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History

Book launch to be held at annual members reception

The front cover of Stephanie Gress’s new book. Image from Vanderbilt Museum

Stephanie Gress knows more about the history of William K. Vanderbilt II than most people. As director of curatorial affairs for the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum for eight years¸ she is the steward of Mr. Vanderbilt’s legacy, his estate, mansion and museum collections.

Using that extensive knowledge and a trove of rare photographs from the Vanderbilt archives, Gress created a richly illustrated book, Eagle’s Nest: The William K. Vanderbilt II Estate. Its cover photo, from the Vanderbilt Museum archives, is by the noted New York City photographer Drix Duryea. The picture shows the bell tower and one wing of the mansion in the late 1920s, before the Memorial Wing enclosed the courtyard.

The book was published June 1, by Arcadia Publishing in South Carolina, the leading local-history publisher in the United States. The Vanderbilt will celebrate the book’s official launch at its annual Members Reception on Sunday, June 28.

Gress noted that the release of the book is well-timed, as the development of the Eagle’s Nest estate is in its centennial decade: “This book tells readers about the Vanderbilt family, why Mr. Vanderbilt came here and built the estate, how the place changed over the years based on changes in his life, and how we use it today.”

Vanderbilt, known as Willie K., purchased the first parcel of what would become 43 acres for his Northport Bay waterfront estate in 1910, and hired the eminent New York City architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore to design and build it. The firm had designed Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad. Cornelius was William’s great-grandfather.

Eagle’s Nest is the easternmost Gold Coast mansion on Long Island’s affluent North Shore. From 1910 to 1944, the palatial, 24-room, Spanish-Revival mansion was Willie K.’s summer hideaway. There he hosted intimate gatherings of Vanderbilt family members and close friends — including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, legendary golfer Sam Snead, and the Tiffanys.

“Mr. Vanderbilt embarked on many of his legendary world voyages from Eagle’s Nest,” Gress said, “along with a 50-person crew and a few, fortunate invited passengers.” During his travels, she said, he collected natural-history and marine specimens and ethnographic artifacts from around the globe.

With the help of scientists and experts from the America Museum of Natural History, he created exhibits in the galleries at the estate to showcase his collections.  Mr. Vanderbilt died in 1944. His wife Rosamund continued to live in the mansion until her death in 1947.  Vanderbilt’s will bequeathed his estate and museum to Suffolk County. In 1950, it was opened to the public as the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum. The estate is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Much to the credit of Willie K., Eagle’s Nest continues to fulfill his intended mission,” Gress wrote in the conclusion of the book. “Visitors from all over the world come to see one of the few remaining Long Island Gold Coast estates with its original furnishings. His collections remain on display and they continue to fascinate and entertain.”

Eagle’s Nest is available for purchase on the Arcadia Publishing, Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites, in the Vanderbilt Museum Gift Shop and in local bookstores.

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Taken in 1930, this aerial view of Selden’s Still Farm, owned by D. Benjamin Still and his wife Eva, shows their chicken coops and land. Photo above from Middle Country Public Library Heritage Collection

By Rachel Siford

After two years of researching, writing and editing, the Middle Country Public Library’s local history book is
finally in print.

From left, Luise Weiss, Theresa Arroyo, Jim Ward and Sara Fade lead creating the history book. Photo from MCPL
From left, Luise Weiss, Theresa Arroyo, Jim Ward and Sara Fade lead creating the history book. Photo from MCPL

“Centereach, Selden, and Lake Grove,” an Images of America History Book was released on May 25. The book, which is published by Arcadia Publishing, is the latest in the company’s Images of America series that showcases small towns throughout the United States.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing for our staff to do because we have the resources and it’s our duty as a public library to preserve the history of our area,” Library Director Sophia Serlis-McPhillips said. “It’s like we are giving back to our community.”

