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Barbara Russell

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Caroline Church to celebrate Flowering Sunday

Mark your calendars! Caroline Episcopal Church, One Dyke Road, Setauket will be celebrating Flowering Sunday on Sunday, April 30 at 9:30 a.m.

“This is an Anglican tradition, which some sources cite as beginning in South Wales in the late 17th century. In the United States, we usually see graves decorated on holidays, and of course Veterans’ graves on Memorial Day. Caroline Church will be bringing this tradition back on April 30. This is not only for parishioners; we invite the community to join us as we remember those buried in the churchyard,” said spokesperson Barbara Russell.

The celebration will begin with Morning Prayer. Flowers will be blessed and distributed to those present who will then follow a bagpiper and proceed to the cemetery where you can place flowers on the grave sites of family members and any others you wish to remember. Following placement of the flowers and time for remembrance and reflection, some hymns will be sung before the group rejoin in the Marco C. Smith building to share refreshments. For more information, please call 631-941-4245

Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell and Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine with a copy of a topographical map from 1778 showing Setauket Harbor, encampment of British troops and General William Tryon's headquarters.. Photo courtesy of TOB, Map courtesy of Port Jefferson Arts Conservancy

Brookaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine recently announced that Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell is the first appointee named to the New York State 250th Commemoration Commission. 

Mrs. Russell’s appointment by New York State Senator Robert Ortt II was at the request of State Senator Alexis Weik. 

In January 2022, the New York State Legislature passed the New York State 250th Commemoration Act (S7700 and A8689) and Governor Hochul signed the legislation into law on February 24, 2022. The legislation establishes a 21-member commission to support and facilitate local efforts by heritage organizations, municipalities, and others in commemoration planning and programs.  

The commission is co-chaired by the Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Commissioner of the Department of Education, or their designees, and includes the New York State Historian. 

In her role as Brookhaven Town Historian since 2005, Mrs. Russell, researches, interprets, and advocates local history for the Town. For more information about the New York State 250th Commemoration Commission, visit www.NYSenate.gov.

Photo from Town of Brookhaven

On November 14, the North Shore Art Guild opened their Winter Showcase exhibit on the second-floor mezzanine at Brookhaven Town Hall. The exhibit can be seen Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., now until December 28. Brookhaven Town Hall is located at 1 Independence Hill in Farmingville. All the art on exhibit is for sale. Pictured left to right are Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine; Town Historian, Barbara Russell and Brookhaven Town Councilman Dan Panico.

North Shore Art Guild is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation designed to assist artists at all levels and within all disciplines. It is their goal to develop a strong visual arts presence while using our talent as a force to better our community. Their mission is to promote arts and advancement in all areas of artistic endeavors. The Guild encourages exposure and growth through exhibitions, workshops, demonstrations and helpful “critiquing” given by seasoned artists. They invite all artists whatever level or medium, to join, learn and grow with the North Shore Art Guild. For more information about the North Shore Art Guild or to join, please visit the website at www.NorthShoreArtGuild.org.

Beneath gorgeous weather on the grounds of the historic Mather House Museum, The Historical Society of Greater Port Jefferson hosted its 34th annual outdoor country auction on Saturday, Oct. 15.

The country auction is a yearly local tradition that has endured for over three decades due to its unique format. Attendees are seated beneath a tent, holding their bid cards before a professional auctioneer. 

Beth Pranzo is an officer of HSGPJ. She discussed the country auction’s role as bringing community members together while raising funds for the historical society.

“It’s a community event that we really, really like to promote,” she said. “It is a big fundraiser for us as one of the two major fundraisers of the year at the historical society.”

Pranzo outlined the many programs and activities the proceeds will go toward throughout the year. “They go to educational programs. They go to exhibits. They go to our functions here — the many bills for all the buildings we support.”

Barbara Russell, the Brookhaven Town historian and member of HSGPJ, has participated in the country auction since its inception. She described the unique structure of the auction, its elegant venue, and how the program ties into the historical society’s mission.

“We are very lucky that we can hold it here on the Mather museum grounds,” she said. “We try to sell it as an old-fashioned country auction outside and under the tents.”

