Suffolk County Historical Society to host presentation on Gardiners Island

For residents of Shelter Island, who regard Gardiners Island as a distant, somewhat mysterious cousin, there can be few guides as well-acquainted with this 3,300-acre jewel as Karl Grossman, a journalist who first ventured there almost 50 years ago. Mr. Grossman, who has covered Long Island for more than four decades, writes the Suffolk Closeup column that appears in many publications. He first met Robert David Lion Gardiner, the self-described “16th Lord of the Manor,” when he covered a large campout of Boy Scouts hosted by Mr. Gardiner in 1971.

“He was a very colorful character, a walking treasure in regard to oral history,” said Mr. Grossman in an interview, “but very eccentric.”

On Saturday, Oct. 19, Mr. Grossman will give a presentation on the Gardiners and the island at the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum in Riverhead. It will include a screening of the Gardiners Island portion of Mr. Grossman’s 1974 documentary, “Can Suffolk Be Saved?”

“Mr. Gardiner liked to show off the island, and tell the stories of his family’s four centuries on the island — the oldest English settlement in New York,” Mr. Grossman recalled. “Mr. Gardiner gets really animated in the film; he was really focused on the environment. In 1974 he was speaking out about plastic.”

A stunning landmark on the island is a Dominy windmill, built in 1795. “It’s striking to see this beautiful white windmill from a boat as you approach the island,” Mr. Grossman said. “It’s just as beautiful inside. It’s an utter gem.” There is a carpenter’s shed, built in 1639, said to be the oldest surviving wood-frame structure in New York State.

Over the years, Mr. Gardiner engaged in a bitter feud with his niece, Alexandra Gardiner Creel, over ownership of the island and plans for its future.

This past week, Robert Goelet, husband of Alexandra Gardiner Creel, died at age 96. His obituary in The New York Times, written by Sam Roberts, described him as a “grandee and naturalist.”

Scion of a French Huguenot family that settled in this country in the 17th century, Mr. Goelet brought his family’s wealth to support not only Gardiners Island, but several major cultural institutions in New York. He was president of the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Historical Society and the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society).

Mrs. Goelet is an environmentalist, Mr. Grossman said, and holds a master’s degree from the Yale School of Forestry. He describes the Goelets, as well as Mr. Gardiner, as excellent stewards of the island.

The Goelets had two children, Alexandra and Robert Gardiner Goelet. According to the Times account, they run a family investment office and state that they will preserve the island through trusts as the family home and as a wildlife sanctuary in perpetuity. Mr. Grossman said he has no concerns about the near term future of the island and the Goelets’ commitment, but questions whether some governmental action to protect it from development may be needed “for 400 years from now. We owe it to the future to make sure Gardiners Island remains totally preserved.”

Mr. Grossman describes the island as an environmental “gem,” quoting from an article by the late Paul Stoutenburgh, who wrote about nature for The Suffolk Times, about participating in an annual bird count on Gardiners Island: “Incredibly, he wrote, ospreys built their nests right on the beach.”

The island’s Bostwick Forest, Mr. Grossman describes as “breathtaking: a 1,000-acre virgin forest of pre-Columbian white oak.”

Calling Gardiners Island a “time capsule,” Mr. Grossman compared the island to Shelter Island’s Mashomack Preserve and Sylvester Manor. “It’s very close to the time period of Sylvester Manor. The way the manor has been preserved is a great environmental and historical success story. Their histories are so parallel. There were slave quarters on Gardiners Island also.”

Along with centuries of history, there is also the mystery surrounding pirate Captain Kidd’s buried treasure on the island, and the lore of the first “Lord,” Lion Gardiner, acquiring the island from the Montaukett Indians in 1639 for, reportedly “one large dog, one gun, some powder and shot, some rum and several blankets.”

For those who can’t attend Mr. Grossman’s talk on Saturday at 1 p.m., the museum has a special ongoing exhibit on Gardiners Island and plans to screen the Grossman film along with a longer film on the island. For information or tickets to Saturday’s presentation, call 631-727-2881, ext. 100.

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