Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Loren's Odd Hobby Continues...

I've been researching the life of local writer and activist Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, who lived right in my neighborhood from 1859 -1869, and it is fascinating. Her husband, Seba Smith, (pictured here), a political satirist, is said to have paved the way for similar writings of men such as Mark Twain. My little self-imposed project to find out more about these particular Smiths all started one Saturday afternoon in Lake View Cemetery where I was hiding in a bush. (Just kidding, I was gardening with other community volunteers, but hiding in a bush sounds more interesting.)

The next thing I knew, I was at Mrs. Oakes-Smith's headstone, drawn with rake in hand to the words LECTURER, ACTIVIST and POET engraved on it. Poor Seba's stone was as smooth as beach glass, completely illegible. Realizing the coolness of these historic dead neighbors, I requested to beautify the Oakes-Smith plot, and get permission from the Cemetery Restoration Committee to plant flowers. I picked perennials, and have been occasionally returning to water them ever since.

To find out more about the couple, I went to the library to look up the Smiths. As you can imagine, with such a last name, the search took quite a while. It's not that I couldn't find the name Smith among town records. I couldn't find the right Smith. Narrowing down my search to Women's Suffrage Leaders of New York led me right to Elizabeth, and Local Writers led me to a lengthy reprint of Seba Smith's obituary, where I discovered some information about Seba Smith that delighted me.

Apparently, their home in Patchogue was somewhere near the cemetery, perhaps adjacent to the lot. It's hard to understand descriptions of the area from before 1900, since the landscape has changed drastically from rural country to bustling suburban downtown. The dark square on this 1869 map of the area shows where their house was. Here is some description I found in Seba's obituary reprinted in the Brooklyn Eagle in July of 1900:

"On the South Country Road (main street) just beyond the Patchogue Lace Mill, may be seen the remains of an old homestead, which, over fifty years ago, was the Squire Woodruff property, known for its great antiquity and the fact that in the last century General George Washington had lodged there and partaken of the world-famed Blue Point oysters. ...Lofty willow trees afford abundant shade about the rambling old place. In the spring of 1860 the decaying structure was thoroughly remodeled and taken into possession of by its new tenant, Mr. Seba Smith and family..."

It was here, under the willow trees on his property that Seba wrote his famous work My Thirty Years Out of the Senate, a political satire of a colleague Colonel Benton's book, My Thirty Years in the Senate, that gained him national and international fame. His writing humorously criticized President Andrew Jackson and his cabinet. Here is a picture from the work.

One of the most interesting details about Seba, for me personally, was that he was known in Patchogue for the beautiful gardens that he cultivated on his property, and people strolling by would receive cut flowers from Seba's garden. This interesting fact may supernaturally explain why I was drawn to plant at the Smith plot, and why the perennials I planted there have not yet burnt to a crisp, since the construction of a YMCA adjacent to the cemetery has caused the absence of a couple of acres of forest that stood for 200 years or more. I wouldn't consider myself a tree-hugger, but come on now, that's sad.

Apparently the Smith home was three stories with balconies and porches. Many famous artists, activists, politicians and writers frequented The Willows in the mid 1800's. Here is some more information on their house that I found on the web:

"The Smith's home "The Willows" was one of the largest houses in Patchogue, complete with billiard room and aviary. Located on Main St. near Waverly Ave. in Patchogue (marked on the picture of the map just below the word "Cemetery"), it burned to the ground some years after Smith's death in 1893. Other properties on the map marked with Smith's name (e.g., top left) are unidentified. Today the property on which the house stood is vacant. Elizabeth Oakes Smith and her husband are buried some 200 feet from the house away from Main Street."

Next time I go to the library I'm going to focus more on town maps and see if I can find a good picture of the house. I do remember the Lace Mill; it was demolished in the mid 1990's while I was attending college nearby. More is coming on Elizabeth Oakes-Smith and her husband Seba Smith. In the next post on this subject I'll focus on her work for women's rights, her novel, The Parsonage of Beech Glen, and her autobiography. I'd also like to explore Seba's writings on geometry. All of this information is part of a presentation I'm putting together for th Patchogue historical society, and perhaps the community through the public library. Click on the label Elizabeth Oakes-Smith at the top of this post for my previous entries on this project.

(Images are from Wikipedia and T. Scherman's website on EOS http://www.oakes-smith.org/)


Stefunkc said...

This is amazing! I love stories like this. I would love to research my neighborhood since we've heard that one home owned several hundred acres and they had cattle. Apparently the trees that line the front of our houses on this street were the fence line!

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

This all sounds so interesting. I know there are Long Island book houses that specialize in books about Long Island. Maybe you can write them some historical stuff.

rhymeswithplague said...

This is a wonderful thing you are doing, Loren, from the planting to the research on the Smiths and Patchogue a century and a half ago.

One form of immortality is to be remembered, and you have given the Smiths a resurrection, if only temporary, here in blogland.

Loren for President of the Historical Society!

Loren Christie said...

Hi Elizabeth, Mr. Brague. That's a good idea, Elizabeth, there isn't that much written about this couple. I have another post coming soon on these folks.

Loren Christie said...

Hi StefunkC. Thanks for the nice comment!

LDevlin said...

This is so interesting. I have only recently learned of Elizabeth Oakes Smith and I understand she was a poet.
Some members of the Patchogue Arts Council have expressed interest in learing more about her!! I look forward to your next post.
Lori Devlin

Loren Christie said...

Hello LDevlin! Thanks for reading and I'd happily share this research with the Arts Council.

Lee of MWOB said...

Okay Loren. If I didn't already consider you a hero, I certainly do NOW after reading this post. This amazing self-imposed project. This story of Seba Smith was absolutely fascinating.....what can I say? And don't you have like three YOUNG kids? You are a superwoman I tell you. :-)


Dear Internet Traveler,

Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.


Loren Christie

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