Featured Story

21st Century tech brings back Shelter Island’s 18th Century: New virtual reality program at Havens House

It’s the goal of historians — one rarely realized — to make history come alive. The Shelter Island Historical Society is achieving that with a dramatic new feature focusing on the Island’s history during the Revolutionary War.

Launching next week at the Havens House at the Shelter Island History Center, visitors can experience a virtual reality program where audio and visual representations of Captain James Havens and his wife, Elizabeth Bowditch Havens, come to life on an iPhone or Android screen, speaking about their life in the house during the War for Independence. The house itself is part of the innovative program, with video chapters on several parts of Island life in the 18th Century.

The visual tour takes a little more than 20 minutes and can be paused at any time, said Society Executive Director Nanette Lawrenson. In the “Tavern Room” of the 1743 house, visitors can tap in a code on their iPhones or Androids (phones will also be available in the room) and point them at art on the walls of the low-ceilinged, beautifully restored room, and what had been static comes alive.

For example, newly rendered side-by-side portraits of Captain Havens and Mrs. Havens become animated and begin to speak. They tell their stories of life on a remote island caught up in war.

The innovative program was funded by a $125,000 grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation. “For house museums, technology has become of primary importance,” Ms. Lawrenson said. “COVID changed how museums operate. And not in a bad way.” 

In a Reporter story from July 2019, Karen Kiaer, historian of the Shelter Island Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and Joyce Bowditch-Bausman, the DAR’s honorary regent, spoke about how during the Revolution, when neighbors could be friend or foe, Shelter Island had surprisingly uniform support for independence from the British. According to Ms. Kiaer, the Island paid a dear price for their rebellion.

After George Washington’s defeat in August 1776 at the Battle of Long Island, 1,000 revolutionary soldiers were captured. Those prisoners of war were kept in hastily built prisons, as well as on board prison ships, anchored off the East End, and according to historical accounts, kept in deplorable conditions, with overcrowding, hunger and disease rampant.

Some of those 1,000 patriots were from Shelter Island, and some are buried on the Island. On Monday, July 4, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the DAR is providing handouts for self-guided tours of Patriot graves at the Presbyterian Church, including those of Captain and Mrs. Havens.

Captain Havens was a privateer, someone who used his own vessel under a military commission to fight a sea-faring enemy — and in the Tavern Room, he “speaks” about his role in the armed struggle against the British.

Mrs. Havens speaks about growing up just down the road from the place where she married and had 11 children, and how “six of my children passed before me … the death of children in colonial times was not uncommon.” The Revolution, she says, was a “shock to our simple lives” and “basic needs were in short supply as the British military now needed to be fed …”

With her husband and other men away fighting for American independence, she and Island women “were left to fend for ourselves. Looking after the farm and family fell on my shoulders,” and she and other women had to plant and harvest and care for animals.

The Tavern Room, she says, was also a store, and therefore was an information center as well.

Moving around the room, there is a draftsman’s sketch of the house, and when the phone is pointed that way, video zooms out to take in the immediate area of what it looked like in the 18th Century, and the history of the house is revealed.

The Tavern Room was also a school and the post office in the 1740s. When James Havens was elected Town Supervisor in 1783, it became the site of the annual Town meeting.

Near the house sketch is a beautifully knitted wall hanging of a cottage on the Sylvester Manor grounds above Gardiners Creek. With the iPhone’s help it transforms into people on the banks, and a voice speaks about the role Islanders played in defending the Island from the water.

Ms. Lawrenson said that at sites where the visual tour technology has been employed people of all ages, from seniors to children, find it simple and easy to navigate. “Everyone is comfortable with it,” she added. “And it brings so much history to life.”

The Shelter Island History Center & Havens Store are open Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.