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Corey Geske

A marker indicating the spot where the Roe Tavern once stood in Setauket.

By Corey Geske

Two hundred thirty years ago, George Washington planned a tour of Long Island during the third week of April 1790 to thank the members of the Culper Spy Ring of Setauket, whose courage and resourcefulness played a significant role in helping to win the American Revolution. 

The First President chose to begin his tour on April 19, the 15th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first military encounters of that war, when thirteen colonies fought to become independent from the British empire. Washington’s Long Island tour marked that day, which since 1894 has been known as Patriots’ Day. More recently, in 2017, the work of the Culper Spy Ring was recognized by the New York State Legislature and commemorative Spy Trail signs were installed by the North Shore Promotion Alliance and the Ward Melville Heritage Organization. 

Washington planned to set out from New York City, then the capital of the young American nation, on Monday April 19, 1790, but weather delayed him for a day. After touring the South Shore, he headed north to the Coram area and then west to Setauket, arriving on April 22, nearly nine years to the day (April 23, 1781) when his chief spy Abraham Woodhull, code name Samuel Culper, Sr., of Setauket, wrote to him that his spy ring faced imminent danger. 

Washington’s itinerary demonstrates a keen sense of place timed to show his personal appreciation for how important the intelligence from Setauket was to the winning of the war, information that helped save West Point in 1780 and the French navy at Newport, RI, so it could sail south for the ultimate American victory at Yorktown, VA. 

A marker indicating the spot where the Roe Tavern once stood in Setauket.

On April 22, 1790, Washington recorded in his diary “. . . thence to Setakit . . . to the House of a Captn. Roe which is tolerably dect.[decent] with obliging people in it.” He arrived at Roe Tavern with an entourage led by Selah Strong, a Patriot imprisoned by the British during the Revolution, the grandson of the builder of the 1703 home that became part of the tavern; and husband of Anna (Nancy) Smith Strong, a key member of the Culper Ring. 

The President slept at Roe Tavern run by Captain Austin Roe, a critical courier and messenger for the ring, who frequently rode from Setauket to New York City to deliver information vital to Washington. It is a tribute to Roe and the Setauket-based ring, that Washington mapped his Long Island tour from the South to North Shore to travel from Setauket west to New York, as Roe had done.

On Friday morning, April 23, 1790, Washington “left Roes, and baited the horses at Smiths Town, at a Widow Blydenbergs – a decent House 10 Miles from Setalket . . .” The stone doorstep, which still exists, of the long-gone Widow Blydenburgh’s Tavern, may well have supported Washington’s footsteps and serves as a reminder of Jonathan Harrington of Lexington, who, fatally shot by the British, crawled back to the doorstep of his home fronting the common to die at the feet of his wife.

The Arthur House in Smithtown

Washington’s carriage passed by what is now known as the Arthur House, circa 1752, on West Main Street, Smithtown, the future home of Mary Woodhull Arthur, daughter of Abraham Woodhull, the critical correspondent in the spy network set up by Major Benjamin Tallmadge. Born in Setauket, Tallmadge relied upon his boyhood friends to supply intelligence at great risk and was Washington’s spymaster and director of military intelligence.

In 1781, Robert Townsend of Oyster Bay and New York City, code name Culper Junior, could not trust to writing the news of the ring’s probable discovery by the British and risked the journey from New York City to personally inform Woodhull in Setauket. Immediately thereafter, Woodhull wrote Washington on April 23, 1781: “I had a visit from C. Junr. and am sorry to inform you that he will not write any more on any account whatever.” 

In this darkest of moments, the Culper Spy Ring faced the ultimate challenge of surviving and finding another way to convey information to Washington knowing that  British spy William Heron, code name ‘Hiram the Spy,’ had already reported to British General Sir Henry Clinton that “Private dispatches are frequently sent from New York to the Chieftain here (George Washington) by some traitors. They come by the way of Setalket, where a certain Brewster receives them at, or near, a certain womans,” that is to say Anna Strong signaled Woodhull, via the arrangement of clothes on her clothesline, when Captain Caleb Brewster arrived in his whaleboat to carry messages across Long Island Sound.

