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Old Field

By Katelyn Winter

Peaceful. The word most commonly used to describe Setauket’s Frank Melville Memorial Park captures the tranquil nature scene you find around every bend in the trail.

With turtles sunning themselves on logs in the daytime and deer rustling in the brush just before dusk, the park is a sanctuary for wildlife. According to the park’s newsletter, the Four Harbors Audubon Society, which holds a bird walk at the park on the second Saturday of every month, recorded 76 bird species over the past year. One of the main reasons so many creatures can be seen is simply the atmosphere. On the sign at the entryway to the park, the informative bullet points end in a gentle reminder: Quiet please.

Frank Melville Memorial Park’s gates have been open to the public for 79 years. In 1937, the park was formally dedicated after years of work by Jennie MacConnell Melville and local philanthropist Ward Melville, the wife and son of Frank Melville. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 19, 2010.

The Melville family loved to spend their summers in the Stony Brook area and even had an estate, named Sunwood, built in Old Field in 1919. It is  fitting that the place they designed and built to memorialize a loving father and husband would turn into such a picturesque and beloved park by Three Village residents and visitors alike.

“I’ve been coming here for almost ten years. It’s only her second year, though,” said Kaleigh Gorman, motioning to her dog, Dakota, when they were out walking one warm Wednesday evening. “I love how peaceful and scenic the park is and all the memories that are made here.” 

There is definitely a lot of room to make memories. With 24 stunning acres to explore, the park is made up of a looping path around the pond and trails that wind through the bamboo forest and the meadows behind the Bates Barn, known locally as “the red barn.” Constructed in the 1920s, the wood for the barn came from buildings at Camp Upton near Yaphank, which was torn down after WWI. A community garden with its own apiary and the Bates House, which can be rented for private events, are just some of the park’s other charming features.

Frank Melville Memorial Park

Hours:

Open all year round from dawn to dusk

Address:

1 Old Field Road, Setauket

Phone number:

Park Office: 631-689-6146

Bates House: 631-689-7054

Website:

www.frankmelvillepark.org

Rules:

No professional photography without park pass

Dogs allowed on leash

Visitors can go for a jog around the pond, stopping to stretch out on the stone bridge with a view of both the pond and the marshlands, or sit on one of several benches that line the edge of the pond under large shade trees. Just to the side of that bridge is the Setauket Mill, a simulated mill with a working water wheel. Built in 1937, it was designed by architect Richard Haviland Smythe, who also designed the Stony Brook Village Center, to represent the long line of mills that had existed on the pond as early as 1660. The building now serves as the park’s headquarters.

You should feel free to bring in snacks for a picnic, but keep in mind to carry out what you carry in, and never feed the wildlife. And watch out! That wildlife also includes a snapping turtle who will snap at anything that moves too close to his algae-covered face. He’s been around for ages. When I was  just five years old, I thought I was looking at an otter emerging from the pond, until my mother realized it was the snapping turtle reaching out his long neck for a snack. The snapping turtle is by no means dangerous, though: just one more fun local “resident” to encounter. In fact, local resident Janet Morseman says that one of the reasons she loves coming to the Setauket park is because of how “safe and peaceful” it is.

Whether you are out for a brisk walk, a jog or a leisurely stroll, the ground beneath your feet is always clean, and the park, which is located next to the post office and just a short walk from Patriot’s Rock and Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, is small and well-enough trafficked to feel very safe.

The rules and regulations of Frank Melville Memorial Park, a “Private Park for Public Enjoyment,” are fairly lax and rely on common courtesy. If you’d like to ride your bike there, for example, it’s requested you stay on the paved pathway. Fishing in the pond requires you to join the Mill Pond Fishing Club, with a catch-and-release only policy.

And as far as photography in the park goes, anything more than snapping a picture of your kids with a cell phone (say, having a friend take your family holiday card photo at the park) means signing up to become a Friend of the Park and getting a photography pass. It will cost you $100 annually to be able to shoot photos in the park.

