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Tuesday
Mar042014

News of Long Ago - Gouras Family A History Of Hard Work And Snow Storm Of '34

News of Long Ago by Bradley Harris, Smithtown Historian

(This article is about the Gouras family and the fur shop they owned and operated on Main Street in Smithtown Branch from 1924 until 1988.  The information contained in this article came from conversations with Jim Gouras, George Arns, Lee Corbani, Tom Hancock, Walter Macheck, Earl Scott, and Pete Vitale.)

“The Gouras family of Smithtown Branch….”

 The Gouras family has been a part of the Smithtown Branch community since 1923, the year that Sotir and Anastasia Gouras moved out of New York City and came to Smithtown Branch.  Sotir and Anastasia Gouras were Greek immigrants who came to America seeking a better life and found it in Smithtown.  Their children were all born in America, and two of them were born in Smithtown.  Smithtown became their home and it still is for James Gouras, who with his wife Estelle, lives on Elm Avenue not far from his boyhood home on Main Street.  James has lived all his life in Smithtown and with the passage of time, he has become the patriarch of the Gouras family.  Today he happily presides over an extended family that includes his two daughters Christina and Diana, their husbands, and three grandchildren. The Gouras family story is unique because the Gourases were one of the first Greek families to live in Smithtown Branch and their lives became interwoven with the fabric of the history of the town itself.   

Jim & Estelle Gouras photo published in Smithtown News

The Gouras family story begins long ago in a little town in northern Greece, a town that both Anna and Sotir called home.  Sotir was born in Athens, Greece in 1891.  Anastasia was born in 1892 in the little mountain village of Siatista in Macedonia.  Sotir spent his childhood in Athens, but he was orphaned when he was just a little boy of ten and became a ward of the Greek Orthodox Church. Eventually he struck out on his own and found his way north to the same little village where Anastasia lived.  Here Sotir began to work in the fur industry.  By the time he was in his twenties, Sotir owned a fur shop and a beautiful girl named Anastasia came to work in his shop.  It was also at this time that Sotir became a guerrilla fighter in the mountains of Macedonia where Greek partisans waged war on the Turks who were occupying Macedonia.  Sotir must have been a fearless and fearsome fighter since he was awarded the Greek Victorian Cross for bravery.  When the Balkan War came to an end in 1912, Sotir came out of the mountains and back to his shop and the girl he loved.  But he soon found that his life was in danger from the Turks who lived in the area and were seeking revenge for their losses in the Balkan War.  Sotir discovered that he was on a list, marked for death, and he had no choice but to get out of Greece.  So he took all his furs, left Greece and Anastasia behind, and made his way to Leipzig, Germany, the fur center of Europe. There he sold his wares, bought a ticket to America, and landed on Ellis Island sometime in 1913.  

Jim Gouras (Gouras family photo)In 1913, Sotir was just twenty-two and pretty much on his own.  He found living quarters on 24th St. just off 6th Avenue, close to the fur district.  He looked for work as a furrier, but he couldn’t find work in the fur business and went to work as an oven-man for the National Biscuit Company.  It was brutally hot work and Sotir lost a lot of weight tending the ovens.  But by 1914, Sotir was able to quit working for the National Biscuit Company and opened his own fur shop at 138 Seventh Avenue, between 18th and 19th Streets.  Sotir advertised as a “Manufacturer of Furs” and he must have made some money, since he asked Anna to join him in America in 1916.  Anna was twenty-five at the time, and she set out on a journey that took her half- way around the world, to a new home where people spoke a strange language, and followed a way of life that was completely foreign to Anastasia.  Yet Anna swallowed her fear, boarded an ocean liner, and made her lonely way across the Atlantic.  It must have been quite a frightening experience, but at least, when she arrived at Ellis Island, Sotir was there to greet her.

Sotir and Anna were married in 1916 in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral on 72nd Street in Manhattan.  Sotir opened a new fur shop at 309 West 37th Street and this became their home.  In the fur shop the couple pieced skins together to create “fur plates” that were 48” by 96” and they sold these plates to fur coat manufacturers.  A coat could be made from one of these plates of beautifully matched pelts.  In 1917, Anna and Sotir were blessed when a baby girl named Alexandra came into their life.  Her arrival was followed in 1920 by the birth of a son named James.  The Gouras family was prospering and growing and becoming acclimated to life in a new country.  Sotir decided to become an American citizen, and on Dec. 4, 1922, he became a naturalized citizen.  (It would be many years before Anna became an American citizen, but she finally did so in 1962 when she was living in apartment behind the fur shop in Smithtown.) 

 In 1922, Sotir Gouras made a decision to move out of New York City.  He and his wife, Anastasia, and their two children, were in the area on the west side of  Manhattan that was known as the fur district and it was very close to a tough neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen.  Anastasia didn’t feel safe in the city, longed to live life in a little village, and wanted her children to experience life in the country.  Sotir looked for a home he could afford, a town that was linked to New York City by railroad and was not too far to commute.  Sotir first attempted to buy property in Hempstead, but that fell through, and then he bought land in Hauppauge.  In 1923, Sotir brought his family to live on the five acres of woodland he purchased, sight unseen, on the east side of the road to Hauppauge (Route 111), just north of Bill Arns’ Garage.  It took courage for the Gourases to leave New York City for the little country town of Smithtown Branch, and surely it must have been a shock for them when they discovered that the land they had purchased was five acres of woods off a dirt road that was in the middle of nowhere.