While the auction has added some innovations and tweaks over the years, it resembles the original country auction held over three decades earlier.

“It’s basically the same format that we started with,” Russell said. “We just have it a little more computerized now. We have a bigger mailing list, more consignors, that kind of thing. But the items that sell change over the years.”

According to Russell, an item sold at auction can follow one of two tracks. The historical society collects 100% of the proceeds generated by a donated item’s sale at auction. For consigned items, the consignor receives a percentage of the profits and the historical society collects the difference.

Russell says she returns yearly because she believes in the historical society’s stated purpose. “It’s a great organization,” the town historian said. “We started [the society] in the 1960s, and we maintain a museum right here in the village. We do take the artifacts that show Port Jefferson’s history. And the backbone of these organizations is the volunteers.”

Pranzo has participated in the country auction since 1995. For her, the event has evolved for the better, bringing a broader range of bidders into Port Jefferson.

“It’s just a very fun event because the whole community comes together,” she said. “People come back year after year from other places. They come from Connecticut on the ferry. They come from Nassau County.” She added, “It’s a country auction, so everything sells no matter the price. If there aren’t two bidders for something, then you get a really good deal.”

— Photos by Raymond Janis

Comsewogue Public Library honors original research committee during 55th anniversary ceremony

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), at podium, with Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) during the 55th anniversary celebration of Comsewogue Public Library. Photo by Raymond Janis

Surrounded by officials from the Town of Brookhaven, Comsewogue Public Library members honored their founding research committee during a 55th anniversary celebration.

The library research committee was the group of community members formed in 1966 during the library’s embryonic stage. The original committee members were the first to explore ideas and secure permissions to charter a new library that would serve the Port Jefferson Station and Terryville communities. 

Debbie Engelhardt, CPL director, recounted the early history of the library and the important role the committee played in its development.

“Today we’re shining a light on the library research committee, a group of citizens who banded together and worked toward the goal of establishing a library for the community,” she said. “They formed in 1966 with an original committee of six members, plus an advisor, and followed the steps that New York State requires in order for the state to charter a public library.”

‘It was an act of tremendous vision to see a need and to start planning … We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to this research committee.’ — Jonathan Kornreich

While most of the members of the committee have passed, the library’s archives provide enough information to produce a likely narrative of its early history. Records indicate the committee envisioned the library to be a community hub for scholarship and intellectual enrichment. 

“We do have many documents that help us piece together the timeline from back then,” Engelhardt said. “It appears the committee worked swiftly and that the community was supportive to where they did receive a charter.”

The idea to honor the research committee was first pitched by Jan Kielhurn, daughter of Jasper Newcomer, one of the six members on the committee. Kielhurn said she was browsing for a book one day when she decided to look for a plaque with her father’s name on it. Not finding one, she asked Engelhardt to explore ways to formally recognize the library’s earliest leadership.

“I had come up here to get a book and all the sudden I’m looking around and I realized there was nothing stating my father’s contribution to the start of this,” she said. “I had spoken to Debbie and she told me there was going to be a board meeting and she was going to bring it up then. That’s how all this all came about.”

The daughters of Jasper Newcomer, one of the six original members of the library research committee. Pictured: Lee Kucera (left) and Jan Kielhurn (right). Photo by Raymond Janis

Lee Kucera, Kielhurn’s older sister, remembers their father’s time commitment, dedication and collaboration with other committee members during the founding of the library. “They got together and went to wherever they had to go — several different places — to get the okey dokey on it,” Kucera said. 

In 1967, Newcomer sadly died shortly before the library was inaugurated. At the time of his death, Kucera remembers her father’s enthusiasm for the project. 

“He was very excited about it,” she said. “He was very, very interested in education and reading, and he really felt that was something everybody should have a chance to have.”

Knowing their father’s dreams for the institution and the personal sacrifice he and the committee had made for the betterment of the community, Newcomer’s daughters both agreed that he would be elated if he were around to see the library today. 

“He probably would have been very pleased, probably looking for other ways to help it,” Kucera said. “He probably would have been instrumental in making sure that it had computers.” She added, “This would have been one of his babies.”

