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Yaphank Historical Society works to preserve hamlet's history

Left to right: Robert Judd, Tricia Foley, Robert

Left to right: Robert Judd, Tricia Foley, Robert Kessler, Audrey Kessler and Peggy Judd, all of whom are board members of the Yaphank Historical Society, stand in front of the historic Mary Louise Booth house on East Main Street in Yaphank, May 27, 2015.

Earlier this year, volunteers of the Yaphank Historical Society scored their latest victory when the circa 1829 Mary Louise Booth house on Main Street was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

It was an achievement 13 years in the making and no small feat, but it was nothing new for the volunteer organization. The Robert Hawkins house and Homan-Gerard House are two other structures that have also earned the prestigious listing as national landmarks in Yaphank.

In the late 1990s, the dilapidated Booth house was moved to its present location on county-owned land and over the years, its roof and siding have been repaired; its interior restored by volunteers.

"My husband, Bob, and I actually joined the society so that we could work on the renovations," says Peggy Judd of Yaphank, the society's vice president, who is a retired technology systems director. "We scraped off tons of old paint and repainted and did a lot of drudge work."

Other members also put their backs into the restoration, repairing moldings and refitting doors. Replacement windows were handcrafted by a restoration carpenter, Eagle Scout candidates earned points by building a replica outhouse and local Girl Scouts planted herb gardens in the backyard.

The Yaphank Historical Society is acknowledged by experts as a well-oiled machine that's been chugging along for 40 years, persistent in its efforts to save the hamlet's legacy. On Long Island, there are about 200 volunteer historical societies, and local historians point to the Yaphank Historical Society's 180 members as being among the most active and innovative in protecting their rich heritage. One major victory in 1985 was the establishment of a historic district for the 18th and 19th century homes that line Yaphank's mile-long Main street.

"It's an outstanding group, committed to planning the future of their past and I salute all their efforts," says Richard Martin, Suffolk County Parks Department director of historic services.

Yaphank Historical Society president Robert Kessler says Martin's appreciation of the organization's work has been beneficial. Martin "has been instrumental in guiding us through minefields of paperwork and regulations as we search out and restore all that our landscape has to offer," says Kessler.

During Colonial times, the hamlet in the Town of Brookhaven was known as Millville. About 1844, when the railroad came to the area, the name Yaphank was adopted. It was derived from Yamphanke, the Indian name for a small creek in the area, according to the society's websites,

Kessler, 72, has long been enamored of the hamlet, enjoying "a lifetime of getaways" at his family's vacation home there. "I've always loved this place," he says, "the lakes, the people, the wonderful old houses."

He and his wife, Audrey, 74, relocated from Smithtown to a permanent home in Yaphank six years ago and joined the society. A year later, Kessler, a retired stonemason, was elected president. "It's a very busy group. but I didn't expect to be constantly on the go," he says, "but I do it gladly and come back for more, just like the rest of the members who give their time working on restoring the historic houses in the village."

The home of Mary Louise Booth was high on the list for restoration. She was the founding editor of Harper's Bazaar in 1867 and a nationally known abolitionist and suffragette. She was thanked for her work on behalf of the Union in a handwritten letter from Abraham Lincoln; a photocopy of it is displayed in the house.

Tricia Foley, the society's historian, worked on the home's interior restoration. "I was honored to touch her personal life in a place where she lived it," says Foley, an interior designer who lives "down the street" from the Booth house.

In the mid-1970s, shortly after the society was formed, the group partnered with Suffolk County to save the crumbling Robert Hawkins house, circa 1850, at the eastern edge of the historic district. "Everyone was upset to think of that beautiful old house being torn down," Kessler says.

The county restored the structure's exterior while the society -- with funds raised from grants, donations and events -- took on the interior renovations. "The whole village responded with gifts of antiques and household items, it was such a pleasure to see it all come together," recalls Karen Mouzakes, 70, a retired teacher and the society's historian emeritus. She recently moved to New Jersey but is still active in the society.

Hawkins was a businessman and had the home built for his family. By 1974, it was in ruins and ready for demolition, but the fledgling society fought to save it. Though the Hawkins home and land are now owned by Suffolk County, the historical society members are its caretakers. That obligation is made festive by members who enjoy spaghetti dinners after housekeeping chores at "dust and dine" sessions.

The Hawkins House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and members say it took 25 years to bring it to its present elegance. "It's been a very, very long journey," says Mouzakes, who was there from the start. "Everyone has worked very, very hard."

Members are working toward that same goal in restoring the Homan-Gerard House built in the 1700s. The structure was saved from destruction by Suffolk County and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places about 20 years ago, Kessler says. Its walls have been stripped to the lath in some rooms and years of paint have been scraped from every surface.

Longtime Yaphank resident and society member Linda Petersen, 67, recalls how, in 1985, after years of endless meetings, she went before the Brookhaven Town Board to appeal for passage of an ordinance ensuring a broader layer of protection for historic relics. "We knew we had a unique place that was being threatened," she says, "if something wasn't done soon that would all be gone, and it could never be replaced."

For the occasion, she wore a floor-length dress with ruffled apron -- a period costume to depict a Yaphank resident in the 1800s. It was her reminder to board members that Main Street looked like a page out of history, and "most residents wanted it to stay that way." The ordinance was approved.

Whether Petersen's showmanship swayed the board is undetermined, but it might have inspired the society's imaginative approach to future projects such as a holiday house tour two years ago at the Italianate-style Hawkins House. Men in top hats and capes and ladies in ruffled aprons and bonnets led visitors through the Victorian-era rooms where they watched costumed actors perform skits revisiting the daily life of the Hawkins family at Christmastime.

The society is also resourceful when it comes to enhancing the buildings in its care. In a bid to evoke a sense of nostalgia, the society took advantage of Suffolk County Sheriff's Labor Assistance Program, which allowed inmates of the jail to help build picturesque picket fences around county properties in the village, using old photos as guides. "The men were enormously helpful," Kessler says. "They did a great job."

Anyone meandering along the byways in Yaphank should not mistake the tranquillity of the centuries-old homes for inactivity. "We're restoring two houses, cleared a scenic hiking trail, thinking about a landscape face-lift for the post office, and a visitor's center with maps for walking tours is a possibility," Kessler says.

And with so many plans, the society would like to strengthen its numbers. "We're hoping to attract younger members," Kessler says, "and we're reorganizing our records for when the next generation takes over."

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