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Setauket Presbyterian Cemetery

Historical re-enactors Mort Rosen and Donna Smith at last year's event. Photo by Raina Angelier

By Rita J. Egan

For nearly 30 years, the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS) has brewed up ghostly fun with a twist of history at its annual Spirits Cemetery Tour. The popular event returns on Saturday, Oct. 21 with A Century of Chicken Hill. 

Attendees will visit 10 locations in the Caroline Episcopal Church of Setauket and Setauket Presbyterian Church graveyards, where they will learn about the lives of former Chicken Hill residents.

Mari Irizarry, TVHS director, said the society’s educational committee writes and develops the scripts for the annual event. While some dialogues could be reused in the past, all the scripts are original this year.

A scene from the 2022 Spirits Tour. Photo by Raina Angler

“This year, we’re going to see some characters with names that we definitely know like Ridgeway, like Golden,” Irizarry said. “People who were really active in the Chicken Hill community just 100 years ago, 120 years ago.” Joseph Ridgeway was a key investor in the Rubber Factory which once operated in Setauket, and the Goldens were third-generation Jewish residents in the Three Village area.

During previous tours, actors playing the spirits would talk directly to attendees and describe their character’s life. While a few will do the same this year, overall, guests will walk in on conversations taking place among Chicken Hill spirits.

“You will listen in on a conversation they are having about maybe the shipyard off Shore Road or about the new railway that’s coming to Stony Brook,” Irizarry said.

With descendants of some of the former residents depicted on the tour still living in the area, the society’s director said they had the opportunity to confirm a fact about one spirit with a great-grandchild who lives in Stony Brook. “We don’t get to do that very often,” she said.

This year marks the first Spirits Tour Kimberly Phyfe, TVHS development coordinator, has worked on and will experience. She said she is excited to see it and knows regulars will, too.

“Even if you have come to the Spirits Tour in the past, year after year, you’re going to see new characters, you’re going to meet new spirits,” Phyfe said. “We have different locations. Even though, obviously they’re in the same church graveyards, it’s a totally different experience, because it’s all new scripts and a lot of new actors, a lot of returning actors, too.”

She added that researching using the historical society’s archives with Scott Ferrara, collections and exhibits coordinator, was fascinating.

Donna Smith portrays Maria Smith Williamson during previous Spirits Tour

“We were able to reference pieces in our archives that directly relate to and support the scripts of the Chicken Hill characters,” Phyfe said, adding among the items are the Ridgeway family bible, and items listed in a ledger that Rubber Factory laborer and Chicken Hill community member Jacob Hart’s wife, Hannah, bought at the Tyler General Store and more. 

“Just knowing that our archives are in direct relation to the program that we are putting on is really incredible to be a part of,” she said. “lt’s living history. It’s not just in a box on the shelf somewhere. We’re able to bring that out into the community.”

Phyfe added characters not depicting a specific person will be based on the types of people they have documentation on.

Among those who played a part in writing and editing the script were Town of Brookhaven Historian Barbara Russell and professional editor Stephanie Sakson.

Sakson has portrayed spirits twice in the past and helped with the scripts. She said for the Chicken Hill dialogues, she fine-tuned them and added some more history and humor. She said researching Chicken Hill was interesting.

A scene from a previous Spirits Tour. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

“I really didn’t know anything about Chicken Hill,” the Port Jefferson resident said. “I told my friends ‘you have to come see this!'”

She hopes attendees will gain “an appreciation that history is a living thing” and be inspired to do further research by visiting places such as the historical society and library.

“It’s not like it happened and it’s over,” she said. “You can see around you the effects of history, and how it has shaped how we feel about where we live and gives us an appreciation of how colorful and rich the place where we live is.”

The 29th Annual Spirits Tour will be held on Saturday, Oct. 21 (Rain date Oct. 28). Tours, which are approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes long, leave from the Setauket Presbyterian Church, 5 Caroline Ave., Setauket every 15 minutes starting at 5 p.m. The last tour departs at 7:30 p.m. 

Irizarry urges all tourgoers to arrive early, dress for extended time outdoors, wear comfortable walking shoes and bring a flashlight. An exhibit with additional information on Chicken Hill will be on display at Setauket Presbyterian Church throughout the night and complementary apple cider from Ann Marie’s Farmstand in Setauket and donuts donated from local supermarkets will be served.

Tickets in advance at www.tvhs.org are $25. Tickets on the night of the event, if available, are $30. For more information, call 631-751-3730.

Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

Tickets are on sale now for the Three Village Historical Society’s annual 28th annual Spirits Tour on Saturday, Oct. 22 (rain date Oct. 29). Guests will be guided to 10 locations in two of Setauket’s historic cemeteries — Caroline Episcopal Church of Setauket and the Setauket Presbyterian Church Cemetery — to walk-in on conversations between Spies of the American Revolution, Known and Unknown. To reserve your spot, visit www.tvhs.org. For more information, call 631-751-3730.

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The mural at Setauket Elementary School shows the American cannon set by Patriot’s rock to fire on the fortifications around the Setauket Presbyterian Church. Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Early in 1777, Queens County Loyalist troops, under the command of Loyalist Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett, took possession of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. They turned the church into a barrack and fortified the area around the building with an earthwork topped with sharpened wooden poles. They placed bundles of branches along the top of the fortification as protection from musket fire and more sharpened poles facing outward along the earthwork to repel a frontal attack. They also set swivel guns in the window openings to fire down on attackers. The resultant fort in the middle of the small settlement of Setauket was then ready to provide protection and safety for the small force of Tory troops.

The stationing of troops in Setauket was part of a British plan to provide a series of observation points on Long Island, which would keep an eye peeled for any movement of rebel troops from Connecticut that might threaten British positions on Long Island and in New York City.

On Aug. 16, 1777, Brigadier General Samuel Parsons was ordered by General Israel Putnam, to gather Continental Army troops in Connecticut, procure boats, “and such small armed or other vessels as you find necessary and proper … You are to make a descent on Long Island and deplete and destroy such parties of the enemy as are found at Huntington and Setauket.”

Parsons, born in Lyme Connecticut in 1737 and educated at Harvard, was by 1777 a veteran of two major battles. As an effective strategist under General George Washington, Parsons was familiar with the conditions on Long Island and with the plight of both the refugees who fled to Connecticut and the Americans who remained on Long Island under the rule of the British military governor.

On Aug. 21, the day before his troops were to attack the Loyalists at Setauket, Parsons issued the following order. “On the present expedition … ‘tis not to distress the helpless women or honest citizen we draw our swords, but from the noble and generous principle of maintaining the right of humanity and vindicating the liberties of freemen. The officers and soldiers are therefore most earnestly exhorted and strictly commanded to forbear all violation of personal property; not the least article is to be taken but by orders; we are to convince our enemies we despise their practices and scorn to follow their example. But should any person be so lost to all virtue and honor as to infringe this order, he or they may depend on the most exemplary punishment … and the greatest silence on the march is to be observed.”

“On the present expedition … ‘tis not to distress the helpless women or honest citizen we draw our swords.”

—General Samuel Parsons

The expedition left Fairfield Harbor that night under cover of darkness. Parsons knew that the success of the mission depended on surprise. Care was taken to avoid detection, but it was to no avail. The force was spotted from shore as it crossed the Sound and landed at Crane Neck Bend early in the morning.

The alarm was quickly spread and the Loyalist officers and men assembled at the fort. Hewlett was staying at the home of Benjamin Floyd. He arrived at the fort just ahead of the Americans. The element of surprise was gone and with it any chance of capturing the fort.

Parsons set up his cannon behind the large rock on what was then part of the Village Green. He sent a message to Hewlett demanding the surrender of the fort. Hewlett asked for a half hour to consult with his officers. Parsons said he would give them ten minutes. The reply came back, “Colonel Hewlett’s compliments to General Parsons, and is determined to defend the fort while he has a man left.”

The artillery officer was Continental Army Lieutenant Caleb Brewster, a refugee from Setauket. Parsons knew that a frontal attack would be suicide so he attempted to breach the walls of the fort with cannon fire. The two sides fired at each other for about four hours with little effect. Then Parsons, fearing that British warships on the Sound would cut off his return route to Connecticut, broke off the attack and headed back to the vessels at Crane Neck. The Patriot troops took with them some horses, blankets and other supplies belonging to the loyalists.

The attack had failed to accomplish its primary purpose, but the residents in Setauket now knew that Washington and the Continental Army had not forgotten the plight of the Patriots in enemy territory on Long Island. However, this is not the end of the story, which continues next with Hewlett, Parsons, Brewster and the Culper Spy Ring.

Beverly C. Tyler is 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.

Holly Griesel as Etta Sherry talks about the Old Stone Jug in Stony Brook — now The Jazz Loft — during the spirits tour Oct. 21. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

The Spirits of the Prohibition: Setauket in the Roaring 20s provided the overall theme for the Three Village Historical Society’s 23rd Annual Spirits Tour in the graveyards of the Setauket Presbyterian Church and Caroline Episcopal Church Oct. 21.

