BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Bennett Konesni with guitar and wife Edith Gawler Konesni at the ‘Blue Highway’ bluegrass concert before a packed house at the Shelter Island School in January to benefit Sylvester Manor.
About six years ago, the heir of Sylvester Manor, Eben Ostby, turned to a young man from Maine, his nephew Bennett Konesni, to help him figure out what to do with the 17th-century family holding on Shelter Island last occupied by Mr. Ostby’s aunt by marriage, Alice Fiske.
Preservation of the manor’s 18th-century house and remaining 241 acres was their goal — but how could it be done in a way that was financially self-sustaining, a way that would keep the manor safe from development for generations to come without costing Mr. Ostby millions?
The 50-year-old co-founder of Pixar, the animation studio now owned by the Disney company, Mr. Ostby some weeks ago talked in a phone interview about that challenge. Soon after, his 29-year-old nephew Bennett spoke at length about it in a chat in the chilly manor house.
Under Mr. Konesni’s guidance, his vision for a self-sustaining organic farm has been implemented over the past four years through the creation of the non-profit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, Inc.
Its mission is to produce, promote and celebrate locally grown, organic food as a working CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. Through member-sponsored farm plots, sales at its farmstand on Manwaring Road and to area restaurants, fees collected for its educational programs and cultural events, the goal is keep the property productive and important to the community. Fundraising is also a major element of the plan.
How and why did Bennett Konesni came up with the vision for the historic property, which is said to be the only intact slave plantation north of Virginia — and yet is barely known beyond Shelter Island and a few historians and archeologists? And just who is this creative and marketing force behind the manor preservation effort?
Mr. Ostby, who grew up in Connecticut and lives in California, is the nephew of Andrew Fiske, a Sylvester descendent known as the 13th “Lord of the Manor.” The first was Nathaniel Sylvester, a Barbados sugar merchant, who with partners bought all of Shelter Island in 1652 from the Manhansett Indians. Mr. Fiske, who died in 1992 at age 80, left the property to Mr. Ostby, subject to a life estate he granted his wife, Alice Fiske. She died in 2008 at age 88.
“As a kid, my family came frequently to visit Allie and Andrew,” Mr. Ostby recalled in a phone interview. “I was always a little cowed by Alice. She was a formidable figure to deal with for a kid.” When she died and the property came under his control, “We faced a looming decision,” he said: sell its 241 acres, mostly zoned for one-acre house lots, or try to preserve it somehow.
“Nobody wants to look a gift horse in the mouth today,” Mr. Ostby said of the option of cashing in on real estate worth millions: it was assessed at $15.68 million in 2011 and more than that before the market slumped. “Sometimes you look longingly at that prospect,” he said, describing himself as “not a wealthy guy.”
“Let a developer make his zillions and take one’s share. But I can’t do that. It’s been a family place for generations.” He said that “although I knew I wasn’t going to live there, I felt it was really important” to keep it functioning as “something akin to what it has been” — a working farm for most of its existence.
“It’s always possible that terrible things will happen,” said Mr. Ostby, but he added, “I’m not scared” the operation will stumble financially. The “development rights sale should provide enough of a cushion to make it through the next few years.”
Intended to preserve part of the manor property as open space no matter what happens to the farm operation, development rights deals on two manor parcels totalling about 80 acres are expected to close this year, with the county paying 70 percent of the $7.25-million price tag and the town paying the rest through its 2-percent preservation tax, paid by the buyers of Island real estate.
The farm is meeting its fundraising goals. The manor’s executive director, Cara Loriz (former editor of the Shelter Island Reporter), announced in a letter to the editor recently that the farm’s foundation had raised $250,000 in donations during 2011. Mr. Ostby has promised to match donations if they reached that level. In a letter to the community that appeared as a full-page ad in the Reporter of December 23, 2010, he pledged to match gifts of $1 million over four years.
