A walk in Mashomack, a preserve of 2,100 acres of woods, creeks and meadows and 12 miles of shoreline, is a good idea anytime of year.
But the autumn on Shelter Island, with crisp weather, deep skies and trees alight in their seasonal glory, is an extra special time for a good hike to experience days that are like a hinge on a door, swinging the season wide open.
And looking for a mostly hidden and private cemetery, which we did recently, even around Halloween, doesn’t have to be spooky. It’s a good excuse to stretch your legs and experience part of the rich history and culture of Shelter Island in the bargain.
There are nine known cemeteries on the Island, according to the Shelter Island Historical Society. Two are on the grounds of Sylvester Manor. The Island churches, Our lady of the Isle, St. Mary’s and the Presbyterian Church maintain almost all of them including, the Nicoll Family Cemetery, cared for by the Presbyterians. A private association takes care of the Emily F. French Memorial Cemetery.
Our objective recently was to find the Nicoll family’s private burial ground. To follow in our footsteps, a good idea is to call Mashomack at (631) 749-1001. The friendly staff can give you an idea of where to start. For those who want to drill deep, ask at the library, 37 North Ferry Road, for a copy of Patricia and Edward Shillingburg’s comprehensive chronicle of one of the Island’s founding families, “The Nicolls of Sachem’s Neck.”
The cemetery is about two miles from the Mashomack visitor’s center at 79 South Ferry Road, where volunteers can help you map your trek. Setting out, we passed split rail fences, open meadows and had good hikes up hills with the sharp, vinegar smell of autumn on the wind. A cloudy sky broke with patches of blue peeking through as paths wound around large clearings of pale grass curving down to meet other paths through the trees.
One of the treats of this hike is that the goal — the Nicoll’s cemetery — isn’t seen until almost the last step at the top of a hill.
Greeting visitors are two six-foot-high monoliths with rusted chains swung between them. A tall headstone topped by a cross stands inside the iron rail fence of the graveyard. Black letters are cut into granite on a stone table. Rainwater pooled in names and dates carved in the stone.
It seems only children and the childish think of graveyards as depressing or morbid places, but like most cemeteries, this one under the trees is a place that brings a hush inside.
The first Nicoll buried here is Joanna DeHoneur Nicoll in 1772. But is she? Which begs another question: What’s an old cemetery without a mystery?
“We don’t think she was living here at the time,” Shillingburg told the Shelter Island reporter two years ago when asked about Joanna. “We find it just a little weird that she was buried there. It’s somewhat of a mystery. Her husband was spending much more time in Islip than he was here. One of the thoughts we’ve had is that her children may have put a tombstone in her honor.”
Since 1772 — or perhaps a bit later — Nicolls have been buried in the sheltered copse at the top of the hill.
One of the last was Delancey Nicoll, whose remains were laid to rest here in the autumn of 2009, his daughter, Jessica Nicoll, said.
Reached at home in Northampton, Massachusetts, Nicoll is the director and chief curator of the Smith College Museum of Art. She remembers going to Mashomack and the family cemetery on summer days.
“We’d go out and have a picnic, a real treat,” she said, remembering the beauty of the place and her father’s sense of being “anchored. We’d read the tombstones and think of the people and their times.”
Nicoll plans to be buried here.
Walking out and down to the main path, a dead tree bleached white by wind and rain stood like a stick figure of a man, with one arm raised, as if beckoning, showing the path back through the beauty of Mashomack.