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Marianne Howard

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A historic look at Smithtown’s first LIRR trestle. Photo from the Smithtown Historical Society

By Marianne Howard

It wasn’t until the arrival of the Long Island Rail Road and a few transportation innovations that Smithtown began to flourish as a place to live.

Prior to the LIRR arriving in 1872, Smithtown was solely connected to New York City through the Long Island Sound transport and dirt roadways. With the railroad, travelers from New York City were free to access areas like St. James and Kings Park as day trips, which previously would have never been considered.

As more and more people began coming into town, economic and business development around town boomed. Local farmers could now load wagons full of produce onto flatbed railroad cars headed for New York City. Travelers who initially came east for fresh air eventually concluded that there were residential possibilities in Smithtown and settled into the area.  However, the horse and buggy was the most accessible way to travel on the area’s dirt roads.

Old Hauppauge Road in 1910. Photo from the Smithtown Historical Society

Country sleighing was a favored pastime by early residents, according to “Images of America: Smithtown” written by Bradley Harris, Kiernan Lannon and Joshua Ruff. The book cites Alma Blydenbyrgh’s 1833 diary entry for Jan. 17 , in which she wrote, “Mr. Floyd been to the river and took Em and myself for a sleigh ride. Good sleighing!”

Getting to and from Smithtown remained difficult for years to come. The main obstacle to Smithtown’s connection to the northern spur of the LIRR was the Nissequogue River. To accomplish fully connecting the LIRR, engineers crafted a trestle to span the river valley, the largest iron structure of its kind on Long Island. When completed, it stood over 50 feet high and spanned a distance of 490 feet.

In the 1890s, bicycles first became a popular fad in the area. Bicyclists were urging the town and the county to construct dedicated bicycle paths to improve riders’ safety. Millionare Richard Handley personally funded a bike path from his estate in Hauppauge out to Smithtown. Eventually, Suffolk County constructed a path along Jericho Turnpike. 

Bicycling quickly became a nuisance to town officials. In 1911, Smithtown’s town board issued a motion banning bicyclists from riding on town sidewalks. Any rider caught violating the order could be fined up to $5.

Thirty years after the railroad came to town, automobiles began appearing. By the 1920s, the automobile was replacing the horse and buggy. Town officials were eventually forced to pave the roadways, and by the 1930s, the town was primed for a boom in both population and land development.

Marianne Howard is the executive director of the Smithtown Historical Society. For more information on the society, its events or programs or on becoming a member, visit www.smithtownhistorical.org or call 631-265-6768.

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Students of all ages were able to learn about local history and engage in hands-on projects through the Smithtown Historical Society’s summer programs. Photo from Marianne Howard

By Marianne Howard

The Smithtown Historical Society was fortunate to be able to provide children of all ages an opportunity this summer to step away from the screens, iPads and TVs to take an active role in volunteering and participating in its programs, camps, and daily activities this summer.

The historical society offers a Portals to the Past summer camp for children ages 6-to-12 for nine weeks throughout the summer. Cooking, sewing, drawing, painting and helping on the farm are all a part of the regular camp offerings. This year, Melissa Clemens,  director of education, created a junior educator program which bridges the gap between the camp years and the college years to create a well-informed core of teens to act as ambassadors in their schools and communities to promote an interest in history and education. The first training session in June had eight teens who spent the summer learning all about the historical society and their community. These 13- and 14-year-olds will continue to assist the society at various events throughout 2017.

Students of all ages were able to learn about local history and engage in hands-on projects through the Smithtown Historical Society’s summer programs. Photo from Marianne Howard

The society had two college-age interns volunteering with its education department this summer: Robert Rock, a Smithtown resident attending Williams College who has not declared a major; and Jacqueline Michels, a Hauppauge resident attending Providence College as a history and secondary education major. The two students tackled every task given to them and were able to make headway in some of the historical society’s newest projects. Rock assisted at all of the public programs this summer from goat yoga and movie night to the community barbecue. He also initiated a butterfly garden and helped to oversee its planting by volunteers from the Smithtown Youth Bureau at the end of August.