Sotir had some of the wooded property cleared so that he could have a house built on the land.  George Arns remembered the house.  It was two and a half stories with a sloping roof and a big dormer on the front.  There was a porch that ran across the front of the house and this porch was enclosed in the wintertime.  “It was a nice home, well-made and nicely landscaped.  There was a garage in the back and further back on the property were sheds for the sheep that Mr. Gouras kept on his five acres.”  Jim Gouras, who was born in 1927 in this house, remembered that the house had “small rooms, a bathroom with a tile floor composed of small white octagonal tiles, and a bath tub that had a ring suspended over it for a shower curtain.  There was a coal stove in the kitchen, a coal furnace in the basement, interior plumbing, and we had electric lights, although we still had kerosene lamps in the house for emergencies.”  

When Sotir and Anna moved into their new home, Sotir ran his fur business out of the house.  Sotir would buy fur pelts by the bundle in New York City, bring the bundles out to the house in Hauppauge, where he and Anna would sew the furs together to make plates, and then take the plates back into New York City to sell to fur coat manufacturers.  Sotir made enough money doing this that he could afford to open his own fur shop on Main Street in Smithtown Branch.  He rented the store that used to be Johnny’s Subside and hung out a sign announcing that this was the shop of Sotir Gouras, “Manufacturer of Furs.”  Everyone laughed at the idea of a furrier setting up shop in Smithtown, but Sotir was determined that he would succeed.  In the new shop, Anna and Sotir continued to make plates for the New York City market and kept them in the store. Unfortunately, the shop was not very secure and someone found out that they were keeping furs there and stole them.  That theft led to Sotir’s decision to buy a piece of land on Main Street and build his own store that he could properly secure to protect his stock of furs.

site of the former Gouras Fur Shop - The store on Main Street that Sotir Gouras had built in 1924. The Gouras fur shop occupied the east side of the shop where the ReMax Real Estate Office is now located and the west side of the shop has had a number of tenants and is presently occupied by the State Farm Insurance Company. In 1924, Sotir Gouras purchased a plot of land for $500 from Claude Conklin and had a store erected on the lot.  It was a fairly large store and Sotir had it partitioned down the middle so that it could house two businesses. (The building is still standing and is today occupied by the State Farm Insurance Agency and the ReMax Real Estate Office.)  Sotir moved his fur shop into the east side of the store and the west side of the store was rented to an open-air food market.  The market was run by Corbani and Radau and was known as the Blue Jay Market.  With tenants in his store, Sotir was able to make his mortgage payment. In 1927, a third store was partitioned off from the fur shop, and a shoemaker rented the space.  So Sotir had income from his fur business and from the tenants who rented space in his building, and he was becoming financially secure.

Jim, Anastasia and Sotir Gouras (Gouras family photo) This photograph, taken in 1944 when Jim Gouras enlisted in the Army, shows Jim in his uniform standing next to his Mom and Dad. Jim was 17, and had just graduated from Smithtown Branch High School. The photograph was taken behind the Gouras Fur Shop and the corner of the playhouse that stood behind the shop is just visible.It was in 1927 that Anna and Sotir had another child.  Their first son James, died in 1926 at the age of six.  Anna and Sotir, who were crushed with the loss of the little boy, felt truly blessed to have another son, and in memory of their first son, they named their second son James.  Four years later, in 1931, the Gourases had another daughter and Theologia joined the family.  The little house on Route 111 was filling up with children.

Perhaps it was the fact that Gouras family was growing that led Sotir to make an addition of two apartments on the back of his store on Main Street.  In 1931, in the midst of the depression, Sotir scrounged up materials to double the length of the store.  No one would give Sotir a loan to finance this expansion and it was only after Dr. McCoy lent him the money that Sotir was able to complete the addition. Now Sotir had additional income from the rented apartments.  Several Smithtown Branch residents rented the apartments when they first came to town.  Jim Gouras remembered that at one time there was a German couple who rented an apartment and ran a German restaurant from the storefront on the west side of the building.  He also recalled that the Kaplan and Dounias families rented apartments from his father.  So despite the fact that the depression must have really hurt the fur business, Sotir made enough money from his rented space that he managed to get by.

However, when a big snowstorm struck Smithtown in the winter of 1934/35, Sotir Gouras was frightened by the fact that he lived too far from the center of town and his store.  The blizzard that hit that winter dumped five feet of snow on the town and shut the town down.  Drifts piled the snow high everywhere and the weather stayed so bitterly cold that the snow didn’t melt.  The Town Highway Department used its two Walters trucks with four wheel drive, that were heavy enough to be fitted with a V plow, and began to clear the highways, but it took days.  On Route 111 where the Gouras, Arns, Walsh, and Holtz families lived, everyone was snowed in and slowly eating up all the food in their larders.  George Arns remembered that a dozen people were stranded at his home and they had no way of getting out.  The Arns family was lucky because they had a cellar that was stocked full of canned vegetables, pickled meats, potatoes, and glass eggs.  George knew that things were getting desperate when Sotir Gouras came by with meat from a fresh killed lamb that he traded for canned vegetables and eggs.  Everyone was running out of food.  Something had to be done and it was decided that the men would dig a path to the general store in Hauppauge.  So a crew of men and boys who lived in the vicinity of the Arns Garage, began digging south along Route 111, while another crew of men from the Hauppauge General Store began digging north along Route 111.  It took a long time to dig a path, but the task was finally completed when the crews met on the rise of the hill where Route 347 crosses Route 111 today.  The families managed to trek to the Hauppauge General Store and restock their food larders.  But the experience of being completely isolated and cut off by the snow, spooked Sotir Gouras so much that he decided to permanently move his family into one of the apartments that was attached to the back of his fur shop.  So in 1935, the Gouras family moved into the store on Main Street and this became their home.  Sotir held onto the house on Route 111 and rented it. After the war, in 1947, he sold the house and the five acres of land for $10,000.