The stone doorstep of the long-gone Widow Blydenburgh’s Inn in Smithtown

In 1789 during his first year as the unanimously elected First President, Washington decided he would visit each state to determine their feelings about the new United States as a nation; and traveled to New England from New York City through Connecticut to New Hampshire. He completed his mission with a Southern Tour in 1791. 

During a pandemic, as we mark the 245th anniversary of Patriots’ Day and the 230th anniversary of Washington’s 1790 tour of Long Island, let us remember the future First President was said to have been seen on his knees at Valley Forge praying as the American army, outnumbered by the enemy, starved, froze and faced the scourge of smallpox, a devastating virus that thinned the ranks of his army and put Boston into lockdown.

Facing a situation akin to what we face today, Washington established isolation hospitals in New York to control the epidemic – while the ‘cordon sanitaire’ that worked in Europe against the plague was reinstated in North America to control the smallpox virus. 

During the British occupation of New York, nearly 11,000 American patriots died on British prison ships in Wallabout Bay near the present Brooklyn Navy Yard, many succumbing to the disease. These ‘martyrs’ included the woman who historian Morton Pennypacker believed to be the mother of Robert Townsend’s son. It is a staggering number brought home by this past month’s coronavirus losses. 

Historic preservation is important: it reminds us that others, too, have faced crises, and that there were many challenges to overcome to win the American Revolution.

About the author: Independent Historian Corey Geske of Smithtown proposed a National Register Historic District for downtown Smithtown in early 2017, prepared the report resulting in the Smithtown Bull being determined Eligible for the NR (2018) and wrote the successful nomination for recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places of the Byzantine Catholic Church of the Resurrection (1929) designed by Henry J. McGill and Talbot F. Hamlin, and its Rectory, the former Fred and Annie Wagner Residence (1912) designed by Gustav Stickley.

Photos courtesy of Corey Geske

 

View of Old Roe’s Tavern in Setauket, 1914, by Arthur W. Strong, gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck Sr. Photography ©New-York Historical Society at https://www.nyhistory.org

By Corey Geske

Now through Jan. 16, 2020, the New-York Historical Society is featuring an exhibition Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere, while in East Setauket there’s reason to celebrate a find related to the home of courier and spy Capt. Austin Roe, known as the “Paul Revere of Long Island.” 

Roe Tavern, Robert S. Feather Photo Postcard, c. 1916-1918. Photo courtesy of Three Village Historical Society

For the first time in a century, sketches of Old Roe’s Tavern in its original location in East Setauket have come to light courtesy of the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) after an ongoing search, at my request, for catalogued entries that initially evaded art handlers. Gifted in 1954 to the N-YHS, the sketches remained unheralded for 65 years until brought to light this September on the eve of the recent fifth annual Culper Spy Day sponsored by the Three Village Historical Society, Tri-Spy Tours, The Long Island Museum and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization. 

Dating from 1911 to 1917, the sketches in graphite (pencil) with touches of white chalk on buff paper are by Arthur W. Strong, an interior designer and third-generation American sign painter. At my request, they have been photographically digitized for the first time. 

Spy Trail captured in Strong’s sketches

On his sketches, Strong inscribed a date of circa 1702 to the future tavern, a year before it’s now believed the first Selah Strong in Setauket built the one-story section seen to the right (east) in the top photo. The Strongs sold to the Woodhulls who, in turn, sold to the Roe family, who added the main section in 1735 and turned it into a tavern. Under cover of his livelihood as tavern-keeper, Roe acted as a courier for George Washington’s spy ring, carrying information between New York City and Setauket at great personal risk during the American Revolution, when Long Island was occupied by the British. 

Among the few known views of Roe Tavern in its original location (now marked by a sign), Strong’s sketches predate Route 25A road changes that necessitated the tavern’s move a mile away in 1936. Strong’s 1914 sketch of the tavern conveys the same basic undulations of land and roadway so familiar today on the Spy Trail, which extends from Port Jefferson to Great Neck along 25A, known as the King’s Highway during the Revolution. 

Today it’s known as the Culper Spy Trail after Washington’s chief spies on Long Island — Abraham Woodhull, alias Samuel Culper Sr., and Robert Townsend, Culper Jr., who provided key intelligence to Washington in 1780 that helped save West Point from Benedict Arnold’s treason. Also, thanks to the horsemanship of Roe that year, the French Navy was spared at Newport, Rhode Island, so it could sail south to assist Washington in achieving the ultimate Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown, Virginia, the following year. 

