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Sherwood-Jayne House

View of Old Roe’s Tavern in Setauket, 1914, by Arthur W. Strong, gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck Sr. Photography ©New-York Historical Society at https://www.nyhistory.org

By Corey Geske

Now through Jan. 16, 2020, the New-York Historical Society is featuring an exhibition Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere, while in East Setauket there’s reason to celebrate a find related to the home of courier and spy Capt. Austin Roe, known as the “Paul Revere of Long Island.” 

Roe Tavern, Robert S. Feather Photo Postcard, c. 1916-1918. Photo courtesy of Three Village Historical Society

For the first time in a century, sketches of Old Roe’s Tavern in its original location in East Setauket have come to light courtesy of the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) after an ongoing search, at my request, for catalogued entries that initially evaded art handlers. Gifted in 1954 to the N-YHS, the sketches remained unheralded for 65 years until brought to light this September on the eve of the recent fifth annual Culper Spy Day sponsored by the Three Village Historical Society, Tri-Spy Tours, The Long Island Museum and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization. 

Dating from 1911 to 1917, the sketches in graphite (pencil) with touches of white chalk on buff paper are by Arthur W. Strong, an interior designer and third-generation American sign painter. At my request, they have been photographically digitized for the first time. 

Spy Trail captured in Strong’s sketches

On his sketches, Strong inscribed a date of circa 1702 to the future tavern, a year before it’s now believed the first Selah Strong in Setauket built the one-story section seen to the right (east) in the top photo. The Strongs sold to the Woodhulls who, in turn, sold to the Roe family, who added the main section in 1735 and turned it into a tavern. Under cover of his livelihood as tavern-keeper, Roe acted as a courier for George Washington’s spy ring, carrying information between New York City and Setauket at great personal risk during the American Revolution, when Long Island was occupied by the British. 

Among the few known views of Roe Tavern in its original location (now marked by a sign), Strong’s sketches predate Route 25A road changes that necessitated the tavern’s move a mile away in 1936. Strong’s 1914 sketch of the tavern conveys the same basic undulations of land and roadway so familiar today on the Spy Trail, which extends from Port Jefferson to Great Neck along 25A, known as the King’s Highway during the Revolution. 

Today it’s known as the Culper Spy Trail after Washington’s chief spies on Long Island — Abraham Woodhull, alias Samuel Culper Sr., and Robert Townsend, Culper Jr., who provided key intelligence to Washington in 1780 that helped save West Point from Benedict Arnold’s treason. Also, thanks to the horsemanship of Roe that year, the French Navy was spared at Newport, Rhode Island, so it could sail south to assist Washington in achieving the ultimate Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown, Virginia, the following year. 

In 2017, the New York State Legislature recognized the contribution of the Culper Spy Ring, and commemorative Spy Trail signs were installed by the North Shore Promotion Alliance. 

Arthur Strong’s 1914 sketch provides the earliest known perspective of the Roe Tavern from the northeast looking west along the dirt road to New York City as it was likely laid out when traveled by Roe as he couriered coded messages for Washington. Riding horseback 110 miles round trip at least once a week, on roads patrolled by British soldiers and frequented by highwaymen and British spies and couriers, the danger persisted when Roe returned home where the enemy, drinking at his tavern, would hopefully drop an unguarded comment on military plans that warranted transmittal to Washington. 

Washington’s room at the tavern

Washington’s Bedroom (1790) in Old Roe’s
Tavern, 1917, by Arthur W. Strong,
gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck Sr.
Photography ©New-York Historical Society at https://www.nyhistory.org

Through Strong’s eyes, too, we see the tavern where it stood in 1790 when Washington saw it and recorded in his diary, “thence to Setakit . . . to the House of a Captn. Roe which is tolerably dect. [decent] with obliging people in it.” Washington slept there on the evening of April 22, 1790 during a post-war tour of Long Island to thank those, like Roe, who spied for the American cause. 

Out of a cache of six, five sketches are related to the tavern and a sixth (1915) is of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. Strong’s work features a previously stored-away view of the second-floor front southwest bedroom George Washington slept in when visiting Roe Tavern in 1790. 

