Sayville celebrates 250 years of history

An undated photo of Main Street in Sayville,

An undated photo of Main Street in Sayville, courtesy of John Wells. (Credit: Handout)

The hamlet of Sayville turns 250 this year but the story of its history remains fresh.

It’s evident in the 17th and 18th century architecture scattered throughout the hamlet; the love of the Great South Bay, where early settlers made their living; the people, who are a living link to the past.

John Wells, 81, has lived in Sayville for his entire life. So did the John Wells before him and the three before that.

“There are now seven John Wells,” he said. “I’m No. 5. Then there’s my son and my grandson.”

The first John Wells -- named John Calvin Wells -- came to Sayville in the 1850s from Stony Brook and each of them have gotten married and raised their families in town. Early on, John C. Wells got a job at the Sayville Post Office and secured himself the first P.O. Box ever created -- No. 123.

The original post office building still stands on Main Street, but the operation is now run on the nearby Greene Street, where the current John Wells said he still claims P.O. Box No. 123.

“I’ve never had mail delivered to the house,” he said. “When I was a kid, we were always in town. We would just stop in and check the box. So, I just keep doing that.”

Though not everyone in the community is as much a walking testament to its history as someone like Wells, it is a community that pays tribute to where it came from, said Robert Finnegan, Town of Islip historian.

“When people move into a neighborhood, they want to experience what that community has to offer,” he said. “In Sayville, that has remained largely unchanged for 200 years. We still have the ferry service that took people to Fire Island, we still have the same trades that people here in Islip have been doing for hundreds of years, we have buildings designed by I.H. Greene that still exist and architectural styles that replicate that. There is definitely an appreciation by Sayville residents of their past.”

Linda Conron, a member of the Sayville Historical Society, has lived in Sayville since 1981, which in her experience, makes her somewhat of a newcomer.

This month, the Sayville Historical Society and the Town of Islip celebrated Sayville’s 250th anniversary with a party at The Common Ground in Rotary Park.

The event included activities that took residents back to 1761, when the first settler built a house in Sayville. Activities included authentic crafts from the time, cooking, folk art and music, a blacksmith demonstration and storytelling by historical society president Connie Currie. There were also Indian folk traditions celebrated to honor the real first settlers of the area -- the Secatogue tribe of the Algonquian group.

“The people here really treasure their past,” Conron said, adding that as the administrator of the Edwards Homestead, built by the first family of Sayville and donated to the historical society, she often fields phone calls from residents asking about historical sites in town. “That’s not necessarily common. There is an intense interest here.”

Because of that interest, Sayville’s beginning is a well documented. A man named John Edwards, on his way home to East Hampton from fighting the French and Indian War in upstate New York, stumbled upon the South Shore community and found a home.

In 1761, Edwards and his wife, Sarah, became the first settlers of Sayville (though it was not yet named), when they rented a part of the 41,000 acres of farmland owned by Englishman William Nichol. They built a house on the corner of what is now Foster Avenue and Edwards Street and became tenant farmers, although Edwards was a tailor by trade.

Edwards eventually purchased about a 1,000 acres -- roughly half of present-day Sayville. Another family, the Greene family, purchased much of the rest.

But what has always interested Conron was why Edwards decided to leave East Hampton in the first place.

“I couldn’t understand why they left East Hampton to come here,” she said. “I’m still not sure, but I have my suspicions.”

Conron said her research shows that Edwards was one of 15 or 16 children who survived their father’s death in 1761, the same year that Edwards moved to Sayville. Conron said as one of the youngest children, Edwards had little chance at a piece of the family farm in East Hampton.

“If he wasn’t going to be a farmer, what would he do with his life?” Conron surmised. He could have been a tailor in East Hampton, but he chose a life of farming in Sayville.

As did many others. From the beginning, Sayville grew to become a community of farmers -- mostly dairy farmers -- and baymen.

Conron said when the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 and the population of Manhattan boomed, men turned to the woods -- chopping down pines and other wood and transporting them by ship to New York Harbor. Eventually, they also transported coal.

As transportation improved and eventually the Long Island Rail Road was built in the mid-1800s, Sayville became a tourist destination, and residents relied less on the land and moved on to other occupations. Main Street grew in response.

Many aspects of life in Sayville have remained the same ever since.

According to John Wells, the Sayville he knows has always been a place where you could walk or ride your bike to town, shop locally, swim locally, and get to know your neighbors, which is why he never left.

“Hopefully, some things will never change,” he said. “All the future John Wells are looking forward to P.O. Box 123.”

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