The book documents the history of the Middle Country area dating back to the 1700s, and features images collected from residents that show the transformation of Centereach, Selden and Lake Grove from small, rural communities to the commercial, vibrant area it is today.

Four librarians, Luise Weiss, Theresa Arroyo, Jim Ward and Sara Fade, headed the research and making of the book.

The book’s researchers utilized neighboring library archives, local historians and photos and information they already had at the MCPL Heritage Collection.

The Centereach 1934 fourth- and fifth-grade classes were held in a one-room schoolhouse. Photo from Middle Country Public Library Heritage Collection
The Centereach 1934 fourth- and fifth-grade classes were held in a one-room schoolhouse. Photo from Middle Country Public Library Heritage Collection

“I learned so much about the area, and we wanted to be able to pass that on,” said Arroyo, the coordinator of adult reference and cataloging services.

All four had to find pictures, track down and confirm information and then write a description detailing a special event or place in town.

“Local history is so much fun because you can put a historical lens on things you drive by every day,” Arroyo said.

Since the area does not have its own historical society or a main street, there haven’t been many books written about its history, according to Arroyo.

“Most people wouldn’t think that this area was full of farms and that Selden was known for its watermelons,” Arroyo said, smiling. “Middle Country Road is such a busy, commercial road today that it is hard to imagine it being a dirt road with no lights.”

Serlis-McPhillips said there has been a lot of public support and interest and a positive reaction so far: “People don’t realize how rich in history we are.”

The view of Middle Country Road near New Village Congregational Church in the early 1900s. Photo from Middle Country Public Library Heritage Collection
The view of Middle Country Road near New Village Congregational Church in the early 1900s. Photo from Middle Country Public Library Heritage Collection

While most Images of America books end around the 1920s, the Middle Country one is unique because it delves into historic moments from the 1950s and 1960s.

Arroyo and Serlis-McPhillips both said their favorite history tidbit was learning about the cycling craze of the 1890s, which led to the creation of Bicycle Path, a road that stretches from Patchogue to Port Jefferson.

According to the librarians, riders were called wheelmen, and needed license plates and registration to ride.

To accompany this book release, the library is revamping its heritage collection by changing how the current section is organized, and will add genealogy resources for patrons to use.

The library will begin reconstructing the section in late June with the hope of opening in early fall.

“We felt is was really important since we don’t have a historical society for our area,” Serlis-McPhillips said. “We really wanted to be able to do something for our community.”

To see more photos and historical archives, visit the library’s website at www.middlecountrypubliclibrary.org/adults/local-history.

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Yacht Wanderer flying New York Yacht Club flag. Photo of original Greene postcard from Beverly Tyler

by Beverly C. Tyler

Joseph Rowland’s home and shipyard is in East Setauket at the intersection of Shore Road and Bayview Avenue.

Rowland built the schooner-yacht Wanderer in 1857 for Colonel John D. Johnson who was a member of the New York Yacht Club, a wealthy sugar planter from New Orleans and had a home in the Islips. The Wanderer was designed by Captain Thomas B. Hawkins, who supervised construction.

The sails for the Wanderer were made in Port Jefferson in the Wilson Sail Loft. Wilson also made the first suit of sails for the schooner-yacht America, which captured the cup that still bears the name of that first winner.

That summer of 1857, the Wanderer sailed Long Island Sound with Captain Hawkins as its sailing master.

The ship’s owner, Johnson, sailed it with the New York Yacht Club Squadron. It was said to have been the fastest schooner ever built, too big and too fast so the yacht club wouldn’t let it compete.

That fall, Wanderer voyaged to Havana, via Charleston and Savannah, and it was very widely acclaimed.

However, Johnson sold the Wanderer in 1858 to William C. Corey and soon after it reappeared in Port Jefferson. It was fitted out for the slave trade, probably at the yard of J.J. Harris. Numerous large water tanks were installed. All the people looked the other way, except S.S. Norton, surveyor of the port. He became suspicious and notified federal officials in New York. The revenue cutter Harriet Lane intercepted the Wanderer off Old Field Point and took it in tow to New York over Corey’s loud protests.

