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Culper Spy Ring

Author Sarah Beth Durst with a copy of her new book, 'Spy Ring.' Photo by Heidi Sutton

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The prolific and talented writer Sarah Beth Durst has published over two dozen books, with several reviewed in this publication: The Stone Girl’s Story, The Bone Maker, The Deepest Blue, Even and Odd, and most recently, the thriller The Lake House. Durst has a particular gift for world-building, which is most prevalent in her fantasy works. With the Young Adult novel Spy Ring [HarperCollins/Clarion Books], she embarks on a different setting—Long Island and the very real Setauket and its environs. 

Rachel and Joon have been best friends since kindergarten, when they bonded over a pirate fantasy. Now, eleven years old, in July, between fifth and sixth grade, they have decided to be spies. Additionally, the inseparable pair are facing Joon’s imminent move out of the district, both fearing the toll the distance will take on their friendship.

Rachel’s mother is marrying Dave, her longtime boyfriend, of whom Rachel likes and approves. Rachel overhears Dave telling her mother that he wants to give Rachel a family heirloom, a ring that might have belonged to Anna “Nancy” Smith Strong. Strong was possibly the only known female member of the famed Culper Spy Ring that fed vital information to George Washington from 1778 to 1783. (Thus, the double meaning of the title.) Given an opportunity, Rachel sneaks a look at the ring. Engraved on the inside is “August 1 6, 17 13. Find me.” With this first clue, Rachel and Joon initiate a quest to solve the significance of this cryptic inscription. 

Rachel and Joon’s search takes Nancy off the page and makes her real to the two young detectives. The story briskly zig-zags throughout the Three Village area, with visits to the Setauket Presbyterian Church’s cemetery and Patriots Rock, Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, the Vance Locke murals at Setauket Elementary School, the Setauket Village Green, Frank Melville Memorial Park, the Setauket Grist Mill, and Caroline Episcopal Church. Durst describes each locale colorfully but succinctly as their hunt becomes an almost “history alive.” Central to the quest is time spent at the invaluable Three Village Historical Society, where they receive help, insight, and encouragement.

Durst has a terrific sense of humor, with the pair garnering one clue by remembering “the worst field trip ever.” She also gives insight into the complicated issue of historical accuracy.

“‘Sometimes historians make mistakes […] or more often, they don’t have all the information yet […] reconstructing history is like piecing together a puzzle where there’s no picture on the box, half the pieces have fallen on the floor, and the cat has eaten a quarter of them. You try to guess what the picture looks like as best you can with what you have.’”

Rachel and Joon learn that the Culper Spy Ring was the most effective espionage organization of the Revolutionary War. None of the spies ever admitted to being spies in their lifetime. Everything is theory, but much unearthed evidence supports these hypotheses. 

The author nimbly weaves historical facts and intriguing gems that paint a vivid picture of the time. She vibrantly imparts Rachel’s excitement:

The fizzing feeling was back. She had in her possession the ring of a spy who’d defied her enemies, aided George Washington, and helped found America. Even better, this spy had sent a message with her ring: Find me. This felt like the moment right before the sun poked over the horizon. Or right before a batch of dark clouds dumped buckets of rain. Or right before she bit into a fresh slice of pizza. 

The ability to communicate not just the narrative but the roiling feelings of the young—this aptly labeled “fizzing”—separates Durst from many less accomplished YA writers. The narrative is more than a mystery but a real novel of summer—of bike rides and bonds that run deep, about the fear of loss and the expectations of the future. 

One of the most evocative descriptions is that of a school during vacation:

It felt so strange to be in the school in July. The hallways looked as if they’d been abandoned. Half the bulletin boards were naked—only plain brown paper with a few leftover staples. Some staples had tufts of colorful construction paper stuck to them, like bits of party food caught in one’s teeth. 

Perfectly conjured is the combination of stillness and expectation. “It was strange to see a classroom without any students in it, in addition to the empty halls. It felt as if the whole school were holding its breath.”

A ring, a stone, a key, a powder horn, a codebook, a family Bible—even rudimentary invisible ink—are all part of this journey that is not so much historical fiction but history adjacent. 

In the end, one of the most powerful statements is the realization of why Strong left the clues. Rachel recognizes that “[Nancy] wanted someone to see her.” Sarah Beth Durst’s engaging Spy Ring offers two heroes. The first is a woman who may or may not have been the burgeoning nation’s Agent 355. The second is a spirited, insightful young person in a lively, magical adventure story.

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Meet the author at a book launch hosted by the Three Village Historical Society at the Setauket Neighborhood House, 95 Main St., Setauket on Monday, May 20 at 7 p.m. The event is free. To pre-register, visit www.tvhs.org. For more information, visit www.sarahbethdurst.com.

Volunteers help break ground for the project made possible by $10K PSEGLI grant

The Living Lands design team at Three Village Historical Society. From left, Mike Dondero, Alex Getches and Logan Kjep. Photo by Kimberly Phyfe/TVHS

Three Village Historical Society broke ground last week on a project to install a series of gardens surrounding its main building on North Country Road, courtesy of a $10,000 outdoor commerce and beautification grant from PSEG Long Island.

The gardens will include a pollinator pathway, colonial kitchen garden, indigenous medical garden and sensory garden, all with native plants, according to Kimberly Phyfe, development coordinator for TVHS. She added that the plan also includes garden paths, educational signage and some additional trees.

“This is going to be a teachable educational space,” she said. “You’re going to be able to walk through a timeline of history.”

A series of gardens will surround Three Village Historical Society’s main building after the society received a $10,000 grant from PSEG Long Island. Photo by Mallie Jane Kim

At a Friday, Nov. 10, “garden party,” an estimated 20 community volunteers, including some members of the Three Village Garden Club and the historical society’s grounds committee, participated in clearing most of the ground cover, invasive species and weeds to prepare for the project, which is headed up by Living Lands, a North-Shore based garden design and installation company that specializes in native habitats and ecological restoration, primarily on a residential level.

Living Lands co-owners Logan Kjep and Alexandra Getches said they feel honored to be part of such a community-facing project to highlight the beauty and usefulness of native plants.