In 2017, the New York State Legislature recognized the contribution of the Culper Spy Ring, and commemorative Spy Trail signs were installed by the North Shore Promotion Alliance. 

Arthur Strong’s 1914 sketch provides the earliest known perspective of the Roe Tavern from the northeast looking west along the dirt road to New York City as it was likely laid out when traveled by Roe as he couriered coded messages for Washington. Riding horseback 110 miles round trip at least once a week, on roads patrolled by British soldiers and frequented by highwaymen and British spies and couriers, the danger persisted when Roe returned home where the enemy, drinking at his tavern, would hopefully drop an unguarded comment on military plans that warranted transmittal to Washington. 

Washington’s room at the tavern

Washington’s Bedroom (1790) in Old Roe’s
Tavern, 1917, by Arthur W. Strong,
gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck Sr.
Photography ©New-York Historical Society at https://www.nyhistory.org

Through Strong’s eyes, too, we see the tavern where it stood in 1790 when Washington saw it and recorded in his diary, “thence to Setakit . . . to the House of a Captn. Roe which is tolerably dect. [decent] with obliging people in it.” Washington slept there on the evening of April 22, 1790 during a post-war tour of Long Island to thank those, like Roe, who spied for the American cause. 

Out of a cache of six, five sketches are related to the tavern and a sixth (1915) is of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. Strong’s work features a previously stored-away view of the second-floor front southwest bedroom George Washington slept in when visiting Roe Tavern in 1790. 

The week of Washington’s birthday bicentennial, a Feb. 26, 1932 Long-Islander newspaper article reported that care had been taken to “preserve the original appearance” of the bedroom and that its central feature was the open fireplace “across the northern end of the room.” That is the focus of Strong’s 1917 sketch, made years earlier, showing the first president’s humble accommodations. 

From tavern to tea house

Arthur W. Strong, Front Façade of Old Roe’s Tavern in Setauket, 1911, by Arthur W. Strong, Gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck, Sr., Photography ©New-York Historical Society at https://www.nyhistory.org

According to census records, Arthur W. Strong was born about 1878. He may have moved from Brooklyn to Port Jefferson in November 1911 at about age 32, when he completed his first sketch, which was of the tavern. 

Strong’s sketches appear to have been done during his commissions as a sign painter, and he returned to the tavern on three occasions. The first sketch, drawn in 1911, included an inset of what was likely his proposed sign marking Washington’s visit (that Strong mistakenly recorded as occurring in 1782) and not a word about a tea house. Strong’s last three sketches in 1917 depict the front facade of the tavern without any sign; a proposed sign for the ‘Old Tavern Tea House’ with a full-face picture of George Washington and the correct date of his visit in 1790; and Washington’s bedroom. The latter indicates Strong’s interest in interior decorating that ultimately led to his becoming a partner in his own design business by 1930.  

Strong’s 1911 sketch is reminiscent of similarly composed views found in photo postcards of the tavern by English-born photographers Arthur S. Greene (1867-1955), who came to Port Jefferson in 1894, and Robert S. Feather (1861-1937) a jeweler and watchmaker who arrived in Smithtown after 1900. 

While Greene’s postcard shows a real estate sign on a post like that drawn in Strong’s sketches, Feather’s postcard circa 1916-1918 shows a boxy tea house sign, framing a view taken east of the signpost. Tea houses were a popular venue in 1917: the same year Strong drew Washington’s visage on his Old Tavern Tea House sign for Roe’s, a new tea house was established to the west on Route 25A, at the Roslyn Grist Mill, the oldest Dutch commercial building in the United States (now undergoing extensive restoration by the Roslyn Landmark Society).

Roe Tavern sketches reach N-YHS

Washington’s Bedroom (1790) in Old Roe’s
Tavern, 1917, by Arthur W. Strong,
gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck Sr.
Photography©New-York Historical Society at https://www.nyhistory.org

The N-YHS received Strong’s sketches as a Gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck Sr., historian to the Sons of the American Revolution, collector of documents signed by Washington and father of Syracuse University professor and noted historian and author Oscar Theodore Barck Jr. (1902-1993), whose papers and ephemera the N-YHS also houses. 

