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Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Receives Historic Gift from Sylvester Family Descendants

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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 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

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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.

Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island Discovers History While Making It

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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.