The week of Washington’s birthday bicentennial, a Feb. 26, 1932 Long-Islander newspaper article reported that care had been taken to “preserve the original appearance” of the bedroom and that its central feature was the open fireplace “across the northern end of the room.” That is the focus of Strong’s 1917 sketch, made years earlier, showing the first president’s humble accommodations. 

From tavern to tea house

Arthur W. Strong, Front Façade of Old Roe’s Tavern in Setauket, 1911, by Arthur W. Strong, Gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck, Sr., Photography ©New-York Historical Society at https://www.nyhistory.org

According to census records, Arthur W. Strong was born about 1878. He may have moved from Brooklyn to Port Jefferson in November 1911 at about age 32, when he completed his first sketch, which was of the tavern. 

Strong’s sketches appear to have been done during his commissions as a sign painter, and he returned to the tavern on three occasions. The first sketch, drawn in 1911, included an inset of what was likely his proposed sign marking Washington’s visit (that Strong mistakenly recorded as occurring in 1782) and not a word about a tea house. Strong’s last three sketches in 1917 depict the front facade of the tavern without any sign; a proposed sign for the ‘Old Tavern Tea House’ with a full-face picture of George Washington and the correct date of his visit in 1790; and Washington’s bedroom. The latter indicates Strong’s interest in interior decorating that ultimately led to his becoming a partner in his own design business by 1930.  

Strong’s 1911 sketch is reminiscent of similarly composed views found in photo postcards of the tavern by English-born photographers Arthur S. Greene (1867-1955), who came to Port Jefferson in 1894, and Robert S. Feather (1861-1937) a jeweler and watchmaker who arrived in Smithtown after 1900. 

While Greene’s postcard shows a real estate sign on a post like that drawn in Strong’s sketches, Feather’s postcard circa 1916-1918 shows a boxy tea house sign, framing a view taken east of the signpost. Tea houses were a popular venue in 1917: the same year Strong drew Washington’s visage on his Old Tavern Tea House sign for Roe’s, a new tea house was established to the west on Route 25A, at the Roslyn Grist Mill, the oldest Dutch commercial building in the United States (now undergoing extensive restoration by the Roslyn Landmark Society).

Roe Tavern sketches reach N-YHS

Washington’s Bedroom (1790) in Old Roe’s
Tavern, 1917, by Arthur W. Strong,
gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck Sr.
Photography©New-York Historical Society at https://www.nyhistory.org

The N-YHS received Strong’s sketches as a Gift of the Estate of Oscar T. Barck Sr., historian to the Sons of the American Revolution, collector of documents signed by Washington and father of Syracuse University professor and noted historian and author Oscar Theodore Barck Jr. (1902-1993), whose papers and ephemera the N-YHS also houses. 

Barck Jr.’s book, “New York City During the War for Independence: With Special Reference to the Period of British Occupation” (1931), provides one of the early discussions of Washington’s spy ring, following Suffolk County historian Morton Pennypacker’s “Two Spies” (1930) identifying Robert Townsend of Oyster Bay as Culper Jr. in prelude to Pennypacker’s “George Washington’s Spies” (1939) establishing Abraham Woodhull of Setauket as Culper Sr. 

Pennypacker described how Anna Smith Strong hung laundry on a clothesline to signal Woodhull when and where Capt. Caleb Brewster’s whaleboats beached in various coves to receive messages he would relay across the Sound to Washington’s headquarters. Arthur Strong’s interest in Roe Tavern shows an appreciation for Strong family history in Setauket although his father’s family emigrated to the United States from England in 1851. As “Master Painters,” Arthur Strong’s family established their own business of paper hanging and painting in Manhattan and Brooklyn before Arthur moved to Port Jefferson.

Encoded art and architecture lead to rediscovered sketches

Roe Tavern’s two-story three-bay main section with a door to the right, considered a “half-house,” featured nine-over-six windows, a common yet potentially politically significant configuration, also found in the similar facade of a circa 1752 house once the home of Mary Woodhull Arthur and now owned by the Smithtown Central School District on West Main Street, Smithtown. That suggestive fenestration led me to discover Mary’s father was Abraham Woodhull, aka Culper Sr., one of the Culpers for whom the Spy Trail was named. After leaving Roe’s Tavern on April 23, 1790, Washington traveled to Smithtown past the Arthur House en route to Huntington and dined at Platt’s Tavern, no longer extant, making Mary’s home the only one of the three Washington passed that day still located where it stood in 1790.

