May 02, 2014

House Cousins and Old Photos

Last week I got one of those great, out-of-the-blue emails that I always hope the old house gods will send my way.  Given how happy I was a a couple of years ago when we got a brief visit from a man who had worked as a gardener on our property in the 1940s, you can imagine how exciting it was to hear from an honest-to-goodness direct descendant of Enos Kellogg, himself.

In keeping with the weird coincidences that have been the hallmark of our life in the Enos Kellogg Homestead, Enos great-times-five granddaughter is, like me, originally from Maryland, and actually used to live in the same town that I grew up in. 

My "house cousin", as she aptly called herself, is the great, great, great, great, great granddaughter of Enos and Lydia Kellogg, and  happened to come across this blog while doing genealogical research on her family.

Now, I had been trying in vain to track down modern day members of Enos' family for a while, harboring visions of them producing a diary, furniture from the house, stories, or old photos of the property (which was in the family until 1917).  While no diaries or furniture surfaced, my new-found house cousin did have family stories and a number of photos, both of our house (labeled on the back as "Old Comstock Homestead, Norwalk, CT) and of family members, some of them the same people in our magically-returned-to-our-house Victorian photo album.

Enos Kellogg House in the 1880s?

The pictures (and the stories) descended from Enos' great grandson, Walther Houghton Comstock, who inherited our house from his grandmother, Esther Comstock.  I knew that Walter had sold his interest in the property to his younger brothers, Edwin and William (who established Comstock Brothers Nursery on the property) before moving first to California and then to Kansas.  I now know from his great granddaughter that Walter went west to work on the railroad, and sure enough, a Google search revealed an entry in the June 1908 Santa Fe (Railroad) Employes' Magazine announcing Walter's retirement from his job as a locomotive engineer.  Could anything more perfectly epitomize Horace Greeley's 1865 "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country" admonition than selling the family farm and striking out to become a Santa Fe Railroad engineer?  Awesome.

Happily, even while spending all the livelong day working on the railroad, Walter appears to have maintained close enough ties to his family back in Norwalk that he kept and passed down some family pictures, which my house cousin very kindly scanned and sent to me.

The picture above is my favorite of the bunch.  It is very likely the earliest picture that we have of the house.  It's hard to see without zooming in, but in addition to the horse hitched up where our mailbox now stands, there is a man (Edwin Comstock?) holding a jaunty walking stick at the front gate, and a woman (Emma Comstock?) in period clothes standing next to the house.  When I blew up the picture in Photoshop, I was able to see that the raised panel Dutch door on the front of our house today was in place back then (it is 18th century, and probably original to the house).  Even better, the top half of the door is open in the photo, and there is a girl of maybe nine or ten peering our from inside the house.  So cool. 

The photo also shows the evolution of the entry hall on the side of our house.  Until I saw this image, I never know that the front half of this small addition was originally just a covered entrance, exposed to the elements on two sides.  Boring to everyone else, fascinating to me.  And don't even get me started on the fact that I can see that the windows were 9 over 6 sashes.  Earth shattering information. 

The second house picture (below), which was very, very faded before I Photoshopped some clarity back into it, is quite a bit later.  My guess is that this is from the 19-teens, perhaps around 1917 when the property was sold out of the Comstock family.  By the time this picture was taken, the house seems to have been let go a bit.  Vines cover the front porch and south side (note the one small vine growing up the side entrance of the house in the earlier photo above, and what it grew to be on the photo below).  The windows have been replaced with 2 over 2 sashes (criminal!), and the shingles are beat to hell. 

Enos Kellogg House - Early 20th Century

It is sort of sad to see the house in this state.  Such is the ebb and flow of old houses, though.  We bought the house at another trough in its existence, and today it looks great.  Happily, it seems that every thirty years or so this house has been lucky enough to have someone come along who loves it and brings it back from the precipice.  Kelloggs built it, Comstocks, Mittendorfs, and Newells preserved it, and now it is the Harringtons' turn.  It's all a bit Sysephean, but how do you not fight the good fight for a house like this?

Aaaaaanyway, my house cousin also has 19th century photographic portraits of a number of Comstocks, including the three brothers (Walter, Edwin and Williams) who, in several combinations, owned the property between 1864 and 1917.  Even better, the photos are labeled, so I'm hoping that they will serve as a Rosetta Stone for our photo album, allowing us to identify who is who in our pictures.

There also is a photo of an old woman labeled "Great Grandma".  Taken by E.T. Whitney right here in Norwalk, probably in the 1860s or 70s, this photo is either of Esther Comstock (Enos' daughter) or, more probably, Mary Dibble Comstock, Esther's daughter-in-law.  Both women lived in our house.  I'll post more on that mystery separately as it is fairly interesting (in the way that all of this esoterica is interesting to me and one or two other people on earth).  I'll even weave in famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady and arsenic poisoning for your reading pleasure.

"Great Grandma" - Either Esther Comstock or Mary Dibble Comstock

So, a big week for information on our old house.  If any other Comstock diaspora from our house are out there, come on down and share your stories.  I'll make you famous to my audience of eleven readers, and share some pictures of the ole' family homestead with you.