Vance Locke murals at Setauket School come to life in new book...

Vance Locke murals at Setauket School come to life in new book by historian Beverly C. Tyler

Painting by Vance Locke

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

History Close at Hand has published the noteworthy and informative Setauket and Brookhaven History, a book that relates its story through the murals of Old Field artist Vance Locke (1913-1977). Commissioned by philanthropists Ward and Dorothy Melville as a gift to the community, the murals, completed in 1952, adorn the walls of the Setauket School’s Woodhull Auditorium.

Author Beverly C. Tyler

Beverly C. Tyler’s prose is crisp and his materials are well-chosen, clearly explaining the content of the murals. Throughout, he posits questions to the reader which will prompt further exploration. He often indicates where the reader can see the referenced locations and offers additional resources. He has selected quotes from the late historian William B. Minuse to further develop the narrative. Tyler touches on Locke’s process of conceptualizing and painting as well as his revising to get the correct representations.

One of the first ideas in the book — and a powerful one — is an explanation of Indigenous Culture. Tyler’s recognition bears repeating:

We call the native people who were the first humans to live here Native Americans or American Indians. A more accurate description might be Indigenous People. Everyone else who came, beginning with the English settlers are immigrants. It is important for me (personally) to say, “I wish to acknowledge that I am sitting on the land of the Setalcott Indigenous People in Setauket and I pay respect to the Setalcott people whose land is where I live.”

The murals, along with archaeological studies, have helped piece together the evolution of the changing lives on Long Island. Tyler presents how and when the facts were discovered. The murals progress through time, highlighting farming and millwork, the blacksmith and the shipwright. There is the cutting of ice and the mercantile and the purchase of land. The last is appropriately followed by an explanation that the Setalcotts did not share the same view of land ownership proffered by the English settlers.

The book is about craft and skills, commerce and community. Short anecdotes woven into the chronicle’s fabric augment the comprehensive facts and general text. For example, there is a quick account of the Daisy that sunk from a leak created by beans swelled by seawater, bursting the ship’s hull.

Often, there is the intersection of work and communal gatherings, represented by the uniquely American general store. With each section of the mural, Tyler gives background on the various aspects of day-to-day existence as well its historical relevance. The aspects of general life are enhanced with specific sketches and personal histories that surround a particular topic. Many of the names will be familiar to Long Island denizens. 

The most extended section deals with Setauket’s place in the Revolutionary War — especially George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring which was based in Setauket. In many ways, the first half of the book is building to this, allowing for context of the events.

Tyler uses both primary and secondary sources to enrich his telling of the story, shedding light on the challenges and sacrifices, the humanity and the intrigue. It is appropriately thorough but equally succinct.     

In addition to reprinting the murals in vivid color, there are photos of artifacts as well as the current sites and artifacts, reprints of period maps and documents, and stills of historical recreations. The plethora of illustrations are well-chosen for their interest and variety, and they effectively supplement the text.

Setauket and Brookhaven History is a slender book that is rich in detail and will hold the interest of readers of all ages. The ease of Tyler’s writing belies the hundreds of research hours that undoubtedly went into its creation. This edifying work is ideal to be read aloud and discussed. It will certainly stimulate thought and conversation both in the family and the classroom.

“Murals tell a story, sometimes more than one. Could there be more than one story in this mural?” Tyler gives us a good deal to observe, a great deal to read, and even more to think about it.

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Author Beverly C. Tyler is the historian for the Three Village Historical Society and conducts walking tours and field trips as Revolutionary War farmer and spy Abraham Woodhull. He has appeared on the History Channel’s Histories Mysteries production Spies of the Revolutionary War and writes a local history column for TBR News Media’s Village Times Herald.

Pick up a signed copy of Setauket and Brookhaven History and meet the author at the upcoming outdoor Holiday Market at the Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket on Nov. 28, Dec. 5, 12 and 19 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The book will also be available at the Three Village Historical Society’s online gift shop at www.TVHS.org in January 2021.

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