“Getting to find out the history of the plants and the way they were used in the past has been really interesting because we focus more on their role in ecology,” Getches said. “Investigating how the indigenous people used them, how the colonists used them was really fascinating.”

The PSEGLI grant is typically for downtowns or business districts. Phyfe said when the representative originally stopped by last spring on a Monday at 10 a.m., all was quiet on the stretch of North Country Road where the society sits.

She said she urged him to return on a Friday afternoon during the farmers market so he could “see this town taken over by small businesses, locally owned; food trucks, music, education, entertainment — everybody is here on a Friday night. I think that’s what really did it.”

Phyfe added that the market brings business to neighboring establishments and acts as the start of historic Setauket. “Welcome to Culper country — this is the home of historic American Revolution stories right here in Three Village,” she said.

Phyfe called the gardens an “outdoor classroom and teaching garden space” that will be available even when the museum and visitor center is closed, and will expand on the education provided by the Culper Spy and Chicken Hill exhibits, which can host only small groups at a time during student or Scout visits.

She said the sensory garden will be particularly friendly to students with sensory processing disorder. “I want to make learning and field trips accessible to learners of all ages, and particularly learners with disabilities and special needs,” she said.

Phyfe indicated the garden project should be completed by Thanksgiving.

Norma Watson and Steve Englebright shake hands as Johanna Watson, John Cunniffe and Three Village Community Trust board member Robert Reuter look on. Photo by Herb Mones

Abraham Woodhull’s ancestral property to be preserved, showcased to the community

By Mallie Jane Kim

Several blue-and-yellow historical markers dot Setauket streets, and the hamlet can truly boast “George Washington slept here.”

But none of these signs feels more out of the way than the one on the road to Strong’s Neck, in a peaceful corner of town overlooking Little Bay. And yet this sign marks the ancestral property of an important player in the Revolutionary War: Abraham Woodhull, “chief of Long Island spies under Gen. Washington,” the sign reads. In coming years, the marker won’t be the only way history buffs can enjoy this important piece of the past, which was at the heart of the historic Culper Spy Ring.

Three Village Community Trust is in the process of purchasing this property, with plans to preserve and eventually use it as a setting for community historical events. In a press release about the purchase, TVCT President Herb Mones wrote that he wants to “have children walk in the very steps of the founders of our country.”

Woodhull, code name Samuel Culper Sr., was one of the primary members of the group that tracked British troops and provided key information to Gen. George Washington and the American forces during the Revolutionary War, using espionage tradecraft like secret codes, invisible ink and dead drop secure communications. An article on the Central Intelligence Agency’s website identifies the Culper ring among “the founding fathers” of intelligence gathering by Americans.

“It’s a tremendous win for the community to be able to protect it and preserve it going forward,” Mones added. 

The trust, a community organization focused on preserving local natural resources and historical properties, owns several Three Village spots with Revolutionary War-era significance, including Patriots Rock Historical Site and the Smith/de Zafra House, home of Timothy Smith who, according to the TVCT website, mounted a broken musket over his fireplace to divert attention of suspicious British soldiers from his real cache of weapons hidden nearby.

“We’ve had a collection of properties that represented the foundations of the American experience,” Mones said. Thanks in part to “Turn,” the AMC television series about the spy ring popularizing Setauket’s history, the Woodhull property has the potential to draw even more interest in local history. “It’s important — it’s a feather in the cap,” the trust president said.

TVCT confirmed in a press release that the sales contract has been signed. The trust is in the process of submitting other required documentation to the state to finalize the purchase, which was made possible by a $825,000 grant secured in 2022 by then-New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket).

Norma Watson, who currently owns and lives on the property, will have a life tenancy, according to Mones. Watson herself has a history of advocating for natural and historical preservation, and she was involved with the trust at its inception.

According to Mones, the Woodhull property currently houses a pond and a barn — with a history of its own — that was reclaimed and converted around the 1950s into the home where Watson now resides. Woodhull’s original 1660 house burned down in 1931.

File photo by Raymond Janis

Support Healthy School Meals for All bill

Every child deserves to be fed, and in a nation as wealthy as ours, no child should go hungry. The April 20 editorial [“Food before football: Long Island’s uphill battle against childhood hunger”] correctly identifies the crisis of child hunger, and how our government is failing to adequately address the issue. There is a legislative answer to this crisis in New York, and it is the Healthy School Meals for All bill. Our state Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul [D] must pass it this year.

The bill ends the policy of means testing, and establishes permanent funding for every child to receive breakfast and lunch at school at no cost. This saves struggling families money on their grocery bills, and eliminates the stigma that may prevent children from utilizing the current program. The cost in New York would be less than 0.01% of the state budget, with $200 million of state dollars supplementing the federal assistance provided to New York. It is estimated that this will provide an additional 726,000 students in New York state access to two meals a day. Currently, one in seven of New York’s children are food insecure, and this disproportionately impacts students of color. 

Children are more than just a test score. If a child is hungry, it is difficult for them to learn, to play and to grow. The Healthy School Meals for All legislation addresses the needs of the whole child, and is economic justice for New York’s children and families. 

This bill is supported by many organizations across the state. Suffolk Progressives, the group I founded, is a proud supporter of the bill, and I encourage others to join the call to reduce child hunger by asking their lawmakers to sign on. I urge constituents to reach out to state Sens. Anthony Palumbo [R-New Suffolk], Dean Murray [R-East Patchogue] and Mario Mattera [R-St. James], and Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio [R-Riverhead], who are not currently listed as co-sponsors of the bill. 

Childhood hunger is not a partisan issue, and all of Long Island’s lawmakers should get behind this legislation. The Legislature must pass Healthy School Meals for All, and Hochul must sign it into law in the 2023 legislative session. New York’s children are depending on it.

Shoshana Hershkowitz

South Setauket

Let’s patronize our local restaurants

Why not patronize your neighborhood restaurants during Long Island Restaurant Week April 23-30 with a wide variety of both two-course lunch and three-course dinner specials all year long.

My wife and I don’t mind occasionally paying a little more to help our favorite restaurants survive. Don’t forget your cook and server. We try to tip 20 to 25 percent against the total bill including taxes. If it is an odd amount, we round up to the next dollar. If we can afford to eat out, we can afford an extra dollar tip. When ordering take out, we always leave a dollar or two for the waiter or cook. It is appreciated. 