Those aren’t the only ways to take advantage of Frank Melville Memorial Park, though — it has so much to offer. Classes on Tuesday mornings at the Bates Barn — usually at 11 a.m. — are free ways to learn new skills, such as watercolor painting or have fun with a craft or scavenger hunt. One new opportunity is Walk-Yoga-Meditate-Chocolate, which is exactly what it sounds like. At 7 p.m. on Tuesday evenings through August 30, pre-registered participants will meet up in the Bates House parking lot to take a walk, practice yoga, mediate, and indulge in some chocolate. The class, by suggested donation, benefits the Community Growth Center. To learn more or register you can visit www.CommunityGrowthCenter.org or call 631-240-3471.

For those who are looking for a different way to relax, check out Wind Down Sundays, the park’s summer concert series held at the Bates Barn on Sunday evenings at 5:15 p.m. through Aug. 28. A variety of musicians will play classical, rock, jazz, reggae, R&B, and pop, which means there’s at least one Sunday you won’t want to miss, depending on your taste! These events are family-friendly ways to get outside and experience something new in a beautiful location. 

So pack up the kids, or the dog, or just a water bottle, and see what Frank Melville Memorial Park has in store for you. You may discover a favorite jogging trail, the perfect bench for reading, or the cutest baby turtle you’ve ever seen. There’s so much to do and see, no matter the time of day. And that’s why Frank Melville Memorial Park is a treasure among us.

Author Katelyn Winter is a rising junior at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.,  majoring in English and creative writing. She is from Stony Brook and hopes to one day work in the publishing industry.

Stony Brook University grad student coordinator of the 2015 Diamondback Terrapin study Martana Edeas has her hands full. Photo from Nancy Grant

It’s hot. It’s muddy. It’s dirty. But it’s exciting work, if you like that sort of thing.

That was how Nancy Grant of the Friends of Flax Pond chose to describe her group’s latest initiative this summer tracking Diamondback Terrapin turtles at West Meadow Beach. And while they may move slowly, the Friends have been acting quickly to spot the four-legged reptiles at the height of their nesting season and working to preserve their species.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize we actually have turtles here,” Grant said of the program, which has been in operation annually since 2004. “You think you have to go someplace exotic to observes them, but you don’t.”

From the third week of June through the entire month of July, the Friends of Flax Pond has set out to conduct its annual six-week search for evidence of nesting turtles, documenting the population numbers and behaviors of what Grant called an important keystone species. The group meets every Sunday at West Meadow Beach at the park ranger sign at 9:30 a.m. and is accepting volunteers on an ongoing basis.

The Friends of Flax Pond have been keeping a vigilant eye on the shorelines of West Meadow Beach and Flax Pond with hopes of spotting the exotic creatures, as Grant referred to them as a vital way of keeping a finger on the pulse of the North Shore’s environment.

“They determine the health of the area,” she said. “It’s important to protect them because their numbers have gone down. They used to be over at Flax Pond, but we haven’t seen any there since 2009, with the exception of one recently.”

The Friends have spotted on average between nine and 10 nests a year, depending on the number of volunteers, Grant said. Once they find the nest, volunteers dig around it, put a cage over it and hold it in with tent stakes to keep predators away.

They’ll even go as far as using cayenne pepper to deter animals from some nests, but Grant admitted the nearby threats like foxes and birds were becoming privy to their methods and becoming less deterred by them.

From an educational standpoint, the group has also been working to launch its own Flax Pond Summer Research Institute this summer. For a $100 fee, the Friends is offering up an internship program at the Flax Pond Lab and salt marsh as well as West Meadow Beach that links up with academic marine scientists to gather data to document changes in the marshes there. This year, the group said it planned on documenting the status of species prior to a possible dredging of the Flax Pond inlet — a 146-acre tidal wetland on the North Shore — which the Friends has been adamantly advocating for.