During a formal dedication ceremony, Engelhardt presented a plaque with the names of the original members of the library research committee. The plaque will forever enshrine these names in the library’s history, honoring the visionary citizens whose aspirations became reality, and whose imprint is left upon the community into the present day. 

Brookhaven officials present two proclamations to the Comsewogue Public Library. Pictured (left to right): Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), Jan Kielhurn, CPL Director Debbie Engelhardt, Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) and Town Historian Barbara Russell. Photo by Raymond Janis

Brookhaven officials were also present at the ceremony. Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said events such as these help to remind people of the reasons for serving the community and the important function the public library plays as a repository of information for its members.

“All good ideas usually start with one or two people talking about something and then it grows,” he said. “Today, the town has issued two proclamations, one acknowledging the tremendous influence of this library on this community, the second on that research committee that started this with an idea.”

‘Libraries make us better citizens. Libraries build better communities. We’re here to celebrate libraries.’ — Ed Romaine

Since his time long ago serving on the Long Island Library Resources Council, Romaine said he has cultivated a deep understanding and appreciation for the valuable work that libraries perform every day in making communities wiser and better.

“They are repositories of a lot of information — not only the books, but all types of multimedia,” the town supervisor said, adding, “It’s where we come to learn about things, it’s where we come to educate ourselves about the world around us. Libraries make us better citizens. Libraries build better communities. We’re here to celebrate libraries.”

Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) was also in attendance. He highlighted the strong foundation laid down by the library research committee, a foundation which still supports the library into the present day. 

“It was an act of tremendous vision to see a need and to start planning,” he said. “We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to this research committee.”

Since the founding of the library, the world has undergone remarkable transformations. These profound changes reshaped the ways in which humans relate to their technologies and to knowledge itself. Kornreich extolled the library’s leadership throughout its 55-year history for its willingness to adapt to changing times in service to the community. 

“Fifty-five years ago when this was built, we wouldn’t have had computers or printers, there was no internet and there was no digital media,” the councilmember said. “They never could have imagined the changes that took place.” He added, “Under the continued wise leadership of our board and our library director, this institution continues to evolve and serve the community.”

‘Modern ideas and a progressive way of thinking I think have always been a part of the vision from back in the 1960s and it remains so today.’

— Debbie Engelhardt

Over a half century after the committee first laid down its foundation, the Comsewogue Public Library continues to exist in a symbiotic arrangement with the community. While men and women like Newcomer foresaw how a public library could foster creative thinking and community enrichment, the library and community members keep that visionary spirit alive today. 

“It’s clear to me that from the research committee to the original library board to the original administration, there was a broad vision for an institution of excellence for this community,” Engelhardt said. “Modern ideas and a progressive way of thinking I think have always been a part of the vision from back in the 1960s and it remains so today.”

The names of the original members of the library research committee: Carol Benkov, Anne Herman, Florence Hughes, Laurence Lamm, Jasper Newcomer, June Tilley, and Gus Basile, advisor.

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From left, Chris Ryon, Steve Albanese and Town of Brookhaven historian Barbara Russell.

By Chris Ryon

Many years ago, I convinced my neighbor Helen Giles to donate a bell her late husband had purchased to my other neighbor, Carl Erikson. Helen’s husband, Bruce, had owned the building on the corner of Old Coach Road and 25A in East Setauket and dreamed of restoring the cupola and bell to the historic schoolhouse building. 

Carl Erikson had a passion for church bells and the church he cared for, the Russian Orthodox Church in Setauket. Carl put the bell in back of his shop at the church. Known as “Father John” to his parishioners, he sadly passed away over two years ago. He was my neighbor and friend for 20 years. 

Carl studied and analyzed bells and even had plans to cast his own. He bought scrap brass and had designs on how to melt and cast his own. He was also a physics teacher and loved numbers and engineering.

I was buying a large bandsaw from Carl’s estate when I saw the bell on a woodpile. I knew the present owner of the building was planning to reconstruct the bell tower. After discussing it with the executor it was donated back.

