Top: The Stony Brook Grist Mill.
When a building becomes a part of a person’s life, there’s a better chance that it will become haunted. This only stands to reason. The more people who are touched by a building, the better the chance. Is this not so?
One of the centers of colonial life and the years that followed was the mill. The population was primarily involved with agriculture, particularly in the middle and eastern forks of Long Island, and as such, the mill became an integral part of their lives. Flour and meal is much easier to transport than wheat and corn, and one of the centers of this activity was the gristmill in Stony Brook village.
The Setalcott indians called the stream which feeds the mill by the name of Cutsgunsuck, or “brook laden with small stones.” The early settlers changed that to Stony Brook. It was believed to have been settled about 1660, second to Setauket which was settled in 1655. And in 1699, Adam Smith, son of the founder of Smithtown, Richard Bull Smith, was granted rights to the stream on the condition that he would build and maintain a grist mill. The following year, after completing construction, he was granted one one-10th of the wheat and one-eighth of the corn and rye yielded from the townspeople. In about 1750, the mill and dam was destroyed in a storm, and a new one built upon that site.
At the time, the mill was one of the centers of village life. People came to have their crops milled, and pass their time exchanging news, stories and making new acquaintances. Then came the revolution, and to add insult to injuries during hard times of shortages and want, the British troops garrisoned nearby used to come to the mill and confiscate its products.
Following the war, the mill was a symbol of prosperity. By 1850, schooners carrying up to 100 tons of grain would unload at the mill. In addition, the mill was used for sawing logs into lumber. In the late 1800s, Edward Kane, a brewer from Brooklyn, was the owner of the grist mill. He planted grapes nearby and devised a method to crush the grapes at the mill and capture the juice to make wine.
And still the mill was a center of the community. Kane’s miller was Alois Kopriva, who played gypsy music on the violin at the gristmill, introduced a new milling process which made excellent wine and advocated women’s rights. As late as the mid twentieth century, the then miller, Frank Schaefer was selling a whole-wheat flour, known for its healthy properties and shipping it to 41 states.
Then came the 1940s and Ward Melville, heir to the Tom McAn shoe fortune. Melville seems to have always wanted to live in a quaint New England village, and though he could have probably afforded to buy several, he instead bought up most of Stony Brook, Setauket and Old Field and set about remaking Stony Brook into his idea of one. One of the results of this effort was the creation of what is the world’s first strip mall, and the salvation and preservation of many historic buildings, including the grist mill. As a result of his efforts as well as a lot of local sweat and energy, the Stony Brook grist mill is one of the best preserved and few remaining working gristmills in the country today.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, technically, according to the New York Times interview with Hap Barnes (12-13-1992), it is unique in that “it has two bolting machines that separate the fine flour for baking from the coarse flour for animal feed. No other mill on the Island has this much original equipment.”
The principle of the mill is simple: The stream is dammed, then water passes into the sluice, which is then released to turn the large wheel, which sets in motion a surprisingly complex set of gears, which in turn spins two French buhrstones, five feet across and weighing a ton each, which then grind the grain into flour.
I’ve been to the Stony Brook grist mill several times, and have heard this process from the first floor. It’s a timeless sound, or more accurately, a sound that takes you back in time, and at least for some of us most certainly touches some long buried, inherited memory. There’s a low rumble to the building as the wheel turns, and you can feel the power in those stones as they grind into each other.
Stony Brook is a gothic jewel, and it’s a joy to walk the streets, lined with 17th, 18th and 19th century houses. There’s a feeling that the past isn’t buried here, but rather it bubbles up like the water flowing into the wheel of the gristmill. What I didn’t know but always kind of felt should be true, was that the grist mill is haunted as well.
I was thumbing through Kerriann Flannagan Brosky’s Ghosts of Long Island II, when I came across an article detailing the ghost that lives there. So having other sites to check out as well in the area, I took off one Sunday this fall for a trip back in time to Stony Brook.
I entered the gift shop on the lower level to find it empty. It’s a surprisingly interesting little shop, with colonial era items, cookbooks, and flour and meal ground for them from another mill. Their own product, since it is made from historical era equipment doesn’t meet the code for human consumption, so they crack corn to feed the ducks in the nearby pond. I could hear noise from upstairs, as well as a fine mist of dust coming through the floorboards. And a few minutes later a woman poked her head down from the steps, obviously disappointed to see me there.
It turns out there was a problem with the equipment and she was waiting for the person to repair it. While I was waiting a lady from Newsday had come in to ask some questions for an article, and being a bit better at these things she jumped in and started asking. The lady who was crouching on the steps it turns out was the miller, Miller Marrianne as she is called. Marianne is just the sort of woman you would expect to take on a job like this, all business, obviously a bit put out by the mechanical problems and not particularly in the mood to be dealing with visitors, as she had a crop of school children in the next morning to see the mill in operation. There is more than a bit of the stubborn Yankee in her, as well as a bit of the timeless about her which makes her seem right at home here.
The reporter moved inside and had a look around the gift shop and I asked my question, “where’s the spook?” Marianne looked downstairs, peeked upstairs then turned back to me, “not here.” So I asked whether she had ever seen her and she said she had, upstairs. A pretty lady, white dress, blonde hair. She also said she believed her to be an apprentice who once worked here. She had set down after a long day and fell into a nap, only to awaken by her hand being nudged by a ghostly dog, and opened her eyes to see the lady hovering above her.
“The first time I saw her I was pretty freaked out.”
She said something very wise when it comes to things supernatural, “you have to believe in it to see it.” And so I told her the story of the ghost I grew up with, and she remarked that children can see ghosts because they don’t know not to believe in them, which is something I believe as well.
About that time the reporter came back with more questions, and she invited us upstairs so she could work while they talked. She spent most of the time on her hands and knees, brushing dust and debris into a dustpan with a hand brush, and you had to admire her dedication. When asked why she kept the place so clean she replied “varmints. There’s a chipmunk that I don’t mind, but I don’t want the others in here.”
And inside the mill you can feel the history. You can almost hear the ghostly footsteps which she has heard on those same floor boards. Downstairs is a set of scales for weighing the flour, which she pointed out as one of the first supernatural events which she witnessed there. Occasionally, and sometimes accompanied by a blast of cold air, the pendulum begins to swing on its own. This is something of a regular occurrence evidently, as her daughter as well as several others have witnessed it.
And then a few older ladies came in and conversation began about some of the locals, people’s health, when was the last time she’d seen so and so and I realized, the mill still serves the old function. It’s still one of the centers of the town, particularly for the older generation. And the younger as well. Marrianne’s young daughter works the gift shop, and there are many children passing through the door each year. Undoubtedly one of those kids will be like Marianne, who came in as a visitor, fell in love with the place, became a docent and eventually found the mill was where she belonged. And perhaps someday, the lady in white there will have company.
Real ghost stories and the places that inspired them