Oyster Bay, NY (Sept. 17, 2020)- On a visit to Raynham Hall museum, home of George Washington Spy Ring operative Robert Townsend, you can participate in outdoor programs and online lectures that will bring the fascinating stories of this historic site to life.
The interior of Raynham Hall Museum is currently closed due to limited space and for the safety of the public and staff due to Covid. But you can still walk the grounds and admire the gardens and architecture.
If you make arrangements in advance, Raynham Hall is offering a program called ‘Hang Out with our Historian.’ Visitors can spend an hour with Historian Claire Bellerjeau in the garden at the museum (with masks and socially distanced) and learn about the significance of the events that took place here, according to Harriet Gerard Clark, Executive Director.
The historian program is open to household members only. Maximum group size is 8. The garden has several benches, but guests may also bring portable chairs. Donations are appreciated.
“We’ve had visitors come from New England states, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan who were very interested in the spy ring,” Bellerjeau said. “A lot of them saw the show Turn, so we spend some time deconstructing what’s true and what’s not true, and also what it was like to live through the war. There’s so much to know.”
During the American Revolution when Long Island was occupied by the British, a group of brave men from the north shore of Long Island, including one-time Raynham Hall occupant Robert Townsend, risked their lives to spy on the British and ferry their secrets to George Washington. They are credited with helping to turn the tide of the war and are now known to be America’s first spies.
There are other fascinating tales that have come from this site. The house was occupied by the British throughout the war and used as headquarters. Perhaps the most famous was a regiment of 350 British troops called the Queen’s Rangers, under Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe. British spy master Major John André, who was later hanged as a spy for his role in helping Benedict Arnold turn traitor in 1780, visited Simcoe and stayed in the house in 1779.
The home is also where America’s first known Valentine, by John Graves Simcoe to Sarah Townsend, was written in 1779. It was a poem about being in love with your ‘enemy.’
If you want to learn more about Oyster Bay’s history, you can participate in a ‘Spy Walk.’ Raynham Hall created a game where visitors can walk or drive to 12 different places in Oyster Bay where they will find clues to enter into a puzzle that becomes a ‘secret message.’ Download the Spy Walk PDF here. You can tag them while on your adventures @raynhamhall
There are also several at-home activities Raynham Hall is offering for families. You can learn how to make parchment paper and invisible ink. You can see the original codes the spies would have used in the Culper Code Book. Children can read a comic book, “A Spy for General Washington” (created by Ernesto Colon Sierra and Ruth Ashby), and try an invisible ink activity using a white crayon.
You can find these activities, as well as a fascinating video entitled, Ships, Sales, Steel, and State: The Life of Solomon Townsend (a story about Robert Townsend’s older brother, a ship’s captain who was eventually forced to choose a side when the Revolution broke out) on the museum’s activities page here.
Since the Covid-19 outbreak earlier this year, Raynham Hall is maintaining a connection with the community and has already presented more than 100 virtual learning programs to schools.
These include “The Townsends in the Revolution” Virtual Program, 4th Grade, 1 hour; a “Spy Craft” Virtual Program, 4th – 7th Grade, 1 hour; “Standing Where They Stood: Learning About Slavery in Oyster Bay” Virtual Program, 5th Grade and Above, 1 hour; and “Samuel Townsend: Colonial Merchant” Virtual Program, 2nd Grade, 40 minutes. You can contact firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a program or for more information.
Over the summer Raynham Hall had an online summer Spy Camp program that brought together children from all across the country, and one from overseas, to learn about the true stories of spies who lived in Oyster Bay during the American Revolution.
“It was interesting because now (with the virtual programs) we are open to everyone in the world,” Harriet Gerard Clark said.
If you do visit, you’ll find the home is a mix of styles that span the 18th and 19th centuries. It was purchased by Robert Towsnsend’s father Samuel around 1740, and was expanded from a two-over-two farmhouse into a four-over-four town house. The family homestead was named Raynham Hall by Samuel’s grandson, Solomon, who renovated it in the Victorian style in the mid-19th century.
And the grounds are lovely. The gardens have been designed to reflect the two historical periods represented by the house: Colonial and Victorian. According to the museum, each is based on landscaping principles of the period and includes historically accurate plantings. The colonial garden, located at the front of the house, has brick walks bordered by daylilies and ferns, French lilacs and boxwood hedges, and ornamental elements. On the west side of the 1850’s addition is the Victorian garden: which has winding ivy beds, along with rhododendrons, mountain laurels and white pine trees.
For information about planning your visit, go to Raynham Hall Museum.