Steve Albanese now owns the old schoolhouse building. I called his busy accounting office and told his secretary that I had the bell. Steve called later and could not believe that the bell was coming back to him. He was working on plans to rebuild the cupola this spring and was looking for a bell. The bell now sits proudly in his office waiting area waiting to ring again.

Chris Ryon is the historian for the Village of Port Jefferson.

Nan Guzzetta. Photo by John Griffin

By Tara Mae

The Port Jefferson Village Center’s second floor gallery unveiled its latest exhibit today, March 3. Titled Celebrating Women’s Suffrage and the Timeless Collection of Nan Guzzetta, it recognizes the determined advocacy of historical local suffragists and celebrates the life and legacy of Port Jefferson’s Antique Costume and Prop Rental proprietor Nancy Altman “Nan” Guzzetta, who passed away in 2021. The show runs through March 31. 

Fifteen costumed mannequins supplied by the estate of Nan Guzzetta and a comprehensive display on the suffrage movement by Town of Brookhaven Historian Barbara Russell are the focal points of the exhibit, which consists of textiles, photos, posters, and documents. It was conceptualized by Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant. 

‘The sky is now her limit’ by Elmer Andrews Bushnell. Image courtesy of loc.gov

“This serves a twofold purpose: celebrating Women’s History Month in March and honoring and memorializing the life work of Nan, a longtime resident,” said Mayor Garant. “Nan’s work has in particular helped this village for many decades, as she put her trademark costume design on many of our festivals including our traditional Dickens event. This exhibit gives us the ability to open up her displays to the general public with a special emphasis on the women’s suffragette movement.”

Established in 1977, Guzzetta’s shop on Main Street in Port Jefferson Village provided costumes and props for parties, weddings, historical re-enactments, museum exhibits, and other private and public events. The women’s suffrage display was her last project.

“Mom got the mannequins ready for another suffrage exhibit that then didn’t happen due to COVID. They were dressed in the parlor and throughout the house when she died; we preserved all those mannequins. They have been dressed that way for a long time, waiting to go on display,” said Nan’s son, Dave Guzzetta. 

Port Jefferson historian Chris Ryon reached out to Guzzetta’s family to request the use of the styled mannequins for the exhibit. Expertly draped, Guzzetta’s historical replicas add a dynamic element to the display, according to according to Sue Orifici, who is the Graphic, Archival, and Special Projects Coordinator for the Port Jefferson Village. “The show is in part a homage to her contributions to the community,” she said. 

Through her passion for her craft and history, Guzzetta sought to make sure the past, including the stories of suffragists, was not only remembered but alive. “She loved history and bringing it to life,” her daughter-in-law Lorraine said. 

A co-founder of the Port Jefferson Charles Dickens Festival, Nan collaborated with the Port Jefferson Village Center and local educational nonprofits such as the Port Jefferson Historical Society and the Three Village Historical Society, offering her expertise, insight, costumes, and accessories.

“Nan was a tremendous part of our annual Spirits Cemetery Tour, outfitting and designing each costume worn by actors for nearly 20 years,” said Director Mari Irizarry of Three Village Historical Society. “Nan will forever be remembered as a significant contributor toward the fostering of interest in local history and a fuller appreciation of the rich historical and cultural heritage of our community.” 

It was such a shared professional and personal investment in historical education and preservation that connected Guzzetta with Barbara Russell. Like many people involved in the suffrage exhibit, Russell worked with Guzzetta and personally experienced how the intersection of her interests formed her business and her support of the community. 

Annie Tinker

“I met Nan when she first started her business. She called Fran Child from the Port Jefferson Historical Society and suggested a fashion show using her costumes and models from the Society. I think it was circa 1978…I ended up modeling 19th ‘underclothes.’ Trust me, I was well covered up in cotton fabric. It was a really fun event and kicked off Nan’s new business,” said Russell.

Now, once again, Guzzetta and Russell’s efforts complement each other. The mannequins are the three-dimensional component to the pictures and documents that comprise the rest of the exhibit, specifically Russell’s traveling suffrage display, which explores the suffrage movement on a local, state, and national level.  

