June 14, 2016

In the News (a hundered and twenty-some years ago) . . . The Enos Kellogg Homestead

Does anyone else remember those In The News segments that were sprinkled between Saturday morning cartoons in the 70s and early 80s?  No?  Just me?  Oh well.

In any case, I found some history of the Enos Kellogg Homestead in the news this week.  Of course, the news was from the 1890s, so it doesn't really fall under the heading of current events, but I still found it interesting.

The back story is that the Connecticut State Library has digitized a number of newspaper archives, including a partial catalog of The Norwalk Gazette and the Evening Gazette from the late 19th century.  Check it out here.

Of course, as soon as I stumbled on the site, I started searching for information on our house.  A couple of keyword searches hit the jackpot.  "Edwin Comstock", who owned our house and operated the Comstock Brothers Nursery and, later, the Comstock & Lyon Nursery on our property generated some good results, as did "Four Corners", which was the local geographic name for our property (the four corners were created by the intersection of New Canaan Avenue, Ponus Avenue and Carter Street before the construction of the Merritt Parkway muddied the pleasing geometry).

It's fascinating to see what a small town Norwalk really was in the 1890s.  Illness and dog bites were literally front page news.  These newspaper stories also illustrate how important agriculture remained even in a coastal New England city in the Victorian era.  Crop reports and weather were a big deal.  It is sort of surprising that even at such a relatively recent date, most Americans were not far removed from subsistence living. 

Equally interesting (to me) is the public notice of Edwin and Emma Comstock adopting their daughter in 1894.  Pretty cool to see something so momentous for our predecessors in the house in print.

Tying everything back into our current life on the Enos Kellogg Homestead are the repeated references to the bountiful harvests of strawberries, peaches, pears, and cider on our farm.  I'm amazed to learn how large an agricultural operation was being run on our farm - thousands of baskets of strawberries, pears, and peaches are far more than I ever would have guessed were being raised on 60 acres in Norwalk.  Not coincidentally, our newly planted orchard has an array of heirloom apple and peach trees, and I guess I will need to add a couple of Bartlett Pears to keep up with the Comstocks (Keeping Up with the Comstocks - now that is a reality show that I would enjoy).  Our strawberries, meanwhile, have been abundant, large, and without exception consumed by the chipmunks this year.  I guess we have a way to go before we do justice to the agricultural legacy of our property.

Anyway, without further ado, here are the recently-discovered newspaper mentions that pertain to the Enos Kellogg Homestead and the residents thereof.  Where appropriate, I have illustrated the excerpts with relevant period photographs that we have in our collection.

June 15, 1891
Mr. George E. Comstock, of New Ca­naan Four Corners, has probably the largest and finest strawberry layout of any farmer or fruit raiser in Norwalk. He has already marketed nearly two thousand baskets and if rain comes soon, he will be able to harvest from five to seven thousand more. His ber­ries are all Sharpless and Champion varieties, and are large and luscious. The Sharpless is the earliest and sweet­est and the Champion a later, firmer fleshed and richer, though more acid berry. His vines and fruit show the very highest state of cultivation. He has an orchard of young peach trees loaded with fruit and give promise of fully five thousand baskets, this fall. Comstock's is a case where faithful tillage brings profitable results.

Edwin Comstock (left) faithfully tilling the farm

August 11, 1891
Edwin Comstock. of New Canaan Four corners, takes the premium for having beaten all competitors in bringing to market the first bushel of Norwalk Raised peaches. They were beauties. 

Baskets of those Norwalk-raised beauties

August 19, 1891
Mr. Edwin Comstock says that many chestnut trees in the woods and fields about Four Corners are dying, and ap­parently in consequence of the terrible drought. He says he dug a trench on his farm three and one-half feet deep and the earth was as dry as dust down to that depth. 

The chestnuts may have suffered,
but this tree on the farm looked healthy

August 31, 1891
Edwin Comstock, of Four Corners, left with us this morning, a box of peaches from his luxuriant orchard, which are about the most deliciously flavored of any we ever tasted and the smallest one of which measured plump nine inches in circumference.

September 3, 1891
Edwin Comstock, of Four Corners, was down this morning with another load of his rich and delicious Connect­icut grown peaches. The peach, like the orange and pine apple, when al­lowed to ripen on the tree, is far su­perior in exquisite flavor to any picked in an unripe state, as all southern fruits shipped north have to be.

