By Melissa Arnold
Picture this: It’s August of 1776, the air is thick with humidity, and the road we now call Route 25A is made of dirt, not asphalt. Americans secretly loyal to the Patriot cause are traveling on horseback from Setauket to New York City, where Gen. George Washington is stationed. These brave men are on a mission to deliver critical information to help win the Revolutionary War, some of it written in invisible ink.
We know these stories and many like them from historical literature, but can you recall many stories about the brave women who supported the war effort? On Saturday, Sept. 28, the Ward Melville Heritage Organization invites the community to take a trip back in time to see what it was like to live on Long Island during that time period and explore local treasures with a unique living history event titled Courageous Women of the Revolutionary War.
In the summer of 1776, the British forces were able to take control of the area, radically affecting the lives of local families, especially those Patriots who supported American independence. Many husbands and young men were arrested and enslaved on prison boats in New York Harbor, and boys were forced into service for the British Army. Meanwhile, wives, mothers and daughters were left to protect their children and property alone.
In the Three Villages, four historic properties purchased and lovingly restored by philanthropist Ward Melville will become the center of the action for the Courageous Women living history performances. Guests will travel to each site by trolley and hear stories of struggle, hope and patriotism directly from the women who lived at that time.
The event is the first of its kind in our area and is a labor of love for the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year.
“This was a group effort that started at a staff meeting more than a year ago,” said Gloria Rocchio, president of the WMHO. “We felt that women weren’t really focused on in explanations of the Revolutionary War, and since next year is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, we felt it was time to bring [the female perspective] out of the shadows.”
The tour’s mission, made possible by a grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, is to inspire and educate the public about the contributions of these valiant women while fostering an appreciation of the Three Village region and its cultural heritage.
Using historical literature and oral histories from the Three Village area as a guide, the WMHO has worked to create realistic stories of four women who lived during the war. The organization also relied on the expertise of the Anna Smith Strong Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a lineage-based service organization for women whose ancestors lived during that era.
Tour guests will be greeted by an actor in period dress at each of the historic properties, which are listed on the National and State Register of Historic Places. At the Thompson House (circa 1709) in Setauket, visitors will meet Phoebe Thompson, a chronically ill woman and wife of 18th-century physician Dr. Samuel Thompson.
The tour will also feature the oldest house in the Town of Brookhaven, the Brewster House (circa 1665), also in Setauket, which operated as a tavern and general store during the war. Rebecca Brewster, wife of Joseph Brewster whose cousin Caleb Brewster was a member of the Culper Spy Ring, will greet visitors. Rebecca helped to run the tavern, which was frequented by British soldiers.
In Stony Brook, the Hawkins Mount House (circa 1725) will host Ruth Mills, wife of Culper spy Jonas Hawkins. Ruth witnessed firsthand the stresses and danger of opposing the British. At the Stony Brook Grist Mill (circa 1751), participants will meet Katie, an indentured servant from Ireland who is working to pay off a debt her family owed to the British government as a Grist Mill “Dusty.”
“We wanted to create an event that was more than just fun and entertaining,” said Gabrielle Lindau, director of development at the WMHO. “How many people realize that the Culper Spy Ring was right in their backyard? It was easy to go back into the historical records and learn a bit more about these women.”
To ensure historical accuracy and high-quality talent, the WMHO hired professional actresses from St. George Living History Productions, a Medford-based living history troupe.
WMHO education director Deborah Boudreau said that the organization believes this event captures the spirit of Ward Melville’s dream to help the community engage with local history in a personal way.
“Ward Melville spoke of history as something that you live with and lives with you,” Boudreau explained. “Visually, the properties bring you back to the 18th century. They give you a sense of what Long Island would have looked like at that time. I’m excited for people to learn about these stories, and for the opportunity we’ve had to imagine what such a defining moment in our country would have meant through the eyes of women. The Revolutionary War planted a seed for the Women’s Rights Movement. It brought visibility to what women are capable of.”
Courageous Women of the Revolutionary War will be held on Sept. 28 (rain date Sept. 29) with trolley tours departing from the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main St., Stony Brook at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Each tour lasts approximately 90 minutes. Tickets are $40 per person and reservations are required. For further information, please call 631-751-2244.