Barck Jr.’s book, “New York City During the War for Independence: With Special Reference to the Period of British Occupation” (1931), provides one of the early discussions of Washington’s spy ring, following Suffolk County historian Morton Pennypacker’s “Two Spies” (1930) identifying Robert Townsend of Oyster Bay as Culper Jr. in prelude to Pennypacker’s “George Washington’s Spies” (1939) establishing Abraham Woodhull of Setauket as Culper Sr. 

Pennypacker described how Anna Smith Strong hung laundry on a clothesline to signal Woodhull when and where Capt. Caleb Brewster’s whaleboats beached in various coves to receive messages he would relay across the Sound to Washington’s headquarters. Arthur Strong’s interest in Roe Tavern shows an appreciation for Strong family history in Setauket although his father’s family emigrated to the United States from England in 1851. As “Master Painters,” Arthur Strong’s family established their own business of paper hanging and painting in Manhattan and Brooklyn before Arthur moved to Port Jefferson.

Encoded art and architecture lead to rediscovered sketches

Roe Tavern’s two-story three-bay main section with a door to the right, considered a “half-house,” featured nine-over-six windows, a common yet potentially politically significant configuration, also found in the similar facade of a circa 1752 house once the home of Mary Woodhull Arthur and now owned by the Smithtown Central School District on West Main Street, Smithtown. That suggestive fenestration led me to discover Mary’s father was Abraham Woodhull, aka Culper Sr., one of the Culpers for whom the Spy Trail was named. After leaving Roe’s Tavern on April 23, 1790, Washington traveled to Smithtown past the Arthur House en route to Huntington and dined at Platt’s Tavern, no longer extant, making Mary’s home the only one of the three Washington passed that day still located where it stood in 1790.

The locating of Strong’s Setauket sketches comes in conjunction with my current research into the possibility that architectural features of Roe Tavern, the Arthur House in Smithtown and the wall paintings of the Sherwood-Jayne House in East Setauket could be highly political in nature. Owned by Preservation Long Island, the Sherwood-Jayne House is believed to have been built about 1730 with the east addition housing the paintings dated to circa 1780-1790. Without giving away details, I’ll say the Sherwood-Jayne House would not be the first American home documented with frescoes of a similar style said to have been painted to express loyalty to either a British or American political stance close to the end of the American Revolution. 

As a clue to understanding the political potential of the Sherwood-Jayne wall paintings, I’ll remind readers of Abigail Adams’ admonition, “Remember the ladies,” written to her husband, John, at a time when he was helping to frame the Declaration of Independence for the new American government in 1776. Abigail’s advice lends meaning to the ciphers that appear to be spelled out on the interior walls of the Sherwood-Jayne House and are repeated in the fenestration of its front facade as well as the windows of Mary Woodhull Arthur’s home and Roe Tavern.

North Shore arts flourish

The southeast parlor, Sherwood-Jayne House, East Setauket
Photo courtesy of Preservation Long Island

Within the 1911 to 1917 time frame that Arthur W. Strong sketched Roe Tavern, painter Emile Albert Gruppé was commissioned in 1916 by antiquarian Howard Sherwood, to restore the wall paintings in a downstairs parlor of his nearby East Setauket home (now the Sherwood-Jayne House). 

Sherwood discovered the paintings beneath the wallpaper shortly after purchasing the house in 1908. 

Strong and Gruppé were working in the East Setauket area while sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey’s early plaster cast of Whisper, the Smithtown Bull (now at the Smithtown Historical Society), was exhibited, beginning in 1913, at the new Smithtown Library (1912), to raise funds for the five-ton bronze Bull. 

Gruppé could have seen the model when he arrived in East Setauket and ironically, in 1919, Emile’s brother, sculptor Karl Gruppé, would become Rumsey’s assistant. After Rumsey’s death in 1922, Karl went to Paris for three years to supervise completion of Rumsey’s unfinished works, which included the Smithtown Bull (National Register Eligible 2018). 

It was cast in 1926, shortly after Emile Gruppé returned to the North Shore and recorded, in April 1925, that he restored “with much care,” the second-floor frescoes at Sherwood’s home. 

The Bull represents not only the time-honored folklore of Richard “Bull” Smith’s famous ride upon a bull circling the land that would become Smithtown but also stands as the secular symbol of the winged ox attribute of St. Luke, patron of painters and architects. 