Alexandra, James, and Theologia(Theo) grew up in Smithtown Branch and they all attended Smithtown Branch School and graduated from high school there.  For James and his younger sister Theo, the apartment behind the fur shop was their childhood home.  It was here that Jim met his good friend Walter Machecek who lived practically next door.  Jim and Walt became tight running buddies and they did lots of things together, like playing blackjack in the little playhouse that used to stand behind the fur shop, or going for a swim in the old swimming hole in the river, or figuring out ways to torment Jim’s sister Theo.          

Anastasia & Jim Gouras (Gouras Family photo)In the mid-30’s, Sotir Gouras’s Fur Shop at last began to attract a clientele from Nissequogue and Head of the Harbor areas who brought their furs to the shop for restyling, new linings, new collars, cleaning and repairs.  It was at this time that Sotir began to advertise as a “Practical Furrier,” and he sold merchandise that he made in the shop.  Items like Muskrat Coats that he sold for $40 to $75, or Genuine Squirrel Coats made of imported Russian squirrel skins that sold for $18, or Raccoon Coats that sold for $100 to $175.  A real bargain was a Hudson Seal Coat with a Fitch(weasel) collar that sold for $50, although it was actually made out of sheared muskrat fur, dyed black to look like seal skin.  Even so, it was a warm durable coat that would last for years.  It was this kind of practicality that made Sotir’s merchandise popular with the residents of Smithtown and kept the Gouras family business going through the pre-war years.  

 When World War II began, young Jim was still in high school, but he waited until he graduated in 1944 before joining the army.  That experience took him to Japan and it wasn’t until 1946 that Jim returned to his home in Smithtown Branch.  In anticipation of Jim’s return, Sotir Gouras decided to stop renting the apartments behind his shop, and he had the partitioning wall between the two apartments removed.  This doubled the size of the Gouras family apartment and gave Jim a separate bedroom.  Jim wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after the war, so he moved in with his parents.  He took advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrolled in Sol Vogel’s Design School in New York City and learned how to design coats.  While he attended the school, he commuted into the city, and that experience was enough for him to make up his mind about joining his father in the fur business.  Once he finished the school, Jim went to work for his father.  Jim was learning how to be a furrier, when tragedy struck the family and Sotir Gouras died of a heart attack.  He was in the apartment, alone on Labor Day evening in 1949, when he died of a massive coronary thrombosis.  He was just 58.  

Anastasia took over the operation of the fur shop since she knew as much about the business as her husband did.  She taught Jim more about the ins and outs of the business and he became a furrier in his own right.  Jim learned how to sew pieces of skins together to make beautiful coats.  One coat he created was made out of the skins from squirrel paws, small little squares of skin that were laboriously stitched together.  As Jim noted, “you could buy squirrel paws for next to nothing and make them into a nice, soft fur coat that would sell for a lot of money.”  Jim sold squirrel paw coats for $150.  And he learned how to make rabbit jackets from the soft fur of rabbit bellies – little pieces of fur that were sewn together to create a beautiful jacket that sold for $50.  He also learned how to manufacture beautiful mink coats using bundles of matched pelts that he would buy in the fur market and then piece together to make a fine mink coat.  Jim remembers making cerulean mink coats that were an astonishing sky blue gray color that would sell for $2500 and would last a lifetime.  And he would take the muskrat and raccoon skins that Honey Schubert sold to him and create magnificent muskrat and raccoon coats that he sold in the fur shop. 

His mother continued to work with Jim until she was almost eighty, and it wasn’t until 1970 that Anastasia Gouras passed ownership of the shop to her son.  Anna was a very independent lady who lived in the apartment behind the fur shop for the remainder of her life. Anna passed away in 1984 at the age of 91.  Jim continued to run the fur shop until he retired in 1988 and he sold the business to others.  

The building that Sotir Gouras built on Main Street is still there, although the fur shop is gone now.  There aren’t many independent furriers still in business today, and if you wish to purchase a fur coat, you will most likely visit a store where the fur coats are ready made and hanging on a rack.  But it was not so long ago, that the Gouras family had a shop on Smithtown’s Main Street and you could have a spectacular fur coat made to order.   


Wednesday
Feb262014

News Of Long Ago - Smithtown Has A History Of Snow

News of Long Ago by Bradley Harris, Smithtown Historian

Thanks to Cathy Ball and the Smithtown Library for the photos. Click on the photos to enlarge.

(I have been writing about life in Smithtown in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s.  This article takes a look at winters of the past, how they were different from those of today, and how people in Smithtown coped with and enjoyed winter weather.  The content of this article comes from a discussion with George Arns, Lee Corbani, Tom Hancock, Gus Metzger, Carol Palmer, Charlie Richardson, Pete Vitale, and Sal Vitale.  A complete recording of this discussion is available through the Long Island Room in the Smithtown Library, Voices of Smithtown, 1-4-08.)

“Of winters past….”

 The intersection of Bellemeade Avenue and Main Street showing the snow piled up by the 1934 snowstorm that paralyzed the little town of Smithtown Branch. The first building on the left is Valentine’s Liquor Store on the site now occupied by Cress Florist. East of Bellemeade Avenue is the Smithtown Branch Post Office, the Royal Arcanum Hall, and Huntting’s General Store. (Photograph courtesy of the L.I. Room, Smithtown Library.)At a time when global warming seems to be accelerating and causing a dramatic change in our weather patterns, our winters are getting decidedly warmer.  We don’t get the snowfall that we used to experience not so long ago, and now we sometimes go through the winter without much snow at all.

George Arns remembers that in the 1930’s, snow “came early and stayed all winter long.  We always had snow in October, and by Thanksgiving, we would have two to three feet of snow on the ground. Real hard storms and blizzards would hit and dump lots of snow.  There was a storm in 1934 and another in 1936.  I believe the storm in 1936 dumped four feet of snow in Smithtown.”  That was the storm when George, his brothers, and neighbors, dug a path through the drifts down Hauppauge Road from the Arns’ Garage, on the corner of Maple Avenue and Route 111, to the Kimbrig’s Store in Hauppauge. “That was the nearest store, and in those days, you kept very little fresh food on hand.  We had iceboxes, but after three days, everybody was running out of food.  The roads were absolutely stopped up with snow.  Nothing moved.  It took almost two weeks before they actually got a vehicle through the drifts of snow.”  

