The Hanging Tree

Witches were once executed along the shores of Patchogue’s Swan River.

…at least that’s what some folks around here say.

It’s a colorful piece of local lore; that the bodies of condemned witches once swung from the branches of a tree that yawns across the river. Unfortunately, (or for the sake of the accused- fortunately!) chances are that this never happened. Nevertheless, young Robert and I were on a quest for the truth.

We had to find that tree.

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-metal guitar riff- Woah! Uncle Sean is here in his super cool jeep!

Robert’s Uncle Sean took the challenge and decided to join us on this mission. His mother also came for a ride.

All we knew was that the tree sits in the back of a wooded piece of land near Shorefront Park. It was the perfect excuse to make a pit stop at the playground for little Robert.

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Alison strapped him into the jeep. The lack of doors and roof seemed to have confused him. We drove slowly. The warm summer air gently blew his wispy hair across his face. Within minutes, we had arrived.

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After a brief stop at the park, we continued on to the woods. Shorefront Park is near the river, so it was only a short drive down the road. We turned onto Grove Avenue and headed north. The forest ran along our right side. At this point, we had no other information. The Internet mentions virtually nothing about the tree (although the Yelp review was quite helpful). We had to park on the road and guess from this point.

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The not-so-successful sequel to that Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie from the 90s.

As we strayed from Grove Avenue, the sunlight became increasingly obscured by foliage. The route before us looked ominous; a thread of dirt leading into some deep green cavern. Shadows fell haphazardly onto the ground, forming patches of darkness on an otherwise bright and sunny trail.  In the distance, a rabbit hopped across our path.

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The mosquitoes grew increasingly troublesome. We quickened our pace, hoping to outrun them. Empty containers and discarded tires flanked the wooded road, serving as nurseries for the vile pests. After a few minutes, the path swung to the south. We had reached the riverfront.

And there it was. Awkwardly grounded in the muddy earth was the dreaded Hanging Tree of Patchogue. In my mind, I had imagined it this way. Crooked and bent; struggling to stay rooted in the shifting banks of the Swan River. Gangly and gnarled branches reached wildly from all points of the truck, stretching desperately into the waters before it. Evidence of nocturnal revelry littered the ground beneath the tree. Half-burned logs and ashes sat in the center of some overturned and broken lawn chairs. People came here to party.

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But was this place once the site of an execution?

The only recorded case of witchcraft on this island comes to us from the annals of East Hampton history, in which case a woman named Goody Garlick was accused of killing livestock, infants, and everything in between. The Garlick trial predated the infamous Salem incidents by decades. It is Long Island’s first and only formal case of judicial action taken against an accused witch.

But what about those acts of violence that stayed off the books? Is it possible that no formal charges were brought against women in the Patchogue area? Could an angry mob of vigilantes have strung up townsfolk in the dark of night?

The provability is still unlikely.

As the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution came into bloom, the mass hysteria that had gripped Western Europe and the New England colonies began to fade. By the early 18th century, witch trials were nearly unheard of.

During that time, the Patchogue area remained largely devoid of European settlement. The first settlers came to build mills on Patchogue’s three principal rivers in the colonial era, but the region still only had 75 residents by the year 1812. Therefore, it doesn’t seem likely that Patchogue would have had enough of a population to even go witch hunting in the first place.

Layered on top of the witchcraft legends are more recent stories of suicides under the tree. It is said that in the 1950s, at least one man hanged himself from the tree’s thick branches. But local newspaper archives fail to produce any evidence suggesting such a thing  ever occurred here.

The tree still continues to contribute to the rich tapestry of the Patchogue area, albeit tragically. Recent graffiti on the tree suggests the death of someone with the initials B. P.

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Above this crude memorial is a plaque and weathered photo nailed to the trunk.

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A quick Google search reveals that Bruce Poole was a Patchogue teenager who died of an alleged Xanax overdose. Poole apparently enjoyed spending time at the tree, so his friends created this simple but poignant tribute to the deceased.

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As the sun began to set, the mosquitoes intensified their assault on our veins. Sean, Alison, little Robert and I left the way we came. Within 10 minutes, we found Grove Avenue and hopped into the jeep. Before turning the ignition, we heard someone calling to us from one of the houses across the road.

A tall, wiry man with a greying beard and a trucker hat walked over to us. He smiled, and we returned the gesture. The man engaged in some small talk with Sean about his jeep. The conversation eventually turned to the subject of the woods. The man offered us a beer, and we noticed that he was pleasantly lit up. After politely declining the offer, we said goodbye and made our way back home.

