Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Homes of Wethersfield

My living room on Christmas Eve; bayberry candles lit, winter tales being read, eggnog cake in the oven. With the hustle and bustle of the holidays now over, the month of January gives us a time to refresh and reflect on the years that have past and what we have looking forward. This is the month of fresh slates, new dreams, and planning for a warmer day. Despite the biting winds and unforgiving weather, it truly is a special time of year.

The Isaac Stevens House (ca. 1788)

Jake and I took the ferry to Connecticut on Sunday to pick up an 18th-century school master's desk and detachable cupboard for our collection, and afterwards took advantage of the trip by paying a visit to a town that has always been on my "New England Bucket List": Wethersfield, Connecticut.

Settled in 1634, Wethersfield is Connecticut's oldest town and holds the state's largest historic district, showcasing over a thousand beautiful historic buildings such as the one above. The neighborhood is a historic preservationist's dream, and being in the smallest sense an "aficionado", I was helplessly smitten with all of it.

The Joseph Webb House (ca. 1752). This house served as Washington's headquarters in May of 1781 where he, alongside of French commander the Comte de Rochambeau, planned their joint victory at Yorktown which ended the American Revolution. If walls could talk!

The Silas Deane House (ca. 1770), built for an American French Diplomat of the Revolutionary War.

First Church of Christ (ca. 1761)

This home is for sale! (Check it out here)

My personal favorite on Main Street. Perfection.

... I fell madly, deeply in love with that door. I still haven't recovered.

And as if one wasn't enough, there was another one on the side!

 More than likely the oldest house in town.

Wethersfield Cove, otherwise known as "Blackbird Pond" during the 18th century. 
This cove and the surrounding area created the setting for the Newbery Award winning children's novel, The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
(Click here to purchase the book!)

The Cove Warehouse, once a hub of activity when Wethersfield Cove was a major shipping port.

Another home for sale! Check out this beauty with an unbeatable view of the Cove here

The Buttolph-Williams House (ca. 1711), another token of inspiration for The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Although it seems much older, architecturally, than it actually is (as if 1711 isn't "old"!), this house is a great example of the enduring popularity of traditional English architecture utilized by New Englanders even into the early 18th-century.

It's easy to say that Wethersfield is a town electrified with history. Walking down it's tranquil streets, you can nearly see the spirits of each home you pass beckoning you to come inside, sit by their fires, and listen to their stories. Jake and I were only there for the afternoon, but both of us agreed that we could happily spend a lifetime exploring those streets, answering their calls.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Shelter Island

The Rams Head Inn, Shelter Island Heights, NY.

A few weeks ago, Jake and I vacationed on Shelter Island, a little island stationed between the "two forks" on Long Island, not very far from us but far enough to get away. We stayed at a charming country inn called The Rams Head, built in the 1920s and more or less unchanged since, surrounded by rolling hills that sink into the harbor. It was the perfect place to unwind after a day of exploring the island.

Step inside!

Gentle harbor breezes drifting through the inn...

Our cozy little room facing the water.

The sitting area of the inn beckoned rest and respite.

 The bar which they doubly use as the breakfast area for overnight guests.

The main dining room: quaint and understated.

The sprawling grounds, featuring (and not pictured) a tennis court, and private beach with complimentary kayaks and sailboat.

Dining at the inn was private and palatable: my two important P's! Tables were spaced generously apart, soft classical played in the background, and diners were quiet and courteous. We chose to sit outside on the deck to soak in the water views and enjoy the cool September air.

They even placed throw blankets on our chairs in case we got chilly!

Their seasonal menus utilize local ingredients to create enticing, delectable dishes. We made it just in time for their early fall menu which is full of fresh vegetables and complementing spices. I ordered the roasted free range chicken breast rolled in chestnut and cranberry stuffing on a bed of spaghetti squash and broccoli, drizzled with shallot-cider gravy. It was as phenomenal as it sounds.

For dessert, we shared a bittersweet chocolate cake topped with vanilla gelato and a pistachio tuile for an added crunch. Again, it was as delectable as it sounds!

