By Tessa Raebeck
“When I was growing up, Sylvester Manor was like a mystery to me,” Glenn Waddington said as he drove his truck through the manor grounds, passing by farms and field trips, stopping to reflect at a slave burial ground, eat a few snap peas with vegetable grower Mary Hillemeier and check in with a team of archaeology students digging through native American and Colonial artifacts in the garden.
As a kid, Mr. Waddington played on the outskirts of the plantation, then a private estate. Today, he serves on its board of directors and is witnessing a historic change of hand, as nearly all of the property is transferred from the family that’s owned the manor for 14 generations to the non-profit organization, Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.
The first transfers occurred in 2012 and will be completed this summer. It is the vision of founder and special projects advisor Bennett Konesni, who convinced his uncle, Eben Fiske Ostby, the 14th Lord of the Manor according to tradition and now president of the new non-profit’s board of directors, to use the land as an educational farm.
That new use has many facets.
Farm manager Julia Trunzo and Ms. Hillemeier are leading a group of apprentices and WWOOFers, young people who are placed as volunteers on organic farms through the American branch of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, in the season’s first harvest this week. The farm at Sylvester Manor sustains a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, a farmstand and supplies local restaurants with produce.
In addition to feeding the residents of Shelter Island, the educational farm also aims to entertain them. Ron Ickes and Trey Hensley are playing back-to-back bluegrass house concerts this Saturday, June 14. The theatre program, with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opening July 19, is thriving under the direction of Samara Levenstein, who brought summer Shakespeare to Sylvester Manor several years ago.
With the events ongoing and the hustle and bustle of farm life a constant, Sylvester Manor keeps itself busy with its day-to-day operations.
But then, of course, there is the history.
Kat Hayes, who has done past archaeological digs at the manor and has written several publications on the site’s deep anthropological history, returned this summer for a field study project with a team of students from the University of Minnesota.
“This is a very, very rich site, there’s a lot of material,” Ms. Hayes said Friday, adding that her crew is finding multiple artifacts daily.
The archaeologists are digging through the site that has been the plantation’s garden since Nathaniel Sylvester first purchased it in 1651. Two small pits at the outskirts of a 2 by 2 meter unit have already yielded eight bags of artifacts.
Whereas in other corners of the garden digs have only garnered a single bag, in this particular spot the artifacts are plentiful, offering glimpses of insight into the land’s memories. The team has found metals such as nails and hinges, glass from bottles, lots of animal bone, primarily from domestic livestock, brick, mortar and other destruction debris from when the original plantation structures were demolished, and much more.
“These are ceramics,” Ms. Hayes said, holding up a bag. “I like this one in particular, because it’s dull, but it’s got this apple green glaze that’s pretty typical of Dutch ceramics.”
The first lord of the manor, Nathaniel Sylvester, grew up in Amsterdam. He, his brother and two other partners bought the island in 1651 to use as a provisioning plantation because they had two sugar plantations in Barbados and needed supplies.
“They didn’t spend a whole lot of time raising food in Barbados because the sugar was worth much more,” Ms. Hayes said. “So, this was supposed to be the place that provisioned meat, crops — orchard crops and grain crops — any other kinds of stuff that they would import and then ship down to Barbados.”
It operated in that fashion for some time, with Nathaniel and his wife the only partners who actually lived on the plantation.
“We know from his will that he claimed to own 23 people as his enslaved labor force,” Ms. Hayes said of Nathaniel. “But, one of the things that we discovered when we were digging here is the degree of native involvement in the plantation.”
She estimates some of the finds date back to the native Manhasset from up to 1500 to 2000 years ago, but others were made and discarded in the garden right alongside colonial Dutch ceramics.
“There’s an awful lot of material from right within the plantation context, those same deposits that’s traditional native pottery making, stone tool making and they were making wampum,” she added.
Finding wampum gives Ms. Hayes an idea of why Nathaniel’s native labor force was undocumented in archival records.
“It may have been kind of a personal sideline for Nathaniel,” she said, “to have this extra source of income without having to tell his partners that it was happening. That’s just my guess. It’s one of those things that only shows up in the archaeology and not in the historical records.”
The archaeology, yielding everything from pottery to clothespins to animal bones, allows the history to go beyond the books, showing hidden elements like what people were eating and what kind of clothes they wore.
Ms. Hayes and her team have also done ground penetrating radar surveys in the “Burial Ground for Colored People of the Manor,” a slave burial ground dating from the 17th century. With upwards of 200 unnamed bodies, the eerie graveyard is near the entrance to the grounds, marked only by a plaque and dilapidated fence.
In the surveys, an antenna, pulled across the ground, emits radar waves into the subsoil, reflecting those waves back up to be interpreted.
“It gives you a profile picture of what’s underground,” Ms. Hayes said, adding, “It’s something that is really valuable, especially when you’re working in a burial ground…it’s a good middle ground of learning what’s there without disturbing it.”