New Book Explores Historic Sylvester Manor

In this wonderful, new book, The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island, Mac Griswold takes us by the hand and walks us through a three-century journey of discovery about Shelter Island’s Sylvester Plantation.

Mac shares her excitement about this wonderful old house, the land and the people who lived on Shelter Island. The history of Shelter Island is an encapsulated history of the United States. This book shows us Europeans seeking refuge for religious and monetary reasons, the enslavement of Africans and Native people, fortunes gained and lost, the American Revolution, the demise of the systems that allowed Sylvester Manor to flourish and the reimagining of its purpose, redeeming much of its past.

Mac is an enthusiastic teacher who writes with immediacy, drawing the reader into each new discovery. She poetically describes her first encounter with the Manor: in the summer of 1984 a friend takes her, in a rowboat, and as they approach the house she says, “The reflection of the house in the glassy water doesn’t tremble. No wind. I hold my breath too, as if the building itself would disappear if the water moved.”

Beyond her tactile and mystical relationship with this place, Mac is a scholar. She researched and mined this story for all of its richness. Her writing is similar to Ester Forbes, who wrote Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. Both of them fill each page with information and details that make their characters come alive.

However, to our great pleasure, Mac has the advantage of computers and so she documents each area of discovery with maps, measured drawings, a family genealogy, and guides to other resources.

As she takes us through her discoveries, she asks many of the questions which may not have been raised in our schooling. Instead Mac asks, why do we say, “slave plantation” as though we were growing slaves? Or is it to romanticize slavery in order to keep the horror out of our consciousness?

Mac’s questions lead her deeper and deeper into her research. She traveled to most of the sites that make this book about “…the flow of people, ideas, plants, animals, from a dozen other landscapes on four continents.” This is an important book for people on the East End of Long Island and it’s an important work for understanding the complexity of the history of our nation.

I first met Mac at the dog park, which she and its supporters call “Wag Harbor” in Sag Harbor. She is captivating.

When I met her, I knew that I wanted to get to know her better. As we walked our dogs, talking about nothing in particular, a friend of hers walked past us and briefly asked, “How’s your book coming?” After her friend left, I probed further, “What kind of book are you writing?” So she told me little about Sylvester Manor. In our conversation, she mentioned humbly that she had written a book about George Washington’s gardens. My heart leapt, wondering if it was the book all gardeners wanted for Christmas two years ago. I decided I’d rather be thought a fool then say what I was thinking. “Did you write the book that was on everyone’s wish list last Christmas?” So saying nothing, I raced home to Google Mac, discovering that indeed she wrote the best selling book, Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon.

Mac describes herself as a cultural landscape historian. Like historical archaeologists, landscape historians, use the physical evidence of written material, the contours of the land and the artifacts found or maintained to delve deeper into the lives of the people who lived and died in the place of interest. Her first book was the Golden Age of American Gardens, which, in photos and words, takes the reader into the magnificent gardens of the turn of the last century.

Mac lives in Sag Harbor, clearly loving the beauty of this place and its environment of creativity. She and her Wire Haired Terrier, Una, can be found some days at Wag Harbor.

You can attend a reading of The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island at Books & Books in Westhampton Beach on August 11 at 3 p.m.

The event is free, but registration is required. Go to booksandbookswhb.com for more information and to register.

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