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06/15/18 4:30pm
COURTESY PHOTO Eleanor Oakley and 10K athletes on North Ferry, June 2000, with Joseph Kibor at rea

COURTESY PHOTO Eleanor Oakley and 10K athletes on North Ferry, June 2000, with Joseph Kibor at rear.

Having never met, neither one knew what to expect, one arriving in Greenport by train, the other waiting at the station that June morning 18 years ago. But within minutes of meeting, they had become fast friends.

Now, although worlds apart, they have remained close for almost two decades. (more…)

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03/23/18 4:30pm

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As the hot August night wore on in the attic of the old house, she decided she couldn’t take it anymore.

It was growing more stifling by the minute and in the claustrophobic space made of rough boards, there was a squeaking sound of scurrying mice somewhere in the dark corners and moving across the floor. (more…)

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06/03/14 12:00pm
BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO |University of Minnesota students Kellan Hanrahan, left, and Kara Wallace sifting earth for archaeological fragments at Sylvester Manor this week. The students are part of a project focusing on two locations, the Manor’s garden and the burial ground.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | University of Minnesota students Kellan Hanrahan, left, and Kara Wallace sifting earth for archaeological fragments at Sylvester Manor this week. The students are part of a project focusing on two locations, the Manor’s garden and the burial ground.

In 1652, Nathaniel Sylvester purchased Shelter Island from the Manhansett tribe, with the intention of producing food to support his family’s lucrative sugar plantation in Barbados. For more than 350 years, direct descendants of Sylvester lived on his estate, now reduced to 250 acres overlooking Gardiners Creek. (more…)

10/31/13 10:00am

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO | A figure glimpsed in the late afternoon near Gardiner’s Creek from the Manor House.

She had just started working at Sylvester Manor as a housekeeper, now almost 40 years ago, when Rose Wissemann came in touch with something one afternoon that still haunts her.

Known as “Miss Rose,” or, according to Maura Doyle, historic preservation coordinator for Sylvester Manor, “the soul of this house,” Rose is still at the Manor.

She recently recalled that unforgettable afternoon, when she had been doing some work in one of the smaller houses on the Manor grounds. As suddenly as a shadow shifts across a floor, an unsettling feeling stole over her. It was a sense that even though she was alone in the place, something — someone? — was with her. She stood still in the room. More than one presence, in some kind of terrible distress, was very near.

Being practical and levelheaded, Rose went about her work and kept the eerie experience to herself.

But a few days later she was passing the time of day with Eben Case, the master carpenter, who was repairing the staircase in the main house. Rose was saying what a happy house the Manor was and then began to tell Eben about her few disconcerting moments in the other building.

As she spoke, she was struck by Eben’s lack of surprise. He just nodded his head and waited until she was finished before speaking. Rose was not the first to encounter something otherworldly in that particular building. Eben, whose roots on Shelter Island go back to the 18th century, put down his tools and told Rose a tale of terror, flight and the finding of a safe harbor from torment.

It had long been known, he said, that Quakers who had been driven out of New England by Puritan elders after being beaten, tortured and dispossessed of everything for their beliefs, were given shelter by the Sylvester family in the other house.

Eben asked Rose how anyone would be surprised if their tormented souls lingered in a place where they had found sanctuary.

The ancient Celts believed during harvest revelries in late October there came one night where only the thinnest of veils separated the world of the living and the dead. Whether one believes this or not, there’s no doubt that everyone loves ghost stories. The story of Miss Rose and the Quaker souls is just one that has been collected by the staff at Sylvester Manor, Ms. Doyle said, and was among the tales told during a tour of the Manor last Saturday.

“Sylvester Manor doesn’t validate paranormal activity at the Manor,” Ms. Doyle said. “These stories are to be enjoyed and shared with visitors who may decide for themselves.”

Visitors can look into a mahogany and gilt mirror from the 1750s and if the light is right — try it on a late fall or winter afternoon as darkness finds the corners of the room — a woman in a long white dress will appear in the reflected background. Is this Mary Burroughs Sylvester, another exile, who suffered from mental illness and spent years in treatment, far from the Manor?

Or on certain moonlit nights a man rows a boat, slipping silently across Gardiner’s Creek, and more than one person has sworn the man at the oars is headless, a ship’s captain and murderer, doomed forever to row for his sin.

Our celebrations today and tonight on Shelter Island take many forms beside spooky storytelling.

Happy Halloween!

07/12/13 5:00pm

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Author Mac Griswold at the side door of the Sylvester Manor House.

Life prepared writer Mac Griswold to tell the world about Shelter Island’s historical gem, Sylvester Manor, the pickled-in-time plantation founded in the 17th century and occupied until 2006 by direct descendants of the founding family and their spouses.

Her latest book, “The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island,” just released on July 2 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, promises to spread the word to a wider world about what historians — the few who know about it — have called the only intact slave plantation north of the Mason Dixon line.

When she was a little girl in the 1950s growing up in the rolling terrain of north central New Jersey, Mac Johnston Keith would walk the two miles to Far Hills Country Day from her home near Bernardsville and along her way see the hulking estates of the last century’s industrialists and bankers, overgrown with vines and trees poking up through what had once been gardens, landscaped knolls and tennis courts.

“There were all these castles and towers and some were in ruins,” Mac, 70, explained during a chat this week at Sylvester Manor. “I explored them until I went away to boarding school in Virginia at age 12.”

She knew from her story-telling father that she sprang from a Southern family that had owned a great estate, too, a place with many slaves.
Over the generations, the Keiths lost wealth and clout: by the mid-19th century, they were drifting west, where land was cheaper. By the time her father was born, the family was based in Texas. (Mac, his mother’s name, isn’t short for anything.)