At that time, the highway department didn’t have any equipment that could handle the deep drifts of snow.  “The highway department had tow plows.  They had an old Adams 77 grader and they towed a wooden V-shaped plow behind it.  The grader had a ‘budagas’ engine and eight large truck tires.  It used to get stuck even after we added chains.  They could only keep the main roads open.  The side streets were never plowed.  Route 111, a State road, was absolutely locked in.  Jericho Turnpike was kept open, but even between towns, it was tough to keep the highway open.”  

After the 1934 storm, the highway department purchased a big oiler that was used to spray oil on the roads and to plow town roadways.  This Walters truck had four-wheel positive drive, and when it was carrying weight, it would go in any snow.  They mounted a huge V-shaped push plow on the front of this truck and used it to clear the roadways in town.  

Captions for the photographs accompanying this article: Snow drifts surround the Bank of Smithtown following the 1934 snowstorm that deposited several feet of snow on Main Street in Smithtown Branch. (Photograph courtesy of the L.I. Room, Smithtown Library.) “Snow was piled up in the middle of Main Street, sometimes fifteen feet high, all the way down Main Street.  After the storms were over, that’s when they came in to clean out the snow.”  The highway department had a Haiss loader, with big paddles, and it broke up the snow, pushed the snow into buckets, and lifted the buckets on a chain driven conveyor to dump the snow into the bed of a waiting truck. Then they’d take the snow and dump it into the fields somewhere.  This is the way they got rid of the big windrow of snow in the middle of town.  They used this equipment until the 1950’s when my father, Bill Arns, built a portable conveyor for the highway department that was more mobile and easier to use than the earlier conveyor.”   

By the 1950’s, the highway department could muster enough men and equipment to clear the roads in any heavy snowfall.  They kept up with the snowfall and kept the roads open.  According to Charlie Richardson, it didn’t make any difference to the kids anyway.  “There were no snow days.  We went to school.  There was no closing school down.  The buses ran, people knew how to drive in snow, and we didn’t have the volume of traffic we have today.  Most of the kids walked to school and they just slogged through the snow.”   

Tom Hancock remembers shoveling snow for the highway department.  He earned 75 cents an hour.  The highway department was right behind Town Hall, and when the town experienced a heavy snowfall, the Highway Superintendent would recruit high school boys to clear snow off the sidewalks in town.  Tom worked with a crew clearing sidewalks on New York Avenue.  “One of the older Fiedler boys and Billy Mason would be in charge, and they would always put us to work and then disappear.  They would come back when the sidewalks were done.  That went on for a number of years.  We used to do the sidewalks on Main Street and Avenues off Main Street.”  Pete Vitale remembers cutting school to shovel snow.  “So where did they put you?  Right in front of the school.  Everybody had their backs facing Mr. Floody’s office because they didn’t want to get caught playing hooky.”  For some reason, nobody ever got caught.

The intersection of Bellemeade Avenue and Main Street showing the snow piled up by the 1934 snowstorm that paralyzed the little town of Smithtown Branch. The first building on the left is Valentine’s Liquor Store on the site now occupied by Cress Florist. East of Bellemeade Avenue is the Smithtown Branch Post Office, the Royal Arcanum Hall, and Huntting’s General Store. (Photograph courtesy of the L.I. Room, Smithtown Library.)After the first couple of snow storms, the roads in town would have a hard packed base of snow covering them.  This made the hills in town terrific slopes for sledding.  In the 50’s, the highway department never used salt on the roads.  After a snow storm and roads had been cleared, the town would come along with sand trucks, and two men standing on the back of the truck would shovel sand on the road on the slopes of hills and at intersections where cars might slide on the snow.  But typically they only put sand on the slopes going up hills and this left the downhill slopes free of sand.  This meant that kids could sled down some of these long hills.  

Charlie Richardson remembers sleigh-riding down the long hill toward the statue of the Bull.  “They used to sand the south side of the road, but you could sleigh-ride all the way downhill on the north side. And over by Sunken Meadow State Park, we used to sleigh-ride down that hill on 25A.”  Pete Vitale remembered that another favorite hill was the hill on Blydenburgh Road near the Hauppauge dump.  “We used to ride all the way down to Townline Road.  That was a fast ride.  We used to hit a patch of bare road, where the sun melted the snow, and sparks would be flying – it looked like somebody was welding.”  It cleaned the rust off the sled’s runners.   

Golden Hill was a favorite run, but kids had to keep an eye open for cars.  Gus Metzger used to go sledding on Golden Hill.  He was one of those kids who would come off that hill, down Bellmeade, and shoot across Main Street.  Fortunately no one ever was hit by a car because as Charlie Richardson pointed out: “People didn’t drive fast in snow, and if snow was deep, they put chains on.  We used to carry strap-on chains and if conditions became bad enough, we’d just put chains on.” The snow packed down and became an excellent sledding surface.  There were a couple of smaller hills in everyone’s back yard.  There were hills near Micciches, behind Frank Friede’s, off Cherry Lane, and a favorite spot opposite the Elks Lodge.  When it snowed, kids would be everywhere on their Flexible Flyers.   