Corey glibly talked himself free and the Wanderer was allowed to leave for Charleston, where the real owner Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar surfaced. Actually he probably crawled out from under a rock. Lamar, staying in the background because of his previous connection with slavers, obtained customs clearance for it.

They completed fitting out for the slave trade and sailed for Africa. Its captain was John E. Farnum, a mean looking cuss.

Slavers were rigged to outrun the slave squadrons of Great Britain and America, both of which were trying to stop the now illegal slave trade. Wanderer took aboard some 600 “negroes” and sailed for America. The slaves were laid down side-by-side alternating head and feet and chained, wrist to ankle. They were kept lying there for days and there was no sanitation. Even worse, if a ship was overtaken by one of the slave squadrons, it was not uncommon to bend an anchor to the last man on the chain and let it go overboard, taking the whole cargo of slaves and destroying the evidence.

On the evening of Nov. 28, 1858, the ship landed 465 Africans on Jekyll Island, Georgia. The rest died during the voyage and were unceremoniously tossed over the side. The ship was seized by federal authorities; however, the Africans, now on Georgia soil, a slave state, were sold at auction.

There was outrage in the U.S. Congress; but little, if anything, was done, less than two years before the start of the Civil War. Wanderer was sold at auction and Lamar bought it. In the spring of 1861 it was seized by the federal government and used as a gunboat in the Civil War. It was credited with capturing four prizes. After the war, the U.S. Navy sold it to private owners who ran it aground on Cape Maisi, east out of Cuba, on Jan. 21, 1871, and she was a total loss. The mess kettle that was used to feed the slaves on Jekyll Island still existed in the 1970s but has since disappeared.

There was even a sign beside it that explained the history of the kettle and said that the Wanderer was built at East Setauket. In 2008, the Jekyll Island History Museum opened an exhibit on The Last Slaver.

A walking tour of the maritime and wooden shipbuilding area along Shore Road in East Setauket will be conducted this Saturday, June 13, beginning at 2 p.m. Meet at the Brookhaven Town Dock for a tour of the homes and shipyards that built ships that sailed around the world. The tour includes the home of the Wanderer shipbuilder and his story.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

Town board hosts public hearing on zone change

A deli on the Platt’s Tavern site would be demolished under Dominick Mavellia’s zone change application to construct a medical office building. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Residents offered mixed opinions this week at a town board public hearing on a plan to rezone a historic Huntington village property that once hosted George Washington for dinner in 1790.

Developer Dominick Mavellia wants to change the zoning of a parcel on the corner of Route 25A and Park Avenue from R-15 Residence District to C-1 Office Residence District to make way for a 10,000 square-foot medical office building. Of that space, GoHealth Urgent Care would occupy 3,000 square feet, and 7,000 square feet would be regular medical office space for North Shore-LIJ Health System.

The project is located in the Old Town Green National Historic District and the Old Huntington Green Town Historic District and was the site of the former Platt’s Tavern, one of the first buildings in the area. According to town documents, Washington dined at the establishment on April 23, 1790, during a tour of Long Island.

At the time, Huntington’s population was around 2,000.

If approved, the new development would replace an abandoned gasoline service station/automotive repair shop, a deli and a vehicle storage yard. The demolition of the existing buildings and the construction of any new buildings would have to undergo architectural review and be approved by the Historic Preservation Commission, according to a town document.

The access to and from Park Avenue would be restricted to allow only right turns in and out of the property.

Also, East Main Street would be restriped in order to provide a left-turn lane for westbound vehicles looking to enter the site, and Park Avenue would be widened to provide a right-turn lane for northbound traffic looking to head east on East Main Street.

