“It is so cool that [Setauket] school has so much history around it and that it looks like it’s just a regular school.” (Mount Elementary School fourth grade student during this year’s Founders Day Original Settlement guided tours)
On April 11 and 12, Three Village fourth grade students in 19 classes came to the Setauket Elementary School auditorium in celebration of Brookhaven Town Founders Day to learn about the history of Setauket/Brookhaven through the murals of artist Vance Locke. Most of the students from the other four Three Village elementary schools raised their hands when asked, “Is this the first time you have seen these murals in the auditorium?”
Town of Brookhaven historian Barbara Russell and local historian Bev Tyler discussed each of the murals and the students heard from local artist Katherine Downs-Reuter. She described how the murals, the polychrome statues and the New York State Coat of Arms, which they now see in their original brilliant colors, were restored. Students were also treated to stories of Long Island’s indigenous people by Helen Sells, a Setalcott Native American descendant who, like both Russell and Tyler, attended Setauket school and viewed the murals as a student. Brookhaven Town Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich, who also served this year as a guide, showed students a map of Brookhaven and how the town grew from 1655 in Setauket to encompass 323 square miles and stretch from Long Island Sound to the Great South Bay.
For the next two hours, each class, led by guides from the Three Village Historical Society, explored the Original Settlement area that surrounds the Setauket Village Green. The tour began with the polychrome statues of Setauket’s early leaders Richard Woodhull and General Washington’s intelligence chief Benjamin Tallmadge on the gables of the auditorium and gymnasium. On the front pediment of the school is the New York State Coat of Arms. Students learned about each restored artifact and about the U.S. Postal Service’s mile marker, encased in brick, that has stood along the road in front of the school since the first half of the 19th century.
Walking into the Setauket Presbyterian Church cemetery, students identified the gravestones of three ship captains who moved commerce around the Atlantic coast and voyaged as far as China and Japan. They were also introduced to genre artist William Sidney Mount, one of the first artists to portray African Americans, both enslaved and free, as everyday people doing everyday activities. The last stop in the cemetery was at the grave and memorial to Setauket’s farmer and Culper spy ring leader Abraham Woodhull.
At the Caroline Church cemetery, students learned about the 1751 gravestone of Elizabeth Moore, an inscription-carved rock, which was found during the 1937 restoration of the church. “Was she an indentured servant? Was she an enslaved person? We may never know.” The fourth graders were also introduced to philanthropist Thomas Hodgkins, his niece Emma Clark and the Melville family — Frank, Jennie, Ward and Dorothy — philanthropists all.
At the Setauket Village Green, students learned about the long history of Long Island’s indigenous people and the Setalcott Native Americans who signed land deed agreements with Brookhaven’s original English settlers on April 14, 1655. At the veterans memorial, they saw and discussed the diversity of immigrants who lived and worked here, as well as the world-wide ancestry of the Three Village soldiers whose war-time deaths are memorialized here.
In the Frank Melville Memorial Park, our fourth grade boys and girls learned about the importance of gristmills, millers, blacksmiths, post offices and the story of one of the Original Settlement’s 17th century homes.
The next stop was at the location of the Tyler Bros. General Store, which offered people the opportunity to purchase needed supplies, pick up mail, visit to hear about the news of the day, or buy penny candy. Lucy Hart, when she was six or seven, used to stop at the general store on her way home from school. There was a glass case in the store which contained a number of selections of sweets. Lucy remembered, “You would get four of five round things for a penny. Jaw Breakers, three or four for a penny; and stick candy was a penny a stick.”
At the Amos Smith House, students saw how the house changed and grew over more than 200 years. They discussed the seven generations that lived in the house with as many as nine children in two of the families. They heard that the house and property were donated to the Three Village Community Trust in 2017 and will be environmentally and historically preserved forever.
At the Setauket Neighborhood House, students learned about travel and transportation from the era of the indigenous people on Long Island to colonial travel with overnight stops at inns and ordinaries, which provided essential services. They saw how railroad lines were established on Long Island in the 19th century, significantly increasing travel and tourism from New York City to Long Island. The railroads also helped bring the industrial revolution to the area with Setauket factories hiring European immigrants who flooded into New York City; the new workers producing pianos and rubber goods. The fourth graders saw, heard and discussed how the Elderkin Hotel progressed from a hotel, with stage coach service from the Lakeland Railroad Station, to a tourist home, called the Lake House, with station wagon service from the Long Island Railroad’s Stony Brook station, and finally to its present name and its use as a meeting place for the entire community.
Patriot’s Rock, a remnant of the last glacier and a Native American meeting place, provided an opportunity for students to learn about the Revolutionary War Battle of Setauket and Caleb Brewster, an artillery officer who directed the cannon fire. Also, how Brewster was an important member of the Setauket-based Culper Spy Ring. “I thought that it was so cool that we got to stand on the battlefield of the American Revolutionary War.” (Mount fourth grade student)
“Founders Day is more than learning about our local history,” said Brookhaven Town Historian and Founder’s Day Committee Member Barbara Russell, “It is an historical experience for our Three Village fourth grade students … Learning that the Emma S. Clark library is not just the place to find books or attend a program, but is an architecturally interesting structure that was built by a local resident [Thomas Hodgkins] as a gift to the community; and there really was a person named Emma S. Clark is enlightening to fourth graders. Then they walk toward the Caroline Church and see the Hodgkins and Clark headstones — it all comes together in this fascinating look on a student’s face that they have just put it all together.”
At the end of the tour, each student receives a copy of the Founders Day Companion (walking tour) Book prepared by the Three Village Historical Society, courtesy of the Three Village Central School District. Students, who can now be considered knowledgeable guides to the area’s local history, are encouraged to take their family members on the walking tour.
Setauket school fourth grade students were so inspired by the 2018 Founders Day tour that they decided to produce a video story of each of the Vance Locke murals in the Setauket School auditorium. The students were led by Three Village Schools District Lead Teacher for Instructional Technology, Andy Weik, and fourth-grade teacher Eric Gustafson. The students recorded the videos and they were produced with a QR code added at the base of each mural. All but two were completed in time for Culper Day, a community-wide celebration of the Setauket-based Culper Spy Ring with a wide range of community organizations and businesses taking part. For the first time, due to the student videos, the Setauket School auditorium was opened on a Saturday to take part in the celebration. A number of the students who worked on the video stories were present in the auditorium, in colonial costumes, to answer questions and talk to some of the 800 people who bought tickets for the Culper Day celebration as well as a few who wandered in to see what was happening. Setauket School principal Karen Mizell noted that this year the Setauket school auditorium will once again be open to the public on Culper Day, Saturday, Sept. 10.
This year marked the 17th year that Three Village fourth grade students have come to the Setauket school auditorium to learn about the murals of the history of Setauket/Brookhaven and the eighth year the Founders Day Program has included the Original Settlement Walking Tour. The Founders Day program is updated every year, bringing new concepts and ideas needed within a changing curriculum. We hope that every fourth grade student will continue to experience the wonder of our local history and be excited to learn more of the stories of the people who lived here and what they contributed to our history.
Beverly C. Tyler is a Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730. or visit www.tvhs.org.