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Island Profile: Stephen Searl — Old family farms and the power of peaches

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Stephen Searl beside Gardiner’s Creek at Sylvester Manor.
Stephen Searl beside Gardiner’s Creek at Sylvester Manor.

Pre-Revolutionary-era houses held by the same family, and largely un-renovated are scarce on the East End of Long Island.

The fact that Stephen Searl, executive director of Sylvester Manor, grew up in one and now has his office in another testifies to his commitment to preserving the history, the land and the resources of the East End.

To say nothing about his tolerance for peeling paint, temperature extremes and a steady stream of visitors.

He grew up on the Wickham family farm in Cutchogue, where his grandfather John Wickham established an apple and peach growing operation on 300 acres that has been in cultivation by his family since 1661.

“Like Sylvester Manor, the approach to our farm is a long driveway that opens up suddenly to a creekside view of house and water,” Stephen said. “These are vistas that are transformative. They left an indelible mark in my life.”

Stephen lived his first few years in upstate New York, where his mother Parnel Wickham got a PhD at Syracuse, and his father Stanford Searl was an English professor at Buffalo State University. The family moved to Cutchogue when Stephen was 5, putting down roots on his mother’s family farm.

Three generations — Stephen, his parents and Stephen’s grandfather and grandmother — lived in the old farmhouse on land planted in fruit trees, berries, corn and melons. Then and now, they ran a popular farm stand on the Main Road.

Stephen remembers his grandfather as bigger than life. “He was 6 feet 6 and he had enormous hands,”  Stephen said. “He loved to take me riding on the tractor and he gave me whatever was in season. Eating fruit, that’s what he was all about.”

John Wickham was not just the owner and manager of a big farm, he was an ambassador for the farming community. The old house had many visitors, including local officials, neighbors and John Halsey, who went on to found the Peconic Land Trust, an organization that has been a catalyst for land conservation on the East End for 35 years.

Stephen’s uncles and his mother now own the farm; Stephen’s uncle, Tom Wickham, runs it.
Visiting Shelter Island for the first time at 6 when his parents, who were Quakers, started attending the outdoor Friends meeting at Sylvester Manor, Stephen was struck by how similar it was to his family’s Cutchogue farm.

“The trees, the quiet, the natural environment,” he said. “That stuck with me.”

When he wasn’t at school, he did farm work. At 9, he was driving a tractor and hoeing melons. After elementary school in Cutchogue, he went off to boarding school and then to the Cornell agriculture school, graduating in 2000.

After Cornell, Stephen worked a full year on the farm – planning in the winter and managing the production during the summer, gaining hands-on experience to go with the degree he earned in school.

During his year of full-time farming, Stephen met Elizabeth Casey at an outdoor bar in Greenport under an enormous beech tree. “There was a great band,” he recalled.

Within a week they were a pair. Like his grandfather, Stephen loves to share fruit from the farm. “That’s probably how I won over my wife,” he said. “I brought her peaches.”

Stephen and Elizabeth moved to New York City, so she could attend a graduate program at NYU and Stephen went to work as a legal assistant at a law firm. His first full day at the law firm, Sidley & Austin, was September 11, 2001. Stephen was assigned to the uptown office instead of the one in the World Trade Center, where one of his colleagues died, and many were traumatized.

It was also during this period that Elizabeth’s brother died suddenly of a heart ailment. “Weathering that tragedy brought a close family even closer,” Stephen said. “We didn’t feel resilient at the time, but we are.”

In 2004, Stephen and Elizabeth married and moved to Burlington, Vermont, where Elizabeth worked in the school system. Stephen got a graduate degree in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont, and wrote his thesis on the effects of second homeowners on the greater Burlington community. “The subject was close to home,” he said. “My own family farm had been through this.”

By 2006, Stephen and Elizabeth were back in Cutchogue. He went to work as a project manager at the Peconic Land Trust handling land preservation projects on the North Fork and Shelter Island. There he joined Sara Gordon on the complex multi-year project that resulted in the creation of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm and the conservation planning that went along with it, an undertaking that took many years to unfold, and would eventually result in both Sara and Stephen coming to work at Sylvester Manor.

Stephen and Elizabeth have three children, Owen, 11, Connor, 8, Aidan, 4. Elizabeth continues to work as an educator. Six years ago she founded the Peconic Community School, with seven students, one of whom was Owen. The school is now 65 strong; Owen has graduated and his brothers are attending.

When Stephen came to Sylvester Manor as director earlier this year, he saw the need for a comprehensive master plan, along with immediate action to preserve and protect deteriorating infrastructure – the Manor House has only been painted twice in three centuries and the windows are not providing insulation up to contemporary standards.

“This place holds layers of history,” he said. “Practically every big event in American history, Sylvester Manor was here for it. The colonial period, the Industrial Revolution, when women got the right to vote. We have this cultural lens on our past.”

“To grow our farm, restore the house, to make our interpretation of history better, having the right infrastructure will be very important,” Stephen said. “From the Quaker cemetery to the cow pasture and back.”

Stephen has been coming to Shelter Island since he was 6, but he’s been surprised by how little he really knew about the individuals who live here, and is happy to get to know them. “I knew the North Fork, but I didn’t know this community,” he said. “A whole new world has opened up for me.”

Lightning Round

Favorite place on Shelter Island? The Quaker meeting place at Sylvester Manor.

When was the last time you were elated? When I began working here and saw that this was going to be a really good fit.

What exasperates you? I don’t get exasperated easily.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? One of those late September days when you can still swim and you have the whole beach to yourself.

Favorite movie or book? “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” by Jared Diamond.

Favorite food? Spaghetti carbonara. My mother- in-law makes a great one.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Mark Angelson. A close family friend for a long time. Humble, successful but success has not changed his outlook or his values.

Most respected elected official? County Legislator Al Krupski. You don’t really even know what party he is in, and it doesn’t matter. He is in tune with what the local community needs.