It is said George Washington dined at Platt’s Tavern, located at the corner of Park Avenue at Route 25A in Huntington. Photo by Victoria Espinoza
It is said George Washington dined at Platt’s Tavern, located at the corner of Park Avenue at Route 25A in Huntington. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Part of the plan would also include situating a life-sized statue of George Washington beside his horse on the property.

An earlier iteration sought a zone change to C-4 Neighborhood Business District, which would allow for retail use, but the applicant amended his request for the zone change on the spot at Tuesday night’s town board meeting. The change came after consulting with “various members of the community,” according to a representative of the developer.

“Determining the fate of this exceptional corner and gateway to our great town is vital,” Mavellia, a lifelong Huntington resident, said at the meeting. “We heard everyone’s concerns loud and clear, hence the change in application to C-1.”

Mavallia also said he’s brought on a historical architect to work closely with town historians “to address their concerns and ideas.”

The main issue seemed to surround the proposed design of the structure, of which many individuals, including town board members Susan Berland (D) and Mark Cuthbertson (D), said didn’t look historic enough.

Cuthbertson said he took issue with the proposed awnings. “I’m hoping there’s room for discussion,” he said.

Berland said, “To me it looks like a CVS.”

Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) asked the developer’s representative if he would be consulting with the community on the design of the project, to which the representative replied he would.

Paul Warburgh, president of the Old Huntington Green Inc., said he was pleased the applicant decided to go with the C-1 zone change request, which is more in keeping with the character of the area and neighboring buildings.

“We’re here to work with the developer to put something there that will honor the Huntington Green and the historic area,” he said.

While some seemed heartened by the amended zone change request, others wanted to see the town take action and do something unique with the property, like rebuild Platt’s Tavern. Some said they were concerned the project would create even greater traffic issues. One individual wanted the scale of the building reduced, while some speakers — who were friends of Mavellia — supported the developer and spoke highly of his character.

The zone change was a big move for some who originally opposed the project, Petrone said in an interview after the meeting.

“That basically was a real change in terms of going to C-1, which was the biggest contention of our historic community especially,” he said. “And that has provided I think an opportunity now. They want to work together. So I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to come up with something that everyone will be proud of.”

Due to the amended zone change, the public record for the hearing will be held open for 10 days. Those interested may continue to submit written comments to Town Clerk Jo-Ann Raia (R).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inspired by Setauket’s Anna Smith Strong, clothes hanging at the William Miller house act as clues for the community. Photo by Erin Dueñas

By Erin Dueñas

As the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society gears up for another season of events showcasing what life was like hundreds of years ago, beginning this Saturday at its headquarters in the historic William Miller house, visitors will now have the chance to learn some Revolutionary War history just by checking out what is hanging from the clothesline on the grounds of the home.

According to Ann Donato, vice president of the society, different items will be hung from the clothesline to serve as clues the community can decipher. The idea stems from the Revolutionary War-era activities of Setauket’s Anna Smith Strong, who hung clothes on a clothesline to send messages about the activities of the British, which then made their way to George Washington — then a general — as part of the famed Culper Spy Ring.

“Our clothesline is a copycat to what Anna did on Long Island,” Donato said. “We want to use the laundry to convey contemporary messages to the community.”

So far the society has hung plastic bags on the line as a message to stop littering and overalls hung upside down to indicate that the house is closed.

“It’s drumming up curiosity about the house,” Donato said.

The William Miller house now serves as the historical society’s headquarters. Photo by Erin Dueñas
The William Miller house now serves as the historical society’s headquarters. Photo by Erin Dueñas

The society will also host a birthday party on July 12 in preparation for the Miller home’s 300th anniversary, which will be in 2020. Originally built in 1720, the house had sections added on in 1750 and again in 1816. It underwent renovations after being acquired by the society in 1979, but much of the interior has been left unchanged and the home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The home is once again in need of updates, including a new roof, windows, plasterwork and painting — all of which needs to be done by experts in historic homes, according to Donato.

“We need to respect the fabric of the house; we can’t just go to Home Depot for supplies,” Donato said. “We can’t call in a regular carpenter ­— we need people well versed in historic homes.”

