Grathwohl remembered as passionate keeper of town history

When it came to the history of Cutchogue, the hamlet where James “Jim” Grathwohl was born in 1937, no one knew it better. 

From the story of the Old House on the Village Green to the history of the Cutchogue Presbyterian Church that dates to the early 1700s, Mr. Grathwohl could talk happily and with deep knowledge for hours about the past of the hamlet he loved. 

Mr. Grathwohl, a descendant of the first English settlers on the North Fork, who was a supporter of nearly every historical society and council in Southold and was an ardent preservationist and advocate for historic landmarks, died Jan. 28 at his home in Cutchogue. He was 84.

As one of the founding members of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council in the early 1960s, Mr. Grathwohl helped to preserve the former Cutchogue Congregational Church that had evolved into the hamlet’s library. And it was Mr. Grathwohl who was a strong advocate for the preservation of the Old House on the Village Green that was, he believed, the oldest English-built home in New York State, dating to the 1640s. The dating of the Old House has recently been reevaluated to 1700 or even later.

“He was involved in everything that focused on the history of this area,” said Virginia McCaffrey, the vice president for administration for the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council. “He helped get it started and he was passionate about it.”

She said Mr. Grathwohl was involved in the renovation of the Old House and helped raise money for its preservation. Working with Peconic Land Trust, he helped steer efforts to save what is now Fort Corchaug, a wooded preserve just west of the Village Green that held a trading fort used by Native people at the time of European arrival.

“Jim was the local historian of Cutchogue.”

Tom Wickham

He was involved in so many community efforts, including as chairman of Southold’s Historic Preservation Commission, that The Suffolk Times named Mr. Grathwohl its Public Servant of the Year in 2016.

In that story, Supervisor Scott Russell said, “Jim has always brought his perspective that history is important, in every aspect in every institution in Southold Town. He makes sure everybody doesn’t forget that, as we live our lives in Southold Town, there were people here before us that were responsible for creating the Southold we live in today.”

The long list of local organizations in which Mr. Grathwohl was involved shows his deep involvement in historical, landmark preservation and environmental groups focused on Southold Town. With his popular walking tours of historic Cutchogue, Mr. Grathwohl was a sterling example of one person’s deep knowledge of the community in which he was born and raised. 

Grathwohl accepts his 2016 Public Servant of the Year honor from The Suffolk Times. (Credit: David Benthal)

“Jim was the local historian of Cutchogue,” said Thomas Wickham, a Cutchogue farmer whose earlier family members, including his grandmother and great aunt, Mr. Grathwohl often singled out as being his mentors for historic preservation of the hamlet.

“His family and mine were long-time members of the Cutchogue Presbyterian Church, which Jim helped get landmark status,” Mr. Wickham said in an email. “He served on the board of the Cutchogue Congregational Church and Society, now the Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library, and he was central to the restoration and interpretation of the historic Old House for over 60 years.

“With definite views clearly stated, he would have made an excellent town historian,” he added.

Mariella Ostroski, the local history librarian at Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library, who serves on the town’s Historic Preservation Commission, praised Mr. Grathwohl for having a strong sense of place.

“A sense of place and the unique character of the people of Southold Town meant everything to him,” she said. “Jim is remembered for his steadfast dedication and hard work devoted to the preservation of Southold’s landmarks. Jim loved the town and had undying respect for the generations before him who established wonderful communities and organizations that defined the town’s culture.“

In an email, Zach Studenroth, the former director of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, said, “We didn’t always agree. Jim had strong opinions. Preservationists are like that; they’re used to fighting uphill battles every time an old house or barn or church building is threatened with destruction.

“I didn’t have to agree with Jim to respect his passion to save what he believed was important,” he added. “He devoted a lot of time to that, chairing Southold Town’s Historic Preservation Commission and in many other ways. His accomplishments as a staunch preservationist will be felt by many in the town who never knew the man. Those of us who worked with Jim remember and appreciate his legacy.”

Amy Folk, Southold Town’s historian, said Mr. Grathwohl was passionate about his positions, but always gracious in sharing his deep knowledge. “We on several occasions agreed to disagree over a bit of history and yet he would never let the disagreement get in the way of our relationship and he would continue to generously share his knowledge,” she said.

“There are many words to describe Jim Grathwohl: gracious, passionate and a true gentleman are some that leap to mind. It is difficult to say goodbye to a man who has given our town so much,” she wrote in an email.

Mr. Grathwohl and his sister, Emily, grew up in a house on Alvahs Lane and then the house of an aunt on Main Road in Cutchogue. Like many houses in the hamlet, that one was built by their father, Corwin Grathwohl, a prominent builder in his day whose first name was the surname of generations of ancestors.

He is survived by his sister, Emily Victoria. She said a memorial service will take place at First Presbyterian Church of Southold at a later date, with burial in the Grathwohl family plot in the Cutchogue Cemetery.