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.

Saturday, September 12, 2015


Let me start by being honest: it took me over two weeks to write this post. It wasn't due to my busy schedule (surprisingly), but rather to allow myself more time to frequent this village that has grown to mean so much to me. Setauket, as I had touched upon briefly in my post on the Alexander Hawkins House a few weeks ago, is a sleepy little village on the North Shore of Long Island, nestled between the two larger towns of Stony Brook and Port Jefferson. Because of it's location, Setauket is often overshadowed by it's more popular neighbors, and yet that only makes it more of a hidden gem: the area is almost virtually unchanged since the last century. Never have I seen a village outside of New England hold so dearly to their history as Setauket. Imprints of the past echo through the breeze off the bay, down every quiet street, beckoning you to slow down and stay awhile.

Here we are overlooking the Setauket Village Green from the gateway of the Caroline Church. Setauket played a crucial role in the Revolutionary War, not only being the central location for America's first spy ring (more about that later!), but also the site of a British fort and a small battle which was fought right where you're looking upon. The fort was built right on the village green, adjacent to the Presbyterian Church which the British gutted and made into a stable for their horses (the British despised Presbyterians as they considered them rebellious against the Anglican Church), and used the gravestones of it's cemetery to fortify it. By 1777, the British were in full control of Long Island, terrorizing the locals, taking their food, occupying their homes, and forcing all (many against their will) to swear allegiance to the Crown. Attempting to extinguish some of this madness, troops from the Continental Army in Connecticut sailed across the Long Island Sound and attempted an attack against the fort, but soon retreated after making little progress. Among those Patriots was an officer by the name of Caleb Brewster, a Setauket native who later became one of Washington's leading spies. This skirmish is known to us today as the Battle of Setauket.

Patriot's Rock, commemorated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the 1930s, remains a focal point of the Battle of Setauket, allegedly having been used as a barricade by the Continental soldiers, and perhaps even as a platform for one of their cannons. The first sermon of the Presbyterian Church, conducted by Reverend Nathanial Brewster, was said to be held here as well.

The Setauket Presbyterian Church, built in 1812, replaced the original structure after a lightening bolt, of all things, struck it down. It's cemetery is the final resting place for many notable Setauket residents, among which include the famous 19th century Long Island painter, William Sydney Mount, whose grave overlooks the site in which he was born.

Reverend Nathanial Brewster's (great-great grandfather of Caleb Brewster) grave. This was not his original gravestone, nor do we know the exact location of his grave site. His original headstone was ripped out by the British and never recovered.

The Caroline Church, the second oldest continuously used Episcopal Church in the United State, was built in 1729. During the Revolutionary War, it served many loyalists and British alike, but once the Americans won, the congregation dwindled and the church suffered for many decades. Fortunately, after help from historic Trinity Church in Manhattan, the Caroline Church was able to get back on its feet and it thrives to this day.

Just one of the many intriguing graves in the churchyard.

If you thought the Hawkins House was the only beautiful home in this village, you're sorely mistaken. An array of historic architecture spanning from the 17th to early 20th century embellish the neighborhood, adding to the striking landscape.

A timid farmhouse has overlooked the Setauket Mill Pond for almost two centuries.

Architectural eye-catchers abound.

The Setauket Neighborhood House has worn many hats over the past couple of centuries, once a residence, an inn, a general store, post office, and bank, to name a few. It's now rented out for weddings and other small private affairs.

It's not only about the colonial era here; there are quite a few Victorians to stop you in your tracks.

Setauket's charming post office (with a glimpse of Setauket Mill Pond in the background).

Setauket is also home to the beautiful Frank Melville Park. Encompassing over twenty four acres of trails, woodland, pond, and parts of Conscience Bay, it's a must see for any visitor or resident of the village.

Part of the park features a working grist mill, constructed in the 1930s to pay homage to Setauket's important milling history.

The doorway of the grist mill is simply adorable. Just look at that mural!

We enjoyed exploring the "Bamboo Forest" towards the back of the park; although bamboo is an invasive species, I have to admit it was incredibly peaceful being sheltered by all those towering stalks.

Who wouldn't follow a sign this charming?

The path was squishy, to say the least.

But, oh, was this view worth it. A picture is worth a thousand words, but if only I could adequately describe to you the serenity of this scene; the sharp fragrance of the salt marsh, the fluttering of birds over the pond, the perfect stillness. I thought to myself that this was a sight that Abraham Woodhull and the other Setauket spies knew well and loved. This was the land they were risking their lives for, their home, their America.

Abraham Woodhull's grave in the Setauket Presbyterian Church cemetery. Woodhull (alias Samuel Culper, Sr.) was George Washington's head spy during the Revolutionary War, and was responsible for delivering invaluable coded messages divulging British activity to the Commander in Chief. Woodhull along with several other spies from around Long Island (mostly in Setauket), lived within enemy territory, making it easier to blend in and move about undetected. This manner of spying had never been done before, and it proved to be a great success. The Culper Spy ring lasted from 1778 to the end of the war, and is highly accountable for our ultimate victory. It was so ingeniously crafted and contained, it wasn't even publicly discovered until the 1930s.

Intrigued? Well, there's more to come!  Jake and I are attending a three hour, three mile Spy Ring walking tour through Setauket tomorrow afternoon where we'll be visiting many of the significant sites involved. We thought you'd like to come along too, so to save you the trek and the sweat, stay tuned and join us here on Bygone Living!
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