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Margo Arceri

From left, Major Benjamin Tallmadge (Art Billadello) and Abraham Woodhull (Beverly C. Tyler) read a copy of The Royal Gazette dated July 21, 1780 on the grounds of the Sherwood-Jayne Farm in East Setauket as Big Bill the Tory, aka William Jayne II (David Burt), looks on. Billadello is wearing a dragoon coat from the AMC television series ‘TURN’ that will be auctioned off at Gallery North’s Studio during Culper Spy Day. Photo by Heidi Sutton

 ‘Lucky is the child who listens to a story from an elder and treasures it for years.’

Barbara Russell, Town of Brookhaven Historian 

By Heidi Sutton

Margo Arceri first heard about George Washington’s Setauket spies from her Strong’s Neck neighbor and local historian, Kate W. Strong, in the early 1970s. Arceri lights up when talking about her favorite spy, Anna Smith Strong. 

“Kate W. Strong, Anna Smith Strong’s great-great-granddaughter, originally told me about the Culper Spy Ring when I used to visit her with my neighbor and Strong descendant Raymond Brewster Strong III. One of her stories was about Nancy (Anna Smith Strong’s nickname) and her magic clothesline. My love of history grew from there,” she said.

Five years ago Arceri approached the Three Village Historical Society’s President Steve Hintze and the board about conducting walking, biking and kayaking tours while sharing her knowledge of George Washington’s Long Island intelligence during the American Revolution.

Today, Arceri runs Tri-Spy Tours in the Three Village area, which follows in the actual footsteps of the Culper Spy Ring. “I wanted to target that 20- to 60-year-old active person,” she said.  “I have to thank AMC’s miniseries “TURN” because 80 percent of the people who sign up for the tour do so because of that show,” she laughs. 

It was during one of those tours that Arceri came up with the idea of having a Culper Spy Day, a day to honor the members of Long Island’s brave Patriot spy ring who helped change the course of history and helped Washington win the Revolutionary War.

The Brewster House, considered to be the oldest house in the Town of Brookhaven, will be open for tours on Culper Spy Day.

“Visiting places like the Brewster House, which is owned by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the grave site of genre artist William Sidney Mount at the Setauket Presbyterian Church cemetery (whose paintings are at The Long Island Museum) and the Country House, which every one of the spies visited,” Arceri thought “there has to be a day designated to celebrating all these organizations in the Three Village and surrounding areas; where each of us can give our little piece of the story and that’s how Culper Spy Day developed.”

After a successful three-year run, the fourth annual Culper Spy Day will be held on Saturday, Sept. 15 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. offering self-guided tours of 24 locations including eight new spots for the ultimate Culper Spy Day experience. “The more the merrier,” laughs Arceri.

One new event you won’t want to miss is an interactive tour at the Sherwood-Jayne Farm in East Setauket where you’ll experience a different spin on George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring. Maintained by Preservation Long Island, the property boasts a 1700s saltbox home, apple orchard, barn, an ice house, corn crib, a pasture and nature trail.

According to Darren St. George, education and public programs director at Preservation Long Island, the farm was originally owned by the Jayne family.

“The property was purchased by Mathias Jayne in 1730 [who built a lean-to saltbox dwelling] which is eventually passed down to William Jayne II in 1768 who expands the house after his second marriage,” he said, continuing, “[William] was involved with local government, he was a constable, so he had some stature and clout in the community and it was nice to have a more substantial home.”

However, when the Revolutionary War broke out, Jayne chose to remain a Loyalist and a steadfast supporter of the crown.

Meet Big Bill the Tory at the Sherwood-Jayne Farm in East Setauket on Culper Spy Day and learn the TRUTH about George Washington’s pesky band of renegade spies! Photo by Darren St. George, Preservation Long Island

“William Jayne II was a known Tory in the neighborhood,” said St. George. “Long Island was occupied by many Tories, many people still supported the king and didn’t want to upset the status quo, but as the war concluded, most Torys moved to Canada or Connecticut or they turned their back on the king entirely, but Jayne doesn’t. He still stays a Tory, he has his reputation and still thrives in the community,” eventually acquiring the nickname Big Bill the Tory.

