Whose Mile Markers? Southold’s Mile Markers.

Benjamin Franklin gets an autograph from artist Alan Bull.
Benjamin Franklin gets an autograph from artist Alan Bull.

When I was growing up on the North Fork, I’d always heard the tale of how Benjamin Franklin rode down the Kings Highway  — the Main Road down the North Fork — one day in the early 1750s, on a mission to map out the postal roads for the British Crown.

In every version of the story about Ben Franklin’s visit here that I’ve heard, the stone mile markers you see all down the road in Southold were placed here, not by Franklin himself, but by workers who came along later.

The brouhaha that’s erupted on the North Fork over the past few weeks about whether or not Benjamin Franklin set the Mile Markers has been quite puzzling to me, because it doesn’t answer any of the questions I still have about Benjamin Franklin and the North Fork.

It’s almost impossible for me to imagine Benjamin Franklin having ever lifted stone markers. I’ve been trying to lift them myself for quite a few days, and they’re just impossibly heavy for a 120-pound weakling. I can’t imagine a kite-flying politico would fare much better.

We know from primary sources (Franklin’s October 25, 1750 letter to Jared Eliot) that Benjamin Franklin visited Southold at some point prior to October of 1750. We also have seen the diary of Augustus Griffin of Orient, published a century later, in which Mr. Griffin recounts the day Franklin took a ride in his cart, with an odometer on it, down the North Fork.

None of the recent controversy explains why Benjamin Franklin was here and what he did while he was in Southold Town.

It doesn’t really matter to me what year the stones along the post road were set here, though it’s nice to have definitive proof in the form of a town board resolution from the 1820s ordering the setting of milestones.

But what I really wanted to know is why Benjamin Franklin was in Southold, because he was here.

Amy Folk at the Southold Historical Society knows why Ben Franklin was here in the visit he discussed with Jared Eliot, she told us this week. He and Jared Eliot were working on an agricultural experiment, trying to understand why crop yields were plummeting on Eastern Long Island, just prior to the 1750 letter.

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I have to admit, I take this subject kind of personally. Several of my close friends have been volunteering to put together an event to celebrate the Ben Franklin Mile Markers for more than a year now. We were blindsighted by the reportage that Ben Franklin may never have been here and it certainly soured what had been, up until the past few weeks, a true labor of love.

What hurts the most is the people who’ve been saying things like “Why are you doing this? Ben Franklin was never in Southold. I read it in Newsday. Why are you spreading misinformation and lies?”

It’s always difficult to find out the true, full story from so many years ago, but every clue we find should bring us closer to the truth, if we look for it.

Yesterday, we took a ride out to Laurel with Mile Marker 8 in our truck. Now, Mile Marker 8 has been sitting in the basement of the Custer Institute for 24 years, ever since Custer board member Colin Van Tuyl found the marker in pieces in the woods just east of what’s now the Laurel Links Golf Course.

Over that time, Custer Institute board members have been careful custodians of this mile marker — they saw it as an important piece of North Fork history and we were a little nervous about taking it out of their capable hands and placing it by the side of the road. I snuck out there twice Friday night to make sure bandits hadn’t made off with it in the middle of the night.

We headed east on a mission. It was my job to tie a red ribbon around every mile marker on the North Fork. Today is their special day, and today is special because, for the first time in many, many years, every mile marker from Laurel to Orient is present and accounted for on the roadside. I don’t know if every mile marker is accounted for on any other historic post road, but it is on ours today.

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Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, 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

4 thoughts on “Whose Mile Markers? Southold’s Mile Markers.

  • May 17, 2015 at 7:36 am
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    Wow, that’s a great idea! One of the nicest things about living on Long Island, and the North Fork especially, is the relatively deep history, and the way the past is still occasionally visible. Southold was settled in 1640 and its “Old House”, probably the oldest in NY State, built in 1649. Even in England this house would be considered old!
    Perhaps even more important than these vestiges of the past is our own increasingly faint interest in our history, as still manifest in our day-today lives.
    One of my dreams is that the old churches of the North Fork be kept open throughout the week, and not just for services, as places for calm reflection and absorption of the ever-present past. One of the great (though even there increasingly rare) joys of traveling in England is finding old country churches open to visitors, as they used to be almost everywhere. It seems to me that if the main reason churches are kept locked is the possibility of theft, then the objects that could attract thieves could be moved elsewhere for safekeeping. Locking churches is anti-spiritual and craven; no wonder fewer and fewer people identify as religious. And, by the way, I’m a devout atheist.

    Reply
    • May 17, 2015 at 9:03 am
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      Paul: I agree on keeping churches open all week. Sometimes you just want to sit in that glorious space in silence and alone, or with other silent people praying in their own ways, without waiting for someone to lead them.

      Reply
  • May 17, 2015 at 8:55 am
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    Great story, Beth! I never knew about the mile-markers, or Ben Franklin’s visit to Southold. The historical controversy is intriguing; I wonder why the writer at Newsday wanted to cast doubt on the project, since it sounds like the documentary evidence places him in the area. Makes me want to get down to the library and start digging for further clues.

    This reminds me of Ben Franklin on beer. Did he really say that? A quick google search turns up an even quicker “no”. What he did say is just a tad more refined, and fitting for a benediction o’er the vineyards of Southold and Peconic today:

    “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”

    http://beer.about.com/od/historyofbeer/f/Did-Benjamin-Franklin-Really-Say-Beer-Is-Proof-That-God-Loves-Us-And-Wants-Us-To-Be-Happy.htm

    Reply
  • May 18, 2015 at 12:20 am
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    Fabulous article Beth. I am so glad that this day went well. Hats off to the committee for all their hard work and dedication, and for helping us to see those things we pass by and take for granted. I look forward to celebrating mile marker day with you next year!

    Reply

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