January 17, 1893
There has long existed a good natured yet earnest rivalry between two neighbors residing on near, yet quiet and sedate, Belden avenue, as to which should secure the finest and choicest brands of cider. This competition ran-more fierce the past fall than us­ual, for the reason chiefly we presume, that the last apple crop was a failure and ergo, cider, scarce and high, and with a chronic tendency towards being reduced by illicit contact with the hon­est farmers' cooling wells or springs of water. By way of a clearer designa­tion we will denominate one of these rivals the east-sider and the other the west-sider. Now, it eventuated early in the Autumn,, that the West-sider got a really superior though very small, installment from patriotic and thrifty "Comstock Hill" that was conceded a little ahead of anything shown on Bel­den avenue up to that date. This ex­cited the spirit of commercial rivalry in the breast of the East-sider at once. He resolved to beat Comstock Hill's product, or perish in the endeavor. So he scoured Darien, Stamford, North Stamford and White Oak Shade; got divers "samples." but all proved to be below grade. At length he heard of an honest Teuton, a man from the ro­mantic and legendary wine producing land of the Rhone and the Rhine, who having come to America and settled on high, sightly and salubrious Belden Hill, had essayed to throw all the in­herited skill and talent of his wine making ancestors for ten centuries, in­to the manufacture of sound, solid, un-impeached and unimpeachable Con­necticut apple juice. The friend from the Fader land had carefully hand picked his Roxbury Russets at the latest period of safety. Had piled them high on the cool barn floor, covered with clean rye straw—so that they might there sweat, and mellow and ripen to the exact point of perfect juice—or so he said he did. East-side was not long in urging his coal black steeds up to the good German's house. The visitation was rapidly explained, and the enthusiastic Rhinelander, flat­tered at such unexpected attention, effusively protested that he had "Ciders dat was so petter ash good ash never vasand forthwith hurried for a test­ing sample in his wife's choicest bric-a- brac milk pitcher. * "Now you tastes and you schmelles dat ciders and you see dot it is ish so petter as lager-peer. Yahs, 'it is so petter ' as all de Rhine wines as ish made; de- Zinfaudel, La-rose, Medoc, Lafits, Yquem, BougeOt, Chablis, Beaujolais, Qautent, Johtin-nisburg, Marcobrunner, ; Reedeschei-mer, Stein win, Leibfraumlich,' Niers-teioner. Laubeuheimer, Bodenheimer, Hocheimer," and'a; dozen:other .Dutch "Heimers" which Teuton rolled off in such hurr'ed gutteral, as nearly took East-side's breath away. He drank of the cider,—once, twice and thrice— 'then confessed it was a pleasanter bev­erage than any Rhine wine he" had ever sampled, whether made in Ger­many, France or New Jersey: An or­der was promptly given for a forty-five gallon cask of the mellifluous apple juice. It was to be delivered at once. It came. West-side was invited over to taste, and submit to humiliation and defeat. But somehow, it had a peculiar dead end insipid flavor, and left a dark. brown taste in the mouth. East-side admitted the soft and sweet impeach­ment ; in fact he remarked his sus­picions that the bull-frog croaking Dutchman, had doctored it with silicic acid, to prevent fomentation and keep it sweet and if he could'nt “Sprackins Deitcher" he could and would give Mr. Rhinelander a piece of his mind. Up to this date, however, honors were about even between the two rivals. Then came an overtopping, a master­ful triumph to West-side. The night before Christmas, George Ed. Com­stock, he of the Four Corners, swooped down upon him and brought a royal demijohn of his choicest russet juice, for West-side to sustain life with over the trying holiday period. This so un­questionably broke the entire cider record that West-side in triumph had East-side at once sample it and then defiantly demanded an unconditional surrender. But East-side wanted a few days trial; he had seen Teuton who swore there had been no doctoring done to his cider; that its flat taste all came from his having put his big bar­rel close up to his house-heating fur­nace, and if he would carry it outside he would soon find the' 'nip'' he craved, would return to it. But East-side is a prudent man and caution suggested that he cool it off by smaller install­ments; so he took an afternoon off, gathered up all the empty and dejec­ted champagne bottles he could find ; rinsed them thoroughly, Med him down to the drug store, bought new corks, got boiling water and soaked 'em; jammed a lump of cut sugar and a raisin into each bottle, then pressed in the corks, carefully wiring each one and then deftly carried all by the arm-full out the cellar and removing the lattice underneath . his back stoop he hid them there in seried ranks like a platoon of soldiers on guard. All this time, he was muttering to himself that he would show West-side a thing or two in the cider line that would hum­ble his pride and fill him with mortification and dismay. He 'would let the bottles stay there tilt the cider had a chance to ripen, mellow and grow oily and smooth by the freezing process and then he would send for West-side, uncork a bottle and cover him with confusion. The cold snap accommo­dated East-side by coming promptly. In fact coining down to zero it came if not a little to promptly at least a good deal too strong, for when he got down his back stoop lattice again, and es­sayed to withdraw his cider -bot­tles, lo, what did his- eager -eyes and watering palate, behold. His bottles, as he expressed it, "all-busted" and his cider all, “frappe.” It isn't safe to speak of frozen cider to East-sider now, un­less your lines of retreat are open.