Earlier this year, Old Field Mayor Michael Levine and the board of trustees called on legislators from the county, state and town levels to join with Stony Brook University and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to see the pond dredged and protect the fin and shellfish populations known to once thrive there.

“If you don’t have a marsh there, you have nothing between you and those major waves,” Grant said. “It protects real estate. As much as having a dock is nice, it won’t matter if you don’t have those plants there.”
The application deadline for the institute is July 13 and an application can be found at flaxpondfriends.org.

Stony Brook University runs a lab on the waterfront at Flax Pond and researchers there say they worry about the deteriorating water quality there and its impact on the wildlife. Photo by Phil Corso

The Village of Old Field is looking to do some ecological spring cleaning.

Flax Pond, a 146-acre tidal wetland on the North Shore, is in dire need of dredging before it deteriorates into an environmental disaster, nearby residents and advocates have contested. The pond’s last dredge was in 1947.

Residents’ names have been flooding a petition touting more than 210 signatures to date calling for action at the inlet there.

John Robinson, who lives near the water with his wife Fredelle and is at the mercy of the declining water quality there, has been helping circulate that petition and said the buildup of sand within the inlet has prevented the pond from properly emptying at low tide. He said he fears the region is just one major storm away from forcing the inlet to close off completely, which would have devastating effects on the ecosystem there, as the inlet acts as a marine nursery for the Long Island Sound.

“We have been watching the pond deteriorate over the last quarter of a century,” he said. “I’ve seen really major changes in the vegetation, the depth and the sea life. There are a lot of things going on, but one key aspect of this is the loss of adequate outflow.”

Fredelle Robinson, an avid fisher and nature lover, said the negative impacts were both aesthetic and environmental. Not only is the wildlife changing, but her waterfront home could be at risk if the water does not drain, she said.

“I used to stand in the inlet at night and fish. We could hear the striped bass and their tails flopping in the water,” she said. “You just don’t hear that anymore. Saltwater marshes all over are under stress and this is just another example.”

Old Field Mayor Michael Levine and the board of trustees also called on legislators from the county, state and town levels to join with Stony Brook University and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to see the pond dredged and protect the fin and shellfish populations known to once thrive there.

A throng of concerned citizens, elected officials and Stony Brook University researchers gathered at the Childs Mansion near the inlet Sunday for a lecture sponsored by the Friends of Flax Pond to explore ways to address the clogging.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has been at the forefront of the Friends of Flax Pond’s efforts to address the deterioration on the water and spoke at the group’s Sunday panel. He said there were many factors that went into the best course of action for both the inlet and the surrounding community, all of which needed to be ironed out before taxpayer dollars get thrown into the mix.

“While we’re searching for money to do something to make sure the inlet doesn’t close, we’re also searching for answers to the questions of how to actually write a description of what we’d like to have done,” Englebright said. “We don’t have a scope of work yet that is well defined.”

Nancy Grant, program director with the 12-year-old grassroots Friends of Flax Pond group, said the large mound of sand in the middle of the inlet has gotten worse with each passing year. And if not addressed, the saltwater pond could potentially revert back to a freshwater body, which it has not been for nearly 200 years, she said.

“Flax Pond serves as a buffer to that whole area as far as flooding is concerned. It has also been supporting a lot of the health of the Long Island Sound,” Grant said. “It absorbs the crashing of the waves. There are homes at risk. There are species at risk.”

Grant’s group hosts a lecture series each winter and also sponsors various environmental workshops in conjunction with Stony Brook University, which works out of a lab directly on the inlet. Steve Abrams, manager of the lab, described Flax Pond as one of the most pristine marshes on all of Long Island. He said a dredging was necessary in order to sustain marine life at the inlet.

“It has been really important for studying plants and animals in a relatively natural state. But over the last number of years, serious storms have changed things,” he said. “Tides don’t drain the way they should. It would be unfortunate if species there lost their place to live and it would be less than desirable for research.”

