One Hundred Years 1889 – 1989 by Mary Louise King

The following history appeared in the 1989 New Canaan Historical Society annual, marking our 100th anniversary as an organization. Mary Louise King was a vital part of the Historical Society, and here is her history of our institution. 

 

The ladies and gentlemen who gathered on the evening of September 9, 1889, at the home of Albert S. Comstock (now No. 46 Main Street) were there to sign the Constitution that the New Canaan Historical Society adopted on August 31, This done, the members present elected the first slate of officers. Then and for years to come, no matter who, no one became a member of the Historical Society until he or she had signed the Constitution.

Article IV of that Constitution read:

The purpose of the Society shall be to bring together and arrange the historical events of the Town, the genealogies of families who have lived in the Town or who now live in the Town, for preservation and for the easy examination of those interested: Specially – to gather the political history and military records of the Town, the history of the churches, the history of educational efforts public and private; to collect books, pamphlets, and papers to form a library; to collect specimens of minerals and natural history; and to collect relics and curiosities to form a museum. And by lectures and otherwise to promote proper social science and the intellectual and moral welfare of the members of the Society and the people of the Town.

Except for “minerals and natural history” and omitting references to “moral welfare” that is exactly what the Society is doing 100 years after its organization.

Unlike the New Canaan Reading Room and Circulating Library (now the New Canaan Library) that was formed in 1877, the Historical Society’s membership did not include any summer residents – who footed the Library’s early bills. With few exceptions, founding members were descendants of the founders of Canaan Parish (1731) and well-established local people. The first president of the Society was Joseph F. Silliman, descendant of the second Congregational minister, businessman, and at the time first selectman (it was his home that would become the Hanford-Silliman Museum). The third vice president was Will W. Kirk, editor of the local newspaper, the Messenger, and the recording secretary was Andrew F. Jones, who served as New Canaan’s town clerk from 1885 until 1945.

With considerable enthusiasm, the members met monthly, usually in the Comstock house, approving during 1890-92 the names of 33 other people who signed the Constitution and became new members. Carrying out the purposes stated in the Constitution, members listened to lectures or heard papers read on historical topics assigned for research to members. Many of these papers survived in the Society’s files and in scrapbooks of those articles that were published in the Messenger. And in late 1889 a mineral collection had been started when Dr. Samuel B. St. John of Hartford presented the Society with the specimens collected by his father, the late Professor Samuel St. John, a New Canaan celebrity. (Years later this mineral collection was given to Center School.) Then on May 18, 1893, after much work by a Society committee, the Connecticut legislature approved Special Law No. 373, granting a charter to the Historical Society. On the heels of this news, the Society approved a design for a seal, made by William F. Weed (a future president), which is still in use today.

In 1896 the Historical Society branched out in two new directions. It invited the Village Improvement Society to join with it in a widespread planting of shade trees (the Hoyt Nursery on Carter Street provided the trees), and a committee was formed to “designate and restore ancient landmarks, boundaries and localities.” The first landmark to be settled on was the reputed burial place of the Indian chief Ponus off Ponus Ridge, and the consent of the selectman was secured for the erection of a monument in the nearby triangle made by the intersection of Ponus with Davenport Ridge. For the sum of $10, Charles Comstock agreed to move the rough stone found on his Weed Street land and erect it on a suitable base, while a Norwalk monument firm was asked to carve the inscription. Upon invitation, the Ponus Tribe No. 31 of Red Men of New Canaan joined the Historical Society in the dedication ceremonies attended by some 200 people on October 2, 1897.

Members of the Historical Society did not pay dues but when money was needed turned to the time-honored custom of “circulating a paper” on which members signed up for such sums as they cared to give. In June 1898 it was necessary again to circulate such a paper because none of the bills for the Ponus Monument had been paid. The only other historical monument the Society erected is the granite stone lettered “God’s Acre” that in 1908 was placed near the head of the “park” that had been a burying ground from 1773 to the 1860’s.

From the outset, the lack of permanent headquarters had proved a handicap, depriving the Society of a place to store and display the few items given to it and discouraging those people who wished to give others. Consequently, when New Canaan moved its town clerk’s office from the new Library on Elm Street to the new Opera House on Main Street (on the site of present No. 80), the Society voted in October 1891, to rent the vacated area in the Library’s basement for $75 annually. Almost from the start these quarters proved unsatisfactory – too uncomfortable for meetings, too damp for preservation of papers and artifacts – so the annual meeting of June 26, 1893, gratefully voted to accept the offer of Mrs. William Edgar Raymond, a member since 1891, for the free use of a room in her house (No. 191 Main Street).

Before the end of the century, interest in the Historical Society had begun to wane, partly because several of the ladies who were members had also been responsible for founding in 1894 the Hannah Benedict Carter Chapter of the D.A.R. Meetings were reduced to quarterly ones that often lacked the legal quorum of eight, and no minutes were recorded for the whole of 1901. This probably was because all the officers and many of the members of the Historical Society were thoroughly involved in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of New Canaan as a town in 1801.

