Tag Archive | "Sylvester Manor"

Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Receives Historic Gift from Sylvester Family Descendants

Tags: , , , , ,


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 County Legislator Jay Schneiderman and 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.

“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.

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.

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 open 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.

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.

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


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.

Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island Discovers History While Making It

Tags: , , , , , , , ,


Students from the University of Minnesota look for artifacts during an archaeological dig at the Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island in June. Photo courtesy Sylvester Manor.

Students from the University of Minnesota look for artifacts during an archaeological dig at the Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island in June. Photo courtesy Sylvester Manor.

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.

Glenn Waddington in front of the new barn, currently being built by Pennsylvania mennonites, which will provide more space for the growing farms at Sylvester Manor Friday, June 6. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

Glenn Waddington in front of the new barn, currently being built by Pennsylvania mennonites, which will provide more space for the growing farms at Sylvester Manor Friday, June 6. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

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.

Professor and Anthropologist Kat Hayes is leading a group of University of Minnesota students in an archaeological dig at Sylvester Manor. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

Professor and Anthropologist Kat Hayes is leading a group of University of Minnesota students in an archaeological dig at Sylvester Manor. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

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.

A University of Minnesota student sifts through the dirt in the garden at Sylvester Manor Friday. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

A University of Minnesota student sifts through the dirt in the garden at Sylvester Manor Friday. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

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.”

Vegetable Grower Mary Hillemeier on the farm at Sylvester Manor Friday, June 6. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

Vegetable Grower Mary Hillemeier on the farm at Sylvester Manor Friday, June 6. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

Students from Laurie DeVito's 4th grade art class at Sag Harbor Elementary School tour the farm during a field trip to Sylvester Manor Friday, June 6. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

Students from Laurie DeVito’s 4th grade art class at Sag Harbor Elementary School tour the farm during a field trip to Sylvester Manor Friday, June 6. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

Griswold Explores Good, Evil & Slavery on Long Island

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


Mac Griswold

By Tessa Raebeck

Reminding readers of the existence of Northern slavery and exploring the close connection between good and evil, Mac Griswold will read from her cultural history, “The Manor, Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island,” at Rogers Memorial Library Monday, April 7 at 5:30 p.m.

Ms. Griswold’s book reflects on the 350-year history of Sylvester Manor, built in 1651 by the Sylvesters, one of the wealthiest families of the 17th century. The book tells the history of the slaves, Native Americans and Quaker landowners who worked and lived together on the Shelter Island plantation, using the backdrop of the estate to examine racial and religious relations across three centuries.

Ms. Griswold will present a lecture and sign copies of her book at the event, which will be held at the Rogers Memorial Library, 91 Coopers Farm Road in Southampton. To register, visit myrml.org or call 283-0774 ext. 523.

There’s Daggers in Men’s Smiles: Shelter Island Shakespeare Continues with “Macbeth”

Tags: , , , , , , ,


 

A performance of "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Sylvester Manor in the summer of 2013.

An outdoor performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Sylvester Manor in the summer of 2013. Photo courtesy of the Sylvester Manor.

By Tessa Raebeck

Bloodlust, revenge and sin will fill the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church this weekend, as Sylvester Manor presents “Macbeth,” one of Shakespeare’s most harrowing plays.

Sylvester Manor, with a history of arts programming that goes back to the late 19th century when members of the Sylvester family hosted “summer salons” entertaining artists and writers with poetry readings, music performances and plays, is returning to its creative roots through Shakespeare at the Manor. “Macbeth” marks the fifth production in the series.

And the Shelter Island community is part of Shakespeare at the Manor productions, with residents hosting members of the company at their homes during the length of the production, playing small roles in the show and even cooking meals for the cast.

“This engages the community beyond being members of an audience and provides everyone with the opportunity to feel connected to the excitement of the weekend. We’ve had a tremendous response from both the companies and the volunteers who have participated,” said Samara Levenstein, the co-chair of the Manor’s arts and education committee, who calls the island’s engagement in the production “community-supported theater.”

It is the fruition of Ms. Levenstein’s “pet project” to bring outdoor and site-specific theater performance to Shelter Island, in the model of Shakespeare in the Park. It started in 2011 with “As You Like It,” performed in a field surrounded by the property’s organic farm. Last summer, “Much Ado About Nothing” brought audience members to the theater, the Manor’s front lawn, by way of canoes.