“My family was traditionally Episcopalian but my father Melville Havens Bryant had become a rabid prohibitionist, and the Methodist Church embraced temperance so we changed affiliation,” George Overin, playing William Washington Bryant (1859-1937), said. “Father was so committed to the cause that he would cross the street rather than walk in front of a saloon.”

George Overin as William Washington Bryant talks about the Prohibition during the spirits tour. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

More than 300 attendees followed guides that took them on a walk to meet 14 colorful but deceased local residents who entertained them with stories of their lives and the people in the Three Village communities. Guided tours began at 5 p.m. and a new group stepped out from the Setauket Presbyterian Church social hall every 15 minutes through 7:45 p.m.

In addition to the tours through the cemeteries, tour participants were treated to an exhibit on Prohibition with many artifacts and visuals from The Long Island Museum’s Prohibition exhibit, Midnight Rum, on view in the Setauket Presbyterian Church social hall. The exhibit featured a 1933 beer keg from Trommer’s Brewery, which Trommer’s rebranded and pressed this pre-Prohibition keg into service to help satisfy its large number of beer orders.

Tour groups were also treated to an evening of jazz in the hall by the Ward Melville Honors Jazztet with Andrew Cavese, Max Liueberman, Miles Bruno and Jared Gozinsky providing the delightful jazz on bass, sax, guitar and drums.

“It was a court room, meeting hall, lecture hall, but most notably what it was used for was square dancing and late at night, if the spirit got my papa, you would see some fancy footwork at the Stone Jug,” Holly Griesel as Etta Sherry (1855-1956) said, talking about the Old Stone Jug in Stony Brook — now The Jazz Loft.

Donna Smith as Kate Wheeler Strong talks to tour participants about her “True Tales.” Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

Stony Brook was also celebrated with stories about Robert Cushman Murphy. He and his wife Grace Barstow Murphy are buried in Rhode Island, but Robert Murphy was here as a visiting spirit along with lifelong Stony Brook resident Etta Sherry, who is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Stony Brook.

“Suffolk County, right here where you are, was the very first county in the entire world to have DDT banned in 1956, and Grace and I spearheaded that effort with some other people,” Art Billadello, playing Robert Cushman Murphy (1887-1973), said.

Setauket’s Kate Wheeler Strong (1879-1977), historian, teacher and storyteller, who is buried in the Smith-Strong cemetery on Strong’s Neck, wrote articles on Long Island local history for the Long Island Forum from 1938 until 1976. She also put her articles into a series of booklets she called “True Tales.”

“My love of history came from my father who knew every story about the family and the local people living here,” Donna Smith as Kate Wheeler Strong said. “He’s the one who inspired me to write about ‘True Tales.’”

Participants, especially those who took the early tours before dark, were treated to a view of the restored Caroline Church Carriage Shed adjacent to the church parking lot. Built in 1887, it is a unique example of a seven-bay carriage shed that was an important feature in the community during the era of the horse and buggy.

This year’s Spirits Tour was also special for the beautiful weather and starry skies that made for a pleasant, fun and informative event for everyone who participated.

Beverly Tyler is 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.

Members of the Rocky Point Historical Society with Culper Spy Abraham Woodhull (historian Beverly C. Tyler ) at the Setauket Presbyterian Cemetery. Photo by Carol Calabro

On Saturday, June 3, Setauket historian Beverly C. Tyler led members and friends of the Rocky Point Historical Society on a journey back in time to the days of the Culper Spy Ring. The story has been made famous with the television series “Turn.”

The tour began at the headquarters of the Three Village Historical Society where Tyler, wearing 18th-century clothing, took on the personality and true story of Abraham Woodhull, and continued on to the site of the birthplace and farm of Woodhull, to the burial grounds at St. George’s Manor Cemetery and the Setauket Presbyterian Cemetery.

Born in Setauket, Abraham Woodhull (1750 –1826) was a leading member of the Culper Spy Ring in New York City and Setauket during the American Revolution using the alias Samuel Culper, Sr., a play on Culpeper County, Virginia. The ring provided Washington with valuable information on the British Army headquartered in and operating out of New York, from October 1778 until the end of the American Revolutionary War. After the United States gained independence, Woodhull served as the first judge in Suffolk County. Other local residents who took part in the spy ring were Austin Roe, Caleb Brewster and Anna Smith Strong.

For more information on the Three Village Historical Society’s upcoming historical walking tours, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.