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Autumn Ambles: Meandering around the Manor

Sylvester Manor’s trails are open to the public from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and, unlike the popular pathways in Mashomack Preserve, visitors can often spend their entire time in the Manor’s 243-acre grounds without encountering another person.

On a recent weekend, Mashomack’s parking lot was full and signs on the adjacent road warned against parking spilling over. At the Manor, there were several quiet trails to choose from, whether you prefer history, serene creekside views, farm scenes or stunning old trees like the 19th-century Copper Beech.

The Manor offers that quintessential Island experience of exploring its natural beauty while traveling back in time. Here, Nathaniel Sylvester brought his young bride Grizzell to settle. There, ships loaded up timber from the Manor woods to deliver to the Sylvester sugar plantation in Barbados. A cannon mounted atop a knoll near the house is positioned where it could fend off pirates who dared approach.

A crisp fall day is perfect for taking to the trails, which twist and zigzag through the woods. With most of the leaves off the trees now, the sun shines through to fight the autumn chill, while the leaves underfoot offer a satisfyingly familiar crunch with each step.

The Manor has its own app; download it from the App Store to your phone so you can explore the grounds at your own pace and learn about their history and topography as you go.

There are four tours available on the app: history, woodlands, creekside and farmland.

The woodland walk should take between 60 and 80 minutes, touring through a variety of woodland species. The variation in time will depend on whether you’re seeking a brisk walk for exercise or taking a tour with, say, an 8-year-old who will find sights to explore even beyond what the app suggests.

Stare into a gnarled old tree to imagine what creatures it’s sheltered, then come upon a wigwam that brings to mind the Indigenous People who knew these woods for hundreds of years as home, farm and hunting ground.

The wigwam is constructed from naturally available substances and traditionally provided shelter from all kinds of weather; in summer, it provides shade from the sun and can be open for ventilation. It could also be waterproofed and lined for protection from rain and snow.

The wigwam at the Manor was built by Shinnecock member David Bunn Martine and other members of the Nation, using native locust poles and phragmites harvested entirely on Manor grounds. These structures were also used for sweat lodge ceremonies, a practice that continues to this day.

Will Halloran takes the measure of the wigwam. (Credit: Susan Carey Dempsey)

The 40-60 minute history loop also covers the history of the house and the monuments to Quaker martyrs from the days of Nathaniel Sylvester, amid the graves of Nathaniel and Grizzell’s family.

You can pause to read the inscription on the stone at the graveyard where as many as 200 enslaved Africans and Indigenous people who worked at the Manor are buried. Work is underway to restore and preserve the burial site.

The creekside loop tour takes about 40 minutes and will lead you into the North Peninsula of the grounds, connected to the Manor lawn by a man-made bridge of rocks and soil. This was the landing place off the creek for row boats bearing cargo to and from the larger ships that sat at anchor in the deepwater harbor, now Dering Harbor. Stone steps from that landing site can still be seen.

To learn more about the Manor’s Educational Farm, you can follow the app’s Farm Walk, which should take about 60-80 minutes, winding around the Windmill Field and out to the back fields. The app will give you the history of the 1810 Dominy Windmill, which is undergoing restoration. The farmstand was framed using timbers from the Manor property and features their own vegetables, fruit, eggs, pork and other locally-sourced goods. 

An important note for visitors: the Manor grounds are accessed by hunters under the Island’s official deer-culling program. The trails are open to the public from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with hunters coming before and after those hours. Visitors may spot hunters on the grounds, but they would only be tracking deer, not actively hunting. For more information about Sylvester Manor, visit sylvestermanor.org.