Part of Southold Town’s 375th Anniversary will be a celebration of the Benjamin Franklin mile markers, believed to have been measured out by Franklin alongside what was then known as “The Kings Highway” from Laurel to Orient in 1755.
In the process, 375th committee members have found that telling the tale of the past is a bit like peeling an onion — one that has been peeled before but keeps growing newer, thicker skin as the centuries continue to pass and information once known becomes hidden and then resurfaces.
On May 16, the 375th Committee is hosting “Mile Marker Day,” a series of events all along the 23-mile route of the markers, originally placed to calculate postal rates when Franklin served as the colonial postmaster. In those days, postal rates were calculated by the distance letters were carried, often to rural areas that didn’t have post offices.
The original route of the mile markers ran from the Suffolk courthouse in what is now Riverhead, but the markers in Riverhead Town no longer exist. Each stone marks the distance from “Suffolk CH.”
Attendees at Mile Marker Day will be asked to start their voyage at the westernmost remaining mile marker, Marker #7, on Franklinville Road in Laurel, where they will be given a series of riddles about each mile marker they pass as they head east along the route.
After they check in at the final marker in Orient, Benjamin Franklin himself will stamp a postcard, designed by artist Alan Bull, with an official commemorative stamp cancellation.
There will also be music, refreshments and performances at selected mile markers along the way.
Daniel McCarthy, an author of many local history articles who works in the Whitaker Historical Collection room of the Southold Library, will play Benjamin Franklin.
Mr. McCarthy is also a stamp collector, and has been working with the Southold Post Office to prepare the commemorative stamp cancellation for the event.
He’s also written an article, to appear in this month’s Peconic Bay Shopper, which talks about several attempts to discredit the story of Ben Franklin’s trip to the North Fork.
Mr. McCarthy quotes Yale professor Leonard Larabee, first editor of “The Papers of Benjamin Franklin,” who wrote in a letter that “milestones were essentially embellishment… of no particular use to the postal service.”
Mr. Larabee added that he believes Benjamin Franklin’s visit to Long Island could have been in 1750, not 1755.
But local accounts place Franklin in Southold at both times.
The 1757 journal of North Fork resident Augustus Griffin, published in 1857, reports that “about two years previous to this, Dr. Benjamin Franklin passed through this island, from Brooklyn to Southold Harbor, and in a carriage of his own construction. It was so contrived, with clock work or machinery of peculiar make, that a bell would be struck at the termination of every twenty rods.”
“By this means,” he added, “the Doctor measured the distance accurately — his object, no doubt, being to ascertain the length of the island; and it seems a little strange that he did not proceed to the end. He stopped at the inn of my grandfather, Samuel Griffin, at the Harbor and who took him, the following day, across the Sound to New London. The Doctor was on his way to Boston to visit his widowed mother.”
Benjamin Franklin also made reference in a 1750 letter to Jared Eliot to a type of fence he’d seen for the first time when visiting Southold, asking for more information on the fence from Southold minister William Throop.
The John J. Sullivan Hotel in Riverhead, now home to Tweeds Restaurant, also claims Benjamin Franklin stayed there en route to mark out the North Fork mile marker path. The paperwork for Riverhead’s application to the National Register of Historic Places for a Downtown Historic District places Franklin’s journey down the North Fork in 1753.
According to that document, “the nascent village [of Riverhead] was initially called “Suffolk Court House” and all of Franklin’s milestones measured the distance to “Suffolk C.H.” The land that comprises the Town of Riverhead was part of Southold Town until Riverhead was established in 1792.