Michels worked diligently to draft a new field trip curriculum for the society’s Obadiah Smith building in Kings Park and reworked the “Long Island Kids: Then and Now” field trip program, which was offered for the first time last year.

“It’s great to see that the future of museums is in great hands,” Michels said. “Based on my time at Smithtown Historical Society this summer, I feel that SHS presents a community-building mission to the public. The organization works to bring together Smithtown residents over their shared local history through community events and programs. This summer, I’ve watched the Smithtown Historical Society make efforts to reach out to Smithtown residents of all ages to bring them to the historic buildings on their property and to bring local history out to the public.  All of their efforts build community by bringing together the residents of Smithtown to experience their shared history.” 

Rock also agreed that increasing involvement of younger members of community is essential. 

“I see the historical society as continuing to provide these programs for public involvement but increasing the involvement of younger members of the community,” he said. “As SHS has made a strong, and so far successful effort to further the involvement of this group through programs such as goat yoga, history happy hour, the movies on the lawn, and yoga on the lawn, I see this trend as continuing to mark the society’s path.”

Marianne Howard is the executive director of the Smithtown Historical Society. For more information on the society, its events or programs or on becoming a member, visit www.smithtownhistorical.org or call 631-265-6768.

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A photo in ‘Kings Park’ of a family at a clambake on the Nissequogue River, which is present-day San Remo, circa 1900. Photo from Joshua Ruff

By Jill Webb

Before it was Kings Park, the suburban hamlet in Smithtown was known as St. Johnland, a utopian Christian community founded as a haven for poor members of the Protestant working class and orphaned children.

In the newest installment of the Images of America series, you can learn all about the history of Kings Park — which just celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2016.

The co-authors of “Kings Park,” Smithtown historian Bradley Harris, the Director of Collections and Interpretations at the Long Island Museum Joshua Ruff and the Executive Director of the Smithtown Historical Society Marianne Howard came together and selected more than 180 vintage photographs to be featured in the book, along with captions detailing the images relevance within the history of Kings Park.

Howard set aside time from supervising the day-to-day activities at the Smithtown Historical Society to contribute to the book and said it took two years to compile images.

She noticed in her research that most small, American towns all underwent the same transformations from colonization to industrialization. The unique aspect to every small town is the people and resources they contribute which Howard said is what is highlighted in the book.

“I hope that the people from Kings Park see people and places that they know in the book,” Howard said in a phone interview. “That’s what they should be excited about — seeing how their own community transformed the history here in this part of Long Island.”

The book’s chapters are titled St. Johnland, The Kings Park Psychiatric Center, Early Kings Park, Churches and Schools, and Building Modern Kings Park. The book’s authors divided the chapters based on personal interest and selected the photos collaboratively.

Ruff, who has been a consulting curator for the Smithtown Historical Society for over 10 years, said the image-centric format is an “immediately accessible and terrific way of connecting” with the community of Kings Park and those who are interested in its history.

But Howard, Ruff and Harris were not the only ones putting in the research — the community was also able to participate. The authors said they were grateful to receive private collections of photographs from residents that are featured in the book.

“When we thought that we were finished with what we had, other people were coming forth with their photographs that had something a little bit different that we wanted to share with everybody else,” Howard said. “What’s great about Smithtown is that many people have a strong connection to the town and have lived here for either their whole lives or are third or fourth or fifth generation Smithtown residents.”

In completion, the authors “really felt like it was a good balance of architectural and social history,” Ruff said.

One section Howard finds particularly interesting displays how the wave of immigration brought on by the Kings Park Psychiatric Center shaped the town, along with how the town dealt with — and is still dealing with — the after-effects of its closure in 1996.

The caption a photo of the hospital’s Building 93 describes it as “now obsolete, unsafe and a magnet for vandals.” It goes on to describe the building as a “decaying symbol of a past age,” which makes residents wonder when the buildings on the grounds will finally be demolished.