It was only then that we all realized that this man was a walking horror trope; the plot device that warns the road tripping, naive teens in every cliched horror movie, “I wouldn’t go in those woods if I were you!”

If only he were able to warn the witches to steer clear of the Hanging Tree on Swan River…

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Hagerman’s Hills

Hagerman/East Patchogue

This morning, Robert and I embarked on a quest to locate the mythical land of Hagerman.

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“We’re going to Hagerman!? Yayyy!!”

Geographic names are not limited to their assignment on maps. They are living, fluid things, often varying according to region. And sometimes they are vestigial, outliving their original function. They can linger long after they serve their purpose as official place names. Such is the case with Hagerman, a name featured prominently in East Patchogue, but lacking any designation as a Long Island village or hamlet.

Traveling east through Patchogue, Robert and I reached Swan Lake. Here, the road splits, taking drivers into scenic Bellport if they bear to the right. Robert and I chose to head left, bringing us into commercial East Patchogue. After passing rows of strip malls and industrial areas, we came upon a large sign.

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Note: Not a village.

We had entered the Hagerman Fire District, yet we were in East Patchogue. How did this happen? Like a less-romantic El Dorado, the lost city of Hagerman exists only in the dusty pages of Long Island’s small history.

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Frederick Dunton

The story of Hagerman is one of entrepreneurship and, ultimately, financial ruin. By the late 19th century, the Austin Corbin’s Long Island Railroad was the most efficient method of travel between Manhattan and eastern Long Island. But Corbin’s son-in-law, Frederick Dunton, saw room for improvement. He invested his fortune in a revolutionary new train called the bicycle railroad. Inventor Eben Moody Boynton saw that by laying one track on the ground and another above the train, cars could carry more weight without having to compromise their speed. Dunton formed the New York and Brooklyn Suburban Investment Company, and named George Hagerman as secretary and treasurer. 

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Recognizing the competition that Dunton’s railway would bring to the Long Island Railroad, Corbin blocked his son-in-law attempts to build on his company’s land. Although the train’s test run in East Patchogue was a success, the project’s budget was $1.6 million. Dunton was unable to compete with the Corbin’s powerful and influential LIRR, and the company soon went bust.

Then what remains of Mr. Dunton’s failed dream of a “monorailroad” across Long Island?

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Other than street names and the fire district itself, the only physical evidence remaining are a series of gently rolling hills on South Dunton Avenue. They were the raised beds that served as the right of way for the old Bicycle Railroad.

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Dunton Avenue, looking south towards the bay

Luckily, our journey had thoroughly bored lulled Robert to sleep. Our quest had come to an end, and our journey into the lost land of Hagerman was now a distant memory.

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Many thanks to the South Country Retired Educators Association for their diligent research. 

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Eating the Southern State

Babylon

The winter had been cruel this year. Harsh wind and dirty snow prevented me from taking Robert out on our weekly adventures. But today, the temperatures climbed into the 50s, and the sun radiated warmth across the island.

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Robert and I got off to a late start. It is an impossible task to suit a light jacket on a baby with one hand, while holding him with the other, akin to dressing a screaming octopus. Fortunately, his pleasant disposition allowed me to finish with no crying, as evidenced by the adorable photo shown above.

After a short ride, we turned onto the Southern State Parkway. We were heading west, to Babylon. I never minded driving on the parkway. Sunrise Highway is littered with ugly strip malls, and the expressway is monotonous, straight and often congested. But the Southern State is known for it’s curves, winding roads, tree-lined shoulders and low bridges. Most Long Islanders can even rattle off an urban legend about those bridges.

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Rumor has it that Robert Moses tried to deter minorities from traveling from the city to Long Island’s parks. Since most would have made the trip via bus, Moses allegedly had the bridges constructed low to the ground, so that large vehicles could not pass underneath. This is course is mere speculation and myth. But today, it remains true that vehicles of a certain height are not permitted to ride on the Southern State. Sometimes we’ll even hear about some foolish truck driver that got the top of his rig stuck under the bridge.

Although we were headed to Belmont Lake State Park, our small history waited for us on the parkway itself. A misnomer really, today’s quest is anything but small. We were looking for a number of very large trees. And as we approached the turnoff, we spotted them. On our left, standing tall and proud on the median, was a solid strip of pine trees.

For a good part of the ride along the Southern State, vegetation along the median includes mowed grass or short trees. But as drivers come through Babylon, these mighty pines seem to pop up unexpectedly. Why are they here?

