The Peconic Riverfront in the 1890s. The Congregational Church in the background is still standing today.
The Peconic Riverfront in the 1890s. The Congregational Church in the background is still standing today.

On the heels of two successful Dodransquadricentennial celebrations in Southampton and Southold last year, Riverhead’s Quasquibicentennial this year has proved to inspire somewhat less interest — both an anniversary ball and a parade originally slated for the town’s 225th Anniversary were cancelled earlier this year.

That’s a shame for a town that knows how to throw a party, but the folks at the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum in Riverhead are making up for the lack in participation in other 225th anniversary celebrations with an exhibit through the end of the year featuring the best of what Riverhead has done in the years it has been a town.

The Riverhead Fire Department band, en route via train to a competition in Sayville.
The Riverhead Fire Department band, en route via train to a competition in Sayville.

Riverhead was originally part of Southold, said SCHS Executive Director Victoria Berger, and that makes their separation special in an area where most towns have been the same since colonial times ­— in Southold’s case, for what’s now been 377 years.

“It’s a big deal, proclaiming their independence,” said Ms. Berger of Riverhead’s leaving Southold. “It’s a monumental event.”

Divisions between Southold and the residents of the western edge of the original town weren’t quite as dramatic as those that launched revolutions. The relationship soured over the first century-and-a-half of Southold’s existence, due primarily to the fact that public business was handled at Southold village, “far removed from the Aquebogue and Riverhead territory,” according to interpretive labels in the exhibit. “The few residents in the western part of the town often found it difficult to get to the annual spring town meeting as the distance was great and such roads as where were would oftentimes be impassable.”

A water tower that once stood in Grangebel Park, which was donated to the town by Judge Timothy Griffing.
A water tower that once stood in Grangebel Park, which was donated to the town by Judge Timothy Griffing.

On January 11, 1792, a few of the leading men of Aquebogue brought the matter to the State Legislature, some asking that town meetings be held in Aquebogue in alternating years, and others demanding the town be divided.

The dividers won, and the town was officially organized on April 3, 1792, with its first meeting held at the home of John Griffing.

The museum’s anniversary exhibit, curated by its library director, Wendy Polhemus-Annibell, is on view through the end of the year.

Ms. Polhemus-Annibell, who posts the museum’s Photo of the Week on social media, said she always gets a great deal of feedback from Riverhead photos, even though she posts photos from throughout the county.

“They’re pretty passionate about their history,” she said of Riverhead residents. “And Southolders think of Riverhead as some different entity, but between 1640 and 1792, they were the same town. They’re so closely connected.”

“When Riverhead locals are here, they are talking about every place in town,” said Ms. Berger.

A Riverhead Savings Bank float in a 1959 parade.

The exhibit is broken into several sections of historical photographs and artifacts, including a section on historic parades (including a big one for the 175th anniversary in 1967) that drew tens of thousands people; a section on the County Fairgrounds that are now the Riverhead High School football field; a section on historic buildings; sections on Polish Town and on the school throughout the years, and a section on the stately wooden water tower that once stood in Grangebel Park.

The land that is now the park had once belonged to Judge Timothy Griffing, who donated the property to the town. It was named for his three daughters, Grace, Angeline and Mabel.

Wendy Polhemus-Annibell and Riverhead Town Historian Georgette Case at the exhibition opening Oct. 14.
Wendy Polhemus-Annibell and Riverhead Town Historian Georgette Case at the exhibition opening Oct. 14.

Ms. Polhemus-Annibell said Teddy Roosevelt had campaigned for governor at the fair grounds, and historical newspapers say Babe Ruth had played baseball there in 1923, though she hasn’t yet found a photograph of that occasion. She said the museum staff would love it if longtime residents would share more of their photographs.

“We’re also looking for artifacts relating to old Riverhead businesses,” said Ms. Berger. “We have a lot of agricultural tools, but for some reason we don’t have that many artifacts from businesses, which is strange because this was a hub for doing business.”

If you have any such artifacts, hurry down to the museum to share them with the community. Riverhead’s Sestercentennial is just 25 years away.

The Suffolk County Historical Society Museum is located at 300 West Main Street in Riverhead, and the exhibitions are open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call the museum at 631.727.2881.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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