Howard noted Kings Park has received funding for downtown revitalization. The proposed plan hopes to reshape Main Street by initiating “the economic strength of the community and provide a center of activity for residents to enjoy,” according to the action report prepared by Vision Long Island, Inc., the group hired to create the revitalization plan. The action report said the fate of the psychiatric grounds has yet to be determined.

“I think the community has grown enormously over the last 100 plus years and the book really shows how it’s evolved,” Ruff said. “The community has grown into this large multi ethnic suburban community that now has plans in place for major downtown changes in the next couple of years that will help to continue the changing evolution of the place.”

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Brooklyn Atlantics and Brooklyn Eckford teams on the grounds of the Smithtown Historical Society this past May. Photo from Tim Keenan

By Marianne Howard

Much intensity erupted when Major League Baseball announced the no-pitch intentional walk rule at the start of the 2017 season. Accordingly, I wondered about the changes of baseball rules and their origins in America. The Smithtown Historical Society is home to the Brooklyn Atlantics, a team of vintage baseball players, those recreate the look and feel of historic baseball. The Atlantics play the game today according to 1864 and 1884 rules.  The original Brooklyn Atlantics were the World Champions of baseball for the 1864-1865 season, and champions of their league throughout the 1860s.

So how do these gentlemen play the game?  I spoke with Atlantics Captain Frank Van Zant, known to his teammates as Shakespeare, about these rules and how they evolved over time.  In 1864, there were no gloves because the homemade baseball was much softer.  It was made of one piece of leather which was sewn together.  The pitcher stood 45 feet away from the batter, and threw the ball underhand, but with some purposeful zip and intention as to force the batter out.  Over the course of 20 years, throughout the 1860s and 1870s, pitchers began to cheat slightly and throw the ball sideways, and eventually quicker and quicker, and then completely overhand.  Since pitching this way is faster, it led to the appearance of the first catcher’s glove by the 1880s.

Think about trying to catch a line drive without wearing a glove as a fielder.  If you stuck your fingers out, you would most likely break one, so you had to make a decision to force your hand out flat to catch the ball and stick to that, an insistence from today’s Atlantics that those who play this way are truly brave and manly men.  In order to avoid injury, balls caught with one bounce in the field were also called as an out.  This rule waned after the 1860s, with the fielders considered less manly if they caught the baseball in that fashion. In the early 1860s, balls and strikes did not exist.  The calls weren’t “invented” until 1864, and at that point, umpires did not have to call them.

Pitchers could be throwing 40 to 50 pitches per batter  Today, a starting pitcher is generally removed after throwing 100 pitches. Therefore, generally speaking, changes in rules over time have been to try to find an acceptable balance between the efforts of the offense and that of the defense.

Want to come down and see the Atlantics in action?  Their next home game at the Smithtown Historical Society is on July 22 at 11am.  All  games are free, open to the public, and the players welcome questions from the audience about the rules and the game.

Marianne Howard is the executive director of the Smithtown Historical Society.  For more information on the Society, its events or programs, or becoming a member, please visit smithtownhistorical.org or call 631-265-6768.

James Clinch Smith poses for a portrait with his sisters.

By Kevin Redding

For the Smithtown Historical Society’s upcoming fundraising event, residents are encouraged to dress to the nines, party like it’s 1912 and shout at the top of their lungs, “I’m the king of the world!”

The organization’s Titanic Gala will “set sail” Saturday, April 8, at 7 p.m. at the Smithtown Elks Lodge, where those in attendance will dine and dance in Edwardian-era costumes, provided by Port Jefferson’s Nan Guzzetta, as if they’re first-class passengers on the infamous ship that more than 100 years ago collided with an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic Ocean.