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Belmont Lake State Park was created in 1926. Prior to that, it was the 1,100-acre estate of banking tycoon and horse breeder (his father founded Belmont Raceway), August Belmont Jr. Today, the 24-room mansion is gone. Virtually nothing remains to remind anyone that a century ago, this was the playground of a wealthy Manhattanite. What has survived, however, are some trees.

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The red line indicates the present location of the pines in the median of the parkway.

The strip of pines in the median predate the construction of the parkway. In fact, they were planted in pairs. The space between them served as Belmont’s private driveway, leading into his estate. When Robert Moses had the Southern State built, he simply mirrored Belmont’s old driveway, laying both eastbound and westbound lanes around the trees. This is why today, the parkway splits around the pines and then merges together after the Belmont Avenue exit.

Having accomplished our goal, Robert and I decided to take advantage of our time in Babylon. We left Mr. Belmont’s pine-lined driveway behind us and turned off the parkway.

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What!? $8 parking fee!? No thank you sir. I know a better way…

IMG_2010August Road- named for August Belmont- runs along the outside boundaries of the park. When I was a little older than Robert, my grandfather lived on a cross street called Leeds Lane. I have many treasured memories of riding bikes with Grandpa Sam from his home, through a wooded path and into the park.

 

I was reminded of a verse from a song by The Red Season:

And we will congregate with all our friends,
Alive and gone
Where Leeds meets August Road
Against a red/black backdrop
Of the Belmont Forest eating the Southern State

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I left the car on Leeds Lane, placed Robert into the stroller and headed west into the forest along that same path.

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After a short walk through the woods and across the parking lot, we arrived at the lake.

Robert was quiet, but pleasant. This didn’t last. He soon began screaming, just as I had resolved to walk through the peaceful and sylvan path around the lake. We turned around and strolled back the way we came. But here, we found the playground.

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All was well that day in the Belmont Forest.

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The Mayor’s Tree

Patchogue

Patchogue is my adopted hometown. I was raised in Bohemia. But Small Rob is native born. So why not start our blog at home?

Rob’s mother left for the gym. I wasted no time packing the little guy up for our usual walk into town, lest he degenerate into a complete meltdown. I’ve come to look forward to our routine walks. On especially cold mornings, we duck into Roast for some tea. Other times, we simply stroll down to Main Street and loop back north.

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Whatever the destination, Patchogue is pleasantly quiet and peaceful in the morning. And soon enough, so is little Rob. Oh sure, he screams when you put his winter bear suit on, and bellows when you plop him into the stroller seat. But very quickly, he calms himself and takes in the scenery as we head south.

Patchogue has seen a tremendous amount of growth over the last ten years. The village hasn’t looked this good in decades. Main Street is alive again and people are coming in droves to live in a beautiful downtown. And though the village has worked to preserve much of its past, some history has been lost to the wrecking ball. For example, the Sweezy’s building, built in 1879, was demolished to make way for the new apartments on the Four Corners. We are fortunate that a good deal has survived. Some, like the Carnegie Library, are obvious examples. But others require a closer look.

Built in 2007, on the corner of Gerard Street and South Ocean Avenue.

Small Rob and I rolled past Copper Beech Village. At first glance, we thought it was just another set of modern townhouses in Patchogue.

South Ocean Avenue, facing north.

The homes sit in a perfect row along South Ocean Avenue, north of Gerard Street. Rob and I admired the sharp landscaping on the property, including a gorgeous weeping beech tree that sits on the corner. Most would think nothing of it.

Northwest corner of Gerard and South Ocean.

Yet here lies small history.

In 1930, E. Agate Foster was elected mayor of Patchogue. Foster lived in a house on the corner of Gerard Street and South Ocean Avenue, which can be seen in this 1926-1947 map from the Sanborn Fire Insurance collections.

Prior to his election, Mayor Foster was instrumental in acquiring the village’s Andrew Carnegie Library in 1902. He is also remembered as the first village resident to own an automobile, which can be seen sitting in front of his home at 148 South Ocean Avenue.

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In another photo, we are able to see a familiar-looking tree on the south side of the home, closest to the corner.

Mayor Foster's Home

The drooping branches are unmistakable. This is the tree that survived the demolition of the mayor’s home and the uprooting of every other plant on the block. The noble tree was not only spared, but went on to give the entire housing development its namesake- Copper Beech Village. These trees are known for their beauty, but also their longevity. They can live up to 200 years.

At this point, I began to envy Small Rob in his comfortable bear suit. My fingers had grown numb from the biting cold. We resolved to walk east to the gym, where we were lucky to catch his mom in her car. We caught a ride home, leaving behind us the arctic freeze that griped Patchogue and the Mayor Foster’s beech.

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Laminate Graves

Commack

It was a particularly difficult morning. Small Rob was already screaming and I didn’t even have directions to our destination. I knew the best course of action was to get him into his winter bear suit as quickly as possible and take to the road. As I had hoped, the pacifying bounce of the car tires lulled him to sleep almost immediately. By the time we hit the L.I.E., he was out cold.

Luckily, the bitter cold had broken enough for us to spend more time outside and focus on the task at hand- chronicling the bizarre story of the Home Depot Cemetery.

You heard me correctly. Small Rob and I were driving to a cemetery at Home Depot in Commack.

More accurately, we were on our way to the Burr Cemetery. Had it been the 19th century, I would say we were going to visit the Burr family farm. The Burrs came to Long Island in 1656 and quickly established themselves as prominent land owners in the Commack area. The family also became involved in breeding horses, earning Cormack its reputation as a center of horseracing on Long Island. The farm was situated on the corner of Larkfield Road and Jericho Turnpike. For generations, the Burrs buried their dead on the farm. This was the custom of the time, as public cemeteries and funeral homes were generations away. But by the time of the First World War, the Burr Family had sold their property to the military. The family farm became a training ground for the Air Force, and was now known as Brindley Field.

This was short lived however, as the post-WWII sprawl of Manhattan devoured open space in Suffolk County. Farms and fields were subdivided and sold to returning soldiers looking to start families. Many pieces of real estate, like the former Burr farm, were paved over and turned into bland shopping centers and strip malls. Somehow, by some small miracle, the Burr Family plots remained intact. The developers simply paved around the graves in the 1950s, reducing the cemetery to an island of Commack history surrounded by ugly asphalt.

Small Rob and I arrived at the parking lot, and actually found a spot 20 feet from the graves of Commack’s fathers. At this point, I realized that the long drive on the expressway had reduced Robert to a sleepy ball of pudge. A tiny debate raged inside my mind- should I wake the slumbering infant, or walk across the lot without him? The car was only several feet from the gate. Still, I felt uncomfortable leaving him alone. Reluctantly, and very carefully, I dislodged the car seat from its base in such a way that might make one believe I was handling a small thermonuclear device.

Placing Robert into his stroller, we made our way up to the cemetery gate.

The scene was nothing short of bizarre. Here, the 19th and 21st centuries violently collided, mixing like oil and water. There was absolutely nothing aesthetic or complimentary about putting a Home Depot in front of a family cemetery from the Civil War era.

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We opened the gate. Quietly- and awkwardly- I pushed the stroller onto the bumpy grass, as my feet left the pavement and I stepped into the 1800s. The view was surreal.

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Clearly, the cemetery was in a state of neglect. But while some stones had suffered the trials of time and erosion, it was clear that someone had not forgotten the Burrs. A single American flag was stuck in the dirt beneath a tree. And some of the graves had stones resting on top of them.

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Taking advantage of my time without a crying baby, I decided to transcribe the stones before the forces of nature could wipe them clean. But just as I was about to complete my task, I heard a tiny voice to my right.

Emerging from his warm cocoon was Small Robert. He had woken up, and in a good mood, too.

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Luckily, I had accomplished our mission in the time he had slept. So I waited with Robert in the Burr Cemetery and enjoyed the warmth that the winter sun was blessing us with on this frigid morning. He remained pleasant for roughly 10 minutes until he grew bored with the graves. At the first sign of his displeasure, I wheeled him out of the graveyard and back into the 21st century.

It was then that I realized I had not come to Commack solely for its history. I was in need of something for the house. We were installing a laminate floor in the living room, and I was in need of something important- 1/4 inch round molding.

But where would I find such a thing in the middle of a 19th century cemetery?

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Welcome to Small History

The purpose of this blog is to chronicle the adventures of a dad who, tasked with the challenge of entertaining his infant son, has taken to the road. Sometimes the best way to calm a distressed infant, as any parent will tell you, is to buckle them into a car and just drive. These are the experiences of a father and son who take long drives across the island to explore historical minutia.

This is not a blog dedicated to the stars of Long Island history. We will not be discussing the Big Duck, the Gold Coast mansions, or the Montauk Lighthouse. This is the story of our island’s small survivors; the little pieces of this island’s past that no federal grant or historic preservation society would even dream of protecting. We are here to celebrate these unsung remnants from our heritage. We are here to see what rusted iron fences, concrete slabs and humble trees can teach us about our collective history.

So we welcome you to our page, and invite you to explore the miniature treasures that Long Island’s small history has to offer you. Because ultimately, the best way to learn about greatness is by studying trivia. Come back often, and enjoy!

Small Rob and Big Rob

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