Drew Foster, the director of “Much Ado About Nothing,” returns to Shelter Island for “Macbeth.” Since graduating from Julliard, Mr. Foster has been directing in Chicago and New York City. “It’s really exciting to have found a gem in Shelter Island and it has a really rich performance history,” Mr. Foster. “It’s fun to carry on the tradition that’s pretty rich within the manor already.”

Director Drew Foster.

Director Drew Foster.

For “Macbeth,” Mr. Foster chose the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, which will highlight the religious undertones of the play and the dilemmas characters face as they grapple with murder, power and vengeance against a daunting moral backdrop.

“The question of the play is do I kill Duncan or do I not kill Duncan,” said Mr. Foster. “So when Macbeth is wrestling with these questions, he’s literally standing underneath a giant cross, so he has to use that and when someone does something sacrilegious, they’re actually doing it in a church. When the witches come and defame it, they’re literally turning the church on its head—it becomes more immediate.”

“It’s not necessarily a traditional stage or theater experience where you go into a theater and the theater is manipulated to fit the show. We actually chose the show to fit the space,” the director added. “We try to do the whole show around everyone.”

Scenes will be performed in the choir loft, behind the audience, up and down the aisles, on the altar and in the hallway, where the characters are invisible but their voices audible.

With lines as familiar as “blood will have blood,” directors can struggle with how to keep the classic Shakespeare production fresh, but rather than shy away from the challenge, Mr. Foster embraces it, happy to expand on the work of those before him.

“When you’re doing a new play, I find that much more difficult because you’re trying to create something out of nothing,” he said. “These plays have rich histories of performance, so you sort of get to borrow and learn from brilliant people who have tried it out before you.”

Mr. Foster solicited the help of his peers at Julliard and in the New York City theater world in forming the company. “Luckily, I have very talented friends,” he said of his cast. “They’re all amazing. About half of them have been on Broadway and they’re all terrific.”

Actors who attended Julliard with Mr. Foster are portraying both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Robert Eli, who plays Macbeth, has done several shows on Broadway and has a small part on the acclaimed political drama “House of Cards.” Phoebe Dunn will play his bloodthirsty wife, Lady Macbeth. “She’s just out of school,” said Mr. Foster, “very young, but very talented.”

As part of the manor’s partnership with the Shelter Island School, the cast will direct a workshop for high school students this Friday. Students will act as stagehands and ushers and a few students have small roles in the play.

“Macbeth” will be shown Friday, March 7, and Saturday, March 8, at 7 p.m. at the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $7 for students age 8 through college-aged (the play is not recommended for children under 8). Tickets are available at sylvestermanor.org.

Myron Levine

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


DSC_0012 By Stephen J. Kotz

How did the idea of holding a memorial dinner for your son first take shape?

After the accident, we were contacted by the East End chapter of Slow Food. They wanted to know if we would agree to do a benefit with the money going to his children. We said if they wanted to have a dinner in his honor, we’d be willing o do that as long as it would fund something related to organic farming.

Ted Conklin of The American Hotel agreed to donate The American Hotel for the dinner. Everything was donated. The first year, it was sold out.

We raised $12,000 to $15,000 and we used the money fund two interns for Sylvester Manor.

This year the fourth annual Joshua Levine Memorial Dinner will take place on Sunday, April 6. What have you got planned differently this year?

The dinner itself will again be at The American Hotel, but this year Dodds and Eder said they would like to host the pre-dinner party. Their space is gigantic, so we can get 250 people in that space and it wouldn’t seem crowded.

We were never able to have a silent auction before because we never had the space, so we have been going out in the community to get items for that. The generosity is unbelievable. We’ve gotten donations for foursomes from The Atlantic, The Bridge, East Hampton, Noyac, Hampton Hills, South Fork, and Sebonac [golf clubs] a two-night stay at The Huntting Inn and a gift certificate to The Palm; Topping Rose, Sen, the Cuddy, the Living Room, Marders, you name it.

Who will be the beneficiary of this year’s event?

The second year, they told us about the edible schoolyard project. That really appealed to me. If anything, that would really memorialize Josh and what he was all about. It was really about helping kids to understand. It has evolved now so what they learn in the garden is integrated into the classroom. These kids are passionate about it.