Shawn Nuzzo, president of the Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook, said Flax Pond was an example of what the Long Island Sound faces as a whole and includes factors beyond the small Village of Old Field. He said old-fashioned power plants, like one in nearby Port Jefferson, dump warm water into the sound, which translates directly into the Flax inlet. He cited recent legislation out of the Town of Brookhaven requiring improved wastewater standards in the Carmans River on the South Shore and said similar action was needed on the north end.

“We must take a hard look at how we are going to stop this loop if we intend on preserving our waterways for future generations,” Nuzzo said.

Louise Brett explains a painting of a ship called the Enchantress. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Louise Brett often paints and draws scenes from the past — a horse walking through the Belle Terre gate, ships in Port Jefferson Harbor, a buggy on East Main Street and the cottages at West Meadow Beach.

The area “is changing so fast,” she said. “I wanted to show everyone what it looked like when I was here.”

Louise Brett does drawings of the area in the past, including this one of a horse walking through the Belle Terre gate. Photo by Elana Glowatz
Louise Brett does drawings of the area in the past, including this one of a horse walking through the Belle Terre gate. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Some of Brett’s works are on display in Edna Louise Spear Elementary School, in the same room the Board of Education uses for its meetings. At the last session, the district presented Brett, who attended the high school but did not graduate, with a certificate of recognition and she received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Brett said in an interview at her home that the acknowledgement was exciting.

It isn’t the first time her work has been displayed — her paintings of a Victorian Port Jefferson appeared on the covers of the Charles Dickens Festival guides for 2006 and 2007. Under sunset skies, she included characters found in both Dickens novels and the village.

Brett, 83, was born in Old Field and moved to Port Jefferson 10 years later. She said she has always been able to draw well, but didn’t always have the resources — including pencils and paper. When she was growing up during the Great Depression, if she saw her teacher throw away a piece of chalk, she would take it home and — with her twin sister, Gussie — draw on the sides of their piano.

Louise Brett, above, paints almost every day. Photo by Elana Glowatz
Louise Brett, above, paints almost every day. Photo by Elana Glowatz

She got some help when she was in her teens while working as a soda jerk, operating the soda fountain at a local shop. On paper bags in the shop, “I would sketch anybody that walked in,” she said. The owner bought her a paint set and she took art lessons in Mount Sinai. At the Board of Education meeting, while presenting the certificate of recognition, elementary school principal Tom Meehan said Brett would walk to the lessons with her brushes in her boots.

While she was learning, she got in trouble with her mother for keeping dead birds under her bed to draw. “I had to know what they looked like,” Brett explained.

Years later, she still paints almost every day, even with her cats, Bonnie and Clyde, wandering around the room that holds her easel and past works. She said art is an outlet for her. When her husband of 54 years, Nicholas, had health problems a few years ago, she painted the Roe House using descriptions in letters former village historian Rob Sisler collected. Brett used details such as the fact that the Roes owned two oxen and carts — which led her to paint a barn with a thatched roof — to determine how to illustrate the scene. “You have to use your imagination,” she said.

Louise Brett's first oil painting was of the house next door to her childhood Port Jefferson home.
Louise Brett’s first oil painting was of the house next door to her childhood Port Jefferson home.

Brett signs all her paintings “Lou Gnia,” for her maiden name Gniazdowski. Her father, who died when she was 3 years old, came to the United States from Poland just before World War I. Brett once took a trip to her family’s village in Stare Miasto, in Poland’s Leżajsk County, a few hours southeast of Warsaw. The village name means “old city,” and she took photographs of various scenes to paint once she got home. In her Reeves Road house she has a “Polish room,” in which there are paintings of houses, cattle drinking from the San River and wagons with rubber wheels, like those on cars.

Paintings also line the walls of the rest of her home, including depictions of ships and beaches and a mural of grazing horses on the far side of the living room.

The artist said painting calms her, to the point where she can forget she is in the middle of cooking dinner. “I just go into a different world,” she said. “I love to paint. It’s just like a sickness.”