103-year-old messages in a bottle unearthed inside Roslyn Grist Mill

Rose Weldon
Workers restoring the Roslyn Grist Mill found a message in a bottle with two messages and four coins dated to 103 years ago. (Photo courtesy of the Roslyn Landmark Society)

The messages were written more than a century ago, and came as a surprise.

Workers restoring the Roslyn Grist Mill were greeted by a pair of messages in a bottle, buried in the structure’s concrete floor 103 years ago and unearthed just last month, the Roslyn Landmark Society announced Tuesday.

The weathered, glass milk bottle contains a pair of 1917 messages written by a Roslyn mason and carpenter, as well as four vintage coins, with the two oldest dating as far back as the Civil War.

One letter was written in Italian script by brick mason Romolo Caparrelli. The society learned from his granddaughter, Pam Story of South Carolina, that Caparrelli was born in Pico, Italy, and later became a resident of Roslyn.

“He worked on a restoration of the grist mill in 1916 when it was intended to be used as a museum,” Story told the Landmark Society. “He applied a unique style of stucco to the exterior and concrete for the floors and roof. He also placed his initials in the stucco by the front entrance. I had been told by my father that he put a glass jar in the building’s wall with various contents. I am so glad that it was found and in relatively good condition.”

Caparrelli’s letter was translated by Andrea Fedi, associate professor of Italian and cultural studies at Stony Brook University. In the message, Caparrelli states that he wished to be remembered for his pioneering concrete work on the Roslyn Grist Mill.

“Attention, this is a gift that I am giving you,” Caparrelli wrote. “Romolo Caparrelli invented the planking-style concrete roof and walls installed in 1916 and ‘17. So remember us, first bricklayer Romolo Caparrelli.”

Fedi noted that Caparrelli most likely meant to suggest by the word “invented” that he did the walls and the roof without a blueprint, and “that he came up with the project and executed it independently, without the help of an architect or an engineer.”

The second message, dated Jan. 6, 1917, was written by 81-year-old Stephen Speedling, who owned a carpentry shop across the “mill dam” from the Roslyn Grist Mill and a home nearby on Northern Boulevard. While tears in the original paper left much of his message unreadable, the Landmark Society determined that Speedling wrote that the mill was being rebuilt for Harold Godwin, grandson of William Cullen Bryant, and acknowledged his fellow workers.

Speedling’s note also reveals that he left the four coins in the bottle: an 1863 Civil War token, an 1863 Haitian 20 centimes, an 1881 Indian Head penny and a 1905 Indian Head penny.

The glass bottle was a half-pint cream bottle from the now-defunct Alexander Campbell Milk Co., which was based in Brooklyn but distributed its products widely on Long Island.

A rare surviving Dutch framed watermill built between 1715 and 1741, the mill acted as Roslyn’s economic foundation for centuries. It was converted into a tea house and museum in 1920,  remaining open for 54 years before it was closed and ownership was  transferred to Nassau County for a future restoration.

The completed building will be transformed into an educational center and serve as an attraction to the residents and visitors to the historic Village of Roslyn.

After over 40 years of planning and four years of fundraising, restoration began in 2018, highlighted by the lifting of the building above street level this year on Jan. 23 in preparation for a new foundation. As a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, work was halted in March. Construction resumed in August and fundraising efforts are continuing.

Roslyn Landmark Society Director Jennifer Lister said that the organization was pleasantly surprised to find the messages.

“The ‘message in a bottle’  has been an amazing discovery and tells us more about the history of the Roslyn Grist Mill,” Lister said. “To find handwritten notes from 1917 encased in the concrete is a real treasure.”

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