Were Southold mile markers really placed by Ben Franklin?

04/27/2015 8:00 AM |
George Cork Maul, a Southold Town 375th Anniversary Committee member, in front of a mile markers along Main Road in Peconic. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

George Cork Maul, a Southold Town 375th Anniversary Committee member, in front of a mile markers along Main Road in Peconic. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

There were a lot of things Benjamin Franklin accomplished in his life.

The Founding Father invented bifocal lenses and the lightning rod, was a successful newspaper printer, served as America’s diplomat to Paris during the Revolutionary War and signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

But one thing he did not do, local historians now say, was place mile markers along Southold Town’s Main Road. 

A recent investigation by Oysterponds Historical Society historian Amy Folk has debunked the long-held myth, revealing the set of stone mile markers — which legend says were placed there by Franklin himself in 1755 — were in fact installed nearly 75 years later by the town.

The Founding Father, Ms. Folk said, had nothing to do with it.

“I’ve been saying ‘I’m sorry’ to a lot of people,” Ms. Folk joked. “A lot of people are really disappointed that Benjamin Franklin didn’t do it.”

Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming isn’t one of them.

“I’m thrilled that we figured it out,” he said. “Some people hate it, but I’m thrilled that we know the truth, because it didn’t make sense before.”

Ms. Folk’s investigation began about two months ago, when the Oysterponds Historical Society offered to create a powerpoint presentation for children to educate them on the set of nearly two dozen stones — which were recognized as “Benjamin Franklin’s Milemarkers” in a Town Historic Landmark declaration in 1995.

But from the get-go, Ms. Folk realized there were holes in the myth.

“I sat down and read what was known about the mile markers and I said, ‘Something’s not right. Something doesn’t add up,’” she said.

One of the biggest red flags is the year Mr. Franklin supposedly set down the stones: 1755.

Joseph-Siffred Duplessis' famous portrait of Benjamin Franklin, painted in 1778. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Joseph-Siffred Duplessis’ famous portrait of Benjamin Franklin, painted in 1778. (Credit: Wikimedia)

The date comes from an 1850s journal entry by Augustus Griffin, a local historian who lived in Orient.

In the journal, Mr. Griffin recounts a story that Mr. Franklin came to the North Fork in 1755 to take the ferry to New London on the way to visit his mother.

Mr. Griffin writes that Mr. Franklin used a special type of odometer to measure the roadway into Southold, where he stayed at Mr. Griffin’s grandfather’s inn before traveling on.

“Griffin never talks about him putting in mile stones,” Ms. Folk said. “And the legend says that Benjamin Franklin personally had the stones put in.”

Mr. Griffin was writing a century after Mr. Franklin’s supposed trip, but Ms. Folk said the historian is surprisingly reliable when it comes to North Fork history and gossip.

There’s just one problem with the Benjamin Franklin supposed trip, according to Ms. Folk.

“It’d be a little difficult because his mother died in 1752,” Ms. Folk said. “Did [Mr. Griffin] get the wrong date? Probably.”

Her theory is further backed up by a letter written by Mr. Franklin to a friend in 1750 describing a Southold visit. Ms. Folk said this indicates Mr. Franklin was definitely on the North Fork, but that the date was probably sometime in 1750 or the prior year.

The next blow to the myth came when Ms. Folk investigated the mile markers’ starting point, one of the legend’s biggest weaknesses.

Historians have long theorized why the stones stop at the Southold Town line in Laurel and don’t continue on into Riverhead.

The prevailing theory had been that Riverhead had markers made of wood, which disintegrated over the years, but the very premise of the stone markers starting at the Southold Town line doesn’t make sense, Ms. Folk said.

Riverhead wasn’t a town when Mr. Franklin visited the North Fork. It was incorporated in 1792, nearly 50 years after Mr. Franklin supposedly created the markers.

“In 1755 or 1750, the western border of Southold Town was Wading River,” she said. “Why would Benjamin Franklin come halfway into town and start placing stones?”

It couldn’t have been to point to the post office, as the legend has it, because the first post office wasn’t created in Riverhead until 1794, four years after Mr. Franklin died.

The 1995 dedication of the mile markers as a historic landmark in Southold Town. (Credit: Southold Town website)

The 1995 dedication of the mile markers as a historic landmark in Southold Town. (Credit: Southold Town website)

Yet the stones as they are today still measure to the former post office building. Mr. Franklin makes no mention of installing stones on the North Fork in his autobiography, so something was still missing, Ms. Folk thought.

