Riverhead Town: Proud of Its Past, Confident of a Bright Future

Riverhead Downtown Plans
Artist’s renderings of potential Town Square that includes a riverfront children’s playground, near the East End Arts Council.

The Town of Riverhead was officially established on March 13, 1792, when it was separated from the Town of Southold and recognized as the County Seat of Suffolk County. This January, I became the 64th Town Supervisor. I am honored to be among the select few to be elected to this position and work hard every day to serve the residents to the best of my ability. Attorney Daniel Well was the first Town Supervisor. The second Supervisor, Dr. Daniel Conklin, was a doctor during the Revolutionary War. Supervisors Luther Skidmore and Daniel Osborn served during the Civil War. Sylvester Miller is the longest tenured Supervisor, serving from 1841 to 1861.

Thanks to an existing talented staff, a diverse and caring community and its many amenities, I strongly believe that Riverhead’s future will be prosperous, as we continue to honor our past.

Georgette Lane Case is the guardian of Riverhead’s treasured history, having served as Riverhead Town Historian since 2002. During her tenure she has indexed 4,999 documents. She has organized and indexed countless newspaper articles, scrapbooks and historic collections. Ms. Case has catalogued more than 4,000 original town documents ranging from oaths of office for town leaders to tavern licenses. She has catalogued more than 600 books using the Dewey Decimal system.

Historian Georgette Case shows historic documents to Supervisor Yvette Aguiar
Historian Georgette Case shows historic documents to Supervisor Yvette Aguiar

In addition, Ms. Case has written nine books on Riverhead, including a biography of town supervisors and a book on Civil War veterans from the town. Despite her current cramped quarters, the collection is growing, Ms. Case says, noting that she received 19 historic collections in 2020, more than double of what is donated in most years. Ms. Case says with her ever-growing collection, she has had no time to thinking of mentoring a successor. “In fact,” she says, “I have a hard time finding volunteers.”

During a recent visit at the Riverhead Historian’s Office, I was intrigued by the collection of artifacts, including letters dating back to the 19thcentury from sisters Etheyle and Juanita Parry, who left Riverhead to perform with William “Buffalo Bill” Codyall over the world, from New York to London. The Riverhead natives have been described as two of the greatest circus and rodeo stunt horseback riders in the country at the turn of the 20th century. Etheyle and Juanita became known as the Cossack Girls because they performed daring feats of horsemanship attributed to the Russian Cossack cavalry. They also appeared in Miller Bros. shows and in the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The Parry Sisters’ act lasted from 1907 to 1918, when, sadly, Juanita died after falling off her horse and breaking her neck at a Barnum & Bailey show. Etheyle married William Cody Bradford, a nephew of Buffalo Bill. Their father, Archie, was a well-regarded veterinarian on eastern Long Island. The Suffolk County Historical Society Museum, located in downtown Riverhead at 300 West Main, has artifacts on the Parry sisters among its impressive local history collection. (The Suffolk County Historical Society is open to the public from Wednesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and was a 2019 Dan’s Papers Best of the Best of the Best North Fork Museum Award Winner.)

Parry Sisters
Riverhead natives the Parry sisters, Etheyle and Juanita, performed with William “Buffalo Bill” Cody all over the United States, Europe and South America

While most are aware of the continuing legacy of farming and agricultural on eastern Long Island, many do not remember that cranberries were a major industry between the 1880s and 1950. Bogs were located in Calverton and Manorville. The George W. Davis cranberry bog was located south of the Grumman property and was the longest surviving bog in Riverhead Town. In more recent times, agriculture and agro-tourism has continued to play a significant role in Riverhead. Wineries and local produce sold at farms and farm stands continue to draw thousands of visitors annually.

