During the Revolutionary War, the Royal Navy maintained a presence on the East End. Cherry Harbor on the west side of Gardiner’s Island was a favorite anchorage. Not far away to the west was the Northwest settlement, the heart of East Hampton at the time.
The Brits caused all sorts of trouble, commandeering equipment, cattle, food, whatever they wanted from the locals. But when they raided Isaac Van Scoy’s 180-acre farm beside Northwest Harbor to take 50 pounds they heard he’d received in pay for produce, they were met with a two-tined pitchfork that left one of them dead, and two wounded.
Farmer Van Scoy was captured and imprisoned on a ship anchored in Sag Harbor to await trial, but was freed by friends who rowed offshore and helped pull him through a hatch. According to local lore, he spent the rest of the war hiding deep in Northwest Woods, probably within spitting distance of the farmhouse, well, outbuildings, and livestock pen he was forced to abandon until war’s end.
The Van Scoy homestead has been brought back to life, literally uncovered by members of the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society in cooperation with the East Hampton Town office of land management. It took over 230 hours of work by 35 volunteers to remove deadfall and vines from the foundation stones for the cellar of the Van Scoy house, built in 1771 to replace an older structure made of earth and logs.
On May 28, starting at 10 a.m., the trails society will celebrate the opening of the Van Scoy family site located on the town’s Grassy Hollow Nature Preserve off Northwest Road across from the Grace Estate. The Paumanok Path hiking trail runs through the preserve. A guided, three-mile hike led by Lee Dion will follow the ceremony.
Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. will be on hand, as will Richard Poveromo, the trails society’s vice president for trails maintenance.
On Friday with sunshine streaming through boughs of dogwood blossoms, Mr. Poveromo offered an advance look at the society’s work, starting with a visit to the graves of Isaac Van Scoy and his wife, the former Mercy Edwards, whom he married in 1757. The couple had 15 children; only 8 survived infancy.
Beside Mr. Van Scoy’s broken headstone stands a small American flag, a tribute to his service to the revolutionary cause. He died in 1816, but his family stayed on until farming moved south, and commerce moved east.
Isaac Van Scoy is said to be the first farmer to convert open grassland to farmland in Northwest, a section of East Hampton that stretches from Sag Harbor on the west, past Barcelona (Russell’s) Neck to Northwest Creek, and east past Cedar Point to Hedges Banks and beyond, all the way to Three Mile Harbor.
Mr. Van Scoy’s spread was one of 15 large farms that busied an area already bustling due to the fact that Northwest Harbor was the seat of trade between New England and even the Caribbean until the mid-19th century, when the whaling industry’s bigger ships required the deeper waters of Sag Harbor. By 1885, the harbor and its surrounding farms — which suffered from poor soil relative to the more fertile soil in Wainscott, Sagaponack, and Bridgehampton — were virtually abandoned, although a determined man named Josiah Kirk hung on.
Mr. Kirk figures prominently in the centuries-old debate over use of East Hampton’s beaches. In 1860, he purchased 391 acres not far from the Van Scoy farm and immediately set about trying to stop his neighbors from “carting,” that is, collecting salt hay and eelgrass from the beach as they had done for the previous 200 years.
The seaweed was used for insulation, furniture and mattress stuffing, and bedding for livestock. It took 21 years of litigation for him to finally win his suit (actually, he won by default when the trustees voted not to finance future court battles), but he spent $40,000 dollars in the process, a fortune at the time. He died destitute.
On Friday, Mr. Poveromo pointed out the foundation of the one-room schoolhouse that once stood on Van Scoy land. Once the school’s exact location was found, the schoolhouse plaque that has stood beside Northwest Road for years had to be moved about 50 feet to align it with the newly discovered foundation stones.
In 1793, East Hampton Town Trustees hired Henry Dominy to build the school. A flat rock was the first clue to its exact location. “I had noticed the stepping stone at the corner of the schoolhouse behind the Clinton Academy,” he said. The stone stoop was placed at the corner of the small building in front of the door. The corner beam was used as half of the doorjamb to make for simple construction.
Using the stepping stone as a reference point, Mr. Poveromo used a stake to prod the ground along straight lines to find the other stones, now under a top layer of soil, that had served as the school’s foundation.
Cedar beams were then placed along the foundation to indicate the school’s 16-by-22-foot footprint. The school closed in 1885, two years after the Van Scoy family abandoned their homestead and moved to Bridgehampton.
The trails society volunteers removed more than half a century of debris from the cellar and foundation of the Van Scoy family house completed in 1771, and also capped a well that Mr. Poveromo said might have been fed by an underground tributary to nearby ponds. The bricks that remain scattered in the basement area of the house were made of clay from local pits, Mr. Poveromo said, and were perhaps fired at Isaac Barnes’s brick kiln near Fresh Pond in Amagansett. Isaac Van Scoy was brought up by Isaac Barnes.
For those who can’t make the May 28 ceremony and walk, a booklet directing a three-mile, self-guided walking tour through the history of Northwest can be obtained from the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society, P.O. Box 2144, Amagansett 11930.