The restaurant industry employees include hosts, bartenders, waiters, bus boys, cooks, cashiers, parking valets, wholesale food sellers, distributors and linen suppliers. There are also construction contractors who renovate or build new restaurants.

Our local entrepreneurs work long hours, pay taxes and provide local employment especially to students during the summer. If we don’t patronize our local restaurants, they don’t eat either. Why travel into Manhattan when there are so many great neighborhood restaurants in Centereach, Cold Spring Harbor, Commack, Huntington, Mount Sinai, Northport, Port Jefferson, Selden, Smithtown and Stony Brook?

Larry Penner

Great Neck

Maria’s No Mow May campaign

Sadly, Maria Hoffman passed away in 2022. She was someone who was involved in everything and anything that touched our community — historical preservation, open space protection and environmental issues.

There was no issue too large, or too small, that Maria wasn’t part of — and always achieved with a smile on her face.

Her involvement was done with a quiet style and grace, and while her voice was soft and light, her influence was great.

Anyone who enjoys West Meadow Beach, the Setauket to Port Jefferson Station Greenway, the cultural, historical and art institutions in the area — they all need to give special thanks to Maria’s legacy.

Maria was an avid beekeeper.

She loved her bees and maintained a number of hives.

Her eyes sparkled whenever she spoke about bees — she marveled at their unique abilities and intelligence.

And she was deeply concerned about the declining bee populations across the country.

To honor the legacy of Maria and to protect the bee, butterfly and bird populations, the Three Village Community Trust is kicking off its 1st annual Maria’s No Mow May campaign.

No Mow May is an international movement that first was popularized by Plantlife, an organization based in Salisbury, England. The simple goal of No Mow May is to allow grass to grow during the month of May, creating an important spring habitat for early season pollinators. No Mow May is really easy — do nothing!

Don’t apply any fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides or pesticides.

While community residents might not want to leave their entire lawn unmown for the month of May, just allowing a small area to be part of No Mow May will make a difference to the environment.

You’re likely to see yard signs saying “ join Maria’s No Mow May campaign throughout the community.

Join the Three Village Community Trust, your friends and neighbors in Maria’s No Mow May. Just like Maria — bee special!

Herb Mones

President, Three Village Community Trust

Eliminating bail reduces recidivism

A recent letter by Jim Soviero [“Dem Albany County DA Soares criticizes bail reform,” April 6] essentially reprints a New York Post op-ed piece by Albany County DA David Soares deriding bail reform. Soviero takes great pains to emphasize Soares’ political affiliation (Democratic) and race (Black).

As I’m sure Soviero would agree, even Democrats can be wrong sometimes. And regardless of Soares’ race, neither he, nor Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, nor even Soviero himself are better equipped to decide what’s best for New York’s African-American community than that community itself. Polling shows that the overwhelming majority of Blacks support policies reducing incarceration. If bail reform is as terrible for the African-American community as Soviero’s crocodile tears seem to suggest, there’s a simple remedy — they can vote out of office their representatives who voted for it. That’s not about to happen. Instead, the voices most stridently denouncing reform are those exploiting the politics of fear and division.

If just jailing people made our streets and communities safer, the United States should be the safest country in the world. After all, we lead the world in incarceration, both absolutely and per capita.

As far as the cherry-picked statistics Soares relies on and Soviero repeats to denounce reform, they’re all wet. A study released this March by John Jay College, the preeminent criminal justice school in the state, shows that the 2020 bail reform law has actually reduced the likelihood of someone getting rearrested. “Fundamentally, we found that eliminating bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies reduced recidivism in New York City, while there was no clear effect in either direction for cases remaining bail eligible,” said Michael Rempel, director of John Jay College’s Data Collaborative for Justice.

All of this obscures the fact that the purpose of bail is for one thing only — to restrain those judged to be a flight risk. It is not to lock up people, sometimes for weeks or months in horrible conditions, who are legally innocent. Unless we are willing to drop the presumption of innocence from our legal system entirely. 

I’m sure that Soviero would agree with me that the recently indicted former president is legally entitled to the presumption of innocence. So why is it that he, who is rich and powerful, is entitled to this, but someone who is poor and powerless is not? I don’t know what to call that, but I certainly wouldn’t call it justice.

David Friedman 

St. James

Editor’s note: We are publishing this letter because it responds to an earlier letter. In the future, we ask that letters mainly speak to local issues.

Local residents toast George Washington’s visit

This past Saturday local residents gathered on the corner of Bayview Avenue, East Setauket, and Route 25A to commemorate the 233rd year of our first president George Washington’s visit to Setauket on April 22, 1790. Several in attendance read excerpts about Washington and his life, including a poem written by ChatGPT on Washington’s trip to the Roe Tavern in Setauket.

As many know, Washington came to Setauket during the first year of his presidency to meet with Capt. Austin Roe who ran a small tavern on what is now Route 25A near East Setauket Pond Park. Though the president’s diary was sparse about the true intentions for his five-day trip to Long Island, many believe it was to thank those who had been part of the Culper Spy Ring that was founded in Setauket and critical to Washington’s success against the British troops and mercenaries encamped in New York City.

This is the second year that local resident Rick McDowell and his brother Ken organized the gathering. They are already planning next year’s commemoration for another rousing cheer to our first president and to the Setauket spies who helped him win the War of Independence from Britain.

George Hoffman

Setauket

May 1 public hearing on Maryhaven is urgent

It’s concerning that a Village of Port Jefferson public hearing on changes to zoning for the Maryhaven Center of Hope property is still scheduled for May 1.

Especially since the follow-up work session on April 25 raised more questions than answers — even for some of the trustees. Further, from what we understand, the Board of Trustees has not even received a formal request from the developers, and the Building Department has no record of any application. So why the rush?

The village attorney argues that having the zoning hearing now allows the village to be proactive when the developers are ready to apply. But this remedy seems more preemptive than proactive because the residents don’t yet have enough information to make an informed decision.

Not only were we not included in any of the prior discussions, but it does not appear that a full due diligence was conducted.

