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Smithtown kicks off its 350th anniversary

Robert Gaston Herbert painted this mural in 1939

Robert Gaston Herbert painted this mural in 1939 to represent the legendary ride of Richard Smythe, supposedly taken about 1665 to establish the boundaries of the land that became Smithtown. Historians say the ride probably never happened. Photo Credit: Newsday file

Smithtown is a place where George Washington fed his horse, a young Walt Whitman taught students and famous siblings Ethel and Lionel Barrymore vacationed.

It's a place where thousands of immigrants -- Irish, Italian and Jewish -- lured by a stable paycheck from a Kings Park asylum, and World War II veterans attracted by affordable, half-acre plots for homes to house their growing families, came in search of their piece of the American dream.

And it's home to a place stocked with a candy variety that can please any sweet tooth -- the St. James General Store, the oldest continually operating general store in the country.

Smithtown's 350-year history will be celebrated throughout 2015, starting March 1with a daylong ceremonial run in which about 40 teams will take a 40-mile jaunt, circumnavigating the town's perimeter nearly the same way that town founder Richard Smythe did on his bull, Whisper, according to local lore.

"We won't have a live bull," joked Kiernan Lannon, executive director of the Smithtown Historical Society.

Instead, runners will hand off a torch holding a reproduction of the town's 1665 deed at each mile, while onlookers cheer from sidewalks. "We want people to say 10, or 20 or 30 years down the road, 'I was there,' " Lannon said.

The celebratory events aim to educate the public about the town's past and generate pride about its roots, organizers said.

When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, Washington visited Smithtown during a tour of Long Island. He also passed through the area during his presidency, from 1789 to 1797. The Barrymores visited St. James in the 1890s and early 1900s.

"We were a town before there was a U.S. Constitution; before there was a Bill of Rights, before the [American] Revolution," said Noel Gish, a historian and author. "We have a very long history."

Legend has it that Smithtown's existence began when Richard Smythe smartly chose the longest day of the year -- the summer solstice -- to hoof it around 54 square miles on his bull, Whisper, and carve out the town's boundaries. He succeeded in a pact made with local Native Americans, who said Smythe could have all the land he could travel around in a single day.

It's a nice tale, but historians say it's like the statue of Whisper that watches over routes 25 and 25A: bull.

Speaking of statues, in the fall, a life-size bronze likeness of Smythe will watch over the other end of town, at the corner of Route 111 and East Main Street.

Cristofer Damianos, co-owner of Smithtown-based Damianos Realty Group Llc, said he wanted to portray the town’s founder. “Can you imagine going down to Washington, D.C., and you see a horse there and you say, ‘That’s George Washington’s horse. Well, great. Where’s George Washington?’ ” said Damianos, who grew up in Smithtown. “Having the bull, it’s a wonderful fabled story, but I just felt that some homage needed to be paid to the man who founded Smithtown.”


After contacting historians and Smythe’s descendants, the company commissioned Brooklyn-based Studio EIS to create a large-scale clay model of Smythe based on photos of his descendants — since historians had no records indicating Smythe’s physical stature or features — and hair and dress styles of the time period, said town historian Bradley Harris. Damianos Realty will pay for the bronze casting and installation of the statue, in which Smythe holds the town patent in one hand and gestures with the other.

“I think they’ve come up with a really interesting portrayal of Richard Smythe,” said Harris.

SMYTHE SETTLES

Smythe acquired the land that would be Smithtown in 1663 from Lion Gardiner -- reputed to be the first Englishman to settle on Long Island's East End -- after Smythe was banished from the Town of Southampton in 1656 for his "unreverend carriage toward the magistrates." Or, in modern language: He was disrespectful. (Incidentally, both Southold and Southampton towns are celebrating their 375-year anniversaries this year.)

Gardiner received Smithtown's land as a gift from Chief Wyandanch, of the Montauk (Montaukett) Native American tribe, because Gardiner had rescued Wyandanch's daughter, who had been kidnapped, local historians said.

The Town of Smithtown was officially created after Smythe was granted a patent by then-New York Gov. Richard Nicolls, signed March 3, 1665, and met a requirement that he settle the area with 10 families -- an easy feat since he eventually had nine children with his wife, Sarah.

Members from the Nesaquake Native American tribe had already cleared and cultivated land near the Nissequogue River where Smythe made his home. The river proved to be a critical element for the town's early development as a food source and a power source for mills that emerged in the late 17th and 18th centuries.

Smithtown, like other areas on Long Island, was occupied by British troops in 1776. By that time, 716 people lived in Smithtown, including 161 of African descent, historians said.

Patriotic fervor was high among many Smithtown residents, who felt oppressed by British rule that required travel permits and allowed British soldiers to seize residents' produce and goods.

The Rev. Joshua Hart, pastor of The First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, which dates back to 1675, was fired upon in the pulpit by British soldiers while preaching about injustices.

Key military action in Smithtown came in 1781. American troops crossed the Long Island Sound from Connecticut in whaleboats, captured British soldiers at Fort Slongo and burned the fort in what is today known as Fort Salonga.

By 1783, when British occupation ended, Smithtown regrouped.

The first slave was freed within the decade that followed, historians said. Many Smithtown landowners manumitted slaves prior to 1827, when a state law banning slavery took effect, they said.

"There were a lot of people who felt, I think, conscious-stricken at the end of the Revolutionary War, having fought so hard for their own freedom that there were still people here in town being held in bondage," said Smithtown Town Historian Bradley Harris.

Smithtown's farm-based economy and mill operations expanded during the early and mid-19th century, and access to information also became important. The town's first lending library is believed to have been housed at the Hallock Inn, in the late 1820s, now a doctor's office on East Main Street.

