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This dragoon coat, worn by actor Seth Numrich in AMC’s ‘TURN’ series, will be one of the items auctioned off on May 19. Photo courtesy of AMC

UPDATE:

I-Spy TURN Auction & Spy Themed Event for May 19 has been canceled
Due to the excessive rain and water on the property this week and with the prediction of additional rain over the weekend, the Three Village Historical Society feels it is in the best interest of guests and volunteers to postpone the event.  “We will reschedule I-Spy for a date in the future when we can provide the best experience for all. Cancelling this event was a hard decision to make and we apologize for any inconvenience,” said the Society.

By Michael Tessler

The Three Villages is home to a remarkable Revolutionary history that for over a century remained elusive to the American people … all except in Setauket where local lore and legend preserved a tale of spies, lies, petticoats and the exceptional bravery of everyday citizens who risked everything to liberate their homes and loved ones from tyranny.

General George Washington established the Culper Spy Ring in 1778 by recruiting Benjamin Tallmadge, a would-be lieutenant colonel and future congressman who called the quaint village of Setauket home. He recruited friends and schoolmates to establish a secret network, eluding the mighty British Empire that had been occupying Long Island since August 1776. Their efforts turned the tides of war in favor of the Continental Army and forever altered the course of history.

It wasn’t until 1939, when amateur historian Morton Pennypacker began to decipher secret aliases and uncover the true identities of the Culper spies. In 2014, the legend of the Culper Spy Ring finally entered the public zeitgeist with the premiere of AMC’s television drama series “TURN: Washington’s Spies,” a historical fiction piece that chronicled the Culper Spy Ring. 

“If it weren’t for Setauket, we would have lost the war,” declared Three Village Historical Society President Steve Healy. “If Washington had been caught, he would have been hanged. They stopped that, they saved the [American] Revolution.” And just as the Culper spies saved the fledgling United States, the Three Village Historical Society has made it its mission to keep the Culper Spy Ring and the local history of this community alive.

When “TURN” ended last August, the Three Village Historical Society reached out to the show and received a very special donation: props, costumes and other memorabilia actually featured on the show during the series’ four-season run. On Saturday, May 19, the public will have the opportunity to own these pieces of history during a silent auction fundraiser on the society’s front lawn starting at noon. Bidding closes at 4:15 p.m.

According to TVHS board members Cathy White and Janet McCauley, the most sought after item of the day will be a dragoon (18th century cavalry) coat worn by the actor who played Benjamin Tallmadge, Seth Numrich. “It’ll be fun to see where it ends up,” said McCauley. “Either way, it is a wonderful tool to educate our community about the area that they live in.” 

Other items in the auction include a reproduction of a 1730 Dublin Castle Long Land (1st Model) Brown Bess musket; autographed sheet music; a portrait of King George II, c. 1730, reproduction on canvas; as well as maps, letters and artifacts such as an astrolab, horn bowls, British army drumsticks, pewter pitchers, posters, an uncut sheet of Continental currency and more.

In addition to the silent auction, there is a flurry of activities scheduled throughout the day. From noon to 4 p.m. community educator Donna Smith, portraying Anna Smith Strong, will hold invisible ink demonstrations while noted children’s author Selene Castrovilla will be selling and signing copies of her books. Visitors will also have the opportunity to meet Benjamin Tallmadge, portrayed by TVHS past president and trustee Art Billadello. The historical society’s two exhibits, SPIES: How a Group of Long Island Patriots Helped George Washington Win the Revolution and Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time, and gift shop will be open as well. 

At noon, historian Margo Arceri will lead a Tri-Spy Walking Tour, which starts at the post office next to Frank Melville Memorial Park, 101 Main St. in Setauket. Historian Beverly C. Tyler will give a Walk Through History with Farmer and Spy, Abraham Woodhull, guided tour at 2 p.m. starting at the front parking lot of the Caroline Church of Brookhaven, 1 Dyke Road, Setauket. 

From 3 to 5 p.m., “Wine and cheese will be served while we have Colonial music performed by Natalie Kress and Kevin Devine of the Three Village Chamber Players,” said Sandy White, TVHS office manager, adding, “We want to create a dialogue about our community’s history. ‘TURN’ helped start that conversation. We’d like to continue it.” 

The Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket will host an I-Spy “Turn” Auction fundraiser on May 19 from noon to 5 p.m. (rain date May 20). Tickets, which are $25 adults, $5 for children age 14 and younger, cover participation in all of the day’s events, including both walking tours. To order, please visit www.TVHS.org or call 631-751-3730.

