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Story of’ Priest King’

Footnotes to Long Island History

STORY OF 'PRIEST KING'

AUG,11. 1960

by

Thomas R. Bayles


       Another minister who served the South Haven church for many years was Ezra King, who came to preach in 1810 and was ordained and installed as pastor of the combined churches of South Haven and Middle Island May 11, 1814. 'Priest King," as he was called, was born in Southold Town. He was a graduate of Clinton Academy at East Hampton and studied under Dr. Lyman Beecher.

       One of his first tasks was to conduct funeral services for some of the victims of one of the most tragic disasters in the history of Brookhaven town. According to tradition, 11 men had gone fishing and landed on a sand bar several hundred yards off shore on the ocean side, which at low tide was above water, to shake the sea weed out of their nets. They hauled their boat up on the sand bar failed to anchor it and in the darkness did not notice the rising tide wash it off the bar. When they found their boat was gone and felt the tide rising around them began to shout for help so loudly they were heard across the beach and bay by people on the mainland at Brookhaven. No one made any attempt to rescue them and the 11 men were all drowned.

       The Connecticut River (an Indian name meaning the long river) was one reason for the importance of South Haven in those days and turned more mills than perhaps any river on the Island. Four dams were across it at various places, furnishing water power for the fulling, grist and saw mills. The South Haven mill was owned by Samuel Carman, who also operated the famous old tavern across the road from the church and conducted a country store that supplied the farmers for miles around and also the boats that came up the river and anchored. His tavern was a stage coach stop for the stages that ran between Brooklyn and the east end villages.

       One regular visitor came to fish in the river below the mill was Daniel Webster, and one weekend in 1827 he came out to Sam Carman's tavern to fish and Sunday morning went across the road with his host to church, leaving instructions with a colored boy to watch the stream for the big fish he had been trying to catch. During the service the boy came into the church and whispered to Mr. Webster that the trout was in the pool below the mill. Mr Webster tiptoed out and then Mr. Carman and some of the boys who had heard the news. Evidently Priest King was aware of it all, for he concluded his sermon, pronounced the benediction and went to the river with the rest of the congregation to watch Mr. Webster catch the trout which weighed 14 1/2 pounds, next to the world's record according to the magazine, Field & stream which carried the story several years ago. As there were no cameras in these days the fish was put against the wall of the tavern and its outline drawn there. A blacksmith copied it and carved a weather vane out of cherry and it was placed on top of the South Haven church spire, where it remained for half a century until during a thunderstorm one summer afternoon, a bolt of lightning struck the steeple and knocked off the weather vane. It is still in the hands of the church people.

       During priest king's pastorate a new church was built in 1828, which has been in use since that time until it was closed a few years ago. The building cost about $2,000 and $1,300 had been raised so in order to raise the balance the trustees decided that whoever paid $25 should be entitled to a pew for himself and family for life. This scheme proved successful and the debt was paid off with some donations.

       The Rev. Mr. King's interest in education led to his organizing the Bellport Classical Institute in 1833 and in 1836 he started an organization which met in the Academy and later became the Bellport Presbyterian Church. He was its first minister and it was under the South Haven church session. The Bellport Presbyterian Church was built in 1850 and used until 1945, when the Long Island Presbytery gave it to the Methodists in exchange for their chapel which you are now using on Beaver Dam Road.

       Priest King resigned in 1839 because of ill health and that year, the 73 year union with the Middle Island church was dissolved. He had led an active life during the 29 years of his pastorate here and covered his large parishes mostly on horseback. He lived on his farm at Middle Island across the road from the church, and was also an inspector of schools for several years. He moved to his home in Miller place where he died in 1867. He was buried in the cemetery across from the church in Middle Island where a monument was erected to his memory by his congregations which carries the following inscription.

       "Grateful friends have erected this monument in memory of their beloved pastor who devoted the vigor of his life to the United parishes of Middletown and South Haven, By his ardent piety eloquent preaching and fervent prayers, his warm affection true friendship and courteous dignity he has left an enduring example to both church and the world."

       This covers the highlights of the history of the South Haven church for the first 100 years.

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