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News Of Long Ago - "Lawrence Butler’s crowning achievement – the Smithtown Bull….”

News of Long Ago by Bradley Harris, Smithtown Historian

(The previous article was about Lawrence Smith Butler, Cornelia Smith Butler’s oldest son, and the impact that he had upon the Smithtown community.  This article takes a look at the rest of the story of Lawrence Butler’s life and achievements.)

“Lawrence Butler’s crowning achievement – the Smithtown Bull….”

                  When Lawrence Smith Butler died in 1954, he was 78.  His life had been a full one and he made many significant contributions to Smithtown’s history.  A direct descendant of the bull rider, Richard Smythe, Lawrence Butler spent much of his childhood in St. James at his parent’s summer house, Bytheharbor.  Following his father’s death in 1901, Lawrence lived with his mother in this house on St. James Harbor until she died in 1915.   He then inherited Bytheharbor and its surrounding acreage that stretched from Moriches Road down Cordwood Path to the harbor’s edge.  After his mother’s death, Lawrence moved out of Bytheharbor and into the “casino” that he made his home and called Cedar Court.  Cedar Court became his home in St. James for the rest of his life.  As a result, Lawrence Butler is remembered by many people living in St. James and Smithtown.

                  Many people remember Lawrence Butler’s love of horses and horseback riding.  He is remembered for his involvement in polo and the Smithtown Hunt.  The Smithtown News noted in Lawrence Butler’s obituary that he had been active in establishing polo in St. James and the ‘polo field,’ at the southeast corner of Moriches and Fifty Acre Road” was actually on his property.  (“Lawrence S. Butler Buried at St. James,” Smithtown News, April 1, 1954, p. 18.)   The polo field was adjacent to another large field that was the site of the annual Smithtown Horse Show for many years and it was Lawrence Butler who founded the original Smithtown Horse Show in 1909.  This property off Fifty Acre Road was also the kickoff for many of the hunts organized by the Smithtown Hunt and it was to Lawrence Butler’s estate that members of the Hunt retired for a breakfast or luncheon following the hunt.  It was also at Lawrence Butler’s Casino, in the large ballroom, that the Smithtown Hunt Balls were held.

                  Other people remember Lawrence Butler’s service as a “vestryman and treasurer” of the St. James Episcopal Church.  These same people also remember his fine baritone voice which boomed out through the church during Sunday services and he always seemed to be in church on Sundays.  Others remember the Lawrence Butler Christmas tree which still stands near the Presbyterian Church in the little triangle of ground between River Road and North Country Road.  They remember him enthusiastically leading Christmas carols and getting people in the Christmas spirit.  Still others remember him hosting Sunday afternoon gatherings at his home for “musicales” and musical performances in which he was a frequent participant and they remember him starring in the musical productions that were staged in Assembly Hall in Smithtown Branch. 

                  Still others remember Lawrence Butler for his architectural prowess and his designs for Town Hall, the Public Library, and Assembly Hall.  The architectural stamp of the firm he formed with “two other well established architects” – Ford, Butler and Oliver – is to be found in many other buildings and homes throughout Smithtown.  Lawrence Butler’s “job in the firm was principally to drum up trade,” and in his memoirs he describes how “one day I went after a job in my car.  I had a chauffeur and when I asked the man if he needed an architect, he looked at my car and chauffeur and said ‘You don’t need a job!’ and so the next time I left the car at home.” (Butler, Lawrence Smith. Handwritten memoirs, ca. 1953, Lawrence Smith Butler Collection from the Long Island Room files, Smithtown Library.)  His architectural firm specialized in the “design of country houses,” and Lawrence found many jobs in Smithtown.  He designed his brother’s house when it was built on the Branglebrink Farm property, and remodeled his sister’s home – the Huntington house at Rassapeague.  His firm designed the “St. James Fire House, the former O’Berry Garage in St. James, the ‘Polo’ House and the poultryman’s cottage on Fifty Acre Road, the Harbor Country Day School, the Timothy Stables opposite the Episcopal Church Office, and the Allister Morris and the John Kerr Houses on Timothy Lane.”  (Barbara Van Lieu, Head-of-the-Harbor, A Journey Through Time, Main Road Books, Inc., Laurel, N.Y., 2005, p. 31.)  In Preservation Notes, Barbara Van Lieu identified some additional houses that Lawrence Butler designed including the James Lane Cottage, the Malcolm Smith House, the Martin Taylor House, and the Schmidt House on Edgewood Avenue. 

                  Other people remember the role that Lawrence Butler played in World War I.  When the United States entered WW I, Lawrence Butler “was over the draft age” but felt he “should do something, as many of my contemporaries were off to officer’s training camps, etc.  A Mr. Franklin Lord arranged for me to be the head of a draft board, taking in the towns of Smithtown, Huntington, Islip, and Babylon, with headquarters at Babylon, so this fixed me, although I hated even to pass on boys to go overseas.”  Throughout the war, he served in this capacity and as “chairman of the Exemption Board for the First District of Suffolk County.”  Lawrence Butler not only determined who in Smithtown received a draft notice, he also reviewed those who applied for exemptions determining who ultimately went off to trenches on the western front.  (Butler, Lawrence Smith, Handwritten memoirs, ca. 1953, op. cit.)