“One display is six panels on the centennial of women’s right to vote in 2017, organized by the New York State Library, New York State Archives and New York State Museum,” Russell said. “The other standing display is from the National Archives. The town has loaned both displays to the Port Jefferson Harbor Education and Arts Conservancy.” 

Individual local suffragists, such as Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and Annie Rensselaer Tinker, are highlighted in the exhibit. Belmont, a wealthy socialite who parlayed her social status and money into fighting for women’s suffrage, founded the Political Equality League and co-founded of the National Woman’s Party. She opened up her lavish Oakdale estate Idle Hour for fundraisers, networking, and strategizing. 

Tinker, a member of the Woman’s Political Union, who summered in Poquott, participated in meetings, rallies, marches, and theatrical benefits for women’s suffrage. She also established and trained a women’s cavalry.

These individual profiles and details enhance the human interest element that Guzzetta strove to embrace with her costuming, combining art and entertainment with learning. “She really loved the historical, the theatrical. She really wanted to be sure that everyone had fun. It was not enough to be appropriately dressed. She wanted people to have fun … people had to have fun,” her widower Charles said.

Guzzetta’s joy in sharing stories and making history more tangible were hallmarks of her business, one that Dave and Lorraine hope to continue. “There is a plan and we are in the middle of organizing… We are hoping there is a call for her work, that it is able to sustain itself,” Dave said. 

Celebrating Women’s Suffrage and the Timeless Collection of Nan Guzzetta will be on view on the second floor of the Port Jefferson Village Center, 101-A East Broadway, Port Jefferson through March 31. The Center is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Join them for a reception on Sunday, March 6 from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information, please visit www.portjeff.com/gallery/ or call 631-802-2160. 

By Kevin Redding

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

— Barbara Russell,

Town of Brookhaven 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.

Six 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.

“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 was built in the 1700s,” Arceri thought “there has to be a day designated to celebrating all these organizations in the Three Villages 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 four-year run, the fifth annual Culper Spy Day will be held on Saturday, Sept. 14 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. offering self-guided tours of over 20 locations including the addition of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot encampment with musket firing and battle drills on the Village Green for the ultimate Culper Spy Day experience. “The more the merrier,” laughs Arceri.

One of the highlights every year during the daylong dive into history is the opportunity to visit two neighboring and active churches in Setauket — the Caroline Church of Brookhaven and the Setauket Presbyterian Church, both on the National Register of Historic Places and prominent stomping grounds for soldiers and spies during the Revolutionary War. There will be docent-led tours through the historic structures and their premises, and visitors will be free to roam each church’s expansive cemetery, where some of the weathered gravestones stacked alongside each other belong to those who helped win our independence.

While the congregations have a good relationship these days, and together co-own and maintain the Setauket Village Green that separates the two sites, there was a time when the churches couldn’t have been more opposed. In fact, the conflict of the American Revolution was represented quite well, on a local front, by the two Setauket buildings.

Caroline Church of Brookhaven

The Caroline Church of Brookhaven. Photo by Anthony White

The Caroline Church’s congregation began in 1723 and was officially erected as a building six years later in 1729. Aside from some modern renovations, including the installation of colored glass windows around the interior of the church in the late 19th century, in terms of what it looked like during the war, “What you’re looking at was here,” Town of Brookhaven historian Barbara Russell tells church tourists when they inevitably ask upon enter the historic building.

“The original wood beams are still here,” said Russell, pointing out the hull-shaped ceiling of the beautiful and age-scented church. “I think it’s important to say that we’re still a church. Believe it or not, there are people who walk in here on Culper Spy Day thinking we’re just some kind of museum and we’re not. We value our historic building, but we’re still an active Episcopal congregation.”

“This is a special place,” Russell continued. “We’re coming up on the congregation’s 300th anniversary. Our country isn’t even that old yet!” According to the town historian, the Episcopalian church was an Anglican one before the Revolution, and was the house of worship for Loyalists in the area, those American colonists who remained supportive of the British crown during the fighting.

