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prohibition

From left, Steve Healy (as Henry Smith Mount) and Steve Hintze (as William Sidney Mount) at last year’s Spirits Tour. Photo by Heidi Sutton

For the past 23 years, as the air gets chilly and colorful leaves decorate the ground, the Three Village Historical Society ushers in the spooky month of October with its annual Spirits Tour, a night of treks through local historic cemeteries guided by local historic figures. This year’s event, whose theme is The Spirits of Prohibition: Setauket of the Roaring 20s, will take place Saturday, Oct. 21, at the Setauket Presbyterian Cemetery, 5 Caroline Ave., and Carolina Church Cemetery, 1 Dyke Road in Setauket. The evening promises a rip-roaring night of jazz, artifacts and more for all guys and dolls in attendance.

The 2015 Spirits Tour focused on Culper Spies. Photo by Heidi Sutton

Building on the themes of the historical society’s Prohibition Night fundraiser last month, this year’s Spirits Tour is a 1920s-set event exploring what it was like to live in Setauket in the decade that saw the rise of the women’s suffrage movement, gangsters and flappers, and, of course, illegal speakeasies and alcohol bootleggers. Fourteen actors, decked out in period-perfect costumes courtesy of Antiques Costume & Prop Rental by Nan Guzzetta, will portray local figures from the past such as Annie Rensselaer Tinker, a prominent suffragette who had a summer cottage in Poquott, George Vingut, whose barn was used to bootleg liquor, Ward Melville, who famously redeveloped Stony Brook Village, and many more.

This year’s 2-hour tour will be a multisensational event, according to director Brian Cea, including period exhibits previously displayed at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, like Ford Model T cars, antique bottles, a live jazz band and even silent films projected on the side of the churches. Prohibition-era food and drinks will also be offered for sale.

“It’s not just going to be walking around in a circle listening to spirits,” Cea said. “It will entail smelling, feeling and tasting the era. I wanted to help bring this subject to life.”

Brian Cea as Benedict Arnold during the 2015 Spirits Tour. Photo by Heidi Sutton

Cea, who has been involved in the Spirits Tour for the past eight years, got the idea for the Prohibition-era concept when he was giving a private historic house tour on Bennetts Street in East Setauket once owned by a judge with ties to a tavern owner on Wall Street in New York City in the 1920s. Old whiskey bottles dating back to that time were eventually found underneath the flooring.

“We believe this guy was holding liquor that was being transported from over the Sound into Long Island and brought into the city,” Cea said. “I then found out bootlegging was very prosperous here on Long Island with illegal gin mills around our area and I thought, ‘Let’s look into that.’”

TVHS President Stephen Healy said he’s excited for a walk through that unexplored aspect of Long Island history. “A lot of times you see the bootlegging arrests that took place in the city, but you don’t see where the product was made and where it came from,” Healy said, explaining the local farmers grew the key ingredient in alcohol: potatoes. “It’s fascinating how people would get alcohol. They would smuggle it in coffins and rum-running boats. We were a pretty good source [for the alcohol].”

Historical society trustee Frank Turano returned to write the script for the event, a process that took up a majority of the summer due to the massive amounts of research. “In town, around Prohibition, there were bootleggers, there were people storing booze, people making moonshine — a representation of all things,” he said. “Each year we try to do something different and we’d never done that era before, so we took advantage.”

The Cast

Kate Wheeler Strong (Donna Smith)

Ellsworth Buckingham (Steve Healy)

Eversley Childs (Max Golub)

Harry Golden (Mort Rosen)

Celia Hawkins (Karin Lynch)

Ward Melville (Michael O’Dwyer)

Robert Cushman Murphy (Art Billadello)

Sarry Ann Sells (Bonnie Duvall)

Etta Sherry (Holly Griesel)

Eugenio Goncalves de Teixeira (Michael Tessler)

Annie Rensselaer Tinker (Stephanie Carsten)

William Bryant (George Overin)

George Vingut (Robert Ogden)

Roaming Cop (Brian Cea)

The Three Village Historical Society will present its 23rd annual Spirits Tour on Saturday, Oct. 21 from 5 to 9 p.m. Rain date is Oct. 28. Tours, which begin at the Setauket Presbyterian Church parking lot at 5 p.m., leave every 15 minutes and can last from 1½ to 2 hours each. Last tour starts at 7:45 p.m. Participants are asked to arrive 15 minutes prior to your tour’s departure, to dress warmly, wear comfortable shoes and bring a flashlight and umbrella.Tickets in advance are $18 adults, $15 members; $10 children under 12, $8 members. Tickets at the door are $25 adults, $20 members; $12 children under 12, $10 members. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

Above, a 1927 Ford Motel T greets visitors at the entrance of the exhibit. Photo by Julie Diamond

By Susan Risoli

Prohibition made the 1920s roar. Long Island was the center of all the glamour and danger of that whirlwind time, as we now know from Midnight Rum, a new exhibit on display through Sept. 4 at The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook.

