Thursday, September 17, 2009

Did Elizabeth Oakes-Smith Foresee Her Property Turned into a YMCA?

If old Seba Smith and Elizabeth Oakes-Smith were to awake from their century old slumber, they would probably be a hundred times more upset than I was yesterday, when I discovered that the location of their once magnificent home and the famous willow trees surrounding it is now either partly over-lapping or adjacent to the spot of a new YMCA. Don't get me wrong, I will most likely have a membership for my family when it is finished, and it will definitely lend toward the revitalization of downtown Patchogue Village. Even so, the discovery made me to gasp loud enough to cause my daughter, who is home with me instead of attending preschool, to stop coloring a picture of Wonder Woman and ask me what was wrong.

From a map I have of Patchogue Village in 1863, (that you can see in the previous post), out of the several acre properties with Mrs. Oakes-Smith listed as owner, I'm pretty sure now that the one adjacent to the cemetery was her property. The home stood from the time of the Revolutionary war to somewhere around 1910. The building was renovated by the Smiths in the 1860's, and then became an eyesore again in the 1890's. By that time Elizabeth was living with one of her sons on his plantation in North Carolina. The house was destroyed by fire sometime after Elizabeth Oakes-Smith’s death in 1893.

As I have related in previous posts, there were legends of the abandoned home being haunted at the turn of the century among lace mill workers, and some feared crossing the property at night. The legends were spurred by the eccentricity of the Smiths, who were at this time both deceased, and the rumor that during her life, Elizabeth Oakes-Smith had a gifted level of sensory perception that she described as "clairvoyance." This rumor is verified in her autobiography, where she explains that this understanding of herself shaped some of her life experiences.

"Eary in life I was conscious of seeing with a very limited access of light, and was often sent into dark rooms to procure objects, because 'somehow Elizabeth never runs against things.' More that this, also, I was scandalized by having my little mates cry out at night, 'Elizabeth, you've got cat's eyes- they shine in the dark.' " -from the AutoBiography of Elizabeth Oakes Prince Smith

Elizabeth goes on in her autobiography to recount experiences of premonitions, or visions concerning the health and safety of people she knew. This is very interesting, and I can see how this fact about her could be distorted and exaggerated after her death, turning her into a frightful character.

If the home was located about 200 feet away from the Smith graves, as Seba's obituary states, then that would put it right at the front of the wooded plot that is now becoming a YMCA, since the Lace Mill was located next to that plot, where there now stands a Quiznos and Ultimate Fitness Gym. The woods were the last connection to their property, and now they are completely gone. All this change brings to mind a song by The Talking Heads called Nothing But Flowers. It’s a satirical commentary on the effects of industrialization and progress on a landscape.

“This was a shopping mall, now it’s all covered in flowers…The highways and cars were sacrificed for agriculture…This was a parking lot, now its a peaceful oasis… And as things fell apart nobody paid much attention…Don’t leave me standin’ here, I can’t get used to this lifestyle.”

I love The Talking Heads, and there is a newer concert version of this song from YouTube at the bottom of this post.

Anyway, a year ago, before construction, the area next to Lake View Cemetery was a jungle of overgrown Wisteria, garbage, weeds, and various trees common to the South Shore of Long Island. Although the utilization of the land is a good thing, I’m thinking there must have been Willow trees buried somewhere in that forest, and maybe the trees from Seba’s yard were still in there, untouched. I remember there was a little trail into those woods from the cemetery.

This revelation is what triggered my gasp, because if I would have realized this a year ago, I would have spoke to town officials and asked permission to preserve a Willow on that property somewhere near Main street. Then we could put a nice plaque there to let the community know what the property had been, and how an interesting piece of political satire was penned right there under the old trees. Maybe I can get permission from the YMCA to plant a Willow tree and do that anyway.

More is coming on Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, her work for women’s suffrage, her autobiography, and her novel The Parsonage of Beech Glen. I still haven’t found a picture of The Willows home, but if I do I will post it.

1 comment:

Tim Scherman said...

Dunno how I missed this one. I was in Patchogue last month on a brief visit for my son's fencing tournament on the north side of the gIsland, and I stopped at the gravesite. You've done a nice job! Sad to see the gravesite now plastered up against the YMCA fence, but this is the world we live in. Don't feel so bad about their taking the willows for the parking lot. I guess there may have been some left, but since willows don't live more than 40 or 50 years, any that were there probably came from somewhere else!

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.


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