Riverhead residents are also prideful of our military aerospace legacy, specifically Grumman Corporation, which employed thousands of Long Islanders at the 2,900-acre Navy-owned facility in Calverton, where Grumman was responsible for the final assembly and flight testing of four of the five navy aircraft, including the F-14, from 1954 to 1994, producing upwards of 100 aircraft annually. In addition, the Calverton site played an important role in the first moon landing. Though production of the Lunar Module was at Bethpage, a mock lunar surface was constructed at Calverton on 10 acres of land for the development of Grumman’s entry in the design of a Lunar Roving Vehicle.

In 1994, Congress approved the transfer of the property to the Town of Riverhead at no consideration for the purposes of economic development. Grumman had for 40 years been the Town of Riverhead’s largest employer, with 3,800 jobs at its peak in the early 1970s. The redevelopment of Calverton constitutes the largest real estate project on Long Island. To date, the Town of Riverhead has sold the 472-acre industrial core to MGBC, LLC. The industrial core has since been redeveloped, which has resulted in the creation of more than 1,000 jobs and replaced the tax revenue lost from Grumman’s departure.

The proposed sale of remaining property to Calverton Aviation Technology, if it receives final Town Board approval, is expected to create at least an additional 1,000,000 square feet of industrial space, as well as generate between 2,900 and 5,500 jobs.

Not too long ago, Downtown Riverhead was a regional shopping destination. I strongly believe that a vibrant, historic Downtown Riverhead has the potential to become a compact, walkable, dynamic neighborhood and shopping destination that will benefit the Long Island region. Oriented along the Peconic River, a fully revitalized downtown would serve as the gateway to the North and South Forks of Long Island. Downtown Riverhead is located a short drive from Long Island Wine Country, many agritourism destinations, Tanger Outlet Center, amazing beaches and parks, Splish Spash Water Park,  Calverton Enterprise Industrial Park and Brookhaven National Laboratory. Historic Downtown’s diverse assets include: regional arts and culture, destination retail, historic architecture, tourism and hotels, Suffolk County courts, college and county center, proximity to Peconic Bay Medical Center, multimodal transportation and targeted regional job growth.

Riverhead is well known and respected for its diverse community, welcoming of all ages, races and demographics.  The Peconic River, the longest of Suffolk County’s four rivers, provides unmatched natural beauty for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as boaters and paddlers. The entire Town Board has been working diligently on taking the necessary steps for Downtown Riverhead to reach its full economic potential. Weenvision Downtown Riverhead to become a vibrant, walkable, compact and convenient live-work-play experience.

As a result of the tremendous assets and infrastructure, such as water and sewer, already in place, Downtown Riverhead can become a new recreational and cultural hub on Long Island’s East End, providing a central location for workers, families and visitors to live, work and play. Transformative change in the downtown will be shaped by revitalization plans established by the Town of Riverhead through years of intergovernmental cooperation and intensive community engagement efforts.

Although Riverhead’s downtown has seen the beginnings of a new vibrancy in recent years with the rehabilitation of its riverfront, new mixed-use commercial and affordable and workforce residential developments, construction of a world-class aquarium and Hyatt Conference Center and Hotel, the reopening of the Suffolk Theater, a healthy arts council, a variety of quality and affordable restaurants, we identified the need for a public focal point in order for downtown to realize its full revitalization potential. Our proposed Riverhead Town Square will further downtown revitalization efforts by creating a focal gathering place where residents and visitors can congregate, have shared experiences and showcase the virtues of a healthylifestyle. Earlier this year the Riverhead Town Board unanimously agreed to enter into contract to purchase three key adjacent privately owned parcels available for acquisition, which were adjacent to existing publicly owned land that will become the Town Square. Once completed, the Town Square will provide a public gathering space, pedestrian connectivity and open vistas from Main Street to the riverfront to reorient the pedestrian focus from the traditional Main Street to the Peconic Riverwalk, a unique attribute.

I believe Riverhead’s future is bright and that we are on our way to reach our revitalization goals. However, in order do to so, it is imperative that the Town Board remain diligent and united in order to do so in an effective and timely manner.

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