Repairs done to the house are costly for the society, which is a nonprofit run completely by volunteers. To help raise funds, a car show fundraiser by the Long Island Street Rod Association is planned for June 28.

LISRA member Dennis Manfredo, of Miller Place, said the group brings as many cars of all different makes and models onto the grounds of the Miller house. He called the event a “very learned day for the community.”

“It’s a marriage between historians and hot-rodders,” Manfredo said. “We hope to bring people looking at hot rods to appreciate history and to show those that are only interested in history what we do to cars.”

“When you see the house being restored and then cars that have been restored, it’s a different realm but a really nice connection.”

Miller Place resident Erin McCarthy said she has visited the William Miller house numerous times, and she looks forward to another season. She said she learned about antique medical and farm equipment and how candles used to be made during visits to the house.

“They offer coloring books for the kids, with the history of Miller Place woven in,” she said. “It’s such a gem for our community.”

Donato said the society is open to the public and is always looking for help and input. She added that, as a new season opens, she wants people to realize what the Miller house offers to the community.

“There is so much to learn and appreciate at the house,” Donato said. “We have to take care of what we have or it will be lost and it can’t be replicated. We have a treasure here in Miller Place.”

The William Miller house, located at 75 North Country Road, is open for tours on Saturdays, from noon-2 p.m., or by appointment for groups. For more information, call 631-476-5742.

The Culper Spy Ring has gained much attention over the last 10 years from the publishing of two books and  AMC airing the television series TURN. On June 20, the Three Villages will be sharing its famous story with a day-long event, Culper Spy Day — Our Revolutionary Story. Join them to learn the real history behind the Culper Spy Ring, America’s first. Many historic locations dating as far back as 1655 will open their doors to the public and a local restaurant will offer a spy-themed lunch menu.

Sponsored by Tri-Spy Tours, the Three Village Historical Society, the Long Island Museum and the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the event will coincide with the Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau Path Through History Weekend. The event is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

1. Three Village Historical Society, 93 N. Country Road, Setauket. Located in the c. 1800’s Ebenezer Bayles/Stephen Swezey house, the Three Village Historical Society is home to the interactive Culper SPIES! exhibit and the Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time exhibit. Stop by and meet a visiting friend from Oyster Bay, Robert Townsend, aka Samuel Culper Jr. The gift shop will also be open.
— A one-hour Tri-Spy Walking Tour will be held at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Walk your way through the history of the Revolutionary War’s Culper Spy Ring. Visit Woodhull’s Farm, the Setauket Village Green, Grist Mill, Patriot’s Rock and historic grave sites. Meet at the entrance of Frank Melville Memorial Park.
— A historic district walking tour as it pertains to the Revolutionary War will depart from the entrance of Frank Melville Memorial Park at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Visit Patriot’s Rock, the cemetery where the leader of the Setauket Spy Ring is buried and the homes of early residents. 631-751-3730.

2. Thompson House Medicinal Garden, 91 N. Country Road, Setauket. Self-guided tour. Doctor Samuel Thompson was a colonial era doctor and farmer. According to his diaries, members of the Culper Spy Ring, including Abraham Woodhull and Austin Roe, were among his patients. 631-751-2244.

3. Caroline Church of Brookhaven, 1 Dyke Road, Setauket. Docents will lead a tour of this church and its adjoining cemetery. Built in 1729, it is the oldest continuously operating Episcopal Church in the United States. The cemetery holds the graves of early settlers of the town, Revolutionary War heroes, ship captains and industry leaders. 631-941-4245.

4. Setauket Presbyterian Church, 5 Caroline Ave., Setauket. Docents will lead a tour of the historic church, circa 1812, and its adjoining cemetery, which dates back to the 1600s. Abraham Woodhull of George Washington’s Spy Ring, genre artist William Sidney Mount and early settler Richard Floyd, grandfather of William Floyd, are buried here. 631-941-4271.