In fact, the original congregation’s staunch loyalty to Britain gave the building its current name. It was originally Christ Church, but, according to Russell, it is alleged that someone wrote to Queen Wilhelmina Karoline of Brandenburgh-Anspach, queen of George II throughout the early 18th century, informing her of the church when it was brand new, compelling her highness to send its members a silver communion service.

Barbara Russell outside the Caroline Church of Brookhaven. Photo by Kevin Redding

Although Russell said the royal gift is nowhere to be found within the church, there are Vestry minutes that record the unanimous decision “…that this Church and parish Shall in honour of our gracious Queen, her most Serene Britannic Majesty be hereafter called Caroline parish and Caroline Church, and this be entered upon record in Our Vestry books ad futuram rei Memoriam.”

A portrait of the queen hangs on the wall of the church’s lobby, on the left side when you enter. Also in that first room, encased in plexiglass, is a musket ball that was found embedded in a wall near the building’s southwest corner when the church was being restored by philanthropist Ward Melville in 1937. Assumed to be a remnant of the Raid of Setauket in 1777, the single, approximately 69-caliber projectile was, according to historians at the site, most likely fired from an American soldier’s French musket during the raid.

“It was either somebody firing at the church steeple or a soldier that didn’t have very good aim,” Russell laughed.

Among the gravestones in the church’s cemetery is one for Mary Longbotham Muirson, wife of Dr. George Muirson, a Setauket resident, physician, Loyalist and worshipper at the church. Although he was a medical doctor, Dr. Muirson was not welcome to stay in the town after the war due to his Loyalist beliefs; his lands were confiscated and he was banished. It’s not clear what happened to Mary Muirson, but there’s a letter that was sent to her from her husband in April 1784, so it’s most likely that she remained in Setauket.

The grave of Patriot Samuel Longbottom at the Caroline Church of Brookhaven

Most interestingly, Muirson’s son, Heathcote Muirson, from a previous marriage, fought on the Patriot side; he took part in the raid on Fort St. George in Mastic in 1780 under the command of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge — of course, East Setauket’s most famous hero and leader of the Culper Spy Ring — and ultimately died from wounds suffered at Lloyd Neck.  Muirson’s other son was a Loyalist.

“So there was a father and son on either side of the conflict. We saw that happen again and again, right?” Russell observed, overlooking the gravestones that include Revolutionary War veterans and Suffolk County Militia soldiers.

Russell said there are a total of six Patriot graves in the Caroline churchyard including Israel Bennett, Robert Jayne, Samuel Jayne, Benjamin Jones, Vincent Jones and Samuel Longbottom, all of which can be visited on Culper Spy Day. Participants are encouraged to walk through and explore the area on their own. However, docents will be in the church and in the church’s History Center on the lower level of the Parish House for tours and to answer questions.

Setauket Presbyterian Church

Setauket Presbyterian Church. Photo by Anthony White

High among the list of helpful experts on the premises is Art Billadello, a longtime member and past president of the Three Village Historical Society and the Setauket Presbyterian Church’s go-to representative. He’s been a member of the congregation since 1986 and, for more than 30 years, Billadello has taken great pride in preserving and sharing the history of the Federal-style church — as well as debunking any and all myths that surround it, of which there have been plenty.

Many of these falsities can be linked to “TURN,” which has been a blessing and a curse for the site, according to Billadello.

“When that [mini-series] was running, if I had 30 people on a Revolutionary History Walking Tour, the first thing I’d ask as soon as they got out of their cars was, ‘How many of you watched ‘TURN’?’,” Billadello recalls. “Out of those 30 people, 20 hands would go up. Then the second thing I’ll say to them is, ‘Well, I’m gonna turn you around 180 degrees to the truth …’ because they would believe everything on the show, which isn’t all accurate … that’s Hollywood.”

Despite letting down some faithful viewers of the AMC program by dispelling the “sexier” and more fabricated aspects of the show in favor of what really happened, Billadello agrees with Arceri that “TURN” has been beneficial by bringing hordes of visitors from all over to the church.