The locating of Strong’s Setauket sketches comes in conjunction with my current research into the possibility that architectural features of Roe Tavern, the Arthur House in Smithtown and the wall paintings of the Sherwood-Jayne House in East Setauket could be highly political in nature. Owned by Preservation Long Island, the Sherwood-Jayne House is believed to have been built about 1730 with the east addition housing the paintings dated to circa 1780-1790. Without giving away details, I’ll say the Sherwood-Jayne House would not be the first American home documented with frescoes of a similar style said to have been painted to express loyalty to either a British or American political stance close to the end of the American Revolution. 

As a clue to understanding the political potential of the Sherwood-Jayne wall paintings, I’ll remind readers of Abigail Adams’ admonition, “Remember the ladies,” written to her husband, John, at a time when he was helping to frame the Declaration of Independence for the new American government in 1776. Abigail’s advice lends meaning to the ciphers that appear to be spelled out on the interior walls of the Sherwood-Jayne House and are repeated in the fenestration of its front facade as well as the windows of Mary Woodhull Arthur’s home and Roe Tavern.

North Shore arts flourish

The southeast parlor, Sherwood-Jayne House, East Setauket
Photo courtesy of Preservation Long Island

Within the 1911 to 1917 time frame that Arthur W. Strong sketched Roe Tavern, painter Emile Albert Gruppé was commissioned in 1916 by antiquarian Howard Sherwood, to restore the wall paintings in a downstairs parlor of his nearby East Setauket home (now the Sherwood-Jayne House). 

Sherwood discovered the paintings beneath the wallpaper shortly after purchasing the house in 1908. 

Strong and Gruppé were working in the East Setauket area while sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey’s early plaster cast of Whisper, the Smithtown Bull (now at the Smithtown Historical Society), was exhibited, beginning in 1913, at the new Smithtown Library (1912), to raise funds for the five-ton bronze Bull. 

Gruppé could have seen the model when he arrived in East Setauket and ironically, in 1919, Emile’s brother, sculptor Karl Gruppé, would become Rumsey’s assistant. After Rumsey’s death in 1922, Karl went to Paris for three years to supervise completion of Rumsey’s unfinished works, which included the Smithtown Bull (National Register Eligible 2018). 

It was cast in 1926, shortly after Emile Gruppé returned to the North Shore and recorded, in April 1925, that he restored “with much care,” the second-floor frescoes at Sherwood’s home. 

The Bull represents not only the time-honored folklore of Richard “Bull” Smith’s famous ride upon a bull circling the land that would become Smithtown but also stands as the secular symbol of the winged ox attribute of St. Luke, patron of painters and architects. 

Standing tall at the junction of Routes 25 and 25A, the bronze Bull installed in Smithtown in 1941 serves as a symbol of the arts along the North Shore from the township of Smithtown to Brookhaven. Little known, but locally significant, Arthur W. Strong, creator of the Roe Tavern Sketches, was a figure in that North Shore arts movement.

About the author: Independent Historian Corey Geske of Smithtown also compared sketches at the N-YHS to an Asher Brown Durand painting at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan, resulting in its correct re-titling as “View in the Valley of Oberhasle, Switzerland” (1842) in the Art Inventories Catalog of the Smithsonian American Art Museums. Geske proposed a National Register Historic District for downtown Smithtown in early 2017, prepared the report resulting in the Smithtown Bull being determined Eligible for the NR (2018) and wrote the successful nomination for recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places of the Byzantine Catholic Church of the Resurrection (1929) designed by Henry J. McGill and Talbot F. Hamlin, and its Rectory, the former Fred and Annie Wagner Residence (1912) designed by Gustav Stickley.

 

Photo by Darren St. George

Preservation Long Island will host an open house at the Sherwood-Jayne Farm, 55 Old Post Road, Setauket on Saturday, May 25 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Actor David Burt will portray William Jayne II aka Big Bill the Tory and lead a tour of the home which dates back to1730. Tours will be held throughout the day. Admission is $5 adults, $3 children and seniors. For more information, call 631-692-4664.

Photo courtesy of Preservation Long Island

Looking for something to do this Saturday? Why not take a step back in time and visit the historic Sherwood-Jayne House, 55 Old Post Road, East Setauket on Saturday, Oct. 6? 