Russell Hall, the president of the Historical Society, was general chairman of the celebration, while officers and members played important roles on the committees that made New Canaan’s 100th the great success it was, beginning on Sunday June 16 and ending with “Historical Day” on June 19. The Society also was in charge not only if the memorabilia it then owned but of the many cherished family papers, books, etc. that had been loaned for the celebration and displayed in in the old post office on Main Street. The principal speaker on Historical Day was the Society’s historian, native-born Edwin Hoyt Lockwood, professor of Mechanical Engineering at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School. (He had succeeded the Society’s first historian, Justus Mitchell Silliman, professor of Mining Engineering at Lafayette College. When Professor Lockwood resigned in 1902, the Society’s office of historian when unfilled until 1957.)

Mrs. W. E. Raymond died in 1905, and once again the Society had to turn to “boarding” its library holdings and valuable pieces of furniture. Although many of the founding members had died, meetings continued to be held in other members’ homes, while the fortunes of the Historical Society and New Canaan Library became linked in the public’s mind.

In December 1902, as a memorial to his recently deceased wife, Albert S. Comstock put into escrow a warrantee deed conveying his Main Street house and property equally to the New Canaan Historical Society and the Library, provided that a permanent trust fund of $10,000 was raised by January 1, 1904. This proved an impossibility, but when Mr. Comstock died in 1909 he willed $3,000 to the Library. Jesse St. John, a boyhood friend of Mr. Comstock and another founder of the Historical Society, was a frequent visitor to his home town, sharing the interest of two old friends in both the Historical Society and the Library. However, Mr. St. John died in 1905 without making intended gifts to the two organizations, so in 1909 following Comstock’s bequest, Mrs. St. John donated $5,000 to the Library’s building fund on condition that the Historical Society occupy one room when the Library was built. (Her gift amounted to one fourth of the original cost of the Library, and her provision for the Historical Society later was to cause considerable misunderstanding when the Library was enlarged.) With $8,000 in hand, the Library in 1910 purchased its present site at the corner of Main and Cherry streets, and the original part of the Library was completed in 1913. To the right of the Main Street entrance was the St. John Memorial Room.

Although the new Library building was not dedicated until November 20, 1913, by September the Historical Society had moved into the St. John Memorial Room, which would be its headquarters for 40 years. With the gift of a three-door glass fronted bookcase (still owned by the Society), it could at last begin to display its books and artifacts, while letters, newspapers, and documents were safely stored in a comfortable room. The following year the Historical Society voted to send dues notices to members, and for nearly 50 years dues of $1 per person were collected annually.

The period between the beginning of World War I and World War II saw the Historical Society take on several new activities. A number of summer residents became members, and as women learned to drive cars, historical researchers were not confined to the town. Beginning in 1916, with the exception of 1922-23, four women served as presidents of the Historical Society, and as many as 45 members were present at meetings. In the 1920s, the Society began awarding a $5 gold piece to a Center School student for the best essay on a local history topic; sent out to all members an eight-page genealogical questionnaire, which was the beginning of the red genealogy folders now in the files; and with the D.A.R. compiled a list of historical events in New Canaan between 1876 and 1926, which was put into the cornerstone of the town’s first high school (now the police headquarters). Laying of this cornerstone on July 5, 1926 (July 4th was a Sunday) was part of the town’s celebration of the Sesquicentennial of the United States in which the Society played a large part.

In December 1924, after ancient tombstones had been removed from the Parade Hill Cemetery, in connection with a real estate development, the Historical Society took a stand against such desecration, to which the New Canaan Advertiser gave front-page support. One result of the furor was the beginning by Society members of the copying of inscriptions in all 34 rural cemeteries in New Canaan and its immediate environs. Now two of the Society’s most-used volumes, these records were typed and bound in March 1931.

When in 1932 New Canaan celebrated the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, the St. John Memorial Room was the celebration headquarters, because the Historical Society had taken the lead in preparing plans for a big float-filled parade. Likewise in 1935, when the 300th anniversary of the founding of Connecticut was celebrated, the Historical Society was responsible for much of the week-long celebration and huge parade.

When the United State entered World War II, the Historical Society had established its role of preserving local history and its membership had grown to 317 and its budget to $700. Well aware of the scarcity of records for all previous wars, the Historical Society in September 1942, set up a War Records Committee (underwritten by the town to the extent of 80 percent), which collected information, often through personal interviews, about local men and women in the armed services and the activities of local support groups. These records were published jointly by the town and the Society in three volumes, issued in 1946, 1948, and 1951. (The Society by 1943 had made honorary members of 675 people in the armed forces and still preserves hundreds of “thank you” letters and photographs many of them.)