When Jayne passed away, the home remained in the family until it was sold in 1908 to Preservation Long Island’s founder, Howard C. Sherwood, who used the home to showcase his many antiques. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

During Culper Spy Day, ticketholders will be able to take part in a 20-minute guided tour of the first floor of the home, specifically the Jayne Parlor (which was added after the Revolutionary War), the Sherwood Living Room (which was the original 1730 home) and the Tap Room (kitchen/dining room).

One of the more interesting features of the home are the original late-18th-century hand-painted floral wall frescoes on the walls of the Jayne Parlor. Commissioned by William Jayne II, they were rediscovered underneath wallpaper by Sherwood in 1916 who had them restored by well-known artist Emil Gruppé. “One small panel was left untouched so that you can see how it’s weathered through the years,” St. George pointed out during a recent tour.

The home contains artifacts that specifically relate to the American Revolution, including paneling on the fireplace wall and shutters on a bar in the Tap Room that came from the Tallmadge House of Setauket, believed to be the birthplace of Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, a founding member of the spy ring who would become George Washington’s chief intelligence officer.

As a special treat, Big Bill the Tory, portrayed by David Burt, will make a guest  appearance during each tour and share his views on the Culper Spy Ring and the noble intentions of King George III. “He’ll explain what life has been like for him as a Loyalist — the other side of the story that we’re really not hearing too much of,” explained St. George.

Parking will be in the field next to the property and visitors are asked to line up at the back door for the tour, which will be ongoing from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Apple cider and donuts will be available for purchase.

Arceri’s favorite part of the day is “seeing all these different organizations coming together as a whole. It really is our Revolutionary story,” she said. “Everywhere you turn in the Three Villages you are looking at an artifact, and as the historical society believes, the community is our museum and that I would really love to put on the forefront of people’s minds.”

Admission is $25 adults, $5 children ages 6 to 12 and may be purchased in advance at the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS), 93 North Country Road, Setauket, by calling 631-751-3730 or by visiting www.tvhs.org. Veterans and children under the age of 6 are free. 

Tickets may be picked up at the TVHS from Sept. 11 to 15. At that time, participants will receive a bracelet and a copy of the Culper Spy Day map with all event listings and include access to 24 Culper Spy Ring locations. If available, tickets on the day of the event may be purchased at the historical society.

Participating organizations: 

The fourth annual Culper Spy Day is presented by Tri-Spy Tours, the Three Village Historical Society, the Long Island Museum and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization in collaboration with the Benjamin Tallmadge District of the Boy Scouts; Campus Bicycle; Caroline Church of Brookhaven; Country House Restaurant; Custom House; Discover Long Island; Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum; East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection; Emma S. Clark Memorial Library; Fairfield Historical Society, Fairfield Museum & History Center; Frank Melville Memorial Park; Fraunces Tavern® Museum; Gallery North; History Close at Hand; Huntington Historical Society; Huntington Militia; Joseph Lloyd Manor House; Ketcham Inn Foundation; Northport Historical Society; Old Methodist Church; Paumanok Tours; Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce; Port Jefferson Free Library; Preservation Long Island; Raynham Hall Museum; Rock Hall Museum; Setauket Elementary School; Setauket Harbor Task Force; Setauket Neighborhood House; Setauket Presbyterian Church; Sherwood-Jayne Farm; Stirring Up History; Stony Brook University Libraries, Special Collections; Stony Brookside Bed and Bike Inn; Three Village Community Trust; The Three Village Inn; Times Beacon Record News Media; and the Underhill Society of America Inc. 