James Clinch Smith

Upon entering the lodge’s expansive ballroom, residents will be able to pose for a photo with an actor portraying the Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith and survey reproductions of artifacts once seen in the massive ship, including china and jewelry. The event’s $85 entrance fee will go toward the historical society’s educational programs as well as the maintenance of its buildings.

Although the night will act as a celebration of the more joyous aspects of the Titanic — and give attendees an excuse to quote Jack and Rose — members of the historical society organized the event because the ship’s tragic end hits close to home in Smithtown.

James Clinch Smith, a descendant of the legendary Richard “Bull Rider” Smith, founder of Smithtown and one of town’s wealthiest and most prominent residents at the turn of the 20th century, was among the 1,517 passengers aboard the Titanic who died during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City in the early morning of April 15, 1912.

But before he ultimately drowned, the 56-year-old Long Islander saved as many lives as he could as the ship went down. “He was really a hero on that day,” Maureen Smilow, a board member on the historical society, said. “We want to remember the heroism and participation of [someone] from Smithtown at that time and remember him. And there were other people besides Smith on the Titanic who lived in this area. In addition to having a good time, we should remember the people who gave their lives.”

Brad Harris, the historical society’s president, said the group has long been in awe of Smith’s legacy and the idea of honoring him has been in the back of their minds for years. “As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s great to make people aware that we had in our midst an individual who got caught in this horrible tragedy and did his best to save others,” Harris said. “It’s a way to highlight the story of his life and commemorate his memory.”

Smith, alongside his friend Archibald Gracie, who survived the sinking, lifted women, children and babies into lifeboats as the water rose higher and higher on the ship’s deck. His heroics were documented in Gracie’s book “The Truth about the Titanic.” In it, Gracie wrote: “There could not be a braver man than James Clinch Smith … He was the embodiment of coolness and courage during the whole period of the disaster.”

Gracie added that words failed to express his feelings of admiration for Smith’s conduct amid such chaos. “The highest tribute I could pay him is this plain recital of what he did in the way of self-sacrifice,” he wrote, “knowing no such word as fear in saving the lives of others.” Born and raised in Smithtown Branch, Smith grew up to practice law with his father, the prominent Judge John Lawrence Smith. After both his parents died in the late 1800s he inherited 250 acres of land and millions of dollars, further fueling his passion for high-society living, which included horse racing and polo.

He wound up on the Titanic, heading back to Smithtown, following a visit with his sick wife in Cherbourg, France. Although his body was never recovered following the disaster, a memorial service for him was held at the St. James Episcopal Church in Smithtown on May 11, 1912. Photos of Smith and his family will be on display at the gala.

While not completely accurate, the gala’s dinner menu echoes what was served to first-class passengers on the Titanic, with dishes that include hors d’oeuvres, chicken marsala, sliced pork loin, steak with merlot reduction and a butter cream cake dessert. For further authenticity, the Kings Park High School orchestra will play live music that was performed on the ship during its maiden voyage.

The historical society’s executive director, Marianne Howard, said she’s thrilled that so many people so far have been enthusiastic about the event. “Everyone is getting excited and wanting to learn more about history,” she said. “People are doing a lot of research on the social and cultural aspects of history at that time [1912] in order to find out what people wore, what people would’ve eaten. I’m looking forward to seeing people enjoy themselves while celebrating and honoring our history.”

Tickets for the Titanic Gala are still available. To order, please call 631-265-6768 or visit www.smithtownhistorical.org.

The wedding of Marcia Lawrence, a descendant of Richard Smythe to Verne LaSalle Rockwell, an army colonel in the 11th U.S. Calvary during World War I, in 1910. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society

By Rita J. Egan

Benjamin Newton’s wedding vest and his wife’s slippers, 1854. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society
Benjamin Newton’s wedding vest and his wife’s slippers, 1854. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society

Romance is in the air at the Smithtown Historical Society. The organization is currently hosting the exhibit Smithtown Gets Married: Weddings Past and Present at the Caleb Smith II House.

