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For a day, it's 1776 in Huntington

Re-enactor Robert Ambrose, 60, commander of the Ancient

Re-enactor Robert Ambrose, 60, commander of the Ancient and Honorable Huntington Militia, reads the Declaration of Independence on The Green during a re-enactment of the event that took place in July 1776. (July 15, 2006) Credit: Steven Sunshine

Rifles blazing, the booms of a cannon firing and the sulfury smell of gunpowder filling the sticky summer air.

If only for a few hours Sunday, a patch of Huntington resembled life as it was in July 1776, when the news came that the Declaration of Independence had been signed.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," Robert Ambrose, a re-enactor with the Ancient and Honorable Huntington Militia, yelled as more than 30 spectators gathered for the group's historical re-creation.

Though the Declaration was signed on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, Ambrose explained to the crowd, news didn't reach Long Island until two to three weeks later, and even then, reactions were split between those who supported independence from British rule and those loyal to King George.

The event -- dubbed "Huntington Independence Day" -- was held outside the historic Huntington Arsenal, a quaint redwood-shingled home dating to 1740. Used during the Revolutionary War to store arms and gunpowder, it is the only known Colonial-era arsenal left on Long Island.

The building, at 425 Park Ave., was recently refurbished with $180,000 in state and town grants, and is now open to the public again.

"It's important to keep telling the story so that future generations don't lose sight of where we come from," said Paul Wagenstein, 65, of Lake Ronkonkoma, one of more than 30 re-enactors who belong to the group.

Wagenstein, a retired teacher, said the re-enactments help history come to life for a generation of students captivated by all things digital.

"If it's not 3-D, it doesn't exist for some kids," Wagenstein said. "Here they can smell the gunpowder, they can see the sweat of men marching during the hot summer months; it brings their history books to life."

Jack Zimmerman, 12, of Huntington, held his camera phone up, capturing scenes that likely played out 236 years ago -- men wearing Colonial-style tricorn hats and gold-buttoned vests, shooting their rifles into the air once the Declaration was read.

"I think it's pretty nifty," said Zimmerman, a self-described "history buff" entering the seventh grade.

Ralph Burgess of Centerport brought his sons, Kyle, 13, Dylan, 11, and Aidan, 7, to see the re-enactment.

The family has traveled to Boston and Philadelphia, and has an upcoming trip to Gettysburg, to feed the boys' passion for early American history, but having the Arsenal nearby is a treat, Burgess said.

"To have something like this in our own backyard is really special," he said.

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