This dragoon coat, worn by actor Seth Numrich in AMC’s ‘TURN’ series, will be one of the items auctioned off on May 19. Photo courtesy of AMC

UPDATE:

I-Spy TURN Auction & Spy Themed Event for May 19 has been canceled
Due to the excessive rain and water on the property this week and with the prediction of additional rain over the weekend, the Three Village Historical Society feels it is in the best interest of guests and volunteers to postpone the event.  “We will reschedule I-Spy for a date in the future when we can provide the best experience for all. Cancelling this event was a hard decision to make and we apologize for any inconvenience,” said the Society.

By Michael Tessler

The Three Villages is home to a remarkable Revolutionary history that for over a century remained elusive to the American people … all except in Setauket where local lore and legend preserved a tale of spies, lies, petticoats and the exceptional bravery of everyday citizens who risked everything to liberate their homes and loved ones from tyranny.

General George Washington established the Culper Spy Ring in 1778 by recruiting Benjamin Tallmadge, a would-be lieutenant colonel and future congressman who called the quaint village of Setauket home. He recruited friends and schoolmates to establish a secret network, eluding the mighty British Empire that had been occupying Long Island since August 1776. Their efforts turned the tides of war in favor of the Continental Army and forever altered the course of history.

It wasn’t until 1939, when amateur historian Morton Pennypacker began to decipher secret aliases and uncover the true identities of the Culper spies. In 2014, the legend of the Culper Spy Ring finally entered the public zeitgeist with the premiere of AMC’s television drama series “TURN: Washington’s Spies,” a historical fiction piece that chronicled the Culper Spy Ring. 

“If it weren’t for Setauket, we would have lost the war,” declared Three Village Historical Society President Steve Healy. “If Washington had been caught, he would have been hanged. They stopped that, they saved the [American] Revolution.” And just as the Culper spies saved the fledgling United States, the Three Village Historical Society has made it its mission to keep the Culper Spy Ring and the local history of this community alive.

When “TURN” ended last August, the Three Village Historical Society reached out to the show and received a very special donation: props, costumes and other memorabilia actually featured on the show during the series’ four-season run. On Saturday, May 19, the public will have the opportunity to own these pieces of history during a silent auction fundraiser on the society’s front lawn starting at noon. Bidding closes at 4:15 p.m.

According to TVHS board members Cathy White and Janet McCauley, the most sought after item of the day will be a dragoon (18th century cavalry) coat worn by the actor who played Benjamin Tallmadge, Seth Numrich. “It’ll be fun to see where it ends up,” said McCauley. “Either way, it is a wonderful tool to educate our community about the area that they live in.” 

Other items in the auction include a reproduction of a 1730 Dublin Castle Long Land (1st Model) Brown Bess musket; autographed sheet music; a portrait of King George II, c. 1730, reproduction on canvas; as well as maps, letters and artifacts such as an astrolab, horn bowls, British army drumsticks, pewter pitchers, posters, an uncut sheet of Continental currency and more.

In addition to the silent auction, there is a flurry of activities scheduled throughout the day. From noon to 4 p.m. community educator Donna Smith, portraying Anna Smith Strong, will hold invisible ink demonstrations while noted children’s author Selene Castrovilla will be selling and signing copies of her books. Visitors will also have the opportunity to meet Benjamin Tallmadge, portrayed by TVHS past president and trustee Art Billadello. The historical society’s two exhibits, SPIES: How a Group of Long Island Patriots Helped George Washington Win the Revolution and Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time, and gift shop will be open as well. 

At noon, historian Margo Arceri will lead a Tri-Spy Walking Tour, which starts at the post office next to Frank Melville Memorial Park, 101 Main St. in Setauket. Historian Beverly C. Tyler will give a Walk Through History with Farmer and Spy, Abraham Woodhull, guided tour at 2 p.m. starting at the front parking lot of the Caroline Church of Brookhaven, 1 Dyke Road, Setauket. 

From 3 to 5 p.m., “Wine and cheese will be served while we have Colonial music performed by Natalie Kress and Kevin Devine of the Three Village Chamber Players,” said Sandy White, TVHS office manager, adding, “We want to create a dialogue about our community’s history. ‘TURN’ helped start that conversation. We’d like to continue it.” 

The Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket will host an I-Spy “Turn” Auction fundraiser on May 19 from noon to 5 p.m. (rain date May 20). Tickets, which are $25 adults, $5 for children age 14 and younger, cover participation in all of the day’s events, including both walking tours. To order, please visit www.TVHS.org or call 631-751-3730.

FROZEN IN TIME

Margo Arceri of Strong’s Neck snapped this photo of two Betsy Ross flags flying at the grave site  of Patriots Selah and Anna Smith Strong at St. George’s Manor Cemetery in Setauket on a chilly Jan. 30. This version of the United States flag, rumored to have been created by Betsy Ross, was used from 1777 to 1795 and has 13 stripes with 13 stars in a circle all facing outward to represent a new constellation.

Send your Photo of the Week to leisure@tbrnewspapers.com.

Margo Arceri, right, creator of Culper Spy Day, poses with Diane Schwindt, dressed as an 18th-century cook at the 2017 event. Photo from Mari Irizarry

By Rita J. Egan

With the help of those who appreciate history, events of the past have a chance to live on. Margo Arceri is one of those history lovers, and her passion has inspired others to learn more about their local landscape.

Arceri didn’t need the AMC series “TURN” to discover how instrumental the members of the Culper Spy Ring were in the Colonies winning the American Revolutionary War. While growing up in Strong’s Neck, she learned about the Setauket spies directly from Kate. W. Strong herself. The great-great-granddaughter of Anna Smith Strong would tell stories of the patriot who used her clothesline to send messages to her fellow spies, and through those tales, Arceri developed a deep curiosity for history and the local intelligence group.

Three Village Historical Society historian Beverly Tyler said Arceri’s passion is so strong her car features “Culper” license plates.

“She loves the Revolutionary War,” Tyler said. “She loves Anna Smith Strong, and the whole idea of the spy ring.”

A few years ago, Arceri, a former vice president and past secretary of the Three Village Historical Society, created Tri-Spy Tours, where participants follow the footsteps of the spies by walking, biking and/or kayaking through the area.

Steven Hintze was the president of the society when Arceri came to him with the idea of the tours. He said he liked the concept and discussed it with the board members.

Hintze said it was while conducting Tri-Spy Tours that Arceri realized there was more to share about local history, so she developed Culper Spy Day, an annual event that sponsors a self-guided tour where attendees visit various structures and museums in the area to learn how the Setauket spies assisted President George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Hintze said the day, which marked its third year in September, has greatly grown in popularity, attracting history lovers from all over the tristate area. According to historical society records, the event attracted twice as many people in 2017 than it did the year prior.

Hintze said he isn’t surprised how popular it has become through Arceri.

“She’s one of those people who has a great personality, she’s friends with everybody,” Hintze said. “She knows a lot of people, and she knows how to put them together.”

Margo Arceri, standing left, with volunteers Janet McCauley, standing right, and Barbara Lynch at the 2017 Culper Spy Day. Photo from Mari Irizarry

Tyler agrees that Arceri has done a wonderful job, especially in getting various organizations involved in Culper Spy Day. Arceri reached out to local groups such as The Long Island Museum, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and Drowned Meadow Cottage in Port Jefferson, which once was owned by the Roe family, members of the ring. The happening has also grown to include organizations outside of the Three Village area, such as Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay and Ketcham Inn in Center Moriches. Tyler said Arceri is working with a historical society in Fairfield, Connecticut, to take part next year.

“I think it’s very important to the area,” the historian said. “It’s starting to bring in people.”

Steve Healy, the Three Village Historical Society’s current president, said when it comes to questions he may have about local history, in addition to Tyler and Town of Brookhaven historian Barbara Russell, he considers Arceri one of his go-to people.

“It’s difficult in today’s environment to dedicate time to history, and she seems to have found a good mix with history and with [her] work,” he said.