Mr. Ostby turned to his nephew from Maine because Mr. Konesni knew the manor better than anyone else in the family; he also had a background in farming and environmental studies. Asked to write an essay in high school conveying “a platonic idea” of himself, he recalled, he wrote he should be seen either as a schooner captain or a farmer “because for me it’s about creating a good quality of life, a life worth living, essentially a life that’s fulfilling, that’s outside, that’s filled with community and landscape and good food, history, all the things that to me make life worth living and meaningful.”
A 2004 graduate of Middlebury College with a double major in music and environmental studies, Mr. Konesni also holds a master’s degree in business from Antioch New England in organizational development — a course of study he pursued after committing himself in 2007 to Sylvester Manor’s reincarnation as a working farm.
He grew up in Islesboro, Maine, population 800 in winter and 1,200 in summer, he said. On an island three miles offshore in Penobscot Bay, the town hired his mother, a physician’s assistant, to run its health center in her own house. Bennett remembers lobstermen clomping into the house through the back door at all hours to get medical attention. His father, a nurse — the couple had met at Memorial Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where Bennett was born in 1982 — was “Mr. Mom,” as Mr. Konesni put it.
The couple bought 14 acres on the mainland in Appleton, an old farming village, in part so Bennett could go to the Appleton Village School. They lived in a tent on the property for a year, during which time his mother commuted to a job as a PA in Rockport, Maine.
Ilseboro missed her. When Mr. Konesni went on to boarding school at Pomfret in Connecticut, his mother went back to the island and ran the health center until her retirement in 2011; she continues to live in Maine and works part-time at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Augusta. His father died of a heart attack in 2006 at age 63.
Bennett’s mother is Eben Ostby’s sister. He remembers occasional family trips to Sylvester Manor to see Uncle Andy and Aunt Allie.
“What I remember is the smell of the gardens. We used to run through the gardens and boxwood. Allie would serve Pringles on a platter. We were not allowed to eat Pringles at home. It was just amazing; I love Pringles.” Allie wore her trademark “hat and gloves and whole thing.”
“When I was a freshman in college, the U-Mass dig had just started here,” he said, referring to excavations that Mrs. Fiske allowed in the front yard of her 18th-century manor house beginning in 2001. “There was buzz in the family,” Mr. Konesni remembered. As an anthropology student, he could get credit for interning at the dig. “It seemed like an amazing opportunity to come down and learn about my family, work an actual archeological dig and really get to meet Alice, who is sort of the link. Because I never knew Andy.” Bennett was 10 when Mr. Fiske, his grandmother’s brother, died at age 80 in 1992.
“Alice said you can stay three days, three weeks or three months when I called her up. Stay as long as you’d like.”
“We got along really well. We played backgammon in the afternoons after the dig. She’d introduce me to people. I had jobs on local farms. In June, I was part of the dig. On weekends, I would go to Quail Hill Farm [in Amagansett] and Green Thumb [another organic farm, in Water Mill]. I started by volunteering and convinced them to hire me.
“When the dig was done, I had these jobs … [so] I asked Allie was it all right if I stayed through the summer. I was really enjoying myself. And so I suddenly was the expert on Sylvester Manor in the family and the one who really loved it here. Nobody else had spent any time here, really, to speak of.”
Mr. Konesni explained that there had been some divisions in the family dating back to the 1940s, when his great-grandfather had died without a will, six months after inheriting the property. His children, including Andrew Fiske, went to court over the disposition of the manor.
“For 30 years, there was this kind of deep chill about Sylvester Manor which affected Andy’s generation and his kids’ generation, which is my parents’. So they didn’t come around much when they were young and the fact that I spent the whole summer here was a big shift. And suddenly I’d been in on this dig and on early family history, so it was kind of natural for Eben to reach out to me and say, ‘What do you think?’”
Coming soon, Part II: Mr. Konesni’s vision and hopes for Sylvester Manor. To hear an excerpt of the Reporter’s interview with him, click here.