A Stony Brook story for the holidays
On Dec. 12th, 2020 we lost a member of the Three Village community and a cornerstone of Stony Brook history with the passing of Beatrice Jayne at the age of 93. The Three Village Historical Society sends its condolences and thoughts to her children Susan, Patricia, Deborah, and Michael, her grandson Philip, and her brother Bruce and their families. Bea was a major contributor to the society's Arcadia publication Images of America: Stony Brook (2003) for which she shared a wealth of knowledge and stories about the history of Stony Brook and its residents past and present. She was a founding member of the Stony Brook Historical Society, in 1998 the SBHS consolidated with the Three Village Historical Society. One of the traditions of the Stony Brook Historical Society she told us was the reading of Edward A. Lapham’s short story A Forgotten Christmas, set in early 19th century Stony Brook.
A Forgotten Christmas by Edward A. Lapham
This story was privately printed (150 copies) by the author for Christmas 1935. An original of this booklet is in the papers of the SBHS at TVHS. We present below an abridged version of the story with illustrations and references added. Mr. Lapham is also the author of the book Stony Brook Secrets (Gotham Bookmart Press, 1942).
Christmas 1814 promised to be a sorry day for the people living at Stony Brook, Long Island.
Snow had fallen for several days, the roads leading into the village were completely blocked, the harbor was choked with ice...That in itself was nothing to be alarmed about, it had happened before. But things had been bad this Winter, men from the garrison at Sag Harbor had confiscated most of their fowl and cattle, leaving only the poorest which had died from cold and lack of food. The harvest had been poor, weeks of rainy weather during the Fall caused hay, corn, pumpkins, and other products to rot. This had followed an unusually dry Summer. In normal times, food would have come in on the boats; but this second war with England had lasted two years, and many of the trading ships were pirating on the high seas. The last boat from New York had arrived over two months before...Now, food was practically gone...True, old Captain Mark Waterbury had left for New York City fully a month ago in his sloop “Sea Gull” and had promised to be back before Christmas with a load of provisions. But Mark was not a very reliable person. Joshua Hawkins, who had financed the trip, was willing to admit that Captain Mark had probably gone on a drinking spree in New York and had forgotten the folks back home. Most of the villagers felt this was the case.
The roads in the village had been kept open with much hard work. Early Christmas Eve the snow ceased to fall, and all the male population gathered in Joshua Hawkins’ store, at the crossroads, to distribute the little food that was left so no one would actually starve on Christmas Day...to face the women and children in every home and admit that there would be no real Christmas dinners, no goodies, no toys, would be torture. They would hold the Christmas exercises at the church later in the evening as usual but it would be a sorry affair. Could George Mount muster courage to play Santa Claus as planned?... the door burst open and in stumbled Sarah Young!
“He has come!” she shouted and dropped exhausted to the floor...
Captain Mark Waterbury...Old Sarah had maintained all along that he would return in time. Since he left, she had spent most of the days and part of the nights looking over the Sound, looking for that graceful white sloop, the “Sea Gull.”...She had stood by him when everyone else condemned him as a drunkard. Captain Mark had wanted to marry her years ago when they were young. She has refused because of his drinking and married Samuel Young. Folks knew she really loved Mark and that she had regretted she had not married him and tried to reform him. After Samuel died, she visited Mark’s house every time he went off in his sloop. She tidied house, mended his clothes, and baked him bread...
Sure enough, there it was near enough so that there was no doubt, a sloop coming in with the ice and tide. Despite the ice incrusted masts, the ice and snow covered cabin and decks, all recognized the “Sea Gull.” The sails were ripped and torn-useless... These seafaring people realized that hours and days of hardship must have been endured by Captain Mark to reach the mouth of the harbor. His hat and coat were as white with snow as the deck around him, his beard a mass of icicles...he had made the trip alone...After much pulling and tugging, the “Sea Gull” was docked and Captain Mark helped ashore amid a barrage of questions...
The captain’s eyes had a glassy stare, he moved with difficulty, there was a strong smell of rum. He answered in a slow jerky manner, “Plenty of food…plenty of drink, clothes and shoes…tobacco…toys…all on board…what’s the date? Am I too late?"
“It is Christmas Eve,” shouted many, “You’re just in time, you’re a real Santa Claus.”
“A real Santa Claus,” repeated Mark with a dry chuckle, “A real Santa Claus you say and not a damn one of you thought the drunken fool could make it. Well he did and…”? There he stopped, the glassy eyes brightened, a faint smile played across the weather beaten face, then he continued “Only Sarah knew I’d make it-only Sarah-dear good Sarah.” He staggered toward where she stood, apart from the rest, wrapped in her great shawl. As he reached her, she opened the shawl and threw part of it over him and with her arm around his waist helping, they moved slowly off toward the little cottage that was Mark’s home.
The people watched in silence for a few moments and then their thoughts went back to the supplies...Meat, fowl, grain, dried fruit, tea, coffee, spices, clothes, toys, books and wine. Something for everyone, plenty for all... The grain was taken to the gristmill. The ice was chopped from the water wheel and fires built around the water gate so it could be lifted to permit the lower unfrozen water to flow. The water wheel turned and for the first time in many weeks the stone grinders chewed kernels of grain to flour...
The exercises at the church were late in starting-there had been much to do, but what a grand time it was. The children spoke pieces with unbelievable enthusiasm, songs were sung so loudly that the rafters shook-and Santa Claus! George Mount was never better-a joke for everyone; a gift for all...
But there were two people who hadn’t been at the church, two who hadn’t been missed, and they were the two who had made it all possible.
Sarah had helped Mark home...she had helped him to bed, had heated the warming pans in the fireplace with a few logs that remained in the wood box. They had not talked, but there was a brightness in their eyes that showed there was communication of thought. Sarah knew she should go to her own home for wood, for the house was cold, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave him and she reasoned that men would soon call bringing wood and food; so she sat by the bedside. She felt that at last he was hers. Why was she so sure? Why did she know he was through drinking forever? Why was it she knew they would never part? She sought his hand and pressed it-he pressed hers in return as a smile of contentment spread over his face...she had never realized that his old face though wind beaten and scarred was still young and childlike. Wonderful how that smile held as if it would never change. She closed her eyes...It didn’t seem so cold now, even with the fire burned out. She hoped the men wouldn’t come too soon…was it a dream?...no, it was going to last forever.
Late Christmas day the men did come...They had forgotten for a time their real Santa Claus...now they were here with everything to make amends. Their knock was unanswered, their calls unheard.
Sarah and Mark had accomplished in death what they had not dared in life, they had eloped, eloped into the unknown. The clue to their accomplishment was the smile on their frozen faces.
For more Three Village holiday traditions look for part II
Additional resources and topics of interest:
War of 1812
The Year without a Summer -1816
A little history on snow removal