Curator Joshua Ruff said the exhibit, which examines the changes in wedding traditions throughout the centuries, presents a universal theme that provides the historical society the perfect opportunity to display some of its collection pieces that the public may not have seen before.

“The story and topic is one thing, but if you have the objects and the photos and the clothing that really can do justice to the story, then you have the making of a good exhibit,” the curator said. Ruff said the society has a great number of wedding-oriented artifacts in its collection, and among the pieces on display are items that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Items from 1854 include a wedding vest of Benjamin Newton, who ran a livery service, and wedding slippers worn by his wife Ellen.

A wedding slipper from 1755 belonging to Martha Smith. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society
A wedding slipper from 1755 belonging to Martha Smith. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society

A wedding slipper from 1755 belonging to Martha Smith, who was married to Caleb Smith I, the original owner of the home located on the property of Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown, is also featured. “It’s pretty amazing that it survived,” the curator said.

Ruff said the historical society borrowed a couple of artifacts from the Smithtown Library including the wedding invitation of Bessie Smith and architect Stanford White, who designed the second Madison Square Garden as well as local structures including All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Stony Brook and Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower in Shoreham.

“It’s a small gallery, a small space, so I think it’s always good for us to have a little gem of an exhibition, something that has a few really great artifacts. You also have to realize that you can’t do a great, huge elaborate exhibition in the space,” Ruff said.

Marianne Howard, the historical society’s executive director said, “I think the exhibit is beautiful. One of the reasons why we were excited about the exhibit is because we wanted to have those partnerships with community members and with other organizations like the library who have a collection that is deep in this history, in this topic in particular,” she said.

In addition to the small artifacts, the exhibit features seven dresses from different periods. Gayle Hessel of Kings Park donated a 1980s wedding dress worn by her daughter Mary in 1985. “This is the kind of thing that people save and at a certain point after handing it down generation after generation, they start to think, ‘Well, what do I do with it now?’” Ruff said.

Two of the wedding dresses on display at the exhibit. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society
Two of the wedding dresses on display at the exhibit. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Historical Society

The curator said the gown by Laura Ashley has the princess style that was popular during the era due to Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding. “It’s timeless. You can tell it’s modern because of the material, and the overall look, and how low cut it is, but at the same time it really is this throwback, and it just looks great,” he said.

On the same side of the room as Hessel’s dress is one from 1882 worn by a Julia Strong. Ruff said it features a lace filigree neckline, and the dress is so small, it looks a child wore it even though the bride was 23 years old when she married. Ruff said he first attempted to put the dress on a regular mannequin, then a child’s mannequin, but finally had to carve a form for it. Ruff said it’s a perfect example of how people were smaller in the past, and the tight bodices and corseted waistlines worn in those days, too.

While at the museum, visitors can watch a 2½-minute video featuring wedding announcements of Smithtown residents in 1961. Ruff said it’s interesting to see the choices couples made as far as venues before the big catering halls of today. He said he chose 1961 because “the video is just a good way of returning to one moment in time, a moment that’s both long ago to feel like history, and maybe modern enough also to have some relevance and connection to people that come to see the exhibit.”

Howard hopes with the exhibit that attendees will not only learn about local history but also realize they can contribute to future exhibits, when they see the artifacts that are on loan. “I want people to learn about the history of Smithtown and the history of Long Island as well. And, I also want people to know that this is a place where they can have a say and have an impact and be a part of something bigger, and that’s what we’re really trying to do,” she said.

With the historical society’s museum located at the Caleb Smith II House on North Country Road slightly north of the Smithtown Library, Ruff said he hopes library patrons will take a few minutes to visit the museum adding, “They can step right next door and see a wonderful little exhibit with really unique little treasures that they’re not going to see anywhere else.”

The Caleb Smith II House, 5 North Country Road, Smithtown will present Smithtown Gets Married: Weddings Past and Present through Nov. 29. Hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission to the exhibit is free. For more information, call 631-265-6768 or visit www.smithtownhistorical.org.