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Patriot

By Heidi Sutton

This past Saturday, members of the community gathered at St. George’s Manor Cemetery in Setauket to pay tribute to Judge Selah Strong with the unveiling of a commemorative graveside plaque. Margo Arceri, owner of Tri-Spy Tours, dedicated the bronze marker which honors the judge’s contributions to the local community, 205 years after his death.

“Strong was one of the first patriots in the community. He was best friends with Culper Spy Caleb Brewster … During the  Battle of Long Island, he was arrested by the British for assisting the Continental Army. After the war, he had a long and illustrious career in public service. The Strong family wanted him to be recognized for his efforts during the Revolutionary War and after. It was a great honor to place the marker for them,” said Arceri after the ceremony. “This is an important moment in our community’s history and for the Strong family.”

The event was attended by representatives of the Three Village Historical Society including President Steve Healy, Director of Education Donna Smith and historian Beverly C. Tyler; members of the Anna Smith Strong chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution; and several descendants of Selah Strong. Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright, and Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara M. Russell were also in attendance.

Selah Strong is buried in a family plot next to his first wife, Anna Smith Strong, the only female member of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, known for her famed clothesline.

“It’s always been a bit of a shame that not too many people payed attention to Selah because they were so interested in Anna and her story, but actually he did an awful lot,” said John (Jack) Temple Strong Jr., Selah Strong’s great-great-great grandson, who had the honor of unveiling the plaque.

Supervisor Romaine agreed. “Born on Christmas Day, 1737, died on the Fourth of July, 1815, he packed into his life things … we see of a man who was dedicated to his community, someone that at the tender age of 26 was elected Town Trustee and would wind up spending 35 years in office, most of them, certainly from 1780 on, as President of the Trustees, which is the equivalent of Supervisor,” he said.

Selah Strong also served as Suffolk County Treasurer, judge for the Court of Common Pleas, and was a New York State Senator for four years. “This is a man who served his community … I am here to pay my respects to someone that paved the way because as we look around today, a lot of what we have over the last 200 years would not be here if not for men of this caliber,” added Supervisor Romaine.

“When we think about patriotism we think about Selah Strong, Anna Smith Strong and the personal sacrifice, the amount of risks that they took for their country — true patriots,” said Raymond Brewster Strong III, Selah Strong’s 6th generation grandson who made the trip from Houston, Texas, to attend the ceremony. “[George] Washington’s motto was ‘deeds, not words’ and when you think about Selah Strong’s [accomplishments], those are true deeds, not words.”

“The Strong family continues as tradition bearers, and Tri-Spy Tours and the Three Village Historical Society are also important parts of passing to the next generation a sense of place and a sense of continuum,” said Assemblyman Englebright. “I am just honored to be here to bear witness to this wonderful occasion. This is altogether a respectful moment that should be remembered, as Selah Strong should be remembered.”

*Editors note — St. George’s Manor Cemetery is a private cemetery still owned by the Strong family.

All photos by Heidi Sutton

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Above, the Northport Historical Society. Photo from Heather Johnson

By Eric Santiago

Over the last year, a group of Northport-East Northport teachers and students have worked to preserve an overlooked piece of Long Island’s history.

Eaton’s Neck was home to a leading patriot, forgotten except by a few local history buffs. Yet the biography of John Sloss Hobart (1738-1805) reads like the résumé of a Revolutionary War hero. Born in Connecticut, Hobart went on to graduate from Yale University, join the American resistance, help draft the New York State Constitution, briefly becoming a U.S. senator and eventually accepting a federal judgeship.

Unlike Revolutionary War-era icons like Nathan Hale or Paul Revere, Hobart’s name largely faded into obscurity.

“For some reason his name didn’t stand out the way theirs did,” Peter White, a retired social studies teacher who taught at Northport Middle School, said.

But there are pieces of Hobart’s legacy that survive. After his death in 1805, a close friend of Hobart’s, the judge Egbert Benson, commissioned a marble tablet in Hobart’s honor.

Bearing an inscription that praised his work in life, the Hobart tablet spent about the next 150 years in the basement of New York City Hall, according to a letter White co-wrote to the Northport-East Northport school board. This was until Richard Streb, a teacher at Northport High School, discovered the tablet in 1963. He convinced then-Mayor Robert Wagner’s administration to sell the tablet to the Northport-East Northport school district for $1.

A view of the tablet honoring John Sloss Hobart. Photo from Kathleen Cusumano
A view of the tablet honoring John Sloss Hobart. Photo from Kathleen Cusumano

It’s bounced around Northport-East Northport schools ever since, most recently embedded in the wall of the auditorium at Northport Middle School. When Streb retired in 1981, he asked White, his close friend and protégé, to look after the tablet.

It gathered dust in the back of the auditorium until last December when music department chairperson, Izzet Mergen, considered dedicating the space to former music department chairperson, Robert Krueger.

Realizing that moving the tablet would be a sensitive issue, Mergen contacted White, who then contacted Kathleen Cusumano, a permanent substitute teacher at Northport Middle School. A former student of White’s and a local history expert, Cusumano and the others formed a group to decide the tablet’s fate. The goal was to find somewhere the tablet could be seen and appreciated.

“We had the task of trying to figure out what to do with it,” White said.

Sensing this could be a valuable learning experience, Cusumano started recruiting students to help with the search.

“We have middle school students who are living on Hobart land,” Cusumano said. “There’s always that connection when you’re trying to teach history — that tangible connection of actually seeing something that really existed and didn’t just come out of a textbook.”

Now with a dozen students in tow, the group began exploring possible homes for the tablet. Several places were considered, with the Northport Historical Society, Northport Library and Huntington Town Hall as some of the most popular contenders. The students visited these locations before voting on where they would recommend the tablet be placed. Ultimately the school district, which owns the tablet, had the final say.

Heather Johnson, the director of the historical society, remembers when the students visited. She was particularly impressed with their thoughtful questions.

“For somebody who works in a historical society, we’re always trying get people involved of all ages interested in history,” she said. “There’s nothing more heartwarming and positive to see — really any group — but certainly a young group who are trying to make a difference.”

After the visit, the students started to lean toward the historical society, but they were reluctant to declare a permanent home for the tablet, Cusumano said. What if no one came to the historical society? Could they guarantee that some place like the library wouldn’t guarantee more visibility?

But the students managed to come up with a compromise, according to Cusumano; they decided to ask that the tablet only be loaned for a year. If the historical society turned out to be a poor fit, the tablet could be moved elsewhere at the end of the year.

The school board approved this recommendation at a recent meeting. According to district clerk, Beth Nystrom, the tablet will be moved to the historical society once the attorneys from both parties draft the formal agreement to loan the tablet.

For their part, Johnson said the historical society was proud and excited to add the tablet to their collection.

“When we found out we were the top choice, we were delighted and honored,” she said. “[The students] did their research, and that made it even more meaningful to be chosen.”

Cusumano also praised the students’ dedication. She stressed that some of the best learning can only be done outside of the classroom.

“I think when you experience — when you have experiential learning — it stays with you,” she said. “More things like field trips where [the students] can get involved, I believe, makes for a lifelong learner.”