Shelter Island, New York, (population 2,500) consists of 8,000 acres of land and marsh nestled between the North and South Forks of Long Island. The first settlers on Shelter Island were wealthy sugar merchants from Barbados in search of white oak for their barrels.
Nathaniel Sylvester became the first owner of Shelter Island in 1673 and constructed a substantial home that is now referred to as Sylvester Manor. By 1730, there were 20 families on the island, and the town was incorporated.
In the late 1820s, whaling was an important industry in the region. Many of the island’s young men participated in whaling with some 30 captains from the island. In June 1850, a whale was caught right off the shore of Shelter Island, producing 10 barrels of unexpected oil.
In 1845 there were only 446 people on the island, most of whom were farmers. Starting in 1871, however, Shelter Island began to be flooded with summertime residents. Soon the island became home to a full-fledged summer resort, The Prospect, complete with hotel, restaurant, chapel, and tennis courts. Today, Shelter Island is a thriving summer resort town. There are approximately 2,500 permanent residents, but the population swells to more than 10,000 during the summer.
A walking tour of the Shelter Island Heights Historic District is an annual event. Shelter Island hosts an annual heritage festival called “One Day in History” at Havens House, a 1743 farmhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 80 volunteers and local businesses make this event possible. It features historical demonstrations and reenactments, tours, music, and children’s programs. The Havens House and a historic barn are also home to the Shelter Island Historical Society and its museum and archive.
Undergraduate and graduate students from all over the country participate in an advanced residential archaeological field school each summer at Sylvester Manor. Residents and visitors have the opportunity to speak with archaeologists and researchers at a popular annual open house at the manor house and gardens.
In 1899, Frank Smith of “20 Mule Team Borax” fame, built a log shelter on Taylor’s Island; a rustic retreat accessible from his Shelter Island summer estate, “Presdeleau.” It was purchased by Mr. Taylor in 1921, who added a framed bedroom, kitchen, and lookout tower to the original log wall construction, unfinished cedar pole porch posts, and over-scaled stone chimney and hearth. Taylor willed the Island to the Town of Shelter Island for “the use and enjoyment of the general public.” After years of neglect and demolition threats, the Taylor’s Island Preservation and Management Committee and the Taylor’s Island Foundation facilitated the Town of Shelter Island receiving a matching grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation to restore and preserve the structure. The Smith-Taylor Cabin is now listed on the National and New York State Registers of Historic Places, and the project architects received awards for the project from the American Institute of Architects and the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art. The Smith-Taylor Cabin now hosts docent-led tours, group outings, special events, and serves as a rest stop for kayakers on the Coecles Harbor Marine Water Trail.
Designated a Preserve America Community in November 2006.