Around the Island

Historical Society honors Manor resident from long ago: Cornelia Horsford remembered on International Women’s Day

The Shelter Island Historical Society is recognizing International Women’s Day on Monday, March 8, by remembering Cornelia Horsford (1861-1944), a woman who left lasting gifts to her community, as one of the founders of the Shelter Island Public Library and the Historical Society.

First observed in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, International Women’s Day was officially recognized by The United Nations for the first time in 1975 to highlight women’s contributions to society. 

According to the Historical Society, Cornelia  Horsford was an author and an adventurer, organizing archaeological expeditions to Iceland and Britain. Born in Cambridge, Mass. she spent a significant portion of her life at Sylvester Manor.

The Horsford girls around 1872 , taken in Cambridge, Mass.

In addition to her work founding two of the Island’s most essential institutions, Ms. Horsford also left us beautiful, living parts of the Island that all can share. As Susan Carey Dempsey recounted in a feature article for the Reporter, Ms. Horsford, a member of the Gardiner family, inherited Sylvester Manor in 1900 and designed and cultivated the estate’s gardens. She added a water garden and laid out designs to flourish in all seasons.

In an address to the Garden Club of East Hampton a century ago, Ms. Horsford said: “I assume that an ‘Historical Garden’ is a garden which is old enough to cover several periods in the fashion of horticultural display, and to have received guests, persons of sufficient renown to hold permanent places in the history of the county to which the garden belongs. The garden at Sylvester Manor was begun in 1652 and was first mentioned in the journal of George Fox, the founder of the Society of Quakers … By that time, the box edgings planted 20 years before must have formed well grown edgings to the parks and flower beds.”

Together with her sister, Kate, Ms. Horsford maintained and celebrated the garden and landscape at the Manor for half a century. As a talented artist, through her photographs and many watercolor paintings and drawings, she illustrated the beauty and captured the landscape — from general scenes of the garden to studies of individual flowers.

Ms. Horsford was consistent in bringing the arts to Islanders. One of her lasting contributions is the annual Shakespeare at the Manor performances, which continues a century-long tradition of celebrating the Bard, and came from Ms. Horsford’s  “summer salons” featuring poetry and literary readings, music performances and theatricals.

Her legacy also lives in the Manor’s windmill, which is nearing final completion of an extensive restoration, and will soon be a working mill once again.

The mill was built in Southold by Nathaniel Dominy and moved to Shelter Island by barge in 1840. Around 1879, the mill ceased full-time operations, at which time it was purchased by Ms. Horsford’s sister, Lilian, a descendant of the original Sylvester family. It was her goal to save this part of Long Island history for future generations.

In 1926, Cornelia Horsford moved the windmill from the center of Shelter Island, near the library and school, to its present location at Sylvester Manor.

The windshaft and blades have been restored, and a final phase in the project will be to rebuild the mostly wooden machinery inside the mill to its fully functioning condition.

The ultimate goal is to recondition and preserve the windmill so it can be open to the public for viewing and educational programs, and its legacy as an operational windmill revived.

One woman, one life, which affected so many for the better, and continues that mission in 2021 on Shelter Island.

Cornelia Horsford and an unidentified sister rowing on Gardiner’s Creek around 1900. (Credit: Sylvester Manor Photo)