Art Billadello inside the Presbyterian Church. Photo by Kevin Redding

The truth is, the Presbyterian Church that stands at 5 Caroline Avenue today is not the one that was there during the American Revolution. “The new church,” as Billadello calls it, is at least the third structure on the site. The Revolutionary-Era Church, built circa 1714, looked more like the Caroline Church. It was destroyed and fortified in 1777 by the Loyalists who worshipped across the street and looked down on the Presbyterian, a congregation that was occupied by supporters of America’s independence.

In fact, Benjamin Tallmadge’s father was a pastor at the church from 1754 — the year of Tallmadge’s birth — until he died in 1786. His father and mother are among those buried in the church’s graveyard, along with Abraham Woodhull, another leading member of the Culper Spy Ring, whose commemorative monument is one of the most impressive on the property.

Arceri’s hero, Anna Smith Strong, is buried in the neighboring St. Georges Manor Cemetery in Strong’s Neck. According to Billadello, she once used her Loyalist connections to get her husband, Selah Strong, released from the prison ship where he was confined. The two lived in Setauket for the duration of their lives following the war.

“This history is so important because it was ordinary civilians, from this town, doing extraordinary things,” Billadello said. “All school kids know about George Washington, but these regular people who helped win  our independence are virtually unknown.”

Indeed, Woodhull was a farmer and Caleb Brewster was a blacksmith while Austin Roe was a tavernkeeper. “They could’ve been caught and hung,” explained Billadello.

The Presbyterian Church was built back up around 1781, but in 1811, it was struck by lightning and most of it burned down as a result. The structurally sound beams, which were exposed to the fire and appear charred, were re-used in the steeple of the church and remain on the property.

By the end of 1811, the church was rebuilt for a third time and was officially dedicated in the spring of the following year. While, as in the case of the Caroline Church, there have been some modern renovations of its interior, like carpeting, rail and pew replacements, the Presbyterian Church is irrefutably historic inside. There’s even a pew door from 1811 on display.

During Culper Spy Day, docents will be on hand to give tours of the historic church and cemetery.

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 I would really love to put that on the forefront of people’s minds.”

Tickets are $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. 10 to 14. 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 21 Culper Spy Ring locations. If available, tickets may be purchased at the historical society on the day of the event.

Participating organizations:

The fifth 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, Brewster House, Campus Bicycle, Caroline Church of Brookhaven, Country House Restaurant, Custom House, Daughters of the American Revolution Anna Smith Strong Chapter, Discover Long Island, 1750 David Conklin Farmhouse Museum, 1795 Dr. Daniel Kissam House Museum, Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum, Incorporated Village of Port Jefferson, 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, Joseph Lloyd Manor House, Ketcham Inn Foundation, Litchfield Historical Society, Old Methodist Church, Paumanok Tours, Preservation Long Island, Raynham Hall Museum, Rock Hall Museum, 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot, Setauket Elementary School, Setauket Harbor Task Force, Setauket Neighborhood House, Setauket Presbyterian Church, Sherwood-Jayne Farm, Special Collections Stony Brook University Libraries, Stirring up History, Stony Brook Grist Mill, Three Village Community Trust, The Three Village Inn, The Thompson House, Times Beacon Record News Media and the Underhill Society of America.

Vilma Rodriguez and Bea Ruberto holds a photo of Sound Beach from the 1930 in front of the La Famiglia Pizzeria. Photo by Kyle Barr

Ninety years ago in 1929, New York City newspaper The Daily Mirror offered subscribers the opportunity to buy a 20- by 100-foot parcel of undeveloped land between Rocky Point and Miller Place. The cost to purchase a plot of land through the subscription was $89.50 in 1929, equivalent to $1,315 in 2019.

In the trees and rocks of Long Island’s North Shore, a hamlet slowly rose from the earth.

Sound Beach is a hamlet of only 1.6 square miles and around 7,612 people, according to the last census. Stuffed in between Rocky Point and Miller Place, one of the North Shore’s smallest hamlets barely scrapes along the ubiquitously driven Route 25A. For those who don’t know the area, the hamlet boundaries are often mistaken for that of its neighbors.