It might be too late to call for the hearing to be postponed. But it’s not too late to request that no binding decisions on Maryhaven be made until residents have a chance to review the facts and, perhaps, propose other options for the property.

In order to get answers, we urge you to come to the public hearing at Village Hall on Monday, May 1, at 6 p.m.

Ana Hozyainova, President

Kathleen McLane, Outreach Officer

Port Jefferson Civic Association

No interest in changing Port Jeff Country Club to a public course

This is an open letter to the editor, to the members of the Port Jefferson Country Club and to the residents of the Village of Port Jefferson.

It has been brought to my attention by several members of the country club that inaccurate messaging is being shared around the course — that as part of my Port Jefferson mayoral campaign platform, I intend to convert the country club to a public municipal golf course, and make golf at the country club free for all residents. At first, I thought it was a joke. Because nothing could be further from the truth. Then when more people started asking me if it were true, I knew I had to address this publicly.

I have no interest or intent in changing the country club to a public course. I hope those who consider voting for me see through this political ruse and know I would never be so reckless or fiscally irresponsible. It will remain a private municipal course, as it always has been from the day Mayor Harold Sheprow acquired it, and as it was established when the decision to buy it was voted upon favorably in 1978 by the residents of Port Jefferson.

I will always support making the club and its restaurant facilities a welcoming and inclusive environment for all residents. Giving memberships away for free does not enter into that equation.

If PJCC members or village residents have questions and would like to personally discuss this or any information that has the appearance of being contrary to what I stand for — see my website www.sheprowformayor.com under the “platform” tab — I can be reached by email at [email protected].

Lauren Sheprow, Trustee

Village of Port Jefferson

Editor’s note: The writer is the daughter of former Port Jefferson Mayor Harold Sheprow.

Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden presenting Mark Sternberg, Culper Spy Ring historian at the Drowned Meadow Cottage, with a village proclamation. Photo by Raymond Janis

The Village of Port Jefferson Board of Trustees met on Monday, March 6, with a public meeting covering the East Beach bluff, youth programs, irrigation systems and public safety.

The board continued planning for the phase II upland wall project between the East Beach bluff and the restaurant facility at Port Jefferson Country Club, approving a modification to its drainage plan to accommodate racket sports facilities for $5,500.

Approaching its budget season, the board adopted a local law to enable it to approve a budget with a tax levy that exceeds the default tax levy under New York’s General Municipal Law. The local law passed 3-1, with Mayor Margot Garant absent and trustee Lauren Sheprow voting against it.

The board deliberated with Lisa Perry, president of the village-based nonprofit Long Island Foundation for Education & Sports, a children and family services group which rents a room in the Village Center.

The village lowered the room’s rental rate from $42 to $35 per hour following the COVID-19 pandemic to assist LIFFES with its expenses. Perry emphasized the program is a service to the community.

Following some back-and-forth, the board passed a resolution to continue billing the nonprofit at a $35 per hour rate for the remainder of LIFFES’ spring season. The two parties would revisit the rates for its fall season by May.

Suffolk County police officer John Efstathiou delivered the department’s report on public safety, noting the problem of vehicular theft throughout the area.

“Let’s lock our cars,” he said. “Let’s keep our cars locked in our driveways. Let’s lock them when you park in a parking lot because people are out here stealing many items from people’s vehicles.” He added, “Do not leave your keys in the car.”

Resident Arthur Epp inquired about xylazine — also known as tranq — an animal tranquilizer appearing in fentanyl supplies throughout the country. 

Efstathiou said the 6th Precinct “has not seen that yet.” Because Narcan does not help in instances of xylazine overdose, he suggested the substance would remain on the department’s radar.

Acting code enforcement chief John Borrero during the code department’s monthly public safety report on Monday, March 6. Photo by Raymond Janis

Acting code enforcement chief John Borrero delivered the code department’s report. He took over as acting chief following the suspension with pay of Fred Leute last month. 

Borrero reported a recent incident of two Rottweilers attacking a small dog. “They tore him up pretty good,” the acting chief said, adding that the owner received two citations. 

Borrero urged, “Please keep your dogs tied up.”

Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden reported that the Jericho-based Beechwood Organization is in its final stages of closing on the Maryhaven property, with plans to convert that area to residential housing.

“Their plan is to build condos on that site,” Snaden said. “We have a lot of apartments being built uptown. We had some apartment buildings down here, but these will be owner-owned condos.” The deputy mayor added that Beechwood would soon submit its application to the zoning and planning departments.

Trustee Rebecca Kassay reported that the village is exploring potential solutions to the drought problem on Long Island, considering irrigating the golf course at PJCC using rainwater.

“This is the direction everyone seems to be going in,” she said. “The water situation has been serious.”

Trustee Stan Loucks reported that permits are now available for kayak racks. “If you have a kayak, canoe or vessel, you can pick up your applications right now,” he said. “The lottery for those racks will take place on April 3.” He added, “Hopefully, we have enough racks this year, so we don’t really freeze anyone out.”

He also reported that the walkways at Harborfront Park would be renovated in the coming weeks, with discussions in the works for rerouting some.

Trustee Sheprow said the Parks and Recreation Advisory Council approved the date of Aug. 17 for the village’s annual community golf outing at a rate of $75 per player.

“Whoever wants to play who lives or works [in the village], volunteers for the fire department, working in the school district, works at the hospitals is welcome to participate in that golf outing,” she said, adding, “It was very successful last year.”  

During the meeting, Snaden presented Drowned Meadow Cottage historian Mark Sternberg with a village proclamation for his research connecting Port Jefferson to the Culper Spy Ring.

Following the presentation, Sternberg delivered a brief address thanking those for supporting him in his historical endeavors and discussing the momentum behind the village’s local history.

“The energy with the cottage is so incredible, and I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t see smiles on so many people’s faces that are coming through,” he said. “It’s been an incredible ride, and I can’t wait to continue it.”

During the public comments, resident Myrna Gordon petitioned the village board to consider banning single-use plastic containers, particularly for village-sponsored events. 

“I would hope that an ordinance or request can be made that the only kind of containers that can be used are environmentally friendly or paper products,” Gordon said. “We have to do away with the plastic.”

