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Chicken Hill

Residents of Chicken Hill, Marjorie and Hub Edwards. Photo courtesy of TVHS

During the month of February, Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket, joins the nation in celebrating Black History Month, a commemoration of African American history and achievement, with its latest exhibit, Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time.

Through photographs, artifacts and recorded interviews, the memory of this neighborhood, whose residents included African Americans, Native Americans, Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Rumanians, Irish and Italians, has been preserved.

The exhibit is a 2015 recipient of a Leadership in History Award from the American Association for State and Local History and may be seen on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $10 adults, $5 children and students. For more information, call 631-751-3730.

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Setauket Union Free School District No. 2, the “school on the hill.” Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

My previous article, on March 17, detailed the story of the Setauket Christian Avenue African-American and Native-American settlement and the oral histories collected by Stony Brook University professor Glenda Dickerson and her Theater Arts crew for the 1988 play and exhibit at the fine Art Center. At the time, the Three Village Historical Society produced a journal of the play and the oral histories collected which is now available as a PDF file. In 2014, the society developed and installed a new exhibit that detailed the Setauket/East Setauket area where Native-Americans, African-Americans, German-Americans, Irish-Americans and a new group of Eastern European immigrants lived and worked between 1861 and the first three decades of the 20th century.

This new exhibit, Chicken Hill, a Community Lost to Time, is an exploration of the life of the native and immigrant population in the half-mile surrounding the present 1870 Setauket Methodist Church. In 1861, the Nunns and Clark brick piano factory was erected southwest of the then 1843 Methodist Chapel. Nunns hired mostly German immigrants. It went out of business in 1857. The building became the Long Island Rubber Company in 1876 and soon hired a work force of mostly African- American and Irish workers. By 1888, the majority of workers were Eastern European Jewish workers with a flavoring of Eastern European Catholic workers as well as all the previous ethnic groups.

One of the dozen or more oral histories in the exhibit is by Helen Strelecki Bubka, who grew up on Chicken Hill. “One of my fondest memories was how the boys, Hubbell and his brother Beeb, came to help me. There was a boy living in town and he was pestering me. … I was just a young teenager and I was frightened of him. I found out later that Beeb and Hubbell went and told him to leave me alone. That’s how close the relationships were with our friends on Chicken Hill. … We all got along so well together, black, white, Jewish, Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, it didn’t make a difference what nationality or color we were. If you needed help, you could depend on all your neighbors; one way or another, somebody would come through and pitch in and help. If somebody was ill, they would take food to them, they would try to help in so many different ways, it was such a close knit community, and I think that’s my fondest memory.”

Helen Strelecki was one of several children of Samuel and Sophie Strelecki. She was born and raised in Setauket on the family farm on South Jersey Avenue. Her Polish mother and Russian father emigrated from Europe. Helen attended the Setauket School, on the hill, just east of the Setauket fire house and the VFW log cabin building. Helen said, “Lunch times, we all ran home to get our lunch and run back to school quick so that we could, you know, play ball or something during the time.”

The Setauket Union Free School District No. 2 opened in 1911 and brought together students from the three schoolhouses in West Setauket, East Setauket and South Setauket. There are many stories that came from the students who attended the school until it closed in 1951. Many of these stories are detailed in the Chicken Hill exhibit.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the Three Village Historical Society.

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AASLH says thanks to Frank Turano

Center, Frank Turano, project manager of the Chicken hill Exhibit Committee, receives the AASLH Award of Merit. Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

The Three Village Historical Society received the American Association for State and Local History’s Award of Merit for the exhibit Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time at the AASLH’s annual meeting in Louisville, Ky., on Sept. 18.

The Award of Merit is presented to recognize excellence for projects ranging from civic engagement to exhibits and publications.

The Award of Merit is one of the AASLH’s Leadership in History Awards. AASLH bestows Leadership in History Awards to establish and encourage standards of excellence in the collection, preservation and interpretation of state and local history.

AASLH maintains the awards program to recognize good history that changes people’s lives by helping them make connections with the past. Recipients can take pride in the fact that they are recognized by their peers. Winners use the award to promote their institution in their communities and beyond, including leveraging needed funds.

Chicken Hill project manager Frank Turano and I traveled to the AASLH annual meeting to receive the award and to participate in the annual meeting. Staff members and volunteers at history museums, historical societies and related organizations from all over the United States attend the annual meeting to take part in sessions about all phases of local history and to exchange ideas, problems and successes.

