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Local group brings Culper Spy Ring history to life

Inside the Stony Brook Grist Mill, actor Philip

Inside the Stony Brook Grist Mill, actor Philip Reichert plays British Army Col. Jonathan Thorndyke in “The Spy Next Door,” which was presented by the Ward Melville Heritage Organization on Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, to mark WMHO's 75th anniversary. (Credit: Tara Conry)

The British once again occupied Long Island Thursday night.

A Red Coat soldier stalked around inside the historic Stony Brook Grist Mill. In nearby Setauket, American patriots were plotting against the enemy. And their latest recruits were working to decipher a coded message from Gen. George Washington.

“I’m confident there is espionage afoot,” declared Philip Reichert, an actor playing the part of British Army Col. Jonathan Thorndyke in one of three skits simultaneously taking place at three historic locations in Stony Brook and Setauket that were part of Long Island’s famous Culper Spy Ring.

The intelligence network, which existed from 1778 to 1783, played a pivotal role in the Continental Army winning the Revolutionary War, said Gloria Rocchio, president of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, which hosted “The Spy Next Door” program in celebration of WMHO’s 75th anniversary.

“We’d all be British loyalists if they didn’t have this wonderful spy ring,” Rocchio said. “They were the ones that turned the war around.”

The WMHO owns the three properties — the grist mill, the Brewster House and the Thompson House — but Thursday marked the first time that they were open to the public at the same time.

A sold-out crowd of 110 people was divided into smaller groups and assigned one of the three sites to visit. At each location, participants dined on food catered by local restaurants, listened to members of the WMHO’s Youth Corps discuss the properties’ histories and watched those stories come alive as actors performed scenes written by Medford playwright Sal St. George.

Over at the Thompson House, St. George’s son, Darren, 27, of Valley Stream, dressed in period attire, played the part of Austin Roe, one of the spies recruited by Benjamin Tallmadge, who founded the espionage network.

The audience saw Darren St. George get into a tense confrontation with actress Melanie Acampora, 23, of Port Jefferson, whose character had become suspicious of Roe.

Back at the grist mill, Reichert had a cane pressed against the neck of his acting partner, Deborah Menton Peretz, after her character confronted the Red Coat commander about the whereabouts of her husband and son. They had been captured by the British Army.

Rocchio said the performances were meant to make the audiences feel as if they were transported back in time so that they could understand the fear these Long Islanders experienced and how their bravery changed history.

Reichert added, “These people risked much, and in many cases they died, penniless and unknown, for what we have today, and that’s worth remembering.”

Rhonda Daniels of Centerport said she knew very little about the spy ring until she attended Thursday’s program with her husband, Christopher.

“Being able to actually physically be in the buildings and have re-enactments really brings to life a different level of appreciation, an excitement, for this is where it all took place,” she said.

On Sept. 20, the attendees will have the opportunity to visit the sites they didn’t get to see Thursday, and watch the scenes they missed unfold.

And anyone looking to watch the Culper Spy Ring story play out on the small screen can turn to AMC’s television series, “Turn,” which was recently renewed for a second season.

Rocchio is a fan.

“I’m happy to see the show is focusing on our little part of Long Island,” she said. “More and more people will be aware of it and have appreciation for what we have here.”

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