Outside the Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum, Mark Sternberg, above, holds a copy of “New York Archives” magazine, which published his research this fall. Photo courtesy Sternberg

By Julianne Mosher

Living in Port Jefferson for more than half his life, Mark Sternberg always knew the village had a story. 

“I grew up here and I always wanted to know the absolute history of Port Jeff,” he said. “I wanted to get to the bottom of it.”

The North Shore of Long Island played a big role during the Revolutionary War. Books, movies, television shows and college courses have preached that the Culper Spy Ring — a network of American spies active during the British occupation of New York City and organized by Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge and Gen. George Washington — was based primarily on Port Jefferson’s next-door neighbor, Setauket.

Sternberg, a lawyer by trade and Port Jefferson high school graduate of the Class of 2001, first became interested in the history growing up and learning these stories and legends. Interested in his hometown, he began reading about its history, eventually getting his hands on “The Seven Hills of Port: A Documented History of the Incorporated Village of Port Jefferson” by Patricia Hansell Sisler and Robert Sisler. 

“I had a professor at New York University, a summer program for producing, and one of our projects was to pitch a show about something you love,” Sternberg said. “I thought that the Culper Spy Ring would be a great TV show.”

And that school project became a passion. 

Above, Mark Sternberg leading a tour of visitors through the Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum on Culper Spy Day. File photo by Raymond Janis

In 2013, Sternberg found a letter that tied two Port Jefferson brothers to the ring. Retrieved from a chimney of what is now the Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum years ago, the letter (dated Dec. 21, 1780) informed loyalist soldier Nehemiah Marks’ comrades that Phillips and Nathaniel Roe helped supply Setauket-based spy Caleb Brewster with information to pass on to the patriots. 

Sternberg located the letter archived at the University of Michigan. 

“I had a lot of people telling me the basis for the claim was a legend,” he said. “It was made up.”

But it was eventually authenticated and now hangs in the museum, which was originally Phillips Roe’s home, located at 141 W. Broadway.

“Mark has done the real hard research,” said George Hoffman, co-founder of the Setauket Harbor Task Force. “I think he has certainly put Port Jeff village back into the mix. … People always used to call them the Setauket spies, but it’s pretty clear that the Roe brothers played a central role due to his research.”

Hoffman added that Sternberg has brought “fresh eyes to old history.”

Finding the letter sparked something in Sternberg making him want to discover more. 

After going away to school in Atlanta, Georgia, and then NYU, he left the quaint village he used to call home, moving to Manhattan for 12 years. 

Then, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sternberg and his now-wife decided to move back out to the Island, settling in East Patchogue.

“When I moved back to Long Island, I wanted to get involved more with the house,” he said. 

Working closely with Port Jefferson Village historian Chris Ryon, he began doing heavy, original research into the Roe family.

“Mark has been working, really concentrating, on this Culper spy history, and then delving into it more so than anybody else that I know,” Ryon said. “He has gone beyond what a lot of historians would look up.”

Ryon admired that, while working full-time, Sternberg spends most of his free time continuing to learn about the Roe family and how Port Jefferson was involved with the Revolutionary War. 

“He’s traveled all over the place, looking at the primary documents, and by doing that, he’s discovered many more things, and a lot of mistakes that people have repeated,” he said. “Mark is so saturated in his knowledge of this, he picks up on things that people don’t understand are important.”

‘He has changed the way people think about Culper Spy Ring.’ 

­— Chris Ryon

Since Sternberg’s initial find of the letter almost 10 years ago, he has continued to research and advise on the history of the brothers and how the home was part of a much bigger piece of history that was almost forgotten. 

“He has changed the way people think about Culper Spy Ring,” Ryon said. “He has enlightened us — he has raised the bar.”

Sternberg said that he is continuing to help with the Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum, setting up exhibits and preparing for its full opening to the public. He also is working alongside Len Carolan at Port Jeff-based Bayles Boat Shop to recreate a whaleboat from the American Revolution era. The boat shop is an offshoot of the Long Island Seaport and Eco Center — a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of maritime history on the Island. Sternberg will be acting as a historian on the project to get the boat as close as possible to what it was.

“Mark has been instrumental in tying up what we’re doing in building this boat and the history of [the whaleboats],” said Carolan, president of the Bayles Boat Shop. “And especially how the history is connected to Caleb Brewster.”

Sternberg also recently published new findings about the Strong family in “New York Archives” magazine this past fall. 

“People ask me, ‘Why are you so into history?’ and honestly, I’m more into solving mysteries,” he said. “There’s so much more to find and it’s that dopamine rush when you find out something about your hometown’s history you would have never found out before.”

Sternberg is happy to volunteer his time to find out what really happened up here almost 250 years ago.

“Why wouldn’t I volunteer? I love my hometown,” he said. “Any of my extra time I can spend here talking about the history, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

TBR News Media recognizes Sternberg’s valuable local historical research by making him a 2022 Person of the Year.

The Village of Port Jefferson reignited a time-honored tradition last weekend during its 26th annual Charles Dickens Festival.

Hundreds of community members, visitors, business groups and local organizations participated in the festivities from Friday, Dec. 2, to Sunday, Dec. 4. 

The show went on despite hard rains and gusting winds throughout the morning and early afternoon Saturday. Mayor Margot Garant, decked out in traditional Dickensian garb, commented on the turnout in the face of these conditions. 

“To me, it just shows how important this festival is to not just this community but kids coming from St. James and beyond who are coming to see Santa,” she said. “It’s just magic, and rain or shine we’re going to be doing Dickens.”

Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden concurred with this positive outlook, regarding the festival as another means for community-building. “It’s heartwarming to see everybody still supporting this festival,” she said. 

Trustee Stan Loucks commented on the uniqueness of the opportunities afforded through the festival and the steady growth of the events over its nearly three decades in existence.

“It’s grown every single year, and it’s just the most festive time of the year,” he said, adding, “I love the whole atmosphere, the village center. It’s a very special place, and I look forward to this every year.”

The program across all three days was loaded with special events featuring the various elements that formulate this distinct village’s character. The heart of Port Jeff was on full display, from its downtown business sector to its local history, public institutions and more.