That final nail in the coffin came when Ms. Folk uncovered an obscure state law passed in 1829 that required towns to install wooden or rock marker posts along postal routes.

Armed with the right year to search in, Ms. Folk dug through Southold Town’s old ledger books. On page 42 of one of the record books, she hit the jackpot.

“Resolved that the commissioners of roads survey the post road from the Western line of the Town to Oysterponds Point and set up Mile Stones lettered with a chisel,” reads a resolution from the April 7, 1829 meeting of the Town Board.

“I squeaked,” Ms. Folk said. “I just went, ‘Ah! I Found it!’”

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Mr. Fleming agreed.

The legend of Ben Franklin’s involvement came from a conflation of several myths, including Mr. Griffin’s journal entry and a pair of books of dubious historical accuracy written in the late 1800s and early 1900s that place Benjamin Franklin at the center of the mile marker mystery.

The truth of the mile marker’s origins won’t damper plans by the Southold Town 375th Anniversary Committee to host an entire day celebrating the mile markers, said George Cork Maul, the committee member handling the event.

“My immediate reaction was ‘Why now?’” he said when he heard the news. “But when I thought about it, I said, ‘Please, find out more.’”

Mr. Maul said the markers are still fascinating, even if they weren’t installed by the Founding Father.

He said, “1829 is a long time ago and the fact that they’re all still here is an amazing tribute to the Town of Southold … I’m really glad that Amy has found more truth in the history, because the more we find out about history, the more amazing it is.”

The event is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Saturday, May 16, and last until 5 p.m. Visitors can visit the first mile marker in Laurel to pick up a brochure detailing the locations of the remaining markers, Mr. Maul said.

Families and visitors can then visit each marker to answer trivia questions, enjoying music and other festivities along the way. At the last stop, a re-enactor — dressed as Mr. Franklin — will stamp postcards with a unique stamp made for the event.

Instead of explaining how he created the mile markers, the re-enactor will detail the Founding Father’s other accomplishments, touching on how the stories of his North Fork experience spread.

Historian Amy Folk, left, at a Candlelight Tour in 2011. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo file)

Historian Amy Folk, left, at a Candlelight Tour in 2011. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo file)

Yet not all historians are quick to accept all of Ms. Folk’s thesis.

Zachary Studenroth, director of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, had done his own research on the mile markers for his work on a historical book from “Images of America.”

In the book, Mr. Studenroth credits Mr. Franklin with installing the mile markers, four of which exist within Cutchogue’s borders.

But Mr. Studenroth, a specialist in historical buildings, said something about the mile markers always struck him as odd: the type of stone the markers were made of.

The blocks are carved from gneiss, a type of stratified rock formed when granite is subjected to high pressure and heat. Gneiss is easier to extract from quarries, but didn’t see wide use until the 19th century, long after Mr. Franklin supposedly set down the North Fork’s mile markers.

“It’s a little early to be seeing stone of that type being quarried,” he said. “I look at these stones forensically. They’re objects, just like houses.”

Mr. Studenroth called Ms. Folk’s find “fantastic.”

“For me, these are very old artifacts,” he said. “The more we can find out about it the better.”

But he disagrees with her assertion that the mile markers have nothing to do with Mr. Franklin.

Mr. Studenroth repeated that Mr. Franklin himself stated he visited the North Fork sometime around 1750, and while the Founding Father wasn’t yet the American Postmaster General, he did work as a joint postmaster for the British Crown’s American colonies starting in 1753.

The stone markers, Mr. Studenroth said, may have replaced earlier markers set by Mr. Franklin or his crews.

“How do we know they’re not related?” Mr. Studenroth said. “I just come to a different conclusion with all the same facts.”

Yet the historians and committee members agree: Whether or not the mile markers were Mr. Franklin’s, they’re still worth preserving and celebrating.

Ms. Folk said the markers represent likely the only remaining complete sets of stone mile markers in the Northeast, and Mr. Studenroth called them a “phenomenal historical resource.”

At the very least, he said, the legend of Ben Franklin and his mile markers — true or not — opens locals up to the history of an infant America and one of her greatest advocates.

“They are a lasting legacy of a system that had a lot to do with Franklin the postmaster,” Mr. Studenroth said. “What else do we have that’s tangibly present on the North Fork that makes us talk about Benjamin Franklin?”

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This mile marker in Mattituck marks 10 miles to the Suffolk County Courthouse. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

This mile marker in Mattituck marks 10 miles to the former Suffolk County Courthouse on Peconic Avenue, which was once home to the post office. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

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