Arceri has a knack for getting people to think about history, Healy added, saying it’s apparent during both the Tri-Spy Tours and Culper Spy Day. He said the history buff connects with people by allowing them to ask questions and have a dialogue. She’s known for asking participants: “What do you think happened? What do you think are the elements that drove this situation?” because she doesn’t see historical events in black and white.

“Margo likes to engage people, and that’s one of her strong points, too,” Healy said. “She has many, but one of them is to engage people in a situation where they can have an honest, educated discussion.”

Healy believes the future looks bright for Arceri and her Culper spy ventures.

“I think she’s found a great niche where she can introduce local history to people and grow that further, because she’s always looking to grow,” Healy said. “That’s one of the things that I really like about her. She’ll have a conversation with me and say: ‘Steve, I want to expand. I want to get more people involved in this. I want to teach more people to let them know what happened here.’”

OUR REVOLUTIONARY STORY The weather cooperated as the community came out in droves for the 3rd annual Culper Spy Day on Sept. 16. Ticket holders were able to visit 15 locations in the Three Village and Port Jefferson area and learned how people lived during the Revolutionary War with blacksmithing and colonial cooking demonstrations, and about the infamous Culper Spy Ring which originated from Setauket. Historic churches and the oldest home in Brookhaven, the Brewster House, opened their doors to tours on this rare occasion.

All photos by Greg Catalano

Head of Special Collections and University Archives at Stony Brook University, Kristen Nyitray, with a letter by Nathaniel Woodhull, one of four letters on view during Culper Spy Day. Photo by Jenna Lennon

By Jenna Lennon

‘Lucky is the child who listens to a story from an elder and treasures it for years.’ — Barbara Russell, Brookhaven Town Historian

Margo Arceri first heard about George Washington’s Setauket spies from her Strong’s Neck neighbor and local historian, Kate W. Strong, in the early 1970s. Arceri lights up when talking about her favorite spy, Anna Smith Strong. “Kate W. Strong, Anna Smith Strong’s great-great-granddaughter, originally told me about the Culper Spy Ring when I used to visit her with my neighbor and Strong descendant Raymond Brewster Strong III. One of her stories was about Nancy (Anna Smith Strong’s nickname) and her magic clothesline. My love of history grew from there,” she said.

Four years ago Arceri approached the Three Village Historical Society’s President Steve Hintze and the board about conducting walking, biking and kayaking tours while sharing her knowledge of George Washington’s Long Island intelligence during the American Revolution.

Today Arceri runs Tri-Spy Tours in the Three Village area, which follows in the actual footsteps of the Culper Spy Ring. “I wanted to target that 20- to 60-year-old active person,” she said. “I have to thank AMC’s miniseries ‘Turn’ because 80 percent of the people who sign up for the tour do so because of that show,” she laughs.

Your ticket to the 3rd annual Culper Spy Day awaits!

It was during one of those tours that Arceri came up with the idea of having a Culper Spy Day. “Visiting places like the Brewster House, which is owned by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the grave site of genre artist William Sidney Mount at the Setauket Presbyterian Church cemetery (whose paintings are at The Long Island Museum) and the Country House, which every one of the spies visited,” Arceri thought “there has to be a day designated to celebrating all these organizations in the Three Village and surrounding areas; where each of us can give our little piece of the story and that’s how Culper Spy Day developed.”

After a successful two-year run, the third annual Culper Spy Day will be held on Saturday, Sept. 16 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. offering self-guided tours of 15 locations.

One event you won’t want to miss is the display of historic letters at Stony Brook University’s Special Collections and University Archives located on the second floor of the Frank Melville Jr. Memorial Library. Last year more than 60 people came to see two of George Washington’s letters during the event. This year, they’re hoping for an even bigger turnout with four handwritten letters that illustrate the “history and impact of the Culper Spy Ring,” according to head director Kristen Nyitray. The letters, which were penned by Nathaniel Woodhull, James Jay and Washington, “underscore Setauket’s and the Spy Ring’s pivotal role in the framing of our country,” she said.