Tom Hancock swears he had the fastest sled in town – a Yankee Clipper.  It was light, Tom was light, he always took a running start, belly-whopped, and would go flying down the hills.  There weren’t many kids that could beat him.  Sometimes Tom would really be flying, especially when he latched onto the back of a car’s bumper and was towed behind a car.  Motor Parkway, down by Lake Ronkonkoma, was a favorite place to ride the hills.  Tom remembers starting on the hill near the Hyatt Inn and being pulled by a car to the first turn in the road, and then “you were supposed to let go and you’d fly down the road to the bottom of the hill, where the car would be waiting to pull you back up again.” Cars were used to pull sleds and kids on skis.  “Sometimes kids on skis would be afraid to let go or held on too long , and you really had to be careful, because if you got going too fast, you would go careening off into the woods, and that kind of ruined the day because it took us a while to find them in the woods and snow.”

Gus Metzger used to tow kids on skates.  His favorite trick was to take his Model A Ford down to Miller’s Pond, and when the ice was thick enough, he would drive out on the ice.  With a rope he had dragging behind the car, he would pull 17 or 18 skaters around the pond, and then spin out, “cracking the whip” of kids.  “Then they’d come off the pond and sometimes smash into a telephone pole.”  Sometimes it was his car that smashed into a telephone pole and then “we’d go up to Schuberts, and we’d bang out the fender.  That was in the 1940’s.”

Miller’s Pond was a great place to hang out and skate during the winter and people used to gather there whenever the pond froze over.  George Arns recalls that a good many people came down to skate and on some occasions there would be 150-200 people skating on the pond.  At night, bonfires would be lighted around the edges of the pond, just off the ice, so people could see to skate.  The fires were also a great place to roast potatoes or marshmallows.  Gus Metzger used to “steal two potatoes at home, bring them to the pond, roast them in the ashes until they got black, and then eat them.  They were delicious.”  The fires also gave you a place to warm up, especially if you fell in, and Gus Metzger was always falling in the pond.  “You always fell in the pond, I fell in two or three times a day.  I’d go home, my mother would beat me up because my clothes were all full of mud, frozen and wet – I’d change clothes and go back to the pond.  An hour later, I’d be back in the weeds somewhere, I’d fall in again, and go back home and change again.”  Tom Hancock remembers following channels through the reeds that led far into the surrounding woods where he hid from his friends, and that’s where you could fall through the ice.  But it wasn’t very deep, just up to your knees, so you didn’t get into trouble.  Some kids did get into trouble in deeper parts of the pond.  George Arns recalled that “one of the Ruppert twins who lived on Maple Avenue fell through the ice and drowned.”  Gus Metzger recalled that several other boys also drowned in the pond.  There were several spots where you could get in trouble, by the dams where the water was always flowing, and spots where springs kept bubbling up and the ice was thin.  The Millers would fence off the pond after a tragedy, but before long the fence would be broken down, and skaters would be back on the pond.

After a while, the town used to send men down to the pond to test the ice and make sure the ice was thick enough for people to skate on it.  Later on, the town put up signs that said: “Skate At Your Own Risk,” but that was in the early 1950’s.  George remembers skating on thin ice and seeing it give way beneath his skates.  “It was just like rubber and you had to keep moving.  If you stopped, you fell in.”  That’s what happened to Gus – “I couldn’t skate worth a darn, I couldn’t go as fast as these guys,” and in the pond he went.  Fortunately Gus lived on Maple Avenue, not far from the pond, so he’d go home, “get his little beating, change clothes, and be back down there again.”

Tom Hancock remembers playing hockey on Miller’s Pond.  “The games were organized by older boys like Peter Dounias and Larry Hendrickson.  They made up the teams and refereed.”  Tom remembered that in the cold weather he bundled up and wore layers of clothing.  As he played and worked up a sweat, he would peel off layers of clothing, until by mid-day, he would be stripped down to his undershirt, sweating profusely, and dying of thirst.  The boys would call time out to skate over to a spot in the ice where a spring was located, and then slack their thirst with a quick drink of pond water.  Then as the afternoon wore on, the layers of clothing would be put back on to cope with the evening chill.  When Tom first started playing hockey, he didn’t have skates, and he used to play goalie in his street shoes.  Eventually he bought a pair of shoe skates and then he learned to skate with a goalie stick for support.  He became a pretty good hockey player and moved out of the goal to play on a hockey line. But he discovered that he wasn’t a very good skater when he didn’t have a hockey stick in his hands.  Whenever he tried to skate with his friends in the evening, he couldn’t get his feet under his body, and he was constantly falling.  But that was ok, because Tom discovered that his two girlfriends were always there to prop him up, and it was much more fun to skate with two pretty ladies by your side. 

There were other places where people skated in the winter, on Judge’s Pond, on the pond by the Bull, and sometimes when Bill Rodgers let you, on the Mill Pond at the Wyandanch Club.  But Miller’s Pond was the place where everybody in town came to skate.  It had the best ice and smoothest surface and that was because the Smithtown Fire Department would bring their fire trucks down to the pond and spray water on the ice.  Sometimes the firemen would leave the trucks there so they could light the surface of the pond at night for the skaters.  And on cold winter nights, Carol Palmer remembered that the fire department would even serve hot chocolate to the crowd that skated on Miller’s Pond.  The simple assistance that the firemen gave spontaneously to their friends and neighbors so that they might enjoy skating on the ice of Miller’s Pond says a lot about what winters were like in Smithtown Branch not so long ago.

 

Monday
Jan132014

Town Historian Bradley Harris On Smithtown's Founder Richard Smythe

By Smithtow Town Historian Bradley Harris

Richard Smythe, the founder and patentee of Smithtown, remains an elusive historical figure….

