Column: Riverhead’s rich tradition of silly news

Town of Riverhead sign

Riverhead certainly has its share of quirky news items.

From silly police blotters to the colorful characters who make headlines, sometimes the news here just makes you laugh or cry or both.

Sure, that can be said for most places, but sometimes in Riverhead it seems like there’s something in the river.

In the past few months alone, there’s been a handful of zany stories, from the multi-million dollar pot operation in a house on Osborn Avenue to the Calverton teen who said he and his friends brought a deer home to “clean it up and give it water,” but admitted they took a break to drink some Natty Ice and pose for Instagram photos before releasing the animal back to the wild.

Certainly, these are not the stories that define Riverhead — a spirited community with more heart than a Hallmark store on Valentine’s Day and more soul than a James Brown record — but there’s something to be said for the volume of unusual news items that pops up in this town of 33,500.

It turns out, that’s always been the case, even back in the days when everyone’s name was Reeve or Tuthill or Wells or Howell or Hallock or Young. (No, seriously, it was even worse back then.)

Recently, while combing the archives of the New York Times, studying local history, I was overwhelmed by the number of weird-but-true news items pertaining to Riverhead. Perhaps the bizarre was the only way city folks paid any attention to this tiny farming community around the turn of the past century, but it sure seems they had plenty of items to choose from. The archives leave you with the impression that when The Gray Lady — a nickname for the Times — wasn’t poking around Tammany Hall, it was poking fun at Polish Hall.

Here’s five of my favorite tales of mostly silly Riverhead news, all courtesy of the Times, and all more than 100 years old.

School children use tobacco

Jan. 7, 1901

If you went to school in Riverhead in the first week of the last millennium it was probably not a good idea to smoke cigarettes.

Sure the addictive nature of nicotine and the many health issues associated with smoking weren’t so well known back then, but there was a whole other reason not to smoke in those days: principal George Brown.

When Mr. Brown learned that many of the boys in the school had developed the habit of smoking, he sent a letter home to parents. He warned the parents that smoking on public property could lead to a $2 fine and that “tobacco has a bad effect on the mind and body of a growing boy.”

But what really makes this Times story stand out is the final paragraph:

“[The letter] is said to be the first intimation many fathers had that their boys smoked, and during the last couple of days many of the lads have preferred to stand when they might sit. It is also said that although there is usually a falling off in attendance at Sunday school after the Christmas tree exercises, many new faces appeared in the classes today, and the circular is believed to have started a moral wave in the young.”

$10,000 if he won’t preach

Dec. 15, 1910

When Helen C.H. Stone of Riverhead died at the age of 80 in 1910, she left in her will a hefty sum of money to her great nephew, Thomas Gilbert Osborne.

But the inheritance came with a string attached.

You see, Ms. Osborne’s brother Thomas, for whom the boy was named, had been a Reverend. The lifestyle of the clergy, as Ms. Stone saw it, didn’t require hefty sums of money.

She believed a clergyman of the Methodist faith had no fixed residence and didn’t need money for “settling down.”

So when she left $10,000 for 17-year-old Thomas, Ms. Stone added a stipulation that the teen not get the money if he opted for life as a minister. The boy’s father told the Times he saw no indication his son would join the clergy.

As for her house, Ms. Stone left that to someone else, but upon that person’s death, young Thomas was to inherit the house as well. Again, provided he was “not then a clergyman.”

The family poisoned: a farm hand whose appetite was a subject of joke accused

Dec. 13, 1892

Middle Road farmer Benjamin Fanning liked to have a little fun at the expense of one of his farm hands, Charles Ryder.

Mr. Ryder was said to have a voracious appetite and Mr. Fanning couldn’t help but joke about it at the dinner table.

One day, Mr. Ryder had enough. I’ll let the Times tell this part of the story:

“Fanning was in the habit of commenting jocularly upon the rapid disappearance of food when Ryder was feeling well, and Ryder eventually grew bitter in his resentment of the remarks. At dinner Friday night Fanning remarked. ‘Well, Ryder, a man who is hungry and continues to eat after I am full to the brim ought to quit eating.’

An angry Mr. Ryder stormed out of the house. The next morning he refused his usual cocoa.

Later that day Mr. Fanning and his wife and daughter all fell ill. Analysis of the cocoa showed it contained plaster of Paris and Paris green.

Mr. Fanning secured a warrant, but when he returned home with a police officer, Mr. Ryder had departed with his belongings in an attempt to leave town. He didn’t get far, as he was soon located at the Calverton Station and arrested.

Eels made Riverhead dark

Nov. 28, 1895

We’ve all experienced a power outage or 20 in Riverhead. Usually, it’s during a rain or snow storm or a big heat weave.

It’s never because of eels. But what happened in Riverhead on Nov. 27, 1895, was.

There’s not too much to say about this one, but the Times reported that Riverhead was in darkness after more than 300 pounds of eels that had clogged the water wheel at the Hallet electric light plant.

It took more than an hour to clear the eels from the machinery.

Prayed and the rain came

August 4, 1894

Riverhead was experiencing serious drought in the summer of 1894. So much so the only place the community’s many farmers felt they could turn to was to the church. As the Times put it:

“Great damage had been done and it began to look as if total destruction was to be the fate of Suffolk County earth products.”

The congregations of Northville, Jamesport and Aquebogue decided to have a traditional day of fasting and they joined together for prayer at the Old Steeple Church in Aquebogue.

Even as they prayed, the skies opened up.

“For more than an hour the rain fell,” the Times wrote. “And for more than an hour the grateful farmers sang their songs of gladness.”

Even the younger farmers in attendance, who laughed at the old-time method of fasting in an effort to have God hear their prayers, were now believers in the custom of their ancestors.

Among the names of the local farmers there that day: Wells, Howell, Hallock, Young and Tuthill. Yes, some things never change.

Mr. Parpan is the executive editor of The Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 631-354-8046.