August 26, 1893
Great Loss of Pears
The orchard of Edwin Comstock at New Canaan Four Corners, sustained heavy loss by the storm.  Large numbers of his peach trees were stripped and uprooted and a hundred bushels at least of fine Bartlet pears, nearly ready to market, were blown from the trees.

September 11, 1894
Mr. Edwin Comstock of New Canaan Four Corners, has demonstrated what patient labor and waiting and high cultivation will accomplish in peach growing. Monday he marketed here, seventy-five baskets of Crawfords which for enormous size, beauty and luscious flavor, have never been excelled in this market.

September 22, 1894

District of Norwalk, ss. Probate Court, September 21st, A.D., 1894.  
Whereas, Theodore Smith, guardian of Net­tie Wright, a minor, and George E. Comstock land Emma B. Comstock, husband and wife, all of Norwalk, in said district, have exhibited to this court a certain agreement in .writing, executed by them, and providing in the sub­stance for the adoption by said George E.Comstock and Emma B. Comstock of said Nettie Wright as and for their own legal child, and have applied to this court for the approval of said agreement. Ordered, That said application be heard and determined at the Probate office in Norwalk, on the 2nd day of October, 1894, at 10 o'clock forenoon; and that public notice thereof be given by publishing this order in a newspaper having a circulation in said district, at least ten days before said day of hearing. ASA B. WOODWARD, Judge

Edwin, Emma and Nellie (inside the front door) Comstock at home

May 6, 1895
Bitten by a Dog
This morning, Warren A. Osterbanks a clerk at Tristram & Hyatt's store was in front of the Masonic building on his way to work, when he suddenly found his left hand in the mouth of a "yaller” dog. He was not long in relieving the canine of his hand, which he found was badly lacerated in two or three places. The wound was cauterized and dressed by Dr. Hitchcock. It is understood that the dog belongs to Edwin Comstock, who lives at the Four Corners, on the New Canaan road, and that he attempted similar attacks on other per sons this morning, among them being William J. Finney the groceryman. Mr. Osterbanks will insist on the dog being killed.

This gentle giant can't be the offending "yaller" dog, can he?

More likely it was this yippey little guy.

September 25, 1895
Mrs. Edwin Comstock of New Ca­naan Four Corners, has so far recover­ed from her recent severe illness as to be able to “go out”.

Emma Comstock, up and about.

February 29, 1896
The Broad River Young People's Christian Endeavor society gave a "Velvet Sociable and Longfellow en­tertainment," in the Chapel, last even­ing, which was well attended and proved a source of much pleasure. The following program was pre­sented and elicited much applause: Singing—By the Choir. Prayer—W. E. Stiles. Reading—"Sketch of Longfellow's Life," Miss Edna Wilson. Singing—By the Choir. Reading—"Paul Revere's Ride." Master Harry Comstock. Impromptu Readings. Recitation—"The Children's Hour." Miss Nettie Comstock. Reading—"The Bridge." Miss Lillie Britto. Piano Solo—Miss Millie Smith. Reading—"The Wreck of Hesperus." Miss Laura Comstock. Singing—"God be With You 'Till We Meet Again." The literary part of the programme was followed by a "velvet," or molas­ses candy pull in which all joined and had a merry time.

June 20, 1896
Comstock Strawberries 
The name "Comstock" has this season, been made synonymous with superiority in strawberry culture. Up to the present week, Comstock Hill was clearly in the lead as to size and flavor of its strawberry product, but now, Edwin Comstock of New Canaan Four Corners, is a successful competitor.  Yesterday he brought to the Norwalk market specimens of two varieties raised on his noted fruit farm, that, for size and lusciousness of flavor, exceed any­thing that has yet come under our observation.  Norwalk could give a very interesting and successful strawberry exhibition.

March 10, 2016

S.O.S. - Amazing Colonial Restoration Opportunity - 8 Ferris Hill Rd., New Canaan, CT

Jenny and I learned last week that a beautiful c.1735 house in the neighboring town of New Canaan is under the threat of demolition.  This is a spectacular house - one of the oldest in New Canaan - sitting on a gorgeous lot on one of the most picturesque streets in the area.  If one were to conjure up an image of old New England, the Hoyt-Burwell-Morse house might immediately spring to mind.