Standing tall at the junction of Routes 25 and 25A, the bronze Bull installed in Smithtown in 1941 serves as a symbol of the arts along the North Shore from the township of Smithtown to Brookhaven. Little known, but locally significant, Arthur W. Strong, creator of the Roe Tavern Sketches, was a figure in that North Shore arts movement.

About the author: Independent Historian Corey Geske of Smithtown also compared sketches at the N-YHS to an Asher Brown Durand painting at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan, resulting in its correct re-titling as “View in the Valley of Oberhasle, Switzerland” (1842) in the Art Inventories Catalog of the Smithsonian American Art Museums. Geske proposed a National Register Historic District for downtown Smithtown in early 2017, prepared the report resulting in the Smithtown Bull being determined Eligible for the NR (2018) and wrote the successful nomination for recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places of the Byzantine Catholic Church of the Resurrection (1929) designed by Henry J. McGill and Talbot F. Hamlin, and its Rectory, the former Fred and Annie Wagner Residence (1912) designed by Gustav Stickley.

 

The Town of Smithtown's Whisper the Bull statue as decorated for the 2017 holiday season shows the Happy Hanukkah sign that was destroyed. Photo from Corey Geske

Whisper the Bull has long been an iconic landmark in Smithtown, standing at the west entrance of town at the intersection of Routes 25 and 25A, but recently is gaining attention at the state level.

Smithtown resident Corey Geske announced the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has determined the Whisper the Bull statue is officially eligible for the New York State and National Register of Historic Places. Geske called on Town of Smithtown officials at their Dec. 11 meeting to sign off on and complete the application that could protect the statue for generations to come.

“I’m bullish on seeing downtown revitalized with historic preservation leading the way,” she said. “So, let’s get Whisper registered.”

I’m bullish on seeing downtown revitalized with historic preservation leading the way.” 

— Corey Geske

Geske said it was in 2017 she first proposed a three-part conceptual plan for revitalization of downtown Smithtown to elected officials. One key component was the creation of a historic corridor along Main Street/Route 25A starting at the western edge with the bull statue.

“It’s comparable to the Charging Bull on Wall Street, the famous sculpture that brings in tourists from around the world” she said. “We have something to be very proud of, it’s a world-class sculpture.”

The concept of creating a statue for Smithtown was first conceived in 1913 by town founder Richard Smythe’s descendant, Lawrence Smith Butler, while he attended the National School of Fine Arts in Paris. He asked a fellow student Charles Cary Rumsey for help, who came up with depicting the centuries-old legend of Smythe riding the town’s boundary on a bull to claim it.

Geske said she uncovered the sculpture’s history when drafting the nearly 80-page report in April to be submitted to the state for a determination on whether it was eligible to be named a historic place.

New York State’s Registry of Historic Places is an “official list of buildings, structures, districts, objects, and sites significant in the history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture of New York and the nation,” according to the state’s website. Four criteria considered by the state in evaluating the statue include: whether its associated with events that have made a significant contribution to history, associated with the life of a significant person, if it possesses high artistic value or yields information important to history.

The cement platform on which Whisper the Bull stands has a crack. Photo from Corey Geske

Geske said she received a letter in July from the state parks department that Whisper is eligible, but the Town of Smithtown must be the applicant as they are the official owner of the statue.

“We will be moving forward with the approval on that,” town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo said. “Once it’s on the registry, we will be applying for grants to take better care of it.”

One immediate concern of both Geske and Smithtown’s elected official is a crack visible on the cement pedestal on which the 5-ton sculpture rests. It is visible immediately along “Smithtown” in the inscription and can be seen running from front to back of the platform. Garguilo said the town has plans to repair the base this upcoming spring under the direction of Joseph Arico, head of the town’s parks department.

“It’s our understanding any restrictions the historical register would require [to] be maintained pertain to the bull itself, not the base or anything around the base,” she said.

If Whisper the Bull is approved as a state historic place, Geske said it would be the first phase before applying to have it placed on the national registry. She hopes to follow up by seeking historic status for other Main Street buildings, including the 108-year-old Trinity AME Church on New York Avenue, the 105-year-old Resurrection Byzantine Catholic Church on Juniper Avenue and the 265-year-old Arthur House.