If you are steeped in Southold lore, you know about the day in 1755 when Benjamin Franklin, then the postmaster for the British colonies, took a trip down the North Fork to measure the distance from the Suffolk County courthouse in Riverhead to the Oysterponds ferry in Orient, with a crew who placed granite mile markers along the path.
Many of these headstone-like slabs are still here, in Southold Town (historians have surmised that the mile markers in Riverhead Town were wood, and have’t survived the more than 250 years since Franklin’s crew had them installed).
If you don’t know what to look for, they blend into the landscape, but once you know they’re here, it’s very easy to pick them out, standing along the south side of the Main Road beginning in Laurel, heading north at Boisseau Avenue in Southold and then on along the North Road to Orient (in the old days, you couldn’t get across Mill Creek, and carriages took the North Road instead).
Members of the committee that is preparing for next year’s 375th Anniversary of Southold Town are planning a celebration of the mile markers in conjunction with the festivities, and I was lucky to be able to take a recent trip to survey the present conditions of the stones with a member of the committee.
We took with us a small book, “Benjamin Franklin’s North Fork Milestones,” published by Robert P. Long in 1991, which detailed the condition of the stones at that time. You can get this book at the Southold Historical Society’s headquarters.
A lot has changed in the world in the 23 years since Mr. Long’s book was published, but surprisingly little has changed for the mile markers. They were spaced every mile using a “weasel,” a sort of worm gear that made a cracking noise every tenth of a mile.
It was exactly 30 miles from the courthouse, which then stood at the head of Peconic Avenue in Riverhead, roughly where Ninow’s music store and Jerry Steiner’s eyeglass shop are now, to the head of the line of cars en route to Connecticut at the Orient ferry.
The mile markers each simply list the distance from their location to the courthouse. The first, on Franklinville Road in Laurel, just east of the Elbow Too restaurant (which was once the Laurel Post Office), reads “7 Miles to Suffolk CH,” and the last reads “30 Miles to Suffolk CH.”
Benjamin Franklin didn’t say that brevity is the soul of wit (that honor goes to Shakespeare). In fact, I don’t even know if he was funny in person. But he certainly believed in being an efficient guy, and big headstone-like mile markers seemed to him the most efficient way to keep track of the postal rates, with during colonial days were charged by peoples’ distance from post offices.
Read more, see pics: Following Ben Franklin’s Path Down the North Fork | East End Beacon.