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These days, with the chaos in politics, it is no wonder that many people are showing a renewed interest in our history and the goals of our Founding Fathers some 240 years ago that define who we want to be today. Many residents seem surprised by the significant role our Long Island area played in the Revolutionary War and are delighted to learn about the Culper Spy Ring that was centered in Setauket and led by Benjamin Tallmadge, a resident. “TURN: Washington’s Spies,” the AMC cable series now in its fourth and final year, has done much to popularize the spy story, speaking to our past.

All of which serves to bring history to the fore. This is a good result because history is part of the glue that defines a community and strengthens its roots. Since we at the newspaper believe this, we run regular columns by local historians telling our history, and we have now just finished a full-length film, “One Life to Give,” as I have previously mentioned, about how the Culper Spy Ring started. Its premiere is scheduled for Sept. 17.

Now there is more good news to make us proud of the place in which we live. In a refreshing show of bipartisanship, two of our congressmen, Democrat Tom Suozzi of Glen Cove and Lee Zeldin, Republican of Shirley, have introduced legislation in the House to bestow upon the George Washington Spy Trail national historic status.

The spy trail is essentially Route 25A, the road that was used by the spies during the war to travel behind enemy lines between Long Island and New York City, gaining vital intelligence about the British and their troop movements and strategy. Long Island was an occupied territory, the breadbasket of food and supplies for the British, who were headquartered in New York City. All along the trail’s about 50-mile route was the high-wire danger for the spies of being discovered and hung. Indeed, the British trapped Nathan Hale, whose purported last words were about his one regret being that he had but one life to give for his country.

Washington well knew the enormous debt he owed to the spies, and to honor them he traveled in an elegant coach along the 25A route after the war in slow, celebratory fashion from Great Neck to Port Jefferson — then known as Drowned Meadow — staying at the inn owned by one of the spies, Austin Roe of Setauket.

But at that time the purpose of his trip was known only to the tiny band of spies. Spies were then thought of as lowly deceivers by the people and not at all cloaked in the glamour of James Bond.

So these courageous, remarkable men — and women, like Anna Strong — took their secret to their graves for fear of being ostracized by their countrymen. And Washington kept their secret. Only in the middle of the last century were papers discovered by historians that revealed the bravery of the Culper Spies. Today, there are original letters written by Washington to the spies, with an addition on one by Benjamin Tallmadge, that can be viewed at the library of Stony Brook University. They were bought by Old Field resident Henry Laufer and donated to the university for that purpose.

The spy trail is the result of an intense effort over some 20 years by Gloria Rocchio of Stony Brook and the North Shore Promotion Alliance to bring awareness of this historic road and its role in American history. A total of 26 signs, which they secured and installed, depict Washington’s coach and line his route.

A national historic designation, under the auspices of the National Park Service, would not only honor these heroes but also perhaps bring federal grant money, and not insignificantly promote tourism to help our economy.

So the Culper Spies live on and continue to serve.

 

Photo from TVHS

The Three Village Historical Society recently announced the exciting acquisition of the Abraham Woodhull costume worn by actor , Jamie Bell during the filming of the AMC series “TURN.” The costume will be integrated into the historical society’s SPIES exhibit.

The exhibit tells the story of the little-known Culper Spy Ring that was active during the American Revolution from 1778 to 1781 through the use of interactive software, fun-filled educational games and hands-on activities that include quill pens and invisible ink and decoding spy letters using a spy code.

The Three Village Historical Society is located at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. Hours for the exhibit are Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. and by appointment for groups of 10 or more. Admission is $10 adults, $5 students and children 12 and under, free for members. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

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Almost everyone likes movies. But have you ever fantasized about making a movie? Now I’m not talking about a home movie of the kids swimming or starring in a play. I mean the big stuff, with lights, camera, action, Hollywood director’s chair, first-tier actors and bullhorn. Well, our newspapers are now in the filmmaking business, and it was history that made us do it.

History, particularly our local history about the Revolutionary War – the battle of Long Island, the Battle of Setauket, Nathan Hale and the Setauket Spies are as exciting to read as any stories today. In fact, they are remarkably relevant, as aspects of the Constitution are regularly part of our political discussions today. For what were the Patriots fighting, putting their lives and possessions on the line, bleeding and dying? And what are we doing with that heritage?

History makes for great storytelling, as the producers of “TURN” on AMC discovered over the last four years. Their version of history was inspired by fact but strung together by fiction. So on the anniversary of the Setauket Spy Ring last year, we  filmed a dramatic narrative of the Culper Spies wholly based on fact. To our great delight, that short film, which is on our website and YouTube, Facebook and other places, won first prize from the New York Press Association for video made by a newspaper.