At the same time it was assembling records, the Society in 1943 published its first Annual. Thus, when World War II ended, the Society was well launched in the publishing field. Readings in New Canaan History, containing reprints of four previously published articles and two new ones, appeared in 1949, to be followed by Landmarks of New Canaan in 1951. This was a compilation of articles, researched and written by Society members and illustrated by local artists, which first appeared in the Advertiser, starting on November 26, 1946, with an article about the Silliman homestead written by the Society’s president, Stephen B. Hoyt, and illustrated by Edwin Eberman, a newcomer to town, who together had conceived the idea of collaboration. For this “unusual community service,” the Society and the Advertise received on September 14, 1949, an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. All the while the Society was regularly issuing an Annual (later a year now and then was skipped), and this one will be its 35th.

When New Canaan celebrated its 150th anniversary on July 4, 1951, with a parade and other activities that attracted people and newspaper coverage far outside the town, 14 of the 20 members of the celebration’s executive committee were active members of the Society. The president of the Historical Society had proudly reported the year before that the town had a greater than ever appreciation of the work the Society did.

In 1951 the New Canaan Library completed fund raising for its planned enlargement, and the Historical Society was assigned space in the new wing facing Cherry Street that was 50 percent larger than the St. John Memorial Room, which it had to vacate. Hence, while building went on, the Society the next summer had all its possessions professionally packed for storage and set about raising $5,000 to pay for some of the building and new furnishings. Since Mrs. St. John’s intentions for the Society had no legal standing, a ten0year lease was signed with the Library before the new quarters were opened on March 15, 1953, and thereafter the Society paid rent of approximately $350 a year to the New Canaan Library. The new Society rooms had many advantages, and under the Society’s librarian became a quite professional historical and genealogical library and archive. By 1956 the Society claimed 1,000 members, second in number only to the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, was listed as the 28th oldest historical society in the country, and was acquiring a wide reputation for its holdings and the initiation by Marshall H. Montgomery, then president, of its name index of thousands of past and current residents and its feature articles such as “Current and Undercurrent,” an abstract of news in successive issues of early New Canaan newspapers, which was appearing in the Advertiser.

In 1945 Miss Amanda Weed, who had for long been a devoted member, died and in her will left the New Canaan Historical Society the Weed homestead on Weed Street (no. 290) and its contents, intending the Society to use the house as its headquarters. Miss Weed’s will was so involved by other gifts and restrictions that interpretation had to be made by the Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut, after which the Society was unable to meet the conditions determined by the Court and, instead of a new home, received only some $6,000 from the sale of the contents of the Weed house.

Having for the second time lost the opportunity to own a historic New Canaan house, the Society moved quickly in the summer of 1956, Mrs. Philip K. Houston offered to sell it her house, the former “Silliman homestead.” The asking price was $50,000, and the Historical Society had only $3,064 in its trust fund. Nevertheless, when Mrs. Enoch G. Megrue (no Mrs. R.S. Baehr), an Oenoke Ridge neighbor, offered to loan the Society the needed $50,000 and take back a 10-year 5-percent mortgage, the Society took the title to the Silliman house and began a professionally run fund-raising drive for $100,000. Although the fund-raising fell short of the goal that would have provided a trust fund as well as paying off the mortgage, the house was opened to the public in September 1959, with a hostess renting the upstairs apartment and fund-raising bridge classes and art classes given on the main floor. Not until 1968 was the ground floor restored and furnished and the building renames the Hanford-Silliman House Museum.

By then, its history had been well documented. The original part of the house was completed in 1764 by Stephen Hanford, a weaver who later was named a tavern keeper for Canaan Parish by Norwalk’s selectmen, since Hanford’s land lay in Norwalk’s portion of Canaan Parish. Following Hanford’s death in 1784, his second wife sold the property to Elisha Leeds, who gave it to his daughter Martha and her husband, Dr. Joseph Silliman. Silliman descendants owned the house and made additions until 1924, when it was acquired by Mrs. Houston. Thus, between 1764 and 1957, only three families had owned and occupied the Hanford-Silliman house.

The mortgage on the house had not been fully paid when early in 1960 Mrs. Houston offered the Society the 1.62 acres of land adjoining the homestead on the east. Developers were eager to acquire this lot for an access road onto Oenoke Ridge that would permit them to open that area now known as Heritage Hill. The Society had no wish to see such a road and the proposed two-family houses go in so close to its historic house and the Governors quickly agreed to the $27,500 selling price. Again neighbors along Oenoke, opposed to what might otherwise happen, gave generously toward the purchase price.

The deed to this tract had barely been signed when the Society was confronted with the need to preserve another historic structure. John Rogers, sculptor of the famous Rogers groups, had built a studio in 1878 on land purchased from the Sillimans just to the north of their homestead. The studio was slated for demolition as the completion of the new St. Mark’s Church approached, but the contractor offered to give it to the Society if the Society paid to move it a few hundred feet down Oenoke to its grounds. A foundation and repairs would also be needed. The Society lacked the funds, but recognizing the importance of preserving the Studