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Robert Reuter shares photos of historic homes

Beverly Swift Tyler House, 114 Main St., Setauket, built 1881. Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

“A historic district is an area containing buildings, structures or places which have a special character and ambiance based on historical value … of such significance to warrant its conservation, preservation and protection,” according to the Town of Brookhaven’s definition.

The town’s historic districts in the Three Village area was the subject of a talk on the evening of April 23 by Robert Reuter sponsored by the Three Village Community Trust. Reuter — a member of the town’s historic district advisory committee, president of the Frank Melville Memorial Foundation and vice president of the community trust — showed pictures of some of the most interesting homes, buildings and businesses in the historic districts and how many owners in the historic districts have benefited from the consultation and advice provided by members of the advisory committee.

This was one opportunity for residents to learn about the five historic districts in the Three Village area and the structures and environment of some of the most beautiful and significant areas of our community. A number of members of the advisory committee were on hand to provide additional information and examples of the many success stories locally.

The real beauty and significance of the historic districts is not just in the buildings themselves, nor their architecture but in the stories of the people who have lived in these homes over the past three centuries or so.

In 2002, Ward Melville senior Stacy Braverman wrote about a house in the Old Setauket Historic District: “From a very early age, I have loved 114 Main St., albeit from a distance. It has a perfect location — close to the park, post office, library and village green. Its distinctive color and stained glass windows make it unusual, but it still fits in perfectly with the area.”

In researching the house, Braverman found out the house was built for my grandfather. She also discovered that one owner was the first woman and the first Catholic elected to the Setauket School Board of Education.

In an interview, Braverman said she discovered that one of the most recent owners painted the house blue because a “helpful” neighbor told him that all houses in Setauket had to be white with black shutters at that point in time.

This is just one of many stories surrounding the people, architecture, setting and history of the homes and structures in the town’s five Three Village historic districts, which are located at Stony Brook, Old Setauket, East Setauket, Bethel Christian Avenue Laurel Hill and Dyers Neck.

With the town having 15 historic districts all told, it means that the Three Village area has one-third of the designations.

The community trust’s spring lecture series, “Keeping a Sense of Place in the Three Villages,” will continue with a Thursday, May 28, talk, “The Marion Lake Story: Defeating the Mighty Phragmites” and will conclude on Thursday, June 25, with a look at “Patriots Hollow State Forest.” All programs are 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Setauket Neighborhood House.

For more information, see the website at www.threevillagecommunitytrust.org/programs.

Details of the town’s historic districts, guidelines and other documents are available at the Town of Brookhaven website www. brookhaven.org/committees/historicdistrictadvisory.aspx.

Books, booklets and pamphlets on the homes and environment of the Three Village area as well as walking tour guides are available from the Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket. The society office and gift shop is open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

Washington, D.C., trip ties pieces of nation’s past to North Shore, including famed Culper Spy Ring

A panda enjoys bamboo at the National Zoo. Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

What do spy codes, a Setauket officer’s saber, cherry blossoms, pandas and a postal museum have in common?

This past weekend my family, including eight grandchildren, traveled to Washington, D.C. to visit our nation’s capital together and discover new things. The trip began with a visit to the National Cryptologic Museum about 30 minutes north of Washington.

Here, the story of the secret world of intelligence is detailed with interactive displays and cipher technology from the 16th century to today. One section details the activity of spies during the Revolutionary War, especially General Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, and allows visitors, especially children, to “Create Your Own Secret Cipher,” “Hidden Message,” “Invisible Ink Secrets” and “Make a Secret Code with a Dictionary.”

There is also a “CrypoKids Challenge,” with messages to decode throughout the museum. There is, of course, much more to see here, including captured German and Japanese code machines.

Cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Photo from Beverly Tyler
Cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Photo from Beverly Tyler

The recently renovated Smithsonian National History Museum along the National Mall includes the exhibit “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.”

Covering the period from the French and Indian War to the present, “exploring ways in which wars have been defining episodes in American history,” the exhibit includes a stunning array of artifacts, including a dragoon saber belonging to our own Major Benjamin Tallmadge, General Washington’s chief of intelligence and son of the Setauket Presbyterian Church minister.

A late spring provided an April 11 blooming for the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial. More than one million people attended the cherry blossom festival in Washington, D.C., however we all went to the National Zoo to watch the pandas play and eat bamboo. A great choice considering the crowds and we did get wonderful pictures of the blossoms the day before.

We spent one morning at the National Postal Museum across the street from Union Station. This may be the best museum in D.C.; it is definitely the most interactive Smithsonian museum.

Visitors can sort mail in a postal train car, ride in a postal truck, select routes to deliver mail across the country and follow a new mail route from New York City to Boston in the 17th century, which became the Boston Post Road decades later. Other activities include letters written home during the many wars and conflicts of the past three centuries and the opportunity to follow these letters as they travel from place to place.

In one simulation of a post office, people come up to the postal window and interact with the clerk. One young girl came up to the window and asked that the Christmas list she was carrying be sent to Santa at the South Pole.

The clerk responded that Santa was actually at the North Pole. The young girl said, “Oh, that’s all right, this is my brother’s list.”

There are many other wonderful stories in the postal museum, including poignant letters written home during the Civil War. There are also real stories about mail fraud, letter bombs and how the security system of the United States Post Office Department dealt with crime.

And not to ignore the Hollywood approach, there are stories about all the movies made about every postal subject from the Pony Express to prohibition.

All in all, it was an experience for visitors of all ages.

In four days, we also visited the Natural History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, and walked around the Washington monument and Lincoln Memorial. All the Smithsonian museums belong to all Americans and admission is free.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

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Vance Locke’s 1655 scene, showing the purchase of all the land from “Stony Brook to ye Wading River,” includes some of the trade items that were actually delivered one month later.

by Beverly C. Tyler

April 14 will be the 360th anniversary of the establishment of the town of Brookhaven at Setauket.
From 1 to 6 p.m., the public is invited to view the Vance Locke murals in the Woodhull Auditorium of the Setauket School, Main Street, Setauket. Costumed historians will be available to detail many of the features of the murals. This is the only day of the year that the murals are open to public view.

“In this project, where historical background was so important, a great amount of research had to be done by Vance Locke, so much that the actual painting took up only one-fifth of the time spent on the murals,”  local historian William B. Minuse said in 1974.

In 1951, artist Vance Locke painted the series of murals in the Setauket School auditorium to commemorate the opening of the school and the founding of the town. The murals represent the history of the early days of Setauket and Brookhaven. The murals, completed in 1952, were a gift to the community by Ward and Dorothy Melville.

The murals begin with “Setalcott Native American Village” circa 1600. The next mural in time depicts the “Purchase of Land of the Setalcotts” by the agents for the English settlers in 1655. Five mural scenes picture important industries in Brookhaven, including “Colonial Farming,” the “Grist Mill,” the “Blacksmith,” “Shipbuilding” and “Cutting Ice.”

These murals depict the time periods from 1700 to 1900. The remaining five murals represent the Revolutionary War period on Long Island from 1776 to 1780.

Painted more than 60 years ago, Vance Locke’s wonderful murals, now completely restored to their original color and brightness, offer a realistic, visual look back at the history of our community and town.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

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Residents living in the Three Village community celebrate this Christian Avenue home as historic and charming. Photo by Phil Corso

Christian Avenue’s Sleight House is the newest historic landmark in Brookhaven Town.

The 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.

“This circa 1880 home is a fine example of the architecture of the time and exemplifies the simple charm that attracts many of our Three Villages community,” civic President Shawn Nuzzo said in his letter to the board.

According to Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell, the home belonged to Charles Sleight, a North Carolina native and carpenter. The home remains occupied today.

“It’s just wonderful that the homeowners are so proud of this house,” Russell said.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum has received a grant of $135,000 from The Robert D. L. Gardiner Foundation to support the restoration of the museum’s extensive marine collection, the largest privately assembled collection of sea specimens from the pre-atomic era.

William Vanderbilt (1878-1944) created his Marine Museum, which he called The Hall of Fishes, in 1922. He stocked it with marine specimens collected during voyages to the Galapagos Islands and opened it to the public for a few hours a week. He added to the collection after his circumnavigations of the globe in 1928-29 and 1930-31.

Jennifer Attonito, executive director of the foundation, said, “The Vanderbilt Museum is a Long Island gem and a major anchor of local history. We are proud to help preserve this valuable collection to benefit museum visitors and to help raise awareness of Long Island’s heritage.”

The Gardiner Foundation, established in 1987 in Hampton Bays, supports the study of Long Island history, with an emphasis on Suffolk County. The foundation was inspired by Robert David Lion Gardiner’s personal passion for New York history.

Stephanie Gress, the Vanderbilt’s director of curatorial affairs, said, “The Gardiner Foundation grant will help us to restore and preserve many rare specimens in our Marine Museum that have long needed critical attention. Our marine collection is the foundation for several key Vanderbilt education programs that serve Long Island schools.”

The Vanderbilt marine collection of 13,190 specimens is housed in the Marine Museum, Habitat and Memorial Wing. Of these, she said, 919 are invertebrates in fluid (displayed in “lots” — from two to many in a single display container); 719 dry fish specimens; 1,746 wet fish specimens in lots and 9,806 dry marine invertebrates (shells and corals). Dry specimens are exhibited on the first floor of the Marine Museum, wet specimens on the second floor.

The two largest marine specimens are a 32-foot whale shark — caught in 1935 and restored in 2008 with a federal Save America’s Treasures grant — and an imposing manta ray, caught in 1916 and restored many years ago, with a 16.5-foot wingspan. William K. Vanderbilt II called it the “Sea Devil.”

Gress said cartilaginous fish, such as sharks and rays, which have spines of cartilage instead of bone, are the most difficult to preserve. Another problem is the age of the collection — many of Vanderbilt’s earliest specimens are nearly 100 years old. When preservation fluid (ethanol and distilled water) in specimen containers degrades the wax seals, comes in contact with air and evaporates, specimens can decompose, she said.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Rd., Centerport. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

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Residents make their way through a Culper Spy Ring tour in East Setauket. File photo

In 1954, at the age of 15, I read “The Man Who Never Was” by Ewen Montagu. I loved this 160-page book about a successful intelligence operation, called Operation Mincemeat, that used a dead body as a fictitious British Marine Officer to convince Hitler and the German generals that the invasion of southern Europe would take place in either Sardinia or Greece instead of in Sicily, where the actual amphibious landing took place in 1943.

This year, I just completed the book “Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured and Allied Victory.” Published in 2010 and written by Ben Macintyre, this 400-page book brought to life the declassified details that were still secret until very recently.

Along the way, Macintyre enumerates the many intelligence operations that were conducted during World War II. He details the German spies who were turned to work for the British and provide false information back to Germany. He also elaborates about the spies in Spain, Germany, Italy and France who worked for the Allies, as well as the spies and intelligence leaders who worked for the Axis.

As a youth, I loved the stories that came out of World War II including “Reach for the Sky” by Paul Brickhill, published in 1954, a true story about Douglas Bader, a fighter pilot who lost his legs but continued to fly with artificial legs. I also loved the “Hornblower” series, novels by C. S. Forester, the historical novels of France in the 17th and 19th centuries by Alexandre Dumas and the American novels of the period from the Revolutionary War through the War of 1812 by Kenneth Roberts, especially the novel “Rabble in Arms.”

One of the books that really got my attention was “The Spy” by James Fenimore Cooper, written in 1821. In the introduction, Cooper noted that the man in charge of a secret committee for Congress, later determined to be John Jay, employed a spy, a common man of no great wealth, “but cool, shrewd, and fearless by nature,” who penetrated the center of British military activity in America and kept a steady stream of intelligence flowing to General Washington. I always had an idealistic idea that this spy was a member of the Setauket-based Culper Spy Ring if not its leader. The novel, “The Spy,” however, transfers the location of activity to Westchester County, Cooper’s home territory and the no-man’s land between British and American lines. This was exactly where Dragoon Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who ran the operations of the Culper Spy Ring, operated for much of the war.

If you have not visited the exhibit SPIES! at the Three Village Historical Society, this might be a good time to see the exhibit and learn the true story of the Culper Spy Ring. The story will be dramatized, sometimes wildly, for the second year on the AMC cable network beginning on Monday, April 13, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. The television series is called “Turn.”

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

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A World War I cannon usually resides at the memorial park in Port Jefferson, above, but is now at the local American Legion post awaiting repairs. Photo by Elana Glowatz

A cannon that saw World War I battlefields in Europe and retired to a grassy home on Port Jefferson Harbor has gone on a brief vacation, after a local veterans group took it away for repairs.

American Legion Wilson Ritch Post 432 in Port Jefferson Station maintains the war memorial at the small Brookhaven Town-owned park between Route 25A and the harbor, across from Port Jefferson Village Hall.

According to Bob Elfers, commander of the post, the memorial’s cannon is at the Legion because “the wheels are totally shot” and it needs welding work and a fresh coat of paint.

The wheels have wooden spokes and rims, with a metal hub and reinforcements.

“The wood just totally disintegrated over the years,” Elfers said. Exposure also caused rusting on the body of the cannon.

Elfers said his group is having someone repair the wheels and weld the rusted parts, and the cannon will be sanded and painted.

The cannon, which is American Legion property, is a German WWI weapon, though Elfers said he does not know its exact history or when the post acquired it, and said no one at the post is old enough to be able to speak to that.

A World War I cannon usually resides at the memorial park in Port Jefferson but is now at the local American Legion post awaiting repairs, above. Photo by Rich Acritelli
A World War I cannon usually resides at the memorial park in Port Jefferson but is now at the local American Legion post awaiting repairs, above. Photo by Rich Acritelli

According to Rich Acritelli, a Legion member as well as a military history expert and social studies teacher, the cannon was built by industrial company Friedrich Krupp AG in Essen, Germany, which is in the northwestern part of that country, close to the Netherlands.

The company built armaments as well as naval ships during that period, particularly U-boats.

Acritelli said the cannon was not a heavy artillery weapon and it could have been used in two different ways: either mounted on wheels to assist the German infantry or mounted on a ship for the navy.

Because it was used during World War I, the cannon is roughly a century old.

It is likely that an American soldier took the cannon home with him, a common practice at the time, Acritelli said. It is also likely that soldier was serving on the Western Front, because that was where most of the U.S. military went during WWI.

Aside from the cannon, the memorial park in Port Jefferson contains flags and stones that pay tribute to those who served in wars throughout the nation’s history, as well as a central WWI stone monument.

That WWI monument has a story of its own: It was unveiled on Memorial Day in 1922 and was originally located on East Main Street, on the grass in front of the former First Baptist Church of Port Jefferson.

Elfers said he is hoping the cannon will return to the park in May, in time for Memorial Day.

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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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