“Being on a coast and having so many inlets, Long Island was a natural” for running illegal alcohol, said LIM Executive Director Neil Watson. Proximity to New York City was another factor. The exhibit, which Watson described as “unusually stimulating and rich,” reveals the daring and ingenuity of people making the most of an era that lasted from 1920 to 1933. “When alcohol was banned, it flourished,” he said, “but it flourished in a different way.”

Above, a still used by Roy Edwin Thompson of Roosevelt in the 1920s and ’30s. Photo by Julie Diamond

A massive car built for adventure greets the visitor to the gallery. Was this 1927 Ford Model T touring car one of the vehicles involved in illegal activity? We don’t know for sure. But memories and newspaper accounts reveal that similar Model Ts were the car of choice for smuggling booze. The one in the LIM show is a black chariot with a black leather interior. The running board alone could hold a small gang, and the button-tufted back seat looks made for shenanigans.

Assistant curator Jonathan Olly said he originally wanted to find a rum runner boat to display. He found someone willing to loan one for the exhibit. But the motorboat was just a foot too wide to fit into the gallery. “It was a disappointment,” he recalled.

After contacting multiple car collecting clubs and individuals, “some of whom are very elderly,” Olly turned up the Model T in the exhibit. The owner was willing to drive it out to Stony Brook from Bayside, Queens — no easy journey, given the distance and the car’s top speed of 40ish miles per hour. “We lucked out,” Olly said.

A vignette depicting the Suffrage movement. Photo by Julie Diamond

Olly and his colleagues found the perfect accompaniment to the car: vintage wooden crates just like those that would have been used to store liquor, “from a guy who sells reconditioned Jeep parts out in Riverhead.” The idea came from a 1924 newspaper article that described a Model T, found in a shed by authorities, with 13 cases of liquor hidden in it.

Midnight Rum is a feast of details. Some are luxurious, some are practical, but no less fascinating. A vignette of objects portraying a speakeasy includes a hand-beaded dress and a beautiful cut-glass bowl for punch (spiked, of course). A still based in somebody’s kitchen occupies another vignette, complete with beautifully preserved stove and the tubs and pots needed to cook up some home brew. Over in the corner, tacked up on the kitchen wall, is another LIM find: actual old recipes, written in carefully cursive penmanship. But this is not your grandmother’s coffee cake recipe. “Place in tub as is, stems and grapes,” says the instructions.

Other vignettes tell the story of the strong connection between the drive to make alcohol illegal and the fight for women’s suffrage. Equally compelling are the artifacts and objects that reveal how women, growing in political savvy and connections, helped lead the movement that ultimately repealed Prohibition.

Midnight Rum is a multimedia exhibit. The sounds of oral histories, projected on a screen, draw the viewer in. A short film on the perils of drink is entertaining, while it explains the thinking and emotions that led to Prohibition in the first place. The film’s string- and woodwind-filled score might be familiar to anyone who remembers the Little Rascals or Bugs Bunny.

A speakeasy vignette. Photo by Julie Diamond

Olly said although Long Island played a key role in what he called “a very extreme moment in American culture, when alcohol suddenly became illegal,” there were challenges in putting the exhibit together. “Everyone has some sort of anecdote about Prohibition,” he said, but often anecdotes are … well … only anecdotal. Finding all the objects needed to tell the story properly was a complex task, he said, and consequently “a lot of the objects are borrowed. It’s not a story we could tell without a number of lenders.”

Olly and his colleagues found parallels between the Prohibition era and today’s America. There was economic inequity, with poor people being affected more directly by the alcohol ban than their wealthy counterparts who could afford to stockpile liquor or frequent fancy speakeasies.

Many of the alcohol brewers of the time, in the New York metropolitan area, were German-American. And saloons were important places for Italian and German immigrants to gather, to find out about work and socialize in what Olly called “a public drinking culture.”

“There was some anti-immigrant sentiment, a nativism,” he said. “There were issues of citizenship — who should have access to resources and who shouldn’t.”

The Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook will present in the Visitors Center through Sept. 4. The museum is open Thursday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 12 to 5 p.m. Regular admission is $10, $7 for seniors and $5 for students ages 6 to 17. Children under 6 and museum members are admitted free. For more information, call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.

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