5. Setauket Village Green, Main Street, Setauket. A replica of a Dutch 1768 single-sail boat will be on display here. During the Revolutionary War, the Village Green was the location of the Battle of Setauket, a skirmish between Tory and Patriot troops that took place on Aug. 22, 1777. Prior to the battle, it was called Meeting House Green where meetings were held during the early settlement period of the mid to late 1600s.

6. Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, 120 Main St., Setauket. Circa 1892. The library will present a demo of its interactive Spy Ring Tour, and materials and databases related to the Culper Spy Ring will be on the library lawn. Military paraphernalia will be on display in the Library lobby. Stop by and meet Anna Smith Strong and her “magic clothesline.” 631-941-4080.

7. Joseph Brewster House, Route 25A, Setauket. Circa 1655, it is considered to be the oldest home in the Town of Brookhaven. During the Revolutionary War, the house was owned by Joseph Brewster, first cousin of Culper Spy Caleb Brewster and neighbor of the ring’s founder, Benjamin Tallmadge. In order to preserve his home and property from confiscation, Joseph Brewster operated a tavern out of the home, hosting the occupying British forces. A colonial cooking demonstration will take place on the grounds. 631-751-2244.

8. Country House Restaurant, 1175 N. Country Road, Stony Brook. Built in 1710, the restaurant is dedicated to serving the finest food and spirits in one of Long Island’s most historic homes. The restaurant will serve a special Spy-themed menu from noon to 4 p.m.  Adult meals will range from $10 to $16 and children’s meals are $8.95, which includes a soft drink. For reservations, please call 631-751-3332.

9. Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook. Tour the museum’s galleries as well as the outbuildings. The Nassakeag Schoolhouse, circa 1895, will be open with a docent. Two of the museum’s horse-drawn vehicles were owned by Revolutionary War hero Peter Gansevoort, grandfather of author Herman Melville. 631-751-0066.

10. Stony Brook Grist Mill, 100 Harbor Road, Stony Brook. A miller will be on hand for grinding demonstrations. Long Island’s most completely equipped and working mill, the mill, circa 1751, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During the Revolutionary War, occupying British forces confiscated much of the grain to provision their own troops. 631-689-3238.

11. Stony Brook Village Center, 111 Main St., Stony Brook. Docents will guide visitors on a walking tour of historic Main Street. Points of interest will include the Stony Brook Village Center, Hercules and the Educational Center. Tours will depart on the hour from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. 631-751-2244.

Tickets are $20 each (children under 12 free) and can be purchased at the following locations:
• Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket. 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.
• The Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook. 631-751-0066  or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.
• The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, 111 Main Street, Stony Brook. 631-751-2244 or visit www.wmho.org.

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

By Barbara Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara Russell is the Town of Brookhaven’s historian.

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The Sleight House on Christian Avenue in Stony Brook is safe from future development. Photo by Phil Corso

It’s history.

A Christian Avenue home already added to Brookhaven’s historic landmark list earlier this year received another big boost this week to make sure it retains its 19th century charm. The Stony Brook home known as the Sleight House received a historic preservation and conservation easement, thanks to the Peconic Land Trust, further solidifying its place in history.

John v.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust, announced last week that Elizabeth and Brian Merrick had donated the easement on the 1.2-acre property, permanently protecting its significance and preserving its character. The easement came to be because Elizabeth Merrick, whose family has Stony Brook roots, has long treasured the Sleight House, circa 1880.

“This House has been important to my family for a long time, and we wanted to make sure that its historic character would always be preserved,” she said. “We’re so pleased that our partnership with the Peconic Land Trust has enabled us to accomplish this.”

Built by Charles M. Sleight, the owner of a prominent wheelwright and carpentry business around 1880, the Sleight House remained in the Sleight family until the early 1960s. Sleight’s wife, Adella Abigail Sleight, was a descendent of the Bayles and Hawkins families, both of whom were descendants of Brookhaven’s first settlers, the Peconic Land Trust said. The family’s archives, including photographs and newspaper clippings, are a part of the collection of Three Village Historical Society.