                  Some people remember that Lawrence Butler was responsible for the creation of the Smithtown Country Club that once occupied the 8 acres of property on northwest corner of the intersection of Fifty Acre Road and Edgewood Avenue.  Butler purchased the property in 1917 from the widow of Ignacio V. Mathieu, the man who bought the 50 acres of property that James Clinch Smith had sold for $1 in 1905.  This was the property where the St. James Driving Park had been located.  In 1911, Ignacio sold 42.86 acres of the property, the race track lot, to Charles Butler who used the property as pastureland for his cows.  And in 1917, his widow sold the remaining 7.14 acres with the house and barns to Lawrence Butler.  While he owned it, the property became the Smithtown Country Club “and was for many years a comfortable and convenient place to eat or stay.”  Lawrence Butler owned this property until 1947 when he sold it to Mildred Edgar Wood and Irene Metz who added a ballroom and other wings to the original building, and in 1959, opened the Smithtown Riding and Tennis Club. (Barbara Van Lieu, Head-of-the-Harbor, A Journey Through Time, op. cit., p. 149.)    

                  What I like to remember about Lawrence Butler is the fact that he was responsible for bringing the statue of Richard Smythe’s bull to the Town of Smithtown. The placement of a bull statue in the heart of Smithtown to commemorate the legendary founding of the Town of Smithtown, was something that Lawrence Butler had long dreamed of doing.  Lawrence Butler first suggested the idea of a statue of a bull to the sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey when the two men were attending the School of Fine Arts in Paris.  He must have told Charles Rumsey the story of Richard Smythe’s legendary bull ride and suggested that he sculpt a bull in plaster for his thesis project.  Charles Rumsey decided to do that and completed the model in 1905.  Upon graduation the two men went their separate ways in pursuit of their own careers and over twenty years passed.

                  Sometime around 1928, Lawrence Butler corresponded with Charles Rumsey and told him that certain parties in Smithtown were interested in having the bull cast in bronze for a statue that would be placed prominently in a park in the Town of Smithtown.  Charles Rumsey agreed to cast a huge bronze statue of the bull that would weigh some five tons and stand 9’ tall for which he would be paid $12,000.  Charles Rumsey went ahead with the commission and by 1928 he had completed the casting of the statue.  Only then did he discover, much to his consternation, that the interested parties in Smithtown could not raise the necessary $12,000.  The Depression further stymied efforts to raise the money to purchase the statue and Charles Rumsey was “stuck” with his huge bronze bull.  Mr. Rumsey then loaned the statue to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum which prominently displayed the bull on a pedestal in front of the museum.  There the bull remained until 1932, when Mr. Rumsey was tragically killed in an automobile accident on Long Island.  The bull was then taken down and stored away in a warehouse in Long Island City.

                  Following Mr. Rumsey’s death, the sculptor’s son and daughter decided to donate the statue to the Town of Smithtown if the town would pay the cost of transporting the bull from Long Island City to Smithtown.  At that point Lawrence Butler again got involved and persuaded the Town Board to accept the sculpture and to allocate $250 for the concrete pedestal.  Mr. Butler also promised that together with Norman W. McBurney, he would form a committee to obtain the money to pay the cost of transporting the statue to Smithtown.

                  Keeping his promise, Lawrence Butler’s committee raised the necessary money for transportation costs ($1750), and the statue was shipped to Smithtown by the LIRR.  In April of 1941, after considerable difficulty and the slight injury of one of the workmen (one wonders how the 5 ton statue was set in place), the bull was hoisted atop its pedestal and all was in readiness for the official dedication.

                  The official unveiling ceremony took place on Saturday afternoon, May 10, 1941 at 3:30 p.m.  Charles Rumsey’s daughter, Mary Harriman Rumsey, officially presented the statue to the Town, and on behalf of the Town, Supervisor John N. Brennan accepted the gift.  Supervisor Brennan spoke of the illustrious history of the Smith family in Smithtown, and then Richard Bull Smith, a descendant  of the “bull rider,” pulled a rope and the canvas fell away to reveal the bull.  Lawrence Butler’s dream had at last come true, and “Whisper” as the bull would come to be known, had finally come home to Smithtown.

                  So the next time you pass by the statue of “Whisper” that stands so proudly upon his pedestal at the intersection on North Country Road (25A) and Jericho Turnpike, think of Lawrence Smith Butler, the architect from St. James who was instrumental in shaping our town and making sure that we will always be reminded that it was Richard Smythe who founded Smithtown.


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