While teaching at a local school, Walt Whitman served as secretary of the Smithtown Debating Society from 1837 to 1838. During that period, the society tackled issues still debated today, such as whether immigration should be discouraged or capital punishment abolished, Gish said.

The Long Island Rail Road arrived in Smithtown in 1872. That same year, officials in Brooklyn purchased 870 acres in Kings Park for what became Kings County Farm in 1885 -- a facility to care for Brooklyn's poor and mentally ill. It was converted into a state hospital for the mentally ill in 1895, the first of its kind on Long Island, historians said.

All this history and more will be on a playbill orchestrated by Sal St. George. The playwright and Medford resident hopes to draw families out to a vaudeville-style musical -- sponsored by Cablevision, which owns Newsday -- that aims to capture Smithtown's history, just as he has at Port Jefferson's annual Charles Dickens Festival.

"We're encompassing 350 years in little more than an hour, so what we want to do is use the music as our slingshot to push you through history," St. George said of the production -- "Spirit of Smithtown" -- to be held starting in May at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts. "For the people that live in Smithtown, I want them to come out and say, 'That was part of our history; I didn't even know that happened here.' "

Natalie Weinstein, owner of Uniquely Natalie Quality Consignment Outlet in St. James, didn't know at first that the Second Street building she and her husband bought in 1985 was formerly a vaudeville theater that was built around 1918 and later became the Calderone Theater that showed films in the 1940s.

"It should be a landmarked building, but it's not," Weinstein said. She uses the top part of the building where a stage once stood as a gallery space for local artists to showcase their work, an example of collaboration that often occurs in the close-knit hamlet.

"We're not a city and we don't want to be, but we want to survive," she said of Smithtown. "We want to thrive. We want to have some reason for our children to stay here."

NEW RESIDENTS

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, St. James became a playground for entertainers and wealthy power brokers, like famous architect Stanford White, who transformed farms into lavish estates.

Women, African-Americans and immigrants also began to make some strides in the area.

The Lake Ronkonkoma Equal Rights Suffrage Club began in 1912 and lobbied across the state, said Gish. Smithtown voters of the 2nd Assembly District in 1918 elected Ida Sammis as one of the two first women to the state Assembly.

In 1910, Isadora Smith sold land on New York Avenue to founders of Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church for just $1, said the Rev. Myrel Bailey-Walton, its pastor.

"She gave it to them so they might have a place to worship," said Bailey-Walton. "African-Americans that lived in Smithtown at that time were servants. They didn't own property there."

In the 1920s, several Italians came to own property in the San Remo section of Kings Park, thanks to a company that owned Brooklyn-based Italian newspaper Il Progresso.

Courriere Holding Co. purchased 194 acres near the river, where property values plummeted as river trade waned, and offered newspaper subscribers small parcels for sale, according to Gish. Many turned these summer cottages into year-round homes starting during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he said.

When World War II ended, historians said soldiers married and started families. A desire for larger, cleaner spaces to house growing broods brought buyers from city boroughs and Nassau County to Smithtown by the 1950s, said Joshua Ruff, chief curator of The Long Island Museum.

"This was the suburban dream supersized," Ruff said. "It was the growth in the size of the homes. It was buying a little bit more security and getting into better schools."

Between 1950 and 1970, Smithtown's population increased from 20,993 residents to 114,657, census records show.

The population explosion prompted a development boom of new schools, shopping centers, restaurants and more government oversight. Hauppauge Industrial Park, the largest-scale office and industrial space of its kind in the early 1960s, became an economic hub for residents, said Ruff.

'A STEADY PACE'

Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio, the elected leader of Smithtown for 38 years, said he has seen many changes over that time, but the spirit of the town has remained the same.

It's evident by the historic homes and buildings that sit beside modern-day businesses, he said, among them the St. James General Store, which was built in 1857.

"There's a steady pace to the town. It moves with the times, maybe sometimes slowly and maybe sometimes too quickly, but the overall result is a great town," said Vecchio. "I think the proof is that there are so many generations of people . . . some of them still in the same houses that their grandparents lived in, that their great-grandparents lived in."

Richard B. Smith, 60, who is mayor of the Village of Nissequogue, has such roots. He is a 10th-generation descendant of the town founder, living in the same environment that his ancestors walked -- a fact that is not lost on him.

"You're always mindful of that," Smith said. "We live here not because of the ancestral ties, but because it's an enjoyable place to live . . . it's a nice place to raise a family."

Historians say that reflecting on Smithtown's past serves as a guidepost for the town's future and instills a sense of belonging in residents.

"The 350 years have shaped who we are as a people today, and I think it's really important that people understand where they come from," said Lannon. "Your sense of who you are is informed by what has come before you."

Join the celebration

A sampling of upcoming events to celebrate Smithtown's 350th anniversary:

March 3 -- At a special meeting, Smithtown Town Board members will convene wearing Colonial garb and read the patent that founded the town. They will also open a time capsule buried 50 years ago; 7 p.m., Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main St.

May 29-31 and June 5-7 -- "Spirit of Smithtown" musical that highlights 350 years of the town's history, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays at Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts. $15 per ticket.

Sept. 12 -- 350-year- anniversary parade on Main Street. Check www.smithtown350.org for more information.

Sept. 19 -- Dedication of the statue of town founder Richard Smythe at Route 111 and Main Street, and fireworks celebration at Sunken Meadow State Park. Check www.smiththown350foundation.org for more information.

Sept. 20 -- Smithtown Historical Society's Heritage Country Fair, which features live music, woodworking, fiber spinning, cowboy mounted shooting demonstration, Revolutionary and Civil War soldier re-enactors, antique car show and farm animals. Held 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the society's grounds, 211 Middle Country Rd.

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