“By taking the additional step of placing a Historic Preservation and Conservation Easement on the Sleight House, the Merricks have protected the home’s historic integrity for future generations,” Halsey said. “We are thankful to both Elizabeth and Brian for preserving a part of Stony Brook’s historic character.”

The Brookhaven Town Board approved the late 19th century home’s designation on March 26, after a public hearing on the matter. The Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook and the Three Village Community Trust supported the decision.

The Sleight House is a Folk Victorian home with Queen Anne embellishments—a popular design along Long Island’s North Shore during the late 19th century. Other historic features of the Sleight House include a common “L” shape, cross gable configuration with simple treatment of the exterior walls, decorative verge board sawn balusters, sawn bracketing, and a decorative gable end treatment. The front porch is also original to the House and stretches nearly across its entire west facade.

Although the town’s Historic District, through the Historic District Advisory Committee, provides oversight of the Sleight House by typically requiring review and approval for additions and alterations, the Merricks’ donation of an easement goes beyond local governance and permanently protects and preserves the Sleight House and the surrounding property’s historical, cultural, scenic and aesthetic values.

As part of the easement process, a Historic Structure and Significance Report was prepared by Stony Brook architect and Brookhaven Historic District Advisory Committee member John Cunniffe, and is included in the easement documents to serve as a baseline for the Trust’s enforcement of the easement.

“With the Merricks’ foresight and the Peconic Land Trust’s skill set to properly guide and execute this Historic Preservation and Conservation Easement, not only does the historic nature of the Sleight House remain protected, a new precedent has been set in this very important historic corridor,” Cunniffe said. “The preservation of ‘context’ has been achieved through this process and, simply put, is priceless.”

Village historian shares story of walk through nature, delivers tips on how to navigate Old Post Road terrain

The Sherwood-Jayne Farm’s nature trails offer an abundance of scenic North Shore spots. Photo from Beverly Tyler

by Beverly C. Tyler

Walking the nature trails at the 80-acre Sherwood-Jayne Farm on Old Post Road in East Setauket is a delight.

My wife, Barbara, and I walked the three trails this past Friday about 10 a.m. It had rained Thursday night, however the trails were completely dry and the soft covering of well-trodden leaves made the walk easy and pleasant underfoot.

A kiosk marks the start of the trails and identifies the route and color markings of each trail. The start of the walk is slightly uphill and slightly narrower than the rest of the trails. Stay to the left throughout and you will go from the white trail to the blue trail and then the red trail.

The morning of our walk the sun was shining through the trees and the birds were singing their various calls.

There are red-tailed hawks and great horned owls nesting in the trees.

We saw them earlier in the spring but on this day the tree cover was sufficient to hide their nests and the circling of the hawks. The singing of the birds and the rat-a-tat-tat of the woodpeckers continued throughout our walk.

The mid point is also the low point of the walk and ferns dominate. We were at the closest part to Route 25A but we couldn’t hear any traffic noise, just the wind through the tops of the trees and the birds.

The walk descended gently from a height of 125 feet to the low point of 70 feet above sea level. It curves through the area behind Sherwood-Jayne House. It took us about 45 minutes to complete the walk on all three trails, arriving back where we started.

This Sunday, May 31, come and enjoy a family day at the farm, from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. The occasion is the Third Annual Sheep Shearing Festival at Sherwood-Jayne Farm, 55 Old Post Road, East Setauket. Admission is $5 per person or $20 per family, and car parking is free.

At 1 p.m., take a walk on the nature trails with the Seatuck Environmental Association, the group that designed and built the trails. At 2 p.m., watch Tabbethia Haubold of the Long Island Livestock Co. shear the sheep and talk about the secrets of wool gathering.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

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