Rocky Point has a historical society. So does Miller Place, combined with bordering Mount Sinai. Now prominent members of the Sound Beach community feel that’s something that needs correcting. 

in 1929, The Daily Mirror offered subscribers the opportunity to buy a 20- by 100-foot parcel of undeveloped land between Rocky Point and Miller Place. Photo from Bea Ruberto

Mimi Hodges, a near lifelong resident, is just one of the several women who are looking at Sound Beach’s past. She said that ad in the newspaper didn’t attract your average vacationers looking to take a break from New York City. They were working-class individuals, all of whom were looking for a change of pace during the depression era of the 1930s. They came with very little, sometimes only tents for their families, but still managed to build a small but safe town. 

“Sound Beach is unique in that it was a place created specifically for the working class,” she said. “People who didn’t have a lot of money and wanted to get away from the city — from Brooklyn and Queens. They put up their tents, they put up their own little houses, and eventually, in 1930, the Sound Beach Property Owner’s Association was born.”

The Sound Beach history project, which is being spearheaded by the Sound Beach Civic Association, is hoping to bridge that gap. Engineered by community leaders and longtime residents, local women are already uncovering several old photographs that show a much different Sound Beach, full of dirt roads and dusty buildings.

“It’s like a little mystery,” said Sound Beach Civic Association President Bea Ruberto.

Vilma Rodriguez, another resident, said work comes in bits and pieces, but their group has been energized.

“Sound Beach had no roads, no streetlights,” she said referring to the olden days of the small hamlet. “It’s little bits of information, but it builds up.”

For many of its earliest decades, mail was sent and received through Scotty’s General Store on Echo Avenue or Moeller’s General Store on Sound Beach Boulevard. It wasn’t until June 1, 1946, the first post office opened in the hamlet. 

In the small shopping center off of New York Avenue, where La Famiglia Pizzeria currently resides, the locals used to go to M.B. Sweet Shop for lunch and candy. Next to it, instead of the Italian restaurant, was the Square Market Store. Local resident Florence McArdle attributed the local setting to a particular show.

“It was just like ‘Happy Days,’” she said. 

Back in the day, the building that now houses Bedrossian Real Estate on Northport Road once was a community house that hosted everything from dances to pingpong and knock hockey. In that time, lacking a church, McArdle, a resident from the 1930s, said local community members “would iron the tablecloth, flip it over and they would have Mass on Sundays in the bar, Boyles.”

Sound Beach once had its own police department, its own highway and sanitation department. People once gathered at the “pavilion” on the bluff, where kids could buy ice cream and hot dogs.

Local resident Stephanie Mcllvaine said she has been pouring through newsletters from the 1940s, which reveal just how much has changed in the 80 years since. She wrote that a May 1940 newsletter was the census results. John Mertz, the winter caretaker and “mayor,” found 61 families consisting of 185 people lived in Sound Beach year-round. There were four general stores, three gas stations, one restaurant, five general contractors, two masons, one electrician, two fire wardens and two deputy sheriffs. Many of the year-round residents were members of the fire department as well. 

Despite their deep dive into this local history, many things are still unknown. What locals call “The Square” was either called Journal Square or Moeller Square, though Ruberto did not know where Journal Square even came from. There was a Moeller of the general store fame, but she has had trouble getting in contact with the family. She learned there was a James Moeller who taught math at the Miller Place School District but learned from the board of education he passed in 2012. 

Barbara Russell, the Town of Brookhaven historian, said her office has only a few items and details in the way of Sound Beach, but she praised the women for taking on the task. She said with the enthusiasm the group is showing, they’re well on their way to creating walking tours or a historical society.

Many of the local women looking back at the hamlet’s history have a fondness for the way things were. They watched the area grow slowly, ever so slowly, from the working-class family’s retreat to what it is today. Back then, Sound Beach was the destination, and there was no need to drive out and plan visits to other parts of the island, they said.

“Most of us here, we thought we were growing up in a ‘garden of Eden,’” said Hodges. “It was just fantastic.”

For those looking to get involved in the history project or who are interested in donating old photos, contact Bea Ruberto at [email protected] or call 631-744-6952.