The awards dinner on Friday was attended by recipients from 31 states, and the range of their efforts was detailed as each individual or group came up to receive their award. This year, AASLH conferred 61 national awards honoring people, projects, exhibits, books and organizations.

“The Leadership in History Awards is AASLH’s highest distinction and the winners represent the best in the field,” said Trina Nelson Thomas, AASLH awards chair and director, Stark Art & History Venue, Stark Foundation. “This year, we are pleased to distinguish each recipient’s commitment and innovation to the interpretation of history, as well as their leadership for the future of state and local history.”

The Three Village Historical Society Chicken Hill exhibit was designed and installed by members of the society’s Three Village Rhodes Committee, many of whom had a personal connection with the Chicken Hill area and the people who lived and worked there over the past century and a half.

The exhibit includes stories of the evolution of the Chicken Hill area and its religious, social and cultural development. It especially details family life and the passion that surrounds the Setauket baseball teams based there. One of the most dramatic parts of the exhibit is a touch screen computer station featuring interviews with former members of Chicken Hill, who relate their personal stories and recollections of the events that engaged the entire community.

The Chicken Hill exhibit, as well as the companion SPIES! exhibit, are open every Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Three Village Historical Society Headquarters, 93 North Country Road in Setauket.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

The Chicken Hill community was located in the area of Route 25A and Main Street in Setauket. Photo from the Three Village Historical Society

The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) recently announced the winners of the 70th annual Leadership in History Awards, the most prestigious recognition for achievement in the preservation and interpretation of state and local history.

Of 60 national awards honoring people, projects, exhibits, books and organizations, the Three Village Historical Society in Setauket was chosen to receive the 2015 Leadership in History Award of Merit for its current exhibit, “Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time.” The Award of Merit is presented for excellence in history programs, projects and people when compared with similar activities nationwide.

“The Leadership in History Awards is AASLH’s highest distinction and the winners represent the best in the field,” Trina Nelson Thomas, the awards chair and director of AASLH said in a statement.

The distinction is one Frank Turano, the curator of the exhibit, is very excited about.

“It’s an honor, a privilege,” he said. “It puts our organization in very elite company. The AASLH does not give out this award in every state every year, so it is a very, very selective award.”

“Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time” explores a particular neighborhood, formed in the mid-nineteenth century, that surrounded the Setauket United Methodist Church on Route 25A and Main Street in Setauket. At its height in the 1930s and 1940s, it was a community of workmen/laborers and businessmen comprised of immigrants from Poland, Lithuania, Russia and Italy as well as African Americans and Native Americans.

According to Turano, the Chicken Hill community dispersed in the 1960s when the Three Village area became a suburban community.

Asked what the inspiration was for creating this display, Turano said, “This exhibit honors people who have been the backbone of this community for as long as this community existed and people [who] were largely overlooked. They helped build the community, they help maintain the community today, and they largely are taken for granted or overlooked.”

The Chicken Hill exhibit has been warmly received by the community but Turano noticed that the general public “simply did not know that this community existed.”

“If someone spoke of Chicken Hill [in the past], more often than not, it was in disparaging terms and what I wanted to do with this exhibit was have people recognize the significance of that community,” he said.

The exhibit is constantly evolving, as the society is always accepting more memorabilia, stories and photos from the community. Since its inception last June, the Chicken Hill exhibit has now almost three times as many photos in its archives, which have been scanned and placed on digital frames. “We’ve built flexibility into the exhibit,” explained Turano. In addition, the exhibit includes a video featuring stories from residents who grew up in the community and an 1860 Robert Nunns piano recently restored by Michael Costa of Costa Piano Shoppes in Port Jefferson Station.

The award will be presented at a special banquet during the 2015 AASLH annual meeting in Louisville, Ky., on Sept. 18.

“It’s been a privilege working with the people that called Chicken Hill home and I have to thank society Archivist Karen Martin, Carlton “Hub” Edwards and the members of the [Three Village Historical Society] Rhodes committee who provided the information used to put the exhibit together,” Turano said.

“Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time” is currently available for viewing at the Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket, from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays and by appointment. For more information, call 631-751-2676 or visit www.tvhs.org.

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.”