At the Bayles Boat Shop, local shipbuilders showcased their ongoing work to construct a 25-foot whaleboat honoring the village’s Revolutionary War heritage. 

John Janicek, treasurer of the boat shop’s nonprofit arm, the Long Island Seaport and Eco Center, detailed how the whaleboat ties together various threads of Port Jeff’s historical roots.

“It not only ties in the historical aspect that Caleb Brewster performed here during the Revolutionary War and [the role] Port Jefferson played, but it also ties in our shipbuilding aspect, too,” Janicek said. “We’re getting a lot of support from the village on this. They see this as something the whole village can get their arms around and embrace, similar to the Dickens Festival.”

Over at the Drowned Meadow Cottage on the corner of West Broadway and Barnum, local historians greeted visitors with guided tours detailing Port Jefferson’s strategic position during the Revolutionary War. They shared stories of local patriots whose involvement in the Culper Spy Ring helped advance the cause of American independence.

Village historian Chris Ryon discussed how the Dickens Festival offers a platform to promote local history to residents and visitors alike.

“We take the people from Dickens and tell them how Port Jefferson was involved in the Culper Spy Ring,” he said. “It’s another group of people that we can bring in.”

Mark Sternberg, Culper Spy Ring historian at the Drowned Meadow Cottage, offered a unique take on Dickens. He remarked upon the intersection of the Dickensian and Revolutionary periods and how people today can relive tradition and rehear the lore of the past.

He said, referring to the American spies, “A lot of these people survived into the 1800s, and the stories of the American Revolution were told during the 1800s. For us to tell stories about the American Revolution as part of the Dickens Festival, it’s what they would have done.”

The historian added, “It’s keeping with the tradition of telling a story about the founding of our nation, even in later periods. Now Charles Dickens may not have talked about it because he was British, but here in America during the Victorian era, we would have.”

Along with stories of the past, the village exhibited the musical talents of local students. At the Port Jefferson Free Library, the Edna Louise Spear Elementary School chamber orchestra delivered moving string performances, filling the library with festive tunes.

Their music teacher, Christian Neubert, summarized this Dickens custom. “For a number of years now, we’ve been coming to perform here at the library during the Dickens Festival,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to get our students out for a performance and to get the community involved with our music program.”

Jessica Schmettan, superintendent of schools for Port Jefferson School District, was among the dozens of audience members at the library. She expressed pride in seeing the students perform before their fellow community members.

“It’s just amazing that our students can be performing in the village in which they live,” she said, adding that the festival “gives them a different avenue to perform in, not just the auditorium or the classroom but in front of a real audience.”

At Suffolk Lodge No. 60 on Main Street, the oldest Masonic lodge on Long Island, brothers treated guests to magic shows and a dance festival. Downstairs, they served freshly baked cookies and hot chocolate.

Chris Connolly, master of the lodge, said the lodge dates back to the late 18th century. He expressed delight at seeing this historic organization maintain an active community presence through Dickens.

“Being a part of the community is a big part of who we are and helping others,” Connolly said.

Jason Intardonato, senior deacon of Suffolk Lodge No. 60, discussed Dickens as a means of strengthening local connections and a time for selflessness.

“The Dickens Festival provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to interact with our neighbors here and with the community in Port Jefferson and to allow them into our space, entertain them for a while during the holidays, and give back,” he said.

Farther along Main, Jeffrey Sanzel’s annual production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at Theatre Three is an active reminder of the historical background to the Dickens Festival.

The festival also provided a platform for some to communicate their message on a larger stage. For the second month in a row, protesters from the farmworkers union Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW gathered outside the Pindar wine shop in yet another call of action to negotiate a contract. The dispute is part of more than a year of negotiations between the union and Pindar Vineyards, the wine store’s parent company. 

John Durso, president of Local 338, joined the picketers on Main Street during the festival. “We knew that today was the Dickens Festival,” he said. “We knew that there would be a lot more people around, so we decided to … bring attention to the fact that these workers, like everybody else, are entitled to the same dignity and respect that all workers should have.”

Coordinating the annual festival is a monumental task for the village and the various stakeholders involved in its planning. Kevin Wood, the village’s director of economic development, parking administrator and communications committee head, thanked the sponsors who supported the festival and commented on the event’s success despite the inclement weather conditions.

“Because this has been [going on for] 26 years, people understand that this is one of the most unique events on Long Island, so they’re going to fight the rain to be here,” Wood said. “To support the production and the infrastructure, there are so many volunteers but there are also so many people staffing to make it work.”

Snaden concluded by offering how the Dickens Festival advances some of the village’s highest aims. She said the community uncovers its sense of place through an event such as this.

“It really goes to the sense of community that we all have,” she said. “All the work that goes into this festival and how everybody comes together, it’s a beautiful thing to see.”

By Cayla Rosenhagen

Cayla Rosenhagen

The past teaches us invaluable lessons about unity, courage, and overcoming challenges. By studying our community’s deep history, we not only celebrate and learn from the tales of historic heroes and heroines, but also form stronger bonds with those we share our community with.

The Three Village Historical Society seeks to strengthen those ties through its work in preservation and education. Their museum at the Bayles-Swezey House in Setauket evokes the passion for history of its curators in an environment that emphasizes the important roles the Three Village area has played throughout the years. 

I recently had the honor of interviewing Mari Irizarry, appointed earlier this year as the Director of the TVHS, who has brought a wealth of expertise and passion to the Three Village community. According to Irizarry, the organization was founded by volunteers in 1964 to preserve the stories and artifacts of the community. “Sixty years later, that mission is at the backbone of the Society. We are stronger than ever, and it is because of community members and volunteers who dedicate their time and expertise to preserving and sharing stories with the public,” she said.

Did you know Setauket and its ancestral residents played a pivotal role in the American Revolution? In fact, General George Washington employed the help of several Long Island spies to gather intelligence on the British army’s operations in what is known as the Culper Spy Ring. The TVHS’s exhibit, “SPIES!” features a large, interactive space where you can follow the daring stories of members of the Ring and learn how they conveyed coded and hidden messages without being discovered by the British troops occupying Long Island.