They felt they needed to bring some stability to the program by having master farmers who would work with the schools. We decided that first year we needed three master farmers. Slow Food East End actually had an application that went out to the farming community with a stipend of $4,000 each.

We did the same thing last year, but with 18 to 20 schools now involved, we needed an extra master farmer.

This year we are hoping to raise $40,000. Now there are 25 or more schools, so we’ll need one or two more master farmers. We are also trying to raise money for projects some of the schools need.

How did your son find his way from the city to farming?

Josh was doing real estate in the city. He was successful. He just didn’t like it.

We had been out here since 1979. I do a lot of gardening, so l guess it was in his blood. His wife, Anne, was born on a farm in Virginia and he just wanted to learn about it. He applied for an internship at Quail Hill with Scott Chaskey. Scott hired him and the next year promoted him to be the market manager.

He was looking to get an education and then looking to use it to do something else. He wanted to start a business helping families make organic gardens and then he’d come and help them care for them.

What does the future hold for the Joshua Levine Memorial Foundation?

The principal purpose of the foundation will be to continue to support the edible schoolyard program and other things Josh might have been passionate about.

It’s gotten a life of its own now. These gardens are really important. It’s not just about growing food, it’s about learning about life…. There are just so many lessons you learn in this program.

It’s also important for my grandchildren. There’s a selfish part to this. I want my grandchildren to know who their father was.

The Fourth Annual Joshua Levine Memorial Foundation Dinner will be held on April 6 at The American Hotel with a pre-dinner party and auction at Dodds & Eder in Sag Harbor. For more information or to buy tickets, visit joshualevinefoundation.org.

 

 

Family’s Past in Slave Trade To Be Explored in Shelter Island Film Screening

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Dain, Jim and James Perry at James DeWolf’s family cemetery in Bristol, Rhode Island.   Allie Humenuk photo

Dain, Jim and James Perry at James DeWolf’s family cemetery in Bristol, Rhode Island. Allie Humenuk photo

 

By Stephen J. Kotz

Katrina Browne was working on a master’s degree in theology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkley in 1999 when she stumbled upon a dark chapter in her own family’s history.

A descendent of the DeWolf family who were pillars of society in Bristol, Rhode Island, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Ms. Browne learned by reading a booklet compiled for family members by grandmother that her wealthy ancestors, who she knew as seafaring merchants with a bit of a dodgy past,  had actually made their fortune off the slave trade and, in fact, were among the biggest slave traders in the country.

That uncomfortable knowledge set her off on an eight-year journey that resulted in the making of the film, “Tracing the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” which followed a trip Ms. Browne and nine other family members made to West Africa and Cuba to learn more about the slave trade and come to terms with their family history.

“No one realized they brought over 10,000 Africans to the country in chains,” she says in the film. “A half million of their descendants could be alive today.”

On Friday, in a joint program commemorating Black History Month, Sylvester Manor and the Shelter Island Public Library will sponsor a screening of the film at the library at 7 p.m. Following the 51-minute documentary, Ms. Browne, her brother Whitney Browne, who helped with pre-production work, and Georgette Grier-Key, the director of the Eastville Community Historic Society will lead what is being called a “facilitated dialogue” in which audience members will be encouraged to discuss slavery and its far reaching and continuing impact on race relations in this country.

On Saturday, at 10 a.m., there will be a community remembrance in the “Burying Ground of the Colored People of Sylvester Manor,”  where slaves, indentured servants, and other African-Americans were buried. Taking part in the event at the graveyard will be Sandra Arnold, the founding director of the Burial Data Base Project of Enslaved African-Americans, which is attempting to locate and identify those buried in slave cemeteries across the country.

Ms. Browne’s film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 and later that year reached a national audience of 1.5 million viewers when it was broadcast on PBS’s Point of View series. From there, Ms. Browne said, it took on a life of its own, with frequent requests for screenings from museums, historical societies, and libraries.

It even led family members to found the Tracing Center, a nonprofit organization that Ms. Browne served as executive director of until earlier this year when she turned those duties over to one of her cousins, James Perry, who also took part in the family trip to Africa and Cuba.

According to its website, the Tracing Center sponsors programs to “foster awareness, dialogue, and engagement by inviting people to explore race today through the lens of forgotten history.

