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History

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Town acquires remainder of notable property

A ticket to a race at the Gentlemen’s Driving Park in Terryville on July 4, 1892. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Long Island’s last harness horse racing track is a step closer to being preserved, after the Brookhaven Town Board voted last week to spend $1.18 million from its land acquisition fund to purchase almost 6 acres of land at the site in Terryville.

Once the town closes on that property, it will own the entirety of the 11-acre plot off Canal Road at Morgan Avenue, less than half a mile east of Route 347.

The Gentlemen’s Driving Park is now an overgrown path in the woods, but during the Victorian Era it was a place where bettors gathered as men raced the half-mile loop counterclockwise behind their horses in carts called sulkies. The track, which was part of a circuit of harness racing tracks in the Northeast, was adjacent to the Comsewogue stables, which were owned by well-known area horse trainer Robert L. Davis and are now the Davis Professional Park.

Now that the town is acquiring the rest of the site, Cumsewogue Historical Society President Jack Smith said in a phone interview last Thursday that he would like to partner with the parks department to clear the track and he would like to “develop programs and events that are appropriate for the site to educate” visitors. He gave examples of placing signs around the track detailing its history so that people may learn while walking around it, and holding an annual fair with vintage sulkies re-enacting the horse races from the late 1800s or participating in a carriage parade.

Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld, who was a driving force behind the site’s acquisition, said last Thursday that preserving the track is important from an environmental standpoint as well — maintaining open space helps replenish the underground aquifer from where the area gets its drinking water.

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

In addition to working with the historical society to preserve the track, the councilman said he would like to see a stewardship agreement with the Woodcrest Estates apartments, which abut the property. Fiore-Rosenfeld said the senior residents could use the track, “a relatively tranquil place,” to go for walks without having to go into the street.

Smith discovered the Gentlemen’s Driving Park a few years ago using Google Earth. He said in a previous interview that he had heard rumors of a racing track in the area, and while looking at the aerial view of Terryville he saw a faint oval shape in the woods off Canal Road. The next day he was walking on the 25-foot-wide path in the woods.

The track is mostly whole — a Long Island Power Authority right-of-way cuts into its southwestern curve.

The historical society president reached out to Fiore-Rosenfeld and the two have since worked together to preserve the site.

“This was not some backwoods, good ol’ boy, local kind of thing. This was a big deal for its time,” Smith said last winter, as the town was still working to acquire the rest of the property. He called it the NASCAR of its day and said, “This was an era when the horse was king. The horse was everything to everyone,” including transportation, sport and work.

The historian has uncovered a few artifacts, including a pair of Victorian-era field glasses near the finish line on the track’s west side. They were broken, likely after being dropped and trampled. Smith also has a ticket from a July 4, 1892.

Ironically, the rise of the automobile likely caused the track’s demise, but cars also helped preserve the track so it could be discovered today. According to Smith, local kids raced jalopies at least through the mid-1950s, which prevented the track from becoming completely overgrown. Those kids left signs of their activities — around the track there are rusty frames of wrecked cars.

“Maybe we should keep one there as a monument,” Smith said last Thursday, with a laugh. “In a strange way we owe a lot to those kids.”

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Hugh Campbell in his plane, The Swoose. Photo from the veteran

One served in the Naval Air Force in the Pacific, a second on the ground in Europe and another in its skies, but all three put their lives on the line during World War II to protect their country. Several decades later, the Rotary Club of Port Jefferson honored the three village residents for their service at their meeting Tuesday for Veterans Day, to show them that their sacrifices would not be forgotten.

From left, Hugh Campbell, Fred Gumbus and Walter Baldelli a few years ago on an Honor Flight, in which veterans are brought on a free trip to Washington, D.C. Photo from Fred Gumbus
From left, Hugh Campbell, Fred Gumbus and Walter Baldelli a few years ago on an Honor Flight, in which veterans are brought on a free trip to Washington, D.C. Photo from Fred Gumbus

The three men, Walter Baldelli, Hugh Campbell and Fred Gumbus, are all still active in their community, as they are three of the longest-serving members of the Port Jefferson Fire Department.

Baldelli, 95, was a tech sergeant in the Army’s 29th Infantry Division. He recalled in a phone interview “the one that damn near got me”: He was standing guard in a city in Belgium and the Germans sent bombs over “every night so we couldn’t sleep.” When one came close one night, he ran for cover on one side of a church, and the bomb went off on the other side.

“I lost my hat, my coat went over my head; I dropped my rifle.”

When Baldelli walked around the building, “there was a mess of dead people.” He said that was the closest he came to being really hurt.

Fred Gumbus, bottom row, second from right, was a tail gunner in the Naval Air Force. Photo from the veteran
Fred Gumbus, bottom row, second from right, was a tail gunner in the Naval Air Force. Photo from the veteran

The tech sergeant also spent time during the war in Iceland, England, France — in Paris, he walked underneath the Eiffel Tower — and Germany. His last stop before returning stateside was Frankfurt.

Baldelli said, “It was quite an experience,” and when he finally arrived home one day at 3 am, he woke up his parents and “we started drinking wine till daybreak.”

Campbell also served in Europe, as a tech sergeant in the Army’s Ninth Air Force from 1942 to 1945. The 89-year-old former flight engineer said he remembers most of it like it was yesterday, and there was one point when he was going into battle every day.

“After a while, you begin to wonder, how many times can I do this, you know?” he said. There were “people shooting at you every darn day with everything they got.”

Hugh Campbell served in the Army’s Ninth Air Force. Photo from the veteran
Hugh Campbell served in the Army’s Ninth Air Force. Photo from the veteran

Campbell also shared that one day after a raid, so many men had been lost that he was sent out on a second raid in the afternoon. The commanding officer had said, “I hate to send you out again but we don’t have anyone else,” Campbell said.

He described the feeling of not knowing if he was alive or dead.

“Everybody you had breakfast with before you went wasn’t there, they’re gone.”

One interesting experience that Campbell had came after the war, when a longtime friend asked if he remembered any of his 44 missions against the Germans. Campbell told the story of a small city where a bridge went diagonally across the Rhine — which was unusual — and “they wanted to bomb and take the bridge out to cripple the German supply system.” He was about 19 years old at the time.

The friend replied that it was his village, that he had been there on the ground with his brother when it happened and saw the whole thing. The man recalled seeing big yellow triangles on the rudders of the bomber representing the insignia of Campbell’s group.

Campbell said his friend would not have known about the triangles unless he had, indeed, been there: “Here is a guy that was an enemy and now he and I are friends.”

Fred Gumbus was a tail gunner in the Naval Air Force. Photo from the veteran
Fred Gumbus was a tail gunner in the Naval Air Force. Photo from the veteran

Gumbus was an aviation ordnanceman in the Naval Air Force from 1943 to 1946, with Patrol Bomber Squadron VPB-118. The 89-year-old former tail gunner, who goes by “Pop” in the PJFD because he is the most senior Gumbus in the department, served on the Pacific front.

While returning from one mission, Gumbus said, he called the pilot from the tail to warn that there were five Japanese fighters following theirs and another American plane. Though Gumbus’ plane made it out of the skirmish, the Japanese had taken out one of their engines and another one was in flames. He said they put out the fire but were losing altitude, and had to get rid of any weight they could. He tossed out toolboxes, parachutes and the insides of the guns.

The pilot released a bomb bay tank, but it tipped and got caught, and was hanging partly out of the bottom of the plane. Gumbus said he had to get rid of it, because if the plane were to land like that, the gas tank would have scraped the ground and exploded.

“Here I am trying to kick this thing” out of the plane, he said, and he was hanging over the plane’s open bottom above the Sea of Japan without a rope or harness.

Eventually the tank was loosened and fell out — and the plane, though sputtering, landed safely on Okinawa.

When he found out the Rotary was planning to honor him, Gumbus said, he thought, “Well that’s wonderful … because lots of times you’re forgotten.”

A modest Campbell said about being honored for his service, “I guess I appreciate it and it never occurred to me that anyone would ever say anything about it.”

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

It’s been some 130 years, but the half-mile loop the horses raced is still visible, though it’s coated in layers of leaves.

The path in the woods is all that remains of the Gentlemen’s Driving Park in Terryville, where local bettors once gathered to watch men race in carts called sulkies behind horses, or compete on bicycles or even on foot.

Cumsewogue Historical Society President Jack Smith said the track is one of the last known of its kind in the Northeast. He discovered the hidden gem a couple of years ago using Google Earth: After hearing rumors that such a track existed off Canal Road, Smith looked at an aerial view of the hamlet and quickly noticed a faint oval shape cut into the woods. He visited the spot with his wife, Pam, the next day and walked the length of the track.

Brookhaven Town has already acquired about half of the 11-acre plot since Smith alerted Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld about the track and an effort to preserve it began two years ago. Fiore-Rosenfeld (D-East Setauket) said the other half is owned entirely or almost entirely by one family, and the town is discussing an acquisition with them so it can preserve the site.

Starting in the 1880s, horses would race in heats throughout an entire afternoon at the Terryville site and the attendees would gamble modest amounts. The horses would take a few minutes to go counterclockwise twice around the half-mile track, which was part of a larger circuit of driving parks. It was adjacent to the Comsewogue stables, of which Robert L. Davis, a well-known area horse trainer, took ownership. The stables are now the Davis Professional Park.

“This was not some backwoods, good ol’ boy, local kind of thing. This was a big deal for its time,” Smith said. He called it the NASCAR of its day and said, “This was an era when the horse was king. The horse was everything to everyone,” including transportation, sport and work.

 A ticket to a race at the Gentlemen’s Driving Park in Terryville on July 4, 1892. Photo by Elana Glowatz

A ticket to a race at the Gentlemen’s Driving Park in Terryville on July 4, 1892. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Eventually, however, the excitement petered out — the automobile was likely the track’s downfall.

“People were more enamored and more excited with racing automobiles than they were with racing horses,” Smith said.

At least through the mid-1950s, local kids raced jalopies around the 25-foot-wide track, which helped preserve it, preventing it from becoming completely overgrown.

“A lot of this has just been pure luck,” Smith said, referring to the fact that the track was still visible and he was able to find it. He pointed out that if the Google Earth satellite image had been taken not in the winter but during the summer, when the trees had leaves, he would not have been able to see through them to the track beaten into the ground and would not have known it was there.

It was also by luck that Smith found a pair of Victorian-era field glasses. He had been searching for horseshoes with a metal detector near the finish line on the west side of the track when he came upon them. They were broken, likely dropped near the finish line and trampled.

Smith said he cleaned them using toothbrushes and compressed air.

Other artifacts he has are a ticket from a July 4, 1892, race and news articles that mention the track. He does not have photos of the track in use, but he believes they are out there somewhere.

Fiore-Rosenfeld said during a visit to the track that one reason he is interested in preserving the driving park is to make a place where residents can recreate. With it abutting the Woodcrest Estates apartments, he said, it is a natural place to create a public space.

The councilman said, “It’s a miracle that it’s still here” and it’s mostly whole.

In addition to the track being overgrown, a Long Island Power Authority right of way cuts into its southwestern curve. Hurricane Sandy also tore some trees out of the ground, so there are a few obstacles in the way of those who wish to walk it.

As the town waits to acquire the remainder of the track to ensure its future, Smith pieces together its history. A stump could have been part of a guard rail on the border of the track and the infield — inside the racing loop — was clear of trees so viewers could see across to the other side.

It’s hard to picture the Victorian-era scene, Smith said, “but these were local guys and horse racing was their passion.”

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