The history center’s other exhibit, “Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time” sheds light on a diverse community that used to reside in a small area of Setauket. The bygone village still has lessons to teach us all about neighborliness and unity. Over the course of its existence from the Industrial Revolution to the mid-20th century, the area was a melting pot for several minorities including Eastern European Jews, African Americans, and Indigenous Americans.

Despite the fact that its residents practiced different religions and customs and spoke in many languages, Chicken Hill was a cohesive community. The museum has preserved its legacy by showcasing the stories of former residents in the “I Remember” portion of the exhibit, and what life was like then through its informative displays and artifacts.   

The museum grounds are also home to the Three Village Farmer’s Market on Fridays currently from 3 to 7 p.m. and in October from 2 to 6 p.m. Stop by to pick up some groceries and handmade gifts and enjoy the museum’s pay-what-you-can open house and access to all the exhibits.

In addition, celebrate Revolutionary War heroes by attending the TVHS’s 8th annual Culper Spy Day at the museum grounds on Sept. 10. Throughout the day, guests can enjoy an immersive colonial-era experience and participate in interactive activities such as crafts and games. 

Irizarry was eager to share some more highly-anticipated events:

“Next up, after Culper Spy Day, we’re excited to bring back the Spirits Tour on October 22 where guests will join guides through the Setauket Presbyterian and Caroline Church graveyards to listen to stories from costumed actors who will portray the unknown spies during the American Revolution. We’ll cap off the year with the time-honored tradition of the Candlelight House Tour that will take place in the historic neighborhood of Old Field on Dec. 2 and 3. Five homes will be expertly decorated for the holiday season and guests will tour each home learning about the historical architecture and design.”

Visit the museum located at 93 North Country Road in Setauket on Thursdays from 1 to 5 p.m., Fridays from 3 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children, and is free for TVHS members. For more information about the TVHS’s events, including tours of the exhibits, visit their website at www.tvhs.org or call 631-751-3730. 

Cayla Rosenhagen is a local high school student who enjoys capturing the unique charm of the community through photography and journalism. She serves on the board of directors for the Four Harbors Audubon Society and Brookhaven’s Youth Board, and is the founder and coordinator of Beach Bucket Brigade, a community outreach program dedicated to environmental awareness, engagement, and education. She is also an avid birder, hiker, and artist who is concurrently enrolled in college.

Port Jeff village historian Chris Ryon, above, poses with a Revolutionary War era whaleboat. The planned “Resolution“ will be similar in style and scale to the above vessel. Photo courtesy Ryon

American history and local tradition are on a collision course here in the Village of Port Jefferson.

Last month, public officials announced that the village government would partner with the Port Jeff-based Bayles Boat Shop to recreate a whaleboat from the American Revolution era. The boat shop is an offshoot of the Long Island Seaport and Eco Center, also known as LISEC, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of maritime history on Long Island. 

Mayor Margot Garant said the village government entered into conversations with LISEC because it sought a way to promote the story of Port Jefferson’s role in the Culper Spy Ring.

“We would have never considered it without having LISEC as a partner,” Garant said. “They just absolutely loved the concept. We brought it to them for the historical component and for helping us tell the story about Port Jefferson’s instrumental role — and the Roe family’s role, in particular — in the spy ring.” She added, “We felt the whaleboat would be a unique way of embracing the history, telling the story and engaging the community.”

In an interview, LISEC president Len Carolan indicated that the buildout would last for up to two years or so. “The boat will be a little bit longer than 25 feet, 6 feet wide, and it will weigh up to a ton,” Carolan said. He added that a project of this scale will also require additional steps: “This is the first time we’re going to be using a lofting platform.”

Lofting is a practice in wooden shipbuilding that enables designers to produce full-scale drawings used as templates. These renderings will help the builders to cut wood pieces with precision and to create a vessel that is as true to the source as possible.

The designers even hope to use the same building materials as the original whaleboats. “Typically, the boats then were built with white oak and white cedar,” Carolan said. “We have access to white oak because that grows here on Long Island. The white cedar, though, is no longer available here, so we’ll have to go a little further north to get the kind of wood we need.”

The term “whaleboat” is a misnomer, denoting the style of the vessel rather than its intended function. Carolan stressed that the operators of the original whaleboats did not use them for hunting whales.

“It’s similar to the design of the boats used to hunt whales, but those boats were much bigger — they were like 32 to 36 feet long,” he said. However, the boat’s design likely offered the patriots certain tactical advantages at sea. “It was easy to maneuver and row, and they were able to raid British ships and get away quickly using these whaleboats.”

Local historian Mark Sternberg is among the key figures involved in this project. Sternberg said he cultivated an interest in local history while growing up in the Port Jefferson School District. Back then, the stories of local patriots left an early impression upon him, inspiring him to pursue the subject more deeply.

“I’m from Port Jefferson … and grew up surrounded by the history here,” he said. “There is a lot of stuff here in Port Jeff that hasn’t been well documented. We have barely even started to scratch the surface of what we know about the spy ring.”

Sternberg foresees the whaleboat serving an array of educational purposes. An operational whaleboat makes possible various historical reenactments, such as Valentine Rider’s misguided plundering of the Roes — whom he had falsely believed were loyalists — and scenes of the numerous whaleboat battles fought in the Long Island Sound.

Sternberg added the whaleboat would help to tell the story of Caleb Brewster, a Setauket native who assisted the American war effort through his participation in the spy ring. Brewster also joined in the famous whaleboat fighting on the Sound. 

Though the name of Brewster’s whaleboat is lost to history, Sternberg recommends naming it “Resolution.” He said this title could still honor the Brewster legacy.

“My recommendation is to call the boat Resolution,” he said in an email. “This was the name of Valentine Rider’s whaleboat; [he was] a patriot privateer who launched from Connecticut to harass perceived loyalists on Long Island. It will work for plundering reenactments, as Valentine Rider and his men plundered the families of Nathaniel and Phillips Roe in May 1781 — the Roes were portraying themselves as loyalists as part of their roles in the Culper Spy Ring.” He added, “The name will also work if we ever try to reenact the intense whaleboat fight of 1782, as Valentine Rider fought alongside Caleb Brewster in that battle.”

