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Smithtown, A History: The Gift of Nature

Edith Blydenburgh's gift of nature still exist today as Sweetbriar Nature Center.

In a quiet neighborhood on Eckernkamp Drive, Smithtown residents can find Sweetbriar Nature Center. The 54 acres of land once belonged to Vail and Edith Blydenburgh and remain untouched due to a last request by Edith.

Vail was a member of the family that Blydenburgh County Park is named after and also a descendant of our town founder Richard Smythe. According to his obituary in “The New York Times” on May 21, 1943, he made a living in the textile business and was a captain in World War I.

He also played a part in establishing the Smithtown Village Green where his ancestors’ first home was once located. The main branch of the Smithtown Library and the Caleb Smith II house can be found here today.

According to Sweetbriar program coordinator Nancy Ardonetto, Edith and Vail lived in the main house on the property with their two adopted sons. The Blydenburghs adopted Edith’s two nephews, Tom and Henry Williams, after their parents died.

The Blydenburgh’s home was built in 1930 and after Tom and Henry’s adoption a wing on the house was added and called the Boys’ Cottage. A smaller building was moved closer to the road to be used as a caretaker’s cottage. According to “Colonel Rockwell’s Scrap-Book” published by the Smithtown Historical Society in 1968, it was built in 1800 and is known as the Whitman Jayne House after one of its owners.

A garden can also be found on the property by the center’s parking lot. Ardonetto said it was designed by Edith to look like a stain glass window, and the owner was able to view it from her bedroom window.

As for the home, Ardonetto said, “The house itself is kind of like a museum inside.”

While there are not many of the Blydenburgh’s belongings left, the structure is basically unchanged and throughout visitors will find a few pieces of old furniture and photos. The rooms now filled with displays and tanks of wildlife fulfill Edith Blydenburgh’s wish that the home and property be used for conservation, ecological or environmental education.

Sweetbriar’s displays and programs are geared towards wildlife Smithtown residents would find in their own backyard as well as some exotic pets. There’s an upstairs room decorated like a rainforest, and outside various birds as well as reptiles can be found as part of the center’s wildlife rehabilitation services. 

Ardonetto said it was 1966 when Edith donated about 27 acres of her land to Smithtown. In 1975 she also allowed the Environmental Centers of Setauket-Smithtown to use a barn on the property for educational purposes.

When she died in 1981, the town inherited additional land. According to Ardonetto, it was 1985 when ECSS received the rest of the property and moved their operations up to the house. It was officially named Sweetbriar Nature Center in 1986 for the briar plant that can be found on the property.

According to an April 11, 1985 “Smithtown Messenger” article, Edith wrote before her death, “This gift is for the Town of Smithtown in the hopes that others may enjoy the beautiful wooded areas in their natural state for many years to come.”

Today Edith’s last request continues to be a reality thanks to the Sweetbriar Nature Center and its visitors.

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