By Annette Hinkle
For years, the Van Scoy homestead in the Northwest Woods section of East Hampton has been among the historical sites pointed out during hikes led by members of the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society (EHTPS). In fact, there is a lot of history to be found in the area around the Grace Estate and Northwest Harbor, which, prior to the establishment of Sag Harbor, was the main port for the area.
Today, the Paumanok Path runs right alongside the Van Scoy homestead, which is located just beyond the cemetery where the settlers of the property, Isaac Van Scoy and his wife Mercy are buried. It’s also near the foundation stones that mark the site of the old schoolhouse which was built in 1827.
But ironically, until last fall the Van Scoy home site itself couldn’t be seen through the growth of thick vegetation — primarily invasive species — that had taken over the area in the course of the last 100 or so years.
So Richard Poveromo decided to do something about it.
“I got it into my head to open it up and preserve history,” says Poveromo.
Poveromo is the vice president for trails maintenance for the EHTPS. After he retired and became a full time volunteer, he started looking for a project. In the Van Scoy homestead, he found a good one.
“We spent last summer getting a sense of what was where,” he notes. “I brought it up at a [EHTPS] members meeting and all were in favor of clearing the brush. So I approached Andy and asked if it was something we could do.”
Andy is Andrew Gaites, Senior Environmental Analyst for the Town of East Hampton Land Acquisition and Management Department. It was up to his department to decide if clearing the site was a good idea. He said it was.
“It was limited clearing, mostly fallen trees and invasive vegetation like bittersweet vines and [Japanese] barberry,” says Gaites.
So last October, work got underway to expose the Van Scoy homestead for the first time in a generation. At first, Poveromo thought he would do the work himself perhaps with help from fellow trails member Gene Makl. But he quickly realized not only was it a large site, the project represented the opportunity to get the whole community involved. So word went out to the EHTPS membership and other local groups. In the end, it took 25 or so volunteers three to four weeks — and 230 man hours — to clear the property with hand tools and chainsaws.
“It was uncovering, not clearing,” says Poveromo. “You couldn’t see five feet into it. We started dragging out old trees and put them along the perimeter to create a sort of boundary.”
In the end, the efforts revealed an earthen berm with some foundation stones that delineate the cellar of the Van Scoy home. Also uncovered was a stone-lined well (which has since been enclosed by a wooden cap for safety reasons — though it’s still possible to look down through the top grating and see the well itself). Nearby, more foundation stones were found where Poveromo suspects a structure for animals may have stood and there are also lop trees — trees which are cut and trained to grow sideways to make natural fencing.
Clearing land was something Isaac Van Scoy probably had to do as well when he moved from Amagansett to Northwest in 1757 and established his 180 acre farm. But unlike the trails group volunteers, he did it by himself and without chainsaws.
“He’s significant because he was the first settler in Northwest,” explains Poveromo. “He brought his new bride, Mercy, dug a hole in the ground and moved in.”
At the time, the area was likely a wooded wilderness. And though Northwest Harbor had been East Hampton’s port for commerce since the mid 1600s — rum, sugar cane, crops, woven goods and lumber all came through there — up until Van Scoy’s arrival, the area had not been home to Europeans.
“He was remarkable. A true pioneer,” says Poveromo. “When he moved here there wasn’t anyone except maybe nomadic Indians. By 1751, the Algonquians had already sold their land.”
In addition to keeping livestock and perhaps raising some crops, it seems Van Scoy was involved in other enterprises as well, including oyster growing and the selling of a products like snuff and flannel. Van Scoy built his house over time — the first earth and log home was replaced by a one story 30’ x 34’ frame house which, by 1771, was a two story home. Eventually, two wings were added on to the structure as well.
“it was probably 2,500 square feet,” says Poveromo. “It was pretty big.”
And for good reason. Records show that Isaac and Mercy Van Scoy had 15 children — only eight of whom lived. Curious about what else the site might reveal, Poveromo contacted Dr. David Bernstein from Stony Brook University’s anthropology department who came to visit the property.
“I thought about digging more and clearing the foundation, but he said if you uncover artifacts, you then have to put them in a climate controlled environment,” notes Poveromo.
So for now, any artifacts at the site remain undisturbed. Though Poveromo notes Dr. Bernstein may come back with some graduate students at some point to do a sonar exploration of what lies beneath. History does show, however, that once Isaac Van Scoy moved into his house, he never left. Mercy died in 1782 at the age 50. Next, Van Scoy married Elizabeth Dibble who brought several children of her own to the marriage.
“He lived in the house from 1771 until 1816, when he died,” says Poveromo. “His progeny kept it until 1881, then they sold it to the Talmages who took off the two wings, which were then attached to a Georgica house.”
In the years that followed, Van Scoy’s house was abandoned and dismantled brick by brick and the foliage took over. Today, there are only a few broken bricks remaining along with foundation stones and a flat rock that Poveromo believes may have been the base of the chimney.
Which raises the question — why did Van Scoy’s descendents abandon the site? Poveromo explains that it was likely because conditions changed in the area. Over time, the available fresh water holes dried up, the land turned out to be of a poor quality for growing crops and, most importantly, Northwest Harbor silted up and became too shallow to be a workable port. In 1770, the year before Van Scoy finished his house, Long Wharf was built in Sag Harbor and by the 1780s the village had become the primary port for the area.
But Isaac Van Scoy still had an important role to play in the history of East Hampton. During the Revolutionary War, the British occupied eastern Long Island and kept their ships in the waters of Northwest Harbor. Poveromo notes that one day, Van Scoy sold some goods and received 50 English pounds in return.
“The British soldiers heard about it and raided his home,” says Poveromo. “The soldiers broke into his house to steal his money. But Isaac kept a pitchfork by his side. He killed a soldier and stabbed another. Four others took him to a prison ship.”
“But Isaac’s friends rowed out and night and he wriggled out through a porthole and made it back to Northwest,” adds Poveromo.
“Though he had to hide out the rest of the war, he was a Revolutionary war hero,” says Poveromo.
A ceremony to celebrate the opening of the 18th Century Van Scoy Family Home Site,” (along with the well, the cemetery and the 1827 schoolhouse which was built on land leased from the Van Scoys) will be held on Saturday, May 28 at 10 a.m. at the Grassy Hollow Nature Preserve, accessible from the Schoolhouse Plaque on Northwest Road, East Hampton. Speakers will include East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Jr. and Richard Poveromo, who will talk about how work on the site was done. Afterwards, Lee Dion of the EHTPS, will lead an optional three mile hike through the Grace Estate “Ghost Town” an 18th century settlement of farms, mills, wharves and warehouses along Northwest Harbor. For more information, call 324-1127.