Port Jeff village historian Chris Ryon also supports the whaleboat project. He sees the whaleboat as a unique opportunity to showcase two previously distinct strands of local history, connecting the village’s shipbuilding roots to its contributions to the Revolutionary cause.

The whaleboat “pulls it all together,” Ryon said. “It’s one of the earliest histories we have and pulls our Revolutionary War history in with our maritime history.”

Carolan expressed similar enthusiasm for the project. He said he hopes for the public to be able to follow the various stages of the buildout, from the construction of the lofting platform to the completion of the whaleboat. 

He also holds that the whaleboat could be a precursor to similar projects down the road, generating momentum and boosting confidence among those working on it. “We are hoping that it becomes a visible sign to students and local school districts,” the LISEC president said. “And that the entire build from beginning to end is open for the public to see the progress.” 

Carolan added that he hopes the build is the first of many large undertakings for the Bayles Boat Shop and added, “I think it’s going to give us so much more exposure.”

For Garant, sharing the local history of Port Jefferson is essential. By educating locals about their historical origins, she believes residents can better understand who they are, where they come from and their place within that history.

“I think the history is key to who we are,” the mayor said. “I feel one of the responsibilities of local government is to not only embrace that history, but to enrich and save it and work with the community to celebrate it and talk about it.”

File photo by Heidi Sutton/TBR News Media

The Port Jefferson Board of Trustees delivered several important announcements to the public during its monthly general meeting on Monday, Aug. 1.

During the business meeting, the board accepted the resignation of village administrator Joe Palumbo, effective Aug. 12. This marks the end of Palumbo’s nearly three years of service in that role.

Along with the resignation of the village administrator, Mayor Margot Garant announced multiple appointments, naming Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden as trustee liaison to the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals. Trustee Rebecca Kassay will take over as the village’s commissioner of environmental sustainability. In addition, residents Gerard Gang and Jennifer Testa were appointed to the Architectural Review Committee.

Mayor’s report

During the general meeting, Garant delivered several updates on projects at East Beach that will affect residents in the coming weeks. Construction of the lower wall at East Beach to stabilize the bluff will begin next week. The mayor predicts the project will take approximately eight months to complete.

“You’ll start to see large boulders and the steel being delivered to the parking lot area,” Garant said. “They’re going to start to mobilize with construction. Unfortunately, the beach, folks, will be closed. You can walk down, but you’ve got to stay away from the major construction.”

About 450 lineal feet of bluff line will be sloped and revegetated, likely sometime in the spring. “It’s a long project, it’s a lot of stabilization, and that is underway,” Garant said.

The mayor also announced that plans to construct an upper wall to protect the clubhouse at the Port Jefferson Country Club will be going out to bid. This next step, according to the mayor, will allow the board to gather more information as it prepares to make a final determination on how to proceed with regards to that facility.

“That project will be going out to bid just so we can get the information and see what the numbers look like,” she said. “We need to have the hard numbers before we can make any real decisions. We will be making a presentation to the public, informing you all along the way.” She added, “It’s a pretty complicated process.”

Concluding her report, Garant announced that the village will partner with the Long Island Seaport and Eco Center to commission a whaleboat.

“It’s not a whaleboat to go fishing for whales,” she said, jokingly. “It’s a whaleboat that was famously used during the [Culper] Spy Ring … Our whaleboat will be something we can use for programming and for demonstrations down at the museum.”

Trustee reports

Snaden provided an update on the roadway obstruction at the intersection of Arlington Avenue and Route 25A. She was pleased to see that the New York State Department of Transportation had resumed construction at that site.

“You can see that a lot of work has been done,” the deputy mayor said. “Most recently, they have started the layers of paving and they are still on track to be finished with that and [have] that road open hopefully by the end of summer.”

Trustee Lauren Sheprow delivered several updates on the status of the Recreation Department. She first highlighted the close relationship the village recreation director has forged with the Port Jefferson School District.

The newest member of the board also announced a village-wide golf outing scheduled for Sept. 22. The fee for the event is $50, which will cover 18 holes of golf at the PJCC along with cart fees, green fees, food and prizes.

“We are opening up our golf outing to the entire Port Jefferson community,” Sheprow said. “That will include Port Jefferson Fire Department volunteers, Port Jefferson School District employees, Port Jefferson village employees and all the residents of Port Jefferson village.” She added, “Proof of employment is required, as is proof of residence.”

Sheprow also announced the reinstatement of the village recreation committee, which will be made up of “seven to nine village residents who can provide feedback and guidance, leading to recommendations to the board of trustees for improvements to parks, facilities and recreational programming,” the trustee said. She added that the next step is to establish a charter for the committee and explore possible candidates.

Sheprow also announced her plans to foster a closer relationship between the Village of Port Jefferson and Stony Brook University. Following conversations with the Office of Community Relations at SBU, the village government hopes to tap into resident experts and specialists in service of the village’s aims.

“The village is proposing to establish a think tank of sorts made up of researchers and scientists at Stony Brook [University] who live in Port Jefferson and who can engage and consult on the opportunities and challenges in their hometown village,” Sheprow said. “This can include marine sciences, engineering sciences, environmental sustainability, education, health and wellness, culture, society … it doesn’t stop. There are so many opportunities to bring in the knowledge of these experts.”

Kassay offered her support for this proposal, saying, “I’m looking forward to seeing all of the community members that are engaged in a lot of those initiatives, as well as the university.”

Kassay delivered a brief report, highlighting some of the environmental activities she has undertaken. She said the Conservation Advisory Council is researching municipal bamboo codes.

“This has been brought up by a few residents over the years and increasingly so more recently,” she said.

Trustee Stan Loucks used his report to recognize the Parks Department for its recent efforts to facilitate several events held throughout the village.

“The Parks Department is responsible for a lot of things in the village that a lot of us are not aware of,” he said. “They take care of every park in the village. They take care of a lot of grassy areas in the village that are not considered parks … and I think they deserve a lot of credit.” He added, “Many times you’ll see them out there with the white trucks and the blue uniforms. If you see them working, stop and say ‘Hello’ and thank them for what they do.”

To access the full meeting, visit the village’s YouTube page.