Shelter Island is a gem that is often overlooked, being wedged between the Hamptons and the North Fork wine region, which in many ways is a blessing. There are far less crowds here, almost half the island is a protected nature conservatory, and the peacefulness is unmatched. Jake and I sat under the inn's gazebo one evening, and for the first time outside of our campground upstate, actually heard the raw sounds of the night; owls hooting, deer scuffling, crickets chirping, with not a single car passing by or a man-made light around excepting our inn. If you're looking to escape, connect with nature, and embrace the solitude, Shelter Island is a destination that will leave your spirit refreshed.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Culper Spy Ring

Walking down the tranquil paths of the Frank Melville Park in Setauket, it's nearly impossible to imagine this gentle village rattled by a war, but if one was to step back in time to 1778, they would find the area and the mood abound to be quite different. During the Revolutionary War, Long Island was completely occupied by British forces after their victory at the Battle of Long Island in 1776. Once established, they took over everything: moving into colonists' homes, stealing their livestock, picking their crops, and forcing everyone who didn't flee to swear allegiance to the crown. Tensions were high between the settlers and these uninvited guests-- the village of Setauket was no exception. When the British settled here, one of their first tasks was building a fort on the village green in front of the Presbyterian Church, tearing gravestones from the earth to use as fortifications, and gutting the inside of the church to stable their horses. Imagine how upsetting that must have been for the congregation and townspeople alike!

The village green overlooking the Presbyterian Church.

General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, was on the verge of desperation. He underestimated the British army, was viciously outnumbered, and knew the only way to defeat such an imposing enemy was to outwit them off the battlefield. And outwit them he did. With the collaboration of his chief of intelligence, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, they devised a plan of garnering intelligence through the use of local civilians rather than dropping soldiers behind enemy lines as they had done in the past. When asked to assemble a worthy team of spies, Tallmadge went back to his hometown of Setauket and asked childhood friend, Abraham Woodhull to assume the role of head spy on Long Island. Woodhull agreed, Washington approved, and gave him the alias of Samuel Culper, a spin off of Culpeper County in Virginia where Washington once surveyed as a young man.

The duties Woodhull would assume as chief of spies would entail not only gathering intelligence personally through his own travels to New York City and around Long Island, but to also manage and oversee the tasks of his associates, ensuring messages were delivered safely and securely. Some of his associates included Austin Roe, a Setauket tavern keeper who acted as courier traveling to and fro New York City with the guise of picking up supplies for his business. Intelligence was then given to Woodhull to "codeify." Some of the spy techniques utilized in the ring was assigning various numbers to different words and names, creating a coded vocabulary (For example, Washington was "711"). Invisible ink was also extremely effective and used to write secret messages between the lines of seemingly normal letters. When delivered to the recipient, they would apply a reagent on the paper where the "invisible" lines would be revealed. Once Woodhull codeified these messages accordingly, he would hand them off to Setauket-born Caleb Brewster, who sailed them back across the sound to Connecticut where he'd give them to another courier to deliver the message to Tallmadge, who would finally relay them back to Washington.

Site of Abraham Woodhull's home overlooking Little Bay, across the water from neighbor, Anna Smith Strong's property. 

Anna Smith Strong, a likely participant in the spy ring (and a lady no less!), is said to have accompanied Woodhull on some of his trips to New York City to gather intelligence and to make him look less conspicuous by posing as his wife. Legend has it, she would speak to Woodhull through codes from across the bay and hang assorted white handkerchiefs on a line to indicate where Brewster was to meet him, as well as a black petticoat to signal Brewster as he came across the sound into Setauket Harbor.

One of Woodhull and Brewster's meeting spots.

As time went on, and the spy ring grew stronger, the heat also began to grow on Abraham Woodhull. Fearful of being discovered, Woodhull employs the help of Oyster Bay native, Robert Townsend, to take over operations in New York City. Townsend (alias Samuel Culper Jr.), a seemingly unlikely proponent, operated a dry goods store in the city and authored a society column in a loyalist newspaper, making him a perfect addition to the spy ring. His job as a newspaper reporter made it almost effortless for him to gather information unnoticed, and his shop opened the door for Austin Roe to "buy goods" for his tavern, leaving with coded messages Townsend would stuff in his purchases.

Caleb Brewster's family home

The Culper Spy Ring was ingeniously crafted and highly responsible for turning the war around and leading to our ultimate victory. It was so highly classified that Washington himself, at his own request, did not even know the identity of a single one of his spies, nor was the spy ring even publicly discovered until the first half of the 20th century. One of its most pivotal achievements was the uncovering of plans the British had in 1780 to ambush the newly landed French troops in Newport. As quick as they could, Woodhull and Brewster rushed this news to Tallmadge who dashed it over to Washington at once. Washington responded swiftly and calculatingly, diverting the attention of the British by feigning an attack on New York City, throwing them off course and allowing the French to safely relocate. Without this intelligence, the French could have easily been wiped out, leaving us stranded, and more than likely losing us the war.

It's incredible to think that a handful of ordinary men (and women!) from a small Long Island village played such a huge role in the birth of our nation, and how very fitting, for it was indeed the common man who laid each stone of our foundation and has fought to preserve it ever since.
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