The first of Washington’s letters, dated Sept. 24, 1779, addresses issues regarding Robert Townsend, whose code name was Samuel Culper Jr. It was received just a few days later, as noted on the letter, by Washington’s spymaster, Benjamin Tallmadge.

The letter offers methods of gathering intelligence, such as the mention of using “the stain” or the invisible ink believed to be created by James Jay, and the use of code names and numbers. During the war, Washington didn’t know the identities of the spies operating within the spy ring, so they communicated with code names and numbers to assure complete secrecy. At this point in history, the spy ring was “still vetting how best to obtain information without detection,” said Nyitray.

Almost a year later, on Sept. 16, 1780, Washington wrote to Tallmadge again, this time very favorable of Culper Jr., offering him public awareness of his actions or compensation for his efforts. The letter states, “I shall be ready to recommend him to the public, if public employ shall be his aim, and if not, that I shall think myself bound to represent his conduct in the light it deserves, and procure him a compensation of another kind.”

However, Townsend quite literally took his secret to the grave. The existence of the Culper Spy Ring was not made public until the 1930s when historian Morton Pennypacker acknowledged the similarities between Townsend’s handwriting and that of Culper Jr.

Obtaining Washington’s letters from Christie’s New York was a “collaborative effort” by the university, the Three Village Historical Society, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and the Raynham Hall Museum.

In Woodhull’s March 4, 1776, letter, he provides Major General Philip Schuyler updates in regards to officers, battalions and supplies while Jay’s Jan. 9, 1808, letter addresses an unnamed general asking for compensation for his development of a “secret mode of correspondence,” presumably the invisible ink Washington and Townsend used to communicate decades prior.

Nyitray has been contacted from people all over the country looking to make an appointment to view the letters. “I receive calls and emails every week about the letters,” she said. With the Culper Spy Ring at the forefront of the popular TV show, AMC’s “Turn,” it has “brought positive attention and awareness to our region’s history” and “taken on a life of its own … the university provides an opportunity for all to engage in history through the letters, which is a much different experience than reading or watching a television program about it.”

Arceri’s favorite part of the day is “seeing all these different organizations coming together as a whole. It really is our Revolutionary story,” she said. “Everywhere you turn in the Three Villages you are looking at an artifact, and as the historical society believes, the community is our museum and that I would really love to put on the forefront of people’s minds.”

The third annual Culper Spy Day has been made possible through the efforts of The Three Village Historical Society, The Long Island Museum, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, Tri-Spy Tours, Stony Brook University Special Collections, Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, Frank Melville Memorial Park, Three Village Community Trust, Caroline Church of Brookhaven, Setauket Presbyterian Church, Incorporated Village of Port Jefferson (Drowned Meadow Cottage), History Close at Hand, the Country House Restaurant, Times Beacon Record News Media, Raynham Hall, the Smithtown Historical Society, Discover Long Island, Ketcham Inn of the Moriches and Sagtikos Manor in Bay Shore.

Tickets, which are $25 adults, $5 children ages 6 to 12, may be purchased in advance at the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS), 93 North Country Road, Setauket, by calling 631-751-3730 or by visiting www.tvhs.org. Veterans and children under the age of 6 are free. Tickets may be picked up at the TVHS from Sept. 11 to 15. At that time, visitors will receive a bracelet and a copy of the Culper Spy Day map with all event listings and include access to 15 Culper Spy Ring locations. If available, tickets on the day of the event may be purchased at the historical society.

Claudia Friddell
Margo Arceri

Join the Three Village Historical Society for a special Family Walking Tour and Talk on George Washington’s spies on Monday, July 17 at the Setauket Neighborhood House, 95 Main St., Setauket. Local historian Margo Arceri will lead a walking tour at 5:30 p.m. (please arrive by 5:15 p.m.) followed by a guest author visit and spy acitivity with children’s book author Claudia Friddell at 7 p.m. No registration is necessary. Walking tour is $10 per person/talk is free. For more information, please call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

 

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