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Historians debunk legend of Benjamin Franklin overseeing North Fork mile markers

Amy Folk, a historian of the Oysterponds Historical

Amy Folk, a historian of the Oysterponds Historical Society stands by a town marker installed in 1829 by the Town of Southold, placed on Main Road in Southold. Credit: Randee Daddona

It was a great story -- Colonial postmaster general Benjamin Franklin personally supervised installation of stone mile markers along the North Fork using a carriage odometer he invented.

Some East End and Franklin historians previously have questioned that account since it first appeared in print in 1898. Now a pair of historians from Southold and Riverhead working independently say they have found definitive proof to debunk the story, drawing on records of the two towns.

The documents show the markers were installed not by Franklin, but by the town governments. And not in the mid-1700s, but in the 1820s.

So the only part of the story that's true is that Franklin invented the odometer, which is on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Amy Kasuga-Folk, manager of collections at the Oysterponds Historical Society in Orient, and Richard Wines, historian at the Hallockville Farm Museum in Riverhead, have researched the Franklin story on and off in recent years.

But the issue came to a head as Southold planned its 375th anniversary celebration this year. Kasuga-Folk was asked to compile some background information for a Mile Marker Day event May 16. She learned of Wines' interest in the story, so they traded notes.

"There are obvious loopholes in the story," Wines said. "Franklin never put up mile markers anyplace."

The source most cited for the myth is a 1991 pamphlet, "Benjamin Franklin's North Fork Milestones," by the late Robert P. Long of Southold, a history buff. He wrote that Franklin, after being appointed postmaster general in 1753, personally specified the locations for the markers in 1755 as he surveyed postal routes in the Northeast.

In Long's account, the inventor of the lightning rod and bifocals rode in a carriage equipped with the odometer he invented so that a bell rang each time the vehicle had traveled a mile. Then Franklin would instruct laborers to drive into the ground a stone marker with the distance from the Suffolk post office at Suffolk Court House, as Riverhead was then called, chiseled into it.

After Kasuga-Folk found inconsistencies in Long's story, she traced the legend to 1898 in a local history book by Alice Morse Earle. "She creates the story without saying where she got it from," Kasuga-Folk said.

Franklin was named co-postmaster general with William Hunter in 1753. Long said the 30 markers between Riverhead and Orient were erected in 1755 because that year Franklin came to the North Fork, according to the journal of local historian Augustus Griffin writing in 1857. But Griffin said Franklin did not travel all the way out to Orient, stating that his grandfather took Franklin across Long Island Sound from Southold on his way to Boston.

The markers measure the mileage to Suffolk County Courthouse, or Riverhead, where the post office for Southold was located. Colonial postal records show that when Franklin got the job he did survey roads and visit all of the post offices in the Northeast. But Kasuga-Folk said the closest post office to Long Island at that time was in New York City.

The real story unfolded in the town archives, historians say.

"In 1804, a dozen years after Riverhead split off from Southold, the town meeting voted to put up mile boards along the Post Road, which is what we now call Main Road, nailed on locust posts marking the miles east and west from the county hall," Wines said. In 1827, he added, Riverhead officials paid for 15 stone markers to replace the wooden posts.

Kasuga-Folk said the April 7, 1829, town records of Southold note that a town meeting had approved having the commissioners of roads survey the post roads from the Riverhead border to Orient and erect milestones with distance information chiseled on them.

"In Southold we have accounted for all 30 mile markers, but three of them are currently not in place" after being struck by vehicles, she said.

Southold 375th Anniversary Committee member George Cork Maul said the missing stones would be back in place by Mile Marker Day.

The markers once were all over New England but "now the vast majority of them are now missing," Kasuga-Folk said. "You can find them in places in Connecticut. But I haven't heard of another place that has a complete set still on the side of the road."

Despite the new evidence, Maul said Mile Marker Day will go on as planned, including an appearance by a Benjamin Franklin re-enactor.

"It would have been nice if Benjamin Franklin had set the mile markers [in Southold] but he did survey the postal routes," he said. "And the markers are still very historic."

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