See for yourself - the property's owner has a nice site with some great pictures of the house:  www.8ferrishill.com.

I had an opportunity to tour the house two years ago, and was immediately blown away by how similar it is to our own home.  Although our house is larger by one bay, and while the two structures apparently were constructed around 50 years apart, they could be siblings.  Both are classic saltboxes, with massive chimney stacks, nearly identical room layouts, and an unusual stairway placement that diverges significantly from the typical-for-the-time center staircase.  The visible framing details, including the raised plate on the rear of the second floor, are also eerily similar. The original cooking hearths in both homes appear completely identical, down to the beautifully dressed stonework and the bake oven located in the back right corner of the enormous firebox.  I was interested to learn this week that the house (8 Ferris Hill Road) has the same large beehive bake oven located in the basement that our house possesses.  This is a particularly unusual feature that has elicited surprise from several architectural historians who have visited our property.

Our cooking hearth - near replica of the 8 Ferris Hill hearth

But for the 50 years between their believed construction dates, I would swear that both buildings must have been designed or built by the same individual.  As it is, I think that it is entirely possible that the Ferris Hill house might have been an inspiration for our house.  And while maybe a stretch, it is not impossible that they were designed or constructed by the same housewright, or by two individuals who worked together during the 18th century.  Given that the Ferris Hill house is literally "up the road" from our house, particularly by the standards of rural 18th century Norwalk/New Canaan, it is almost inconceivable that the inhabitants of the two houses were not well-known to each other (and probably related in some way, as was common at the time).  I can almost hear Enos and Lydia Kellogg planning their house in 1784 and deciding that they wanted a house "like the old Hoyt house up on Ferris Hill."

What strikes me when I think about our house and 8 Ferris Hill is the fact that while all historic buildings have something to teach us on their own, these structures, acting in concert, can teach us even more.  For example, we felt that it was critically important to restore our c.1784 barn because the barn and house, together, tell a far richer story about farm life in 18th century Norwalk than either one ever could on its own.  Similarly, having a house like 8 Ferris Hill enriches the story of our own house.  I know this to be true at a micro level - given their unusual stylistic similarities, original details that I observed in a 45 minute tour of 8 Ferris Hill answered a number of questions about our house that had long puzzled me - questions for which I probably never would have arrived at a satisfactory answer otherwise.  

More broadly, a seven minute drive along the ancient Indian trail that is now Ponus Avenue (where we live) in Norwalk, and Carter Street and Canoe Hill Road in New Canaan, provides one with an amazing, albeit condensed, tour of the evolution of rural Connecticut architecture in the 18th and 19th centuries. Removing any one of the antique homes along this four mile stretch, by definition, diminishes the story of how this area was settled, flourished, and evolved, and how our ancestors lived and interacted.  The damage is particularly acute when one ponders the destruction of a truly unique resource like 8 Ferris Hill.  Having sat at its current location for 280 years, this structure, to one degree or another, informs our understanding of every other building in the area from 1735 to today.

Obviously, this house struck a major chord with me, and to know that it might be demolished turns my stomach.  In no small part, this is because the parallels between this house and the Enos Kellogg Homestead remind me of how easily our house could have faced the wrecking ball if we had not come along at the right time.  Moreover, in our house, I see an example of what the Ferris Hill house could be in the hands of the right person.  Unfortunately, the clock is ticking fast.  While the property's owner has made it clear that he sincerely wants the house saved, the realities of a subdued real estate market, zoning regulations, the relatively small pool of antique house lovers with the money and vision to take on such a restoration project, and the inexplicable obsession in Fairfield County with newer, bigger, flashier McMansions (with as many rooms, gables and incongruous window styles as you can possibly cram into one dwelling) seem to be conspiring against a happy ending.  There is some hope in that New Canaan, in general, seems to be rallying around preserving the house, and a variety of options that could preserve it in its current location have been put forward. In my opinion, the best outcome would be for an individual to step forward with a plan to purchase the property and restore the house, either with or without a sympathetic addition to the structure.

So, if anyone out there knows of someone who might be interested in an opportunity to do something extraordinary, please reach out to them.  If anyone thinks that a house like this cannot be saved, I invite you to come for a tour of our place, which was in only superficially better condition than 8 Ferris Hill when we moved in.  If anyone thinks that a house like 8 Ferris Hill cannot be made safe and, indeed, extraordinarily comfortable for a modern family, I extend the same offer.  It can be done, and the process, itself, can be as fulfilling and satisfying as the end result.