 “Whisper” is a constant reminder to Smithtown residents of the story of the origin of the town founded by Richard Smythe. The bull is part of the legend that surrounds Richard Smythe, and much about Richard Smythe is legendary.  Richard Smythe, the man, the “Bull Rider,” remains an elusive historical figure.  There is much that we know about the man, but there is a great deal that we don’t know. While certain things are known, such as the existence of the Nicholls Patent, issued on March 3, 1665 by the Royal Governor of the Colony of New York, that recognized Richard Smythe’s claim of possession of the lands of the Nesaquauke, we don’t know how Smythe managed to convince the English Royal Governor to issue a Patent in his name and give Smith such a large proprietary land grant.  There are a host of other questions for which we have no answer.  The facts of his birth are not really known, and his parentage, background and education are only guessed at.  We don’t know why Richard Smith came to America, where he settled in the Boston area, how he met his wife, what her maiden name was, and when and where they were married.  We’re not sure where his home was located in Nissequogue, and we have only a suspicion that he was buried on Whisper Hill.  We don’t even know whether he owned a bull.  But we have the “bull story” and that provides one explanation for how he acquired the Nesaquake lands.

We all know the bull story.  Even so, you might be interested in what John Lawrence Smith wrote in his History of Smithtown, published in 1883:  “Richard Smythe and his descendants are habitually alluded to, by the inhabitants, as the ‘Bull-Rider’ and the ‘Bull Smiths.’ Tradition says that he purchased of the Indians as much land as he could ride around on a bull in a day, and having a trained bull which he used as a horse, he started early, reached the valley between Smithtown and Huntington at noon, rested and took his lunch (thereby giving the valley the name of Bread and Cheese hollow; which it still retains), and completed the whole circuit of the township by nightfall – much to the astonishment of the natives.”  “It seems a pity to spoil this old legend, but the quiet manner in which Richard Smythe acquired from Gardiner his title to the whole territory, and the great trouble he had afterward with his neighbors in settling his boundary, render it quite certain that the tradition about his sharp bargain with the Indians is partly drawn from the classic story of Dido’s purchase of the site of Carthage, partly a flight of the imagination, and wholly untrue.  It is possible that the patentee did ride a bull.  Bulls in later days often supplied the place of horses,” but “the patentee was in easy circumstances” and “he had plenty of” horses “when the tax-gatherer first came to his settlement,” so why ride a bull?  So there you have it, straight from the Judge’s mouth so to speak – the bull story is just that – bull.

     So how, if he didn’t acquire the Nesaquake lands through a bull-ride, how did he acquire the land?  Richard Smythe first came to America aboard the ship known as the John of London that sailed from England for St. Christopher’s in the Caribbean West Indies on October 2, 1635. Why he chose to emigrate to America at this time is not known, but he was travelling with 33 other passengers, all single young men and women. The passenger manifest lists six women, ages 18-21, and 27 men ranging in age from 18-28, one Richard Smith, age 22, among them.  It almost appears to have been a “singles cruise.”  Ships sailing for the West Indies followed a course that took them along the New England coast and it would have stopped at Boston along the way.  Richard Smythe could have ended his voyage in Boston or perhaps gone on to St. Christopher’s and then come back to Boston at a later date.  Where he was living and what he was doing at this time in his life is not known. The first definitive mention we have of Richard Smythe appears in the town records of Southampton, L.I., dated October 26, 1643. The entry concerns a ruling of the Southampton General Court and directs a Thomas Hyldreth to settle a dispute he was having with “Mr. Smith” by paying him “three pounds and twelve shillings and foure pence” worth of English wheate to settle “all matters of Controversie” that had arisen between them.  It sounds as if Thomas Hyldreth had somehow damaged Mr. Smith’s wheat crop.  

Southampton was first settled in 1639/40 by a group of men living at Lynn in the Massachuetts Bay Colony who crossed the Sound and settled Southampton on L.I.’s south fork.. Richard Smythe was not one of the original proprietors of the town, but obviously had joined them by 1643 when he got into a dispute with Thomas Hyldreth.  By 1648, Richard was chosen “freeman” of the town, and in 1649, he is listed as a freeman and head of a family.  

Richard’s wife Sarah has always been a bit of a mystery.  The Smith family biographer, Dr. Frederick Kinsman Smith who compiled the book The Family of Richard Smith that covers ten generations of Richard Smith’s descendants, believes that Richard Smith found his wife in New England. Sarah Folger was thought to have been the woman he married.  But family historians today (Ned Smith and Henry Hoff) now suspect his wife was Sarah Hammond of Watertown, Massachusetts.  Now we know what Richard Smythe was doing in the Boston area from 1635-1640, he was looking for a wife.  Sarah Hammond, born in 1623, in Lavenham, Suffolk, England, was 17 or 18, 10 years younger than Richard Smythe when they married in 1640.  Since they had their first child, a boy named Jonathan in 1641, it seems likely they were married before they settled in Southampton. But we have no record of their marriage.  All we know is that Richard and Sarah had seven sons and two daughters, and five of their children were born while the Smythes lived in Southampton.    

Richard Smythe seems to have been a leader in Southampton. His home lot was one of the larger lots in town, made up of three 50 pound lots, suggesting that he made a considerable investment in buying into Southampton.  Out of 50 proprietors, about ¼ had two 50 pound lots, another ¼ had three 50 pound lots, and most of the rest had one fifty pound lot. Richard Smythe’s home lot was at the north end of Main Street, near the Pond and not far from the ocean. He had a full proprietor’s right in the settlement and was chosen freeman of the town, and thus became a member of the General Court and eligible to any office.  He served as a member of a committee to regulate the laying out of the land on the “Great Playnes” and by vote of the General Court he was elected to the office of constable. He served as one of the two town assessors, served on a jury of 12 men in an action for slander, and was chosen to serve on a committee that was given the responsibility of cutting up whales that washed up on the beach.

Richard Smythe’s entire career in Southampton shows him to have been a man of active enterprise, foremost among his equals and of the same rank as Edward Howell, Lion Gardiner and Richard Woodhull, the three famed leaders of Long Island settlements.  He had been a leader and highly respected member of his community for 13years when the following entry makes its appearance in the Southampton records on September 17, 1656:  “It is ordered by the General Court that Richard Smith for his unreverend carriage towards the magristrates contrary to the order was adjudged to be banished out of the towne and hee is to have a week’s liberty to prepare himself to depart, and if at any time hee be found after this limited week within the towne or the bounds thereof he shall forfeit twenty shillings.”

