Not a town, not a village, but all roads nonetheless lead to Yaphank. Situated between its two lakes in the town of Brookhaven, Yaphank is nearly the geographic center of Long Island. In the 17th century, the Unkechaug Indians, who had their headquarters in nearby Mastic, built temporary campsites near what was later known as Weeks Pond while they hunted waterfowl on the Carmans River. According to Brookhaven town records, the Unkechaugs were disarmed in 1689, even though they had always shown themselves to be peaceful. By the time early settlers reached the river area in 1726, however, the Indians had sold their land and given up fishing and hunting rights. Finding it hard to survive, many of the Indians worked for the new landowners.
In 1739, Capt. Robert Robinson was granted permission to dam the river and build the Upper Mill, or Swezey’s Mill. Twenty-three years later and farther downstream, John Homan was granted the right to build a sawmill and later a gristmill below his house on the river. The road that ran along its northern bank between the mills became Main Street, and the village that was centered there became known as Millville. In 1800, Millville was an “almost unknown hamlet of twenty houses,” (according to Yaphank As It Is and Was. Its Prominent Men and Their Times), and primarily a farming settlement, but the milling industry allowed the village to thrive and grow.
In 1844, the Long Island Railroad was extended through the village, and by 1845, Millville had changed its name to Yaphank, based on the Native American word Yamphanke, or “the bank of a river.”
By the 1850s, Yaphank was busy with sawmills and gristmills, two wheelwright shops, a meat market, a dry goods and hardware store, upholstery shop and an express stagecoach line. During this period, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches were established.
In 1875, L. Beecher Homan, a local newspaper editor who grew up in Yaphank, wrote a book called Yaphank As It Is and Was and Its Prominent Men, in which he tells the stories of prominent residents among its “800 souls.” Its most illustrious citizens, the Weeks family, came to Yaphank in 1828 when James H. Weeks and his wife, Susan Maria, built their home, The Lilacs. As director and later president of the Long Island Railroad, James Weeks brought the train to Yaphank. Their only son, William Jones Weeks, attended Yale, where he started the Yale Navy.
Weeks was a proponent of octagonal architecture and designed his home and the village school on Main Street using this style. Only the foundation of the house remains today and is located near Weeks Pond, but it can still be seen on the Carmans River Nature Trail. William Sydney Mount painted the portraits of James and Susan Weeks that are in the Long Island Museum’s Stony Brook collection.
Robert Hawkins, who purchased Homan Mills in 1821, was a wealthy farmer and landowner. He and his descendants controlled the lower mills for the next 100 years. His son Robert Hewlett Hawkins built a Victorian Italianate country house on the bank of the lower lake that today is owned by Suffolk County and maintained by the Yaphank Historical Society.
Christopher Swezey and his sons operated Swezey’s Sawmill next to the Swezey-Avey House. The white clapboard lakeside residence remained in the family until 1963, when the Town of Brookhaven purchased it.
William Phillips is remembered for his service during the Revolutionary War, when he was captured by the British and traded back in a prisoner exchange. He served William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and was granted land in gratitude. That first residence was later replaced, but the family retained the original land grant signed by Floyd.
During the war, patriot Benjamin Tallmadge came from Connecticut to take the British-occupied Fort St. George at the Manor at Mastic. He marched through Yaphank and stopped to water his horses at the Phillips residence. Today, markers guide hikers along the Benjamin Tallmadge Historic Trail, which runs through Yaphank.
Mary Louise Booth, born in 1831 in Yaphank, is probably its most celebrated resident. She was well known in publishing circles as the author of the first history of New York City and founding editor of Harper’s Bazar magazine. She was also secretary of the first Women’s Rights Convention, an active abolitionist, and a translator of over 40 books in seven languages. Her parents, William Chatfield Booth and Nancy Monsell, are from old Long Island families; the Booths come from Shelter Island and Southold, and the Monsells came from Middle Island and Bellport in the early days.
As the community grew and became more prosperous, the Suffolk County Almshouse was built in 1871 on Yaphank Avenue. Soon after, the Suffolk County Children’s Home was built across the street. William Jones Weeks was the first superintendent of the almshouse, setting up daily routines and schedules that made it known as the best in the state.
By the turn of the 20th century, Yaphank was known as a bucolic summer destination, and several of the larger houses were then boardinghouses for visitors from the city, who were known as “summer strangers.” They came out on the Long Island Railroad for the swimming, boating, and fishing on the lakes. All these activities were described in The Yaphank Courier, a summer newspaper.
The Yaphank Grange was organized in 1913 to encourage young people to stay on the farm. The grange was the center of community life with classes in agriculture, dance, and theater. As rumblings of World War I were heard, Camp Upton was established as an Army training camp for men from the tri-state area. Young composer Irving Berlin was stationed there and put Yaphank on the map when he produced the show Yip Yip Yaphank. The musical went on to a short run on
Broadway and was made into a film, This Is the Army, during World War II. After the war, Camp Upton became an important research facility called Brookhaven National Laboratory.
One can drive through Yaphank, still an unusual and beautiful rural community situated between the lakes, and quickly see its historic houses and traces of the past.
Reprinted with permission from Yaphank, by Tricia Foley and Karen Mouzakes, Yaphank Historical Society. Available from the publisher online at arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665.
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