Deep Roots in Connecticut’s Past

January 6, 2015 · Collections ·
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Henry Whitfield House, Guilford, Connecticut. Photograph by John Frederick Kelly, 1920s. The Connecticut Historical Society, X.2000.35.283

I was born in Connecticut, but my roots in Connecticut don’t go back very far. My father was the son of immigrants. His father’s family came from Ireland and his mother’s family came from Germany to work in the Cheney Brothers silk mills in Manchester during the 1880s. My mother was born in Arkansas and grew up in Missouri. She married my father during World War II and moved to Connecticut during the 1940s. But nobody loved Connecticut more than my mother did. She was especially fascinated by the state’s early history and the physical vestiges of this past: the old houses scattered about Connecticut’s landscape. She couldn’t get over how far back Connecticut’s history went. Her grandfather had fought in the Civil War and had been one of the founders of Eureka Springs, a spa town in the Ozarks—in 1879. In Connecticut, in the 1950s and 1960s, that seemed like yesterday. Connecticut’s past went back to the 1600s. She couldn’t get over it.

I don’t know when we first started to visit Connecticut’s historic houses. My earliest memories are probably from the 1960s, but I think it began even earlier than that. I remember marveling at the massive stone walls of the Henry Whitfield House in Guilford, so unlike anything else in the state. Years later I would see similar houses when I visited England. It fired my imagination with dreams of the Puritan settlers. It didn’t matter that much of what we saw was the result of an extensive—and not very accurate—restoration in the early twentieth century.

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Buttolph-Williams House, Wethersfield, Connecticut. Drawing by Richard Welling, 1976. The Connecticut Historical Society, Gift of the Richard Welling Family, 2012.284.5396

In 1976, my mother and I used a copy of Richard Welling’s book Historic Connecticut Houses to help us track down other examples of early architecture. The Henry Whitfield House, “probably the oldest stone house in the country,” was in the book, along with many others. I especially loved the name of the Buttolph-Williams House in Wethersfield. Welling claimed its kitchen was “the most completely furnished 17th century kitchen in New England.” At that time the house was thought to date to the 1600s and even played a role in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, a novel by Elizabeth George Speare that I enjoyed as a child. Though more recent research indicates that the house was built in the early eighteenth century, not the seventeenth century, it remains highly evocative of Connecticut’s ancient past.

My mother and I never doubted that these houses and the others that we visited were all part of our own personal past, even though all our ancestors were living in places very far from Connecticut at the time when they were built. They were an important part of our own story as Americans, and as citizens of Connecticut. I know that I have other roots in other places—in Arkansas and Missouri, in Germany and Ireland—but Connecticut is the place that I know best, and its history means more to me than the histories of those other places that I will never know as intimately.

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