Banishment!  What heinous crime had Richard Smythe committed what resulted in a punishment of such severity?  Unfortunately the only further mention of Richard Smythe in the town records appears under the date of October 6, 1656, when Richard Smythe was fined “the sum of five pounds” apparently because he was still in Southampton. There is no explanation as to why he was banished.  Dr. Frederick Kinsman Smith seems to have found a plausible answer for this banishment.

Dr. Smith believed that Richard Smythe returned to England for a visit sometime in 1655 when he was 42.  Why he chose to make this visit is not known.  Perhaps he wanted to see his aging parents to try to persuade them to join him in America.  According to Ancestors.com, both of his parents did eventually emigrate to America.  His father, Richard Smith, born in Leicestershire in England in 1589, died in Wethersfield, Hartford, Connecticut in 1667.  His mother, Joan Barton, born in Gloucestershire, England in 1599, died in Narragansett, Washington, Rhode Island in 1664.  Whatever the reason for returning to England, his visit put Richard Smythe in England ready to return to Boston aboard the ship Speedwell when it sailed from Gravesend, England on May 30, 1656.  Among the 41 passengers was a “Richard Smythe aged 43 years.”  Also among the passengers were eight people “designated as Quakers.” Dr. Smith believed that Richard Smythe was “in close association” with these Quakers on the ten week voyage to America and that he adopted their views “after prolonged thought and discussion on the voyage.” When the Speedwell arrived at Boston on August 7, 1656, the eight Quakers were seized and imprisoned along with Richard Smythe.  Richard was apparently interrogated and detained for three weeks, and then sent home to his family at Southampton, L.I., where he arrived in September of 1656, only to be banished from Southampton for his “unreverend carriage toward the magistrates.”  Dr. Kinsman Smith felt that Richard Smythe got into difficulty with the Southampton magistrates and people because of the ardor that must have led to “new convert” to actively “disseminate his newly acquired convictions and to confer upon others the satisfaction and pleasure that he himself had found in them.” This activity would certainly have led his Puritan neighbors to the act of banishment.  Dr. Smith also felt that this incident explains why Richard Smythe acquired the nickname of “Quaker Smith.”

(If this is truly the explanation for Richard Smythe’s banishment from Southampton, it is interesting to note that in the spring of 1657, Richard Smythe would have been the only Quaker in America since the Boston magistrates sent the other Quakers back to England and it was not until “the summer of 1657 that a “number of Quakers came.”)  

Banished from Southampton, Richard Smythe sought refuge in Setauket among other friends that he had known in Southampton.  He would reside in Setauket for another nine years, from 1656 to 1665. During this time he secured title to the lands that make up Smithtown from the Nesaquake Indians and from Englishman who also claimed this area.

When Richard Smythe “first conceived of the idea of acquiring the Nissequogue lands” is not known.  But it was his residence in Setauket that gave him firsthand knowledge of the Nissequogue River valley and this started him thinking about obtaining these lands for himself.  A fortuitous set of cirumstances was to give him the opportunity to change his dreams into reality.

The lands that Richard Smythe coveted were owned by the Nesaquake Indians “who dwelt on both sides of the Nissequogue River.” The Nesaquake tribe was in turn dominated by the largest tribe of Indians on Long Island, the Montauk Indians.  The chief or sachem of the Montauks was Wyandanch who was recognized as the “acknowledged ruler of all other sachems on the east end of Long Island.”  All the smaller tribes paid tribute to him, and it was generally understood that no conveyance of land was valid without his concurrence.  In many instances he held title to the lands by gift or purchase from the subordinate chief, and conveyed those lands to the whites in his own name.”  In 1659, Wyandanch conveyed the Nesaquake lands to Lion Gardiner.  Why he chose to do this is interesting.

“Lion Gardiner, patentee of Gardiner’s Island,” and the first white man who settled on the east end of Long Island in 1639, had been a friend to Wyandanch and the Montauks and had served as a “counselor in all their troubles.” One of the troubles that the Montauk tribe encountered happened in 1653 when Narragansett Indians paddled across Long Island Sound in their war canoes to attack the tribe.  Their attack came on the night when Wyandanch’s only daughter, Momone, was to be married to a Shinnecock sachem.  The Montauks were hosting the marriage celebration and feast for the Shinnecock tribe on Montauk Point when the savage Narragansett Indians struck.  In the ensuing battle, half the Montauk tribe was annihilated and Wyandanch’s daughter, Princess Momone, “the Heather Flower,” was kidnapped. (No one knows how many Montauks and Shinnecock Indians were killed that night. The Montauks were thought to have had over 2,000 people at the time of contact with Europeans, so the battle brought the loss of over a 1000 Montauks. We know that this encounter took place in Massacre Valley on the east side of Lake Montauk.)  

In the aftermath of this bloody encounter, Wyandanch sought Lion Gardiner’s help in getting his daughter returned to him from the Narragansett Indians. Lion Gardiner appealed to the leaders of the Massachuetts Bay Colony “to pressure the Narragansetts into returning Princess Momone” and they did so. The Narragansett sachem “Ninigret” agreed to ransom the Heather Flower “for a huge pile of wampum.” Lion Gardiner helped Wyandanch gather the required wampum.  The ransom was “sent to Ninigret in Montauk war canoes” only to be “intercepted by agents of John Wintrop, governor of the Connecticutt colonies.”  Again Wyandanch appealed to lion Gardiner to intercede on his behalf and Lion “intervened with Winthrop” who saw to it that the wampum was delivered to Ninigret.  The Heather Flower was finally released by Ninigret and “tradition has it that the restoration of Wyandanch’s daughter to her father” took place at “Richard Smythe’s residence at Setauket.”  A grateful father and sachem then wanted to give to Lion Gardiner a token of his esteem and friendship; and in a very interesting deed, dated at East Hampton on July 14, 1659, several years after the Heather Flower’s rescue, Wyandanch conveyed the Nesaquake lands to Lion Gardiner.  What is suspicious is that Richard Smythe witnessed the deed, and four years later in 1663, Lion Gardiner conveyed these very same lands to Richard Smythe.         