Encouraged by our success and entranced by the many triumphant and also heart-wrenching stories that happened right here on Long Island some 240 years ago, we are making a full-length film this year, and we begin shooting locally this weekend. This time we are going all the way, with a cast of professional producers, directors, actors and first-rate equipment. The set is a work of art in itself, a recreation of the fort in the Battle of Long Island in Brooklyn Heights. We have 135 re-enactors coming from distant parts — Saratoga, New York; members of our own Long Island Third New York regiment; Murrysville, Pennsylvania; and Fairfield, Connecticut — to stage the battle that almost lost the Revolutionary War before it even truly began. They will be carrying authentic muskets, shooting gunpowder, spilling blood and gore profusely (thanks to our famous special effects person) and otherwise re-creating history. Best of all about this film, we are delving into the lives and personalities of the historic figures whose actions made victory possible. Be assured that we are characterizing them authentically, both colonists and British, fleshing out what details have come down to us from historians and corroborated by our local historical societies.

Several local organizations, institutions and residents are helping to support and underwrite this ambitious production: The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the Three Village Historical Society, The State University at Stony Brook, the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA), Theatre Three and the law firm of Glynn Mercep & Purcell. Some support is not so local, perhaps including the Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York City and the Nathan Hale Homestead Museum in Coventry, Connecticut. Many places have indicated their interest in showing the film, including some local teachers and administrators. What a painless way to teach local history.

As we have been reaching out to the many people involved in this venture, we have come across many enriching details. For example, the Sherwood-Jayne Farm, where some of the action takes place, has original planking from Founding Spy Benjamin Tallmadge’s home, the Brewster House was a tavern and home of a cousin of fellow Culper Spy, Caleb Brewster, historic Benner’s Farm where we are doing some of the filming, comes down to us over the centuries, and the 1709 Thompson House, home of a local doctor, is one the beautiful preservations of the WMHO. And by the way, the Caroline Church on the Green in Setauket has a musket ball lodged in its steeple.

History is the glue that holds a community together, and our particular history is the platform on which our nation was built. We are proud to bring these stories to you on film, as well as in print, and we invite any organizations, businesses and residents who might like to be credited with making this production a reality to contact us directly. Call me at 631-751-7744 and become a part of the history of our hometowns.

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From left, Daniel Henshall as Caleb Brewster, Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull, Heather Lind as Anna Strong and Seth Numrich as Benjamin Tallmadge. Photo from AMC Networks

The history of the Culper Spy Ring is nothing new to Setauket and North Shore of Long Island residents. This Sunday, April 6, thanks to the new AMC show “Turn,” Setauket and some of its most legendary residents will become household names throughout the country.

Based on Alexander Rose’s 2006 book, “Washington’s Spies,” the show stars Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull, the Setauket farmer turned spy for Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Enlisted in 1778 by Major Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), Woodhull along with Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) and Anna Strong (Heather Lind), among others, worked together to send messages — often in code — about the British troops to Washington.

In a telephone interview, show runner and executive producer, Craig Silverstein — responsible for The CW Television Network series, “Nikita” — said he had heard about the Culper ring before, but didn’t know exactly what they had done until fellow executive producer, Barry Josephson, introduced him to Rose’s book in 2008 while they were working together on Fox’s “Bones.” He thought it would make a great show. “They were very good at what they did,” Silverstein said of the spy ring.

Silverstein, who admitted to not being much of a history buff prior to working on the show, described the show as “a spy thriller,” with a great international cast. He said one of the most surprising things to learn about was how intimately connected the characters were to George Washington.

“There weren’t a ton of layers,” Silverstein said. “[That] brought him more down to earth.”

Interestingly enough, Bev Tyler, the historian for the Three Village Historical Society who runs the SPIES! exhibit at the society’s headquarters, agreed often times films and shows based on the American Revolution make Washington the opposite of what Silverstein described. “They can’t do it without deifying him, without making him larger than life,” Tyler said.

Silverstein said he found it interesting how few American Revolution-based films and television shows exist. He said much of what is out there is “very ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’” referring to children’s-type programming. “The real truth is much more complicated,” he added.

While maintaining historical accuracy was important, Silverstein said writers could take some creative license because a lot of what the spies did is still unknown.

However, in an effort to get the facts right, Rose is working as a consultant on the show. Silverstein said some the crew visited Setauket; Tyler, who said he would definitely be watching on Sunday, took one of the show’s writers on a society walking tour.

Silverstein said he thinks everyone, even those who aren’t history buffs, will enjoy the series as it is an exciting depiction of the American Revolution. “It’s only a world that you thought you knew,” he said.

“Turn” premiers with a special 90-minute episode on Sunday on AMC Networks, Optimum channel 43, at 9 pm.