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Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Receives Historic Gift from Descendants of the Sylvester Family

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Sylvester family descendants Eben Fiske Ostby and Bennett Konesni toast with personnel of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm to the official transfer of land at the Farm to Table Dinner Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

Sylvester family descendants Eben Fiske Ostby and Bennett Konesni toast with personnel of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm to the official transfer of land at the Farm-to-Table Dinner Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

By Tessa Raebeck

Growing up, Eben Fiske Ostby visited his aunt Alice and uncle Andy on Shelter Island several times a year. Playing on the grounds of their family’s estate, Sylvester Manor, he had no idea that the hundreds of acres of woods, wetlands and farms would one day be his.

“When I learned of the inheritance,” Mr. Ostby said in an email Monday, June 30, “I started learning about ways we could preserve it and its lands. The Peconic Land Trust was very helpful in advising me about ways to do that. Eventually we set about forming a nonprofit to preserve it.”

On June 23, Mr. Ostby capitalized on all he had learned, donating the 1737 manor house, its grounds and barns, the 1810 windmill, farm fields and woodlands—a total of about 142 acres—to the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, a nonprofit he and his nephew Bennett Konesni founded four years ago in hopes of putting their land to the best possible use.

The land gift, the largest in the history of Shelter Island and one of the most significant land transfers on Long Island, brings the family’s donation to Sylvester Manor Educational Farm to a total of 225 acres.

Spirits were high at the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm's Farm-to-Table Dinner Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

Spirits were high at the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm’s Farm-to-Table Dinner Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

“Last week was a big one for Sylvester Manor,” said Cara Loriz, executive director of the nonprofit.

“By whatever measures you might come up with, it is among one of the very most significant outright gifts ever made anywhere,” said Sara Gordon, the nonprofit’s strategic director. “Now that it has been passed on by the family, we have just a blessed opportunity.”

Mr. Ostby, who upon his aunt and uncle’s passing became the 14th lord of the manor, is a direct descendant of Nathaniel Sylvester, who co-purchased Shelter Island in 1651 and was its first white settler.

Over its 363-year history, Sylvester Manor has given shelter to persecuted Quakers, operated as a slaveholding plantation with African and Native American laborers, and housed 11 generations of Sylvester descendants.

Throughout that history, the Sylvester family’s ownership of Shelter Island has shrunk from the entire island to several hundred acres, but the land continued to be passed from generation to generation, ultimately ending in Mr. Ostby’s hands.

Rather than let the manor fall into disuse or allow the Sylvester land to continue to be parceled up in order to maintain the manor grounds, Mr. Ostby, with some convincing from his nephew Mr. Konesni, decided on forming a nonprofit as the best means of preservation.

“The idea was to find a use for the manor that would fit in with the culture of Shelter Island,” said Mr. Ostby. “My nephew Bennett was and is passionate about food, so we chose that as a focal point.”

“Bennett at that point,” said Ms. Gordon, “had decided on this vision for this educational farm that would also revive the agrarian culture and agriculture and seek to create a working environment that was joyous and fair and really explore and celebrate the culture of food in all aspects.”

“And to upon up the gates at this place to the community—to make it a place that welcomes everyone,” she added.

Mr. Ostby first donated a 22-acre conservation easement to the Peconic Land Trust in 2009 and then gifted an additional 83 acres of historic fields and pastures, preserved indefinitely as farmland through town, country and federal conservation programs, in 2012. The total value of property gifts from Mr. Ostby is valued at approximately $22 million, with the most recent 142-acre gift appraised at $12.3 million. Of the nonprofit’s total 225 acres of land, 103 acres are now preserved.

In accordance with the wishes of his aunt Alice Fiske, Mr. Ostby also gave the manor’s longtime caretaker Gunnar Wissemann a small cottage he and his family have resided in for over 20 years.

The crowd gathered behind the manor house at the Farm-To-Table Dinner at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

The crowd gathered behind the manor house at the Farm-To-Table Dinner at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

In similar stories across the East End, family land is sold to developers and divvied up into subdivisions of Mcmansions, but the Sylvester descendants weren’t going to let that happen on Shelter Island.

Now, Mr. Konesni said, “The nonprofit organization owns its own land. It owns the land that it’s preserving, owns the land that it’s stewarding and sharing—and that’s a big deal.”

“It’s not just my family anymore,” he added. “It’s really a community organization now.”

Having ownership of the manor house, buildings and grounds enables the nonprofit to raise money for restoration of the buildings, which it couldn’t do before. They can now move forward on restoring the manor house, the windmill and the barns.

“It’s really a new beginning,” said Ms. Gordon. “That’s how it feels in a way, we feel now the work really starts.”

Mr. Konesni’s motivation to transfer the land came from three impulses: the precedent of other estates that were successfully turned into educational farms, such as the Rockefeller estate in the Hudson Valley and the Vanderbilt estate in Vermont; the notion that a nonprofit would share the burden and make sure professionals are at the helm; and stopping “the pattern of chopping up and selling off land in order to fund the place,” he said.

“We used to own the entire island,” he said, “and then we split it up and sold it off and that has helped fund the next generation of dwellers and to me, actually, that pattern can only go on so long before everything’s gone.”

“This place deserved to be around and to have the stories told for another 363 years and the only way that was going to happen was to really share the burden,” added Mr. Konesni.

Mr. Konesni and Mr. Ostby will continue to be involved in the management of the nonprofit. Mr. Ostby, who lives in California and works at Pixar, is acting as president of the board of directors. Mr. Konesni, a Maine native, is staying on as founder and special projects advisor.

“I focus on the long-term vision in making sure that our operations really fit with the original intention of the gift and the non-profit,” Mr. Konesni said of his role.

The family is retaining 11.7 acres of wetlands and woodland along the creek, which cannot be built upon without town approval of a formal subdivision.

“I also wanted to retain a family connection to the island, thus the retained lot,” said Mr. Ostby, who will give the parcel to his daughter Fiona.

“They’ve been here since the purchase of the whole island in 1651 and it’s important to all of us that the Sylvester descendants continue to have a role here—it’s a big part of the story,” Ms. Gordon said.

One of the nonprofit’s visions, she added, is that the day will come when kids who are biking home from school naturally turn their bikes into the Sylvester Manor driveway.

“It’s a rare thing to be in a place or to work in a place where you can feel that—when you know that what’s happening today is historic, in the sense that it’s going to be part of this long unbroken story here,” said Ms. Gordon.

Katy’s Courage Partners with CMEE to Provide Grief Counseling for Children on the East End

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CMEE Executive Director Stephen Long, Jim Stewart, Robert Stewart and Brigid Stewart Collins play with a sand table at CMEE on Tuesday, March 4. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

CMEE Executive Director Stephen Long, Jim Stewart, Robert Stewart and Brigid Stewart Collins play with a sand table at CMEE on March 4. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

By Tessa Raebeck

Katy’s Courage and the Children’s Museum of the East End (CMEE) have announced a new partnership, Katy’s Kids @ CMEE, to provide counseling opportunities for children experiencing grief or heartbreak, as well as support for their families.

Kathryn Stewart was a Pierson Middle School student and beloved member of the Sag Harbor community who died in December 2010 at the age of 12 from a rare form of liver cancer. In memory of their daughter, Brigid Collins Stewart and Jim Stewart founded Katy’s Courage, a not-for-profit dedicated to education and support for families and children through support for counseling services, scholarship and pediatric cancer research.

Still in development, the collaboration will fulfill the organization’s goal of providing group counseling and play therapy for grieving children. The organization’s aim is to provide private and group sessions with mental health professionals to children who have lost someone through death, or who may need support due to divorce, adoption, immigration or other issues. Katy’s Kids hopes to be piloting programs by the fall of 2014.

After Katy passed away, a close friend of Ms. Collins Stewart’s recommended the family visit the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas in San Antonio. They hoped the trip would help Katy’s younger brother, Robert, 6 at the time, process and understand his grief, as well as teach his parents how to emotionally support him so the family could heal together.

“It was such a transformative experience for all of us,” Ms. Collins Stewart said, adding that she and her husband quickly knew there was a real need for such a center closer to home.

Last spring, the vision of bringing similar support to the East End began to materialize through conversations Ms. Collins Stewart and Mr. Stewart had about their belief that healing for children centers on play therapy. Hoping to start a center, they came across a familiar East End problem: the lack of affordable real estate. A friend mentioned CMEE, and, after meeting with Executive Director Steve Long, both parties, realizing their uniform missions, decided to forge a partnership.

“They were very welcoming and very happy to have the community collaboration,” Ms. Collins Stewart said of CMEE. “Their mission really is, as an organization, to reach out and address issues that concern families in the East End community, so really we feel like it’s a perfect fit.”

When the family traveled to Texas, they were immediately impressed by the beauty and warmth of the bereavement center, which works with children between the ages of 3 and 18. Each room offers a type of play of some sort, such as a dress-up room, a room for dance and art rooms.

“Every room is a different way for a child to express [his or her self],” said Ms. Collins Stewart. The expressive therapeutic play models will be recreated at CMEE.

The child gets to choose where they want to play. In Texas Robert chose the sand tray room, where the therapist asked him to take a tray of sand and build a world for Kate.

“As he built the world,” recalled Ms. Collins Stewart, “he would say things or she would ask him questions and that was the first experience we had. And what was amazing about it to us was that through this play, he was able to articulate what he hadn’t really been able to say before. So, we knew that it was what small children— and most children, really—need to be able to talk about their feelings. They can’t just always express themselves without having the metaphor of play to work with.”

To learn more about Katy’s Courage, call 725-7437 or email info@katyscourage.org. To make a tax-deductible donation, send checks payable to Katy’s Courage to PO Box 3251, Sag Harbor, NY 11963 or donate online.

 

Upcoming Katy’s Courage Events:

Katy’s Courage Skate-a-thon at Buckskill Winter Club

This Saturday, March 8 at 4 p.m. Katy’s Courage is hosting a Skate-a-thon at the Buckskill Winter Club, 178 Buckskill Road in East Hampton. Pre-event registration is $20, including skate rental, and 100 percent of the proceeds to benefit Katy’s Courage. Skaters can collect pledges from friends and family for either a fixed amount or per lap skated (i.e. 25 cents a lap) or register on the day of the event with no pledges for $35. The top fundraiser wins a free membership to the Buckskill Winter Club for the 2014-2015 season.

Classical Students for Katy’s Courage

Bay Street Theatre hosts the 6th Annual concert to benefit the Katy’s Courage Fund for Pediatric Cancer Research on Sunday, March 23 at 4 p.m. Ten student musicians will perform a classical concert to celebrate the life of Katy Stewart. There is a suggested donation of $15.

Katy’s Courage 5K

The Katy’s Courage Annual 5K to benefit the Katy Stewart Scholarship Fund is Saturday, April 5 starting at the staging area at 21 Water Street in Sag Harbor. Check-in time is from 7 to 8:15 a.m. and the race starts promptly at 8:30 a.m. The course is rather flat with a few small hills around the village. All ages are welcome and awards are given to the top three males and three females overall, as well as the top three in each age group. Registration is $25 beforehand and $30 on the day of the race.