(The question that arises is whether Richard Smythe’s interest in the Nesaquake lands was awakened by his witnessing the signing of the deed or whether “he may have had something to do with bringing about the transaction” in the first place.  William Pelletreau felt that there was “little doubt that the whole affair had been prearranged between Gardiner and Smythe.”  So it appears that Richard Smythe may have been the instigator of the famous “deed of friendship” between Wyandanch and Lion Gardiner” and that his interest in the whole affair was to gain title to the Nesaquake lands from Lion Gardiner.  We’ll never know what agreement was struck between Gardiner and Smythe because the deed ceding the lands from Gardiner to Smythe has been lost.  All we have are some releases from David Gardiner indicating that Richard Smythe paid in full whatever he was supposed to pay for the Nesaquake lands and there was no outstanding debt. Show the “Friendship Deed” and Gardiner’s release from any other debt.)  

  When the lands were conveyed to Richard Smythe by Lion Gardiner in 1663, Richard Smythe set about securing undisputed possession of the land.  This would take him the next 14 years of his life.  He immediately sought out the surviving Nesaquake chieftains who could possibly claim ownership to the lands on the east and west banks of the Nissequogue River, and in separate deeds got them to cede ownership. Then sometime in 1664, Richard Smythe brought his family from Setauket to a little hollow on the eastern bank of the Nissequogue River where River Road and Moriches Road intersect in today’s Village of Nissequogue. Richard Smythe had carefully chosen this spot to build a new home in the Nesaquake lands.  The hollow was close enough to the river to allow easy access by water, yet far enough inland to be sheltered from winter winds and storms.  There was a fresh water spring and pond in the hollow and there were open fields that had been cleared by earlier Indian inhabitants. There were also Indian trails that led to this site that likely was the location of a former Indian village.  It was in this hollow that the settlement of Smithtown began.  

  When Richard Smythe made this trek into the wilderness to stake his claim to the land that became Smithtown, he gave up an established home and lands in the close-knit community of Setauket although he retained possession of his Setauket holdings until 1686.  By relocating his family to the “Nesaquauke” land that he acquired through negotiation and purchase, Richard Smythe established actual possession of the land. His possession of the “Nesaquauke” lands was confirmed on March 3, 1665, when the Royal Governor of the Colony of New York, Sir Richard Nicolls, granted him a patent. This Nicolls Patent recognized his ownership of the lands on the eastern bank of the river and acknowledged his disputed claim to the lands on the western bank.  The Patent required that Richard Smythe settle ten families upon the land within three years, unless he was able to resolve the dispute he was having with Huntington over possession of the lands on the western bank, then he was required to settle twenty families upon the land within five years.  To encourage Richard  Smythe to settle families upon the land, the Royal Governor declared that Richard Smythe’s lands shall have the “like and equal priviledges” as any other town in the Colony, and that his lands would be exempt from paying taxes during the three (or five) years while he established families on the land. (An early tax abatement plan.) 

In effect, the Patent created Smythe’s Town or Smithtown. But it took Richard Smythe another 12 years of contentious legal battling with the Town of Huntington before he prevailed  in colonial courts and was granted the lands on the west bank of the Nissequogue River.  Then a second patent granted in 1677 by the Royal Governor of the Colony of New York, Edmond Andros, reaffirmed Richard Smythe’s ownership of the Nesaquake lands on both sides of the river, and acknowledged that the lands owned by Richard Smythe were to be called Smithtown and were to be treated as a “township.” 

During Richard Smythe’s lifetime, it was in fact Smythe’s Town.  During the course of his life, he ruled over his domain as a father over his children, because many of the people who settled in his town were children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  As the family patriarch, he doled out the land to his kin and gave them property to settle and call their own.  But the lands he owned were so extensive, that it was not until 1736, 44 years after his death, that his grandsons and granddaughters determined how to divide the lands of Smithtown. There was so much land to settle that the Smiths all tended to remain in the community, and as a result, there are thousands of Smith family descendants living in Smithtown today. It is always said of Smithtown, and this was true until the 20th century, that you could be walking down the streets of any hamlet in Smithtown and encounter a man or woman and you could greet them by saying:  “Good morning Mr. Smith, or Good Morning Mrs. Smith!” and you were always right.  It was and still is the town of Richard Smythe’s descendants.

Richard Smythe left us other objects of the past to venerate besides his descendants. There is his signature, spelled with a “y” instead of an “I”, his seal and cost of arms which is now the seal of Smithtown, his snuffbox, his sword, his chair, his pottery jug, and even what may be his original house, or at least part of his first home.  This tiny wing of a house in Nissequogue (the former Meserve home off Long Beach road) is thought to have been part of his original dwelling.  When he died in 1692, Richard Smythe carefully provided for his family’s future by writing many carefully detailed wills that subdivided much of his vast holdings among his many sons and daughters, giving away such things as his clothing, and gun, and slaves, and lands.  But this careful man never provided for a tombstone, at least we don’t know where it is or where he might be buried.  All we have today is this memorial stone on Whisper Hill indicating that he lived and died and his bones rest in peace, we hope!  Apparently for all his attempts to resolve conflicts among his many progeny, it didn’t work because he was barely in his grave when his second son Richard took his mother to probate court over his inheritance.