say, as his dad and Scoutmaster I’m especially proud,” the Scoutmaster said. “The Eagle Scout award is more than just a project, it’s a culmination of their Boy Scout career. It means a lot of leadership, service to the community and self-discipline.”