Mr. Keith was determined to make up for the family’s lost fortunes and he succeeded, making a fortune in the oil business, marrying a Boston-bred runway model who would give Mac her classically refined good looks, and sending his kids to Far Hills Country Day, where Mac learned to fox hunt on horseback and, on foot, run the school’s basset hounds after hares.

A knowledge of the land, a raw nerve about slavery, a sense of wonder for history, and a fascination with old gardens and landscapes as reflections of their times and cultures would all turn Mac into a landscape historian who is now well known for her books.

They include the landmark “Washington’s Garden at Mount Vernon: Landscape of the Inner Man,” as well as “Pleasure of the Garden: Images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art” and “Golden Age of American Gardens: Proud Owners, Private Estates.”

In the newest book, based on decades of research into family archives as well as evidence scattered from Boston to London, she tells the long story of the manor and its occupants, including those who labored for the Sylvester family.

She also tells how she discovered the place. Out in the Hamptons on a summer day in 1984, a friend took Mac — by then a divorcée with two daughters and the married name of Griswold, working for the Library of America — to Shelter Island, where they rowed a dinghy across Dering Harbor to Gardiner’s Creek. He wanted her to see something he knew she’d find astounding.

Coming to the head of the Creek, Mac spied boxwoods so gigantic she knew they must have been very old.  “A mudbank lies ahead,” she writes in the book, “lurking under shallow water, and we get stuck, briefly. It is only when we steer into the tide channel, stirring up silty brown clouds in the water as we pole ourselves with the oars, that we first see the big yellow house. From its hip roof and its brick chimneys to its well-proportioned bulk, the house quietly acknowledges its18th-century origins. I’m in a time warp.”

Mac learned who lived there — Sylvester descendant Andrew Fiske and his wife Alice — and wrote, asking for a chance to meet them. She became friends with both and worked with Alice, after Andrew died, to start the Sylvester Manor Project, an effort to document the estate and preserve its archives, under the auspices of the Shelter Island Historical Society. Through the process of having the ancient gardens surveyed to illustrate an article Mac was writing for the New England Journal of Garden History, she made connections to an archeologist at the University of Massachusetts, to which Alice eventually would give $650,000 to found its Andrew Fisk Memorial Center for Archeology.

About that time, Mac was working on her book about Washington’s Mount Vernon gardens. “That’s when I first got the picture of how slavery and the gardens were interconnected,” she said. “Every time Washington said ‘I did this,’ he meant the 300 people working for him did it.”

“That made me think of my visit to the manor in 1984,” she said, after the Fiskes had invited her over. “I was in the front parlor and I asked Andy where that door led and he said, ‘It goes to the slaves’ quarters.”

One of several differences between a Southern plantation and a Northern one, she said, was that slaves didn’t live in cabins on the grounds but up on the third floor, in the attic, as they did at Sylvester Manor.

She began her research for the book in earnest in 1997. In addition to poring through the vast Sylvester Manor family archives, most of which have been donated to New York University, the rest to the Shelter Island Historical Society, she traveled to Amsterdam, where manor founder Nathanial Sylvester lived for a time, to Africa to better understand the history of slavery and to Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, where researchers on English dialects were able to tell her how Nathaniel Sylvester talked. Mac, who bought a home in Sag Harbor in 1972, recently sold her house and moved to East Hampton. She has “Irish twin” daughters, (born a year apart) one a clinical therapist in Seattle and the other, who lives in Boulder, a media lawyer specializing in the environment.

She’s been making her living as a writer ever since the early 1980s, when she sold a piece to the New York Times magazine about a man in Harlem who made a garden out of rocks.

“I was stupid enough to quit my job” with the Library of America, the small nonprofit founded by Random House Editor Jason Epstein that republishes the works of great American writers. She did promotion, some production work and wrote the flap copy for the covers.
Somehow, she recalled, she had to come up with the right things to say in very few words and meet the approval of an advisory board of academics. When a grumpy Epstein one day complimented her work, she realized something: “It had never occurred to me I was a writer.”
She had studied English and history at McGill University and then went to New York and worked at various jobs, including sitting in a basement applying gold leaf to objects in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

She married investment banker Benjamin Griswold in 1967. They lived near Baltimore, where Mac raised her daughters. After an amicable separation, she moved with her two daughters and two dogs to New York in 1979, where she landed that job with the Library of America, where she worked for four years.

During that time, she commuted to Cambridge to attend a garden history program at Radcliffe; she later continued her landscape studies at the New York Botanical Garden’s horticultural division.

Writing magazine articles for a host of publications, from the Times magazine to Travel & Leisure, she pitched her first book idea featuring the gardens at the Metropolitan Museum, which she had come to admire but which, she realized, patrons largely took for granted.

Mac is now represented by the prestigious Andrew Wylie Agency. She had a contract for the manor book with Houghton, Mifflin, which wanted to call it “Slaves in the Attic,” but when the company changed hands she lost her editor there and a new editor wanted a book that focused exclusively on the manor’s 17th-century history.

It didn’t take any arm-twisting for her close friend Jonathan Galassi, the president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to pick up the book. He was familiar with Sylvester Manor — he’d been there and knew Alice Fiske, Mac said — and let Mac write it as the more intimate and expansive history she wanted.

A proposal for her next book is in the works. “It has a couple of working titles,” she said, “but we’ll go with this one: ‘The Other Paradise: Gay Men and Their Gardens.’ It will explore the unspoken “elephant in the room,” she said, about how gay men lead domestic lives that are more beautifully articulated.”