Preservation Long Island will offer docent-led tours between noon and 3 p.m. Originally built around 1730 as a lean-to salt box dwelling, the house and agricultural setting were maintained as an operational farmstead for over 150 years by members of the Jayne family. In 1908, Preservation Long Island’s founder, Howard C. Sherwood, acquired the property to showcase his lifetime interest in collecting, studying and living with antiques. The house contains period furnishings and features original late-eighteenth-century hand-painted floral wall frescoes. 

Admission is $5 adults, $3 children ages 7 to 14. Tours are also offered by appointment. For more information, call 631-692-4664.

Winners of last year’s Long Island Apple Festival’s apple pie contest, from left, Erin Lovett (Second Place); Liana and Gabrielle Lofaso (Best Looking Pie); Christopher McAndrews (Third Place); and Sabrina Sloan and Chris Muscarella (First Place). Photo by Tara La Ware

Time to bake a pie! The humble apple will be the focus of the largest Apple Pie Baking Contest on Long Island to be held in conjunction with the 28th annual Long Island Apple Festival on Sunday, Sept. 24 at the Sherwood-Jayne Farm, 55 Old Post Road, Setauket from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Contestants will have the chance to show off their favorite family recipes and participate in an old-fashioned blue ribbon competition. The event is sponsored by Homestead Arts, the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities and the Greater Port Jefferson-Northern Brookhaven Arts Council. Entries must be traditional apple pies only. The pie, including crust, must be homemade by amateur bakers.

Early registration is preferred, before Sept. 21, but registrations will also be accepted on the day of the festival. Pies must be on the contest table at the Sherwood-Jayne House before 11 a.m. on the day of the festival. A written recipe must be submitted with each entry including the name and address of the baker. Each contestant will receive one free Apple Festival entry. Judging will begin at 2 p.m. with prizes awarded between 3 and 4 p.m. First, second and third place winners will be announced for Best Tasting Pie. A fourth winner will be chosen for Best Looking Pie.

All winners will receive a prize. Past prizes have included a brunch or dinner for two at fine restaurants, theater tickets, gift baskets and gift certificates. The first-place winner will be invited to be a judge at next’s year’s Apple Pie Baking Contest. All pies, including their dishes, will be auctioned off after the winners have been announced.

For contest entry forms, visit www.splia.org. For more information, call 631-692-4664.

Filming the Battle of Long Island scene at Benner's Farm. Photo by Michael Pawluk

By Jenna Lennon

History came to life on Long Island this summer with the production of TBR News Media’s first feature-length film, “One Life to Give,” which paints a picture of the events leading up to the formation of America’s first band of spies, the Culper Spy Ring.

The Culper Spy Ring was organized by Benjamin Tallmadge under orders from General George Washington in the summer of 1778. Tallmadge recruited a group of men and women he could trust in Setauket and, for the remaining years of the war, collected information regarding British troop formations, movements and plans.

The spy ring became the most successful intelligence group on either side of the war during the course of the Revolution. Its existence was unknown to the public until the 1930s when Long Island historian Morton Pennypacker analyzed handwritten letters to Washington and discovered that Robert Townsend and Samuel Culper Jr. were, in fact, the same person.

A battle scene shot at Benner’s Farm. Photo by Michael Pawluk

Based on these true events, “One Life to Give” follows Tallmadge (Dave Morrissey Jr.) and Nathan Hale (Hans Paul Hendrickson) in the early stages of the war and plays off of the speculation that Hale’s famous last words, “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country,” were inspired by Joseph Addison’s “Cato, a Tragedy.”

“Tallmadge and Hale are both very motivated individuals. They graduated from Yale at the same time in 1773, and they are good friends. They’re schoolmates and they spent a whole bunch of time at Yale together, but they are very different,” said director, Benji Dunaief, an incoming junior at Emerson College in Boston. “In a lot of ways, they are kind of yin and yang. They’re opposites and opposites that attract and opposites that ultimately prove to be the pieces that transpired into the Culper Spy Ring,” he said.

Colonel John Chester (Jonathan Rabeno), a fellow Yale graduate along with Hale and Tallmadge, tasks Tallmadge with the duty of convincing Hale, who has enlisted in his local militia, to actively join the cause.

“I play Colonel John Chester. He’s from Connecticut. He went to Yale, and he’s friends with Benjamin Tallmadge and Nathan Hale,” Rabeno said. “He kind of acts as a recruiter for getting them involved more in the cause. … so this is really right in the beginning stages of it.”

Cast and crew gather around a camera to view playback. Photo by Michael Pawluk

Hale not only enlists, but eventually is Washington’s (David Gianopoulos) first volunteer to go behind enemy lines and gather British intelligence. Soon after, Hale is captured by Robert Rogers (George Overin), and General William Howe (Jeffrey Sanzel) sentences him to death for committing acts of espionage.

With the motivation of the loss of one of his dearest friends and his brother, William (Aaron Johnson), Tallmadge and Washington form the Culper Spy Ring. “This is a guy who experienced something very traumatic when his brother William died, and it changed the course of history. He took that energy, and he inspirationally manifested it into something so incredibly positive for all of us that we are all benefitting from today,” Morrissey said.

He continues, “As someone who’s brother has died who is also named Will, this was an inspiration for me to be able to hopefully manifest it into something that other people will benefit from in the future. That’s why this is so important for me. I loved working on this film, and I am never going to forget this ever. This one’s for you, Will.”

The producer of “One Life to Give,” TBR’s director of media productions Michael Tessler, grew up “with Setauket in my backyard” and has always had a fascination with Revolutionary War history. “I’m grateful that historians, authors, and film producers have finally brought the narrative of the Culper Spy Ring to life. This history remained elusive for so many years and has evolved from local lore into a spectacular chapter of our founding story,” said Tessler.

Above,the Continental Army shoots off a cannon at Benner’s Farm. Photo by Michael Pawluk

“As a lover of history, the question that kept me up at night and acted as the muse for this piece is simply what tragedies had to occur that would cause the heroes of the Culper Spy Ring to risk everything? Digging into textbooks, letters and the memoir of Benjamin Tallmadge, it became apparent to me that there was an important story to tell, one too often forgotten in the annals of history,” he said, adding “When all is said and done, this is the story of two best friends who saved the Revolution and changed the course of human events.”

While working to write and produce their first feature film beginning in March, Dunaief and Tessler were also tasked with finding a talented cast, a passionate crew and period-appropriate locations where they could tell this story.

“Everyone on the crew I’ve either worked with, somebody on the crew had worked with, or we had just heard really good things about,” Dunaief said.

“I think I wouldn’t do it any other way. We had 12 people on our crew to make a feature film in 16 days. That’s like bare bones. That’s like barer than bare bones. But the fact that everybody was doing two or three jobs at the same time, everyone was pulling their weight and more by a lot really speaks volumes about the kind of people that we had on the crew and had it been a different group of people, I really don’t think we would have been able to finish,” said Dunaief.

Benji Dunaief, left, directs a scene at the Caroline Church of Brookhaven with actor Dave Morrissey Jr. Photo by Jenna Lennon

“We had the most phenomenal cast, crew and community behind us. All of our locations are genuine historic properties beautifully preserved by local organizations — places these heroes actually lived, worked and played. That’s a benefit not afforded to those using sound stages in Hollywood,” Tessler said.

Filming took place over the course of 16 days at many local historic locations including the Caroline Church of Brookhaven, the Sherwood-Jayne House and the Thompson House in Setauket along with the William Miller House in Miller Place.

Scenes were also shot on location at Port Jefferson’s East Beach and Benner’s Farm in Setauket, where a trench with palisades, a fort and nearly 100 reenactors, acting as both Continental and British troops, staged the Battle at Bedford Pass.

“Though exhausting, this was the most rewarding experience of my professional career. Waking up after sleeping in Washington’s marquee tent and seeing a trench, palisades, cannon and an actual Continental Army was just an indescribable experience,” Tessler said.

“This happens to be a local story, but it’s a great story, and it’s a story worth telling,” Dunaief said. “You don’t come across a story like this every day that’s as powerful, as meaningful, as patriotic. There have been so many movies that have been made that have glorified the Revolution, that have taken insane liberties and basically just use it as a backdrop for their own narratives,” he said. “But this is a film that truly pays homage and respect to real people who lived and died for our country, and I think it’s an incredibly important story.”

“One Life to Give” is scheduled to premiere on Sept. 22, the 241st anniversary of Nathan Hale’s execution.