Ms. Browne’s film recounts how Bristol, which is well known for its long-running Fourth of July parade, seemed blissfully unaware of the DeWolfs’ role, over three generations, in the slave trade. Linden Place, the three-story family mansion, which the viewer learns was paid for from a single year’s earnings, is now a museum and catering hall. On a visit to St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in the town, Ms. Browne, who was raised in Philadelphia, says in the movie, “It seems the DeWolfs were the founding fathers. They were everywhere. They even paid for the stained glass.”

The DeWolfs were no different than many other Northern businessmen who were drawn to the lucrative slave trade, although they clearly went all in, selling shares in their ships to townspeople, founding their own insurance company to cover the risk, and even starting their own bank.

Taking part in the “Triangle Trade,” the DeWolfs shipped rum to West Africa, where it was traded  for slaves. The slaves, in turn, were shipped to Cuba, where they were sold at auction or put to work on one of the family’s five plantations, where sugar cane was grown to make molasses, which, in turn, was used make more rum.

One of the DeWolfs in a journal entry dated September 11, 1806, reported selling 121 slaves at auction in Havana for a total of $36,300, more than $550,000 in today’s dollars.

“She pulled off the Band-Aid and exposed this history,” said Whitney Browne, who will also take part in the Friday’s post-film discussion. “Over three generations, it was the family business. Learning about it is not something that is always easy to talk about.”

“I’m hoping it creates a dialogue that goes beyond the film,” said Ms. Grier-Key of the Eastville Community Historical Society. “This conversation needs to continue. Let’s peel back the layers and see what’s there. A lot of the problems today have very deep roots.”

Sylvester Manor and the Shelter Island Public Library will host a screening of “Tracing the Trade: A Story from the Deep North” at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 21 at the library on North Ferry Road on Shelter Island, followed by a group discussion with the filmmakers, and Georgette Grier-Key of the Eastville Community Historic Society. On Saturday, February 22, a community remembrance in the “Burying Ground of the Colored People of Sylvester Manor” will take place at 10 a.m. For more information, call 749-0042.

 

Shelter Island Farmland Preserved

Tags: , , , , ,


More than 57 acres of farmland was donated to the not-for-profit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm last week, a gift from Sylvester Manor owner Eben Fiske Ostby. As soon as the land was transferred to the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, both Suffolk County and the Town of Shelter Island protected it as farmland through conservation support.

The gift brings total farmland owned by the locally governed nonprofit to over 83 acres and the total land preserved at Sylvester Manor to over 105 acres.

“Protecting a second parcel of the historic Sylvester Manor property is a remarkable achievement, both for the local and county governments and for the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm,” said Fiske-Ostby, the tenth generation proprietor of Sylvester Manor. “We now have a significant landholding preserved for future generations, and with it a crucial foundation for the Educational Farm and its mission. So many people contributed to making this effort a success, and I am both indebted to them and proud of the community that supported it.”

“We are truly thankful for the generosity of Eben Ostby and the commitment of the town and county in supporting a sustainable future for Sylvester Manor,” said the organization’s executive director, Cara Loriz. “With the help of Peconic Land Trust and our many supporters, we can now celebrate the realization of our initial preservation goals for this remarkable property.”

Sylvester Manor Educational Farm now operates on the 243 acre property, and as part of its mission is working to cultivate, preserve and explore the manor’s lands, buildings and stories, inviting new thought about the history and culture of food, both on Shelter Island and across the country.

The newly designated preserved farmland extends south along Manhanset Road from the historic farm field along the northern boundary of Sylvester Manor which was preserved in August. The new acreage is gradually being cleared of succession old field vegetation and supported cover crop and livestock this past season. The farm’s plans for the protected acreage include expanding livestock and row crop production, establishing orchards and making acreage available to lease farmers and community gardeners.

Finding Culture at Plant & Sing

Tags: , , , , , ,


By Emily J. Weitz

In the five years since Sylvester Manor’s Plant & Sing was first conceived, it has evolved from a harvest festival to an all-inclusive celebration of food on the East End.

“The culture of food is really the big thing at Sylvester Manor,” says Bennett Konesni, executive director of the Shelter Island farm and 15th generation descendent of Sylvester Manor’s original family. “We’re looking at what a food system really looks like – the music, the poetry, the plays, the dishes and restaurants, the farm work and the yoga. We are saying that food doesn’t have to be just a thing on your plate.”

And it’s through celebrating the many facets of food that Konesni believes people can get back in touch with their environment.

“We’ve lost something really major – that deep connection to the land and the things that live on the land,” he says. “It used to be that people knew what things were blooming at which time and which trees had good wood for different uses. That has been lost with industrialization.”

Plant & Sing started out as a way to bring people back into that realm of knowledge. By inviting their neighbors onto the farm and teaching them how to plant garlic or pick a banjo, the Sylvester Manor crew found that they could help people develop that connection, not just to the land, but to life itself.

“People are starting to come to taste our tomatoes and sweet peppers,” says Konesni, “to embrace this place in its new form… It’s really gratifying. To have this place where people can come and nourish themselves with food and fun, and start living the life they want to live by taking music lessons or having a fresh pie. This is a place where it is not unusual to have a positive attitude and enjoy life and music and the fruits of human culture.”

One person for whom this message resonated deeply was Béla Fleck, the Grammy Award-winning banjo player who will be headlining Plant & Sing this year. Fleck has been nominated in more categories than any other musician in Grammy history, and has taken home 13 Grammy Awards.

“He thinks what we’re doing is a great idea,” says Konesni, “so he is donating this performance. The festival will be held on the lawn by the water, looking out over Gardiner’s Creek behind the manor house.”

Because of the historical significance of this setting, Konesni believes Fleck’s performance will be especially powerful.

“In the 1600s, ships used to sail in here to empty their cargo of sugar and molasses and rum, and also slaves. This was a slave plantation. And slaves brought the banjo to this country,” he adds. “So to have Béla playing the banjo, in this place where Europeans and Africans and Native Americans were exchanging culture and technology in a real way… The banjo is symbolic.”

He believes the music is also a way to put the realities of perhaps the most difficult chapter of this country’s history into perspective.

“How do you begin to understand what slavery has meant for American history and what it’s meant to this site?” he asks. “You call attention to it and start to think about what the Africans brought here, and the ways our cultures are intertwined just by having this music around.”

In addition to the profundity of having a master banjo player on these grounds, Konesni is excited because, as a musician himself, Fleck is a personal hero.

“He’s driven a lot of my own musical direction,” says Konesni. “He’s been to Africa and traveled all over hunting down the origins of the banjo. He’s a musical polymath, and so humble and kind and fun. We are really lucky.”

And it’s the connections that ultimately form the essence of Plant & Sing — connections to the land, connections to the music and connections to the history.

“It’s about those cultural things that come straight from the soil and the land itself,” says Konesni. “Our pigs are heritage pigs. The music is heritage music. The furniture is heritage furniture, and the ideas are heritage ideas. They need to be updated, of course, but they are old ideas that resonate. I feel so lucky to be living on an island with neighbors that support that alignment and these ideas.”

What’s Happening at Plant & Sing

Saturday will be jam-packed at Sylvester Manor with a Literary Lounge running from noon to 6 p.m. Featured writers, poets and playwrights include Quail Hill farm’s director and poet Scott Chaskey reading from his new book “Seedtime” at 1:30 p.m., Megan Chaskey and the Green Theater Collective at 3 p.m., Kathy Lynch and Christian McLean reading at 4:30 p.m., and Tom Leopold and Bill Persky sharing Food Stories and Songs at 5:15 p.m.

There will be a film screening of “Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement,” at 7 p.m.

Music will start at 1 p.m. Saturday with the Who Dat Loungers, followed by 10 other acts ranging from bluegrass to Gothic Americana. Headliners Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn take the stage at 6 p.m.

Farm events will also take place throughout the day, including sunrise yoga with Heidi Folkine at 6 a.m., the sweet potato harvest from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., a nature hike at 10 a.m. and a tour of the historic grounds at 2 p.m. A traditional contra barn dance will start at 9 p.m., followed by late night garlic shucking from 10 p.m. to midnight.

Sunday will be a simple day of yoga at 6 a.m., followed by garlic planting from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Community Supporting Small Farms

Tags: , , , , , ,


By Emily J. Weitz

When Quail Hill Farms started as Full Circle Farm in 1988, it was the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative in New York State. With ten families harvesting fruit from trees in Bridgehampton, the idea of sharing the labor and sharing the fruits of that labor was born.

Now there are dozens of CSAs across the state, and as many as 12,000 across the country. Quail Hill, which found its current home in Amagansett in the early 90s, has grown from the original ten families to 250. Even the term CSA has become commonplace, and is being touted by senators like Kristin Gillibrand as a way to support local economies and increase healthy living.

As more and more people learn about CSAs and join them, there are some expected growing pains that occur. The whole concept has had to evolve, as has the practice.

“Serving 250 families is very different than serving ten,” says Scott Chaskey, Director of Quail Hill. “Serving more people, you use more acreage, grow more food, sponsor more events… We’ve grown in all directions.”

Steven Eaton, who got his start in organic farming with Quail Hill six years ago, has seen different angles of the CSA. After two years with Quail Hill, he became an independent farmer on Springs Fireplace Road, farming one plot of land and selling his produce to friends and neighbors, and at the local farmers’ market once a week. Last March he was hired by Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island as the crew leader, which means he’s out in the fields managing the work.

“From my perspective,” says Eaton, “the idea of CSA has changed from what the name suggests. Community Supported Agriculture implies a community around the farm, supporting farmers in their work to ensure their food security. These people are saying ‘We want our produce to come from farms in our area and we don’t want those farms to struggle.’ It was a way for the community to make sure these farms that they value survive.”

In recent years, though, Eaton has noticed a change in the reasons people are joining CSAs, and he fears that it’s sometimes more of a trend than a real connection to the land that attracts them. Of course, there are still the people who genuinely feel it’s important to be connected to a farm, Eaton says. They want to know where their food is coming from and have a relationship with that food.

“This is more than a farmer exchanging with the community through a retail space,” he says. “At Sylvester Manor we have our regular harvest days, where we get feedback and have conversations. That’s very supportive to the farmer.”

Eaton believes that the name CSA is growing outdated, and it no longer reflects the trends happening on the East End. When the physical connection to the farm and the farming practices is not there, there is a disconnect between the people and the farm, so that they lose the very understanding of the farm that a CSA is supposed to create.

“If someone is expecting vegetables delivered to their doorstep, what happens if the basket doesn’t come or something isn’t in it,” he asked. “If you’re actually engaging in all the dimensions of a farm, you can understand the delicate nature of food and farming and how rich and joyous and difficult it can be… The trend of CSAs moving away from multi-dimensional participation is a huge disadvantage. That understanding, that dialogue, between farmer and community becomes lost.”

At the same time, as CSAs become more popular, more small, local farms are able to flourish. Balsam Farms, which has been around for a decade, began its CSA just two years ago.

“The CSA is only a small part of our farm,” says Ian Calder-Piedmonte, co-founder and farmer at Balsam Farms, who also is the outreach director for EECO Farm in East Hampton. “We prepare a box with items that are in season, and members come to pick it up at the farm. For us, it’s all about growing food and seeing people. We want as many people eating our food as possible.”

At Quail Hill, Chaskey has no problem calling the farm a CSA in the truest sense of the word.

“It’s who we are,” he says. “We started as a CSA, and we’ve influenced the beginning of lots of other CSAs, not only on the East End. Besides people around here, I’ve traveled all over the country speaking about community agriculture, running workshops and presentations about how you do it.”

The difference between Quail Hill and all the other farms on the East End is, at Quail Hill, the members do all the farming and harvesting. They get an intimate understanding of what is growing and how because they are involved in the whole process. At Sylvester Manor and other farms, like Amber Waves in Amagansett, members do some of the harvesting. For example, Eaton says, if members get a pint of string beans that week, they might be sent to the fields to pick their own.

“Being at the farm when the CSA shows up,” he says, “they’ll get out in the fields and pick basil, they’ll start talking, and they start to see those dimensions of farming. That, to me, is the biggest asset to upholding and encouraging that nature of the CSA. It educates like no other. If you sign up for twenty weeks and you come and see the ups and downs on the farm for twenty weeks, that’s a good education. That’s a huge chunk of the community that understands the nature of food, and how real food is. The value of food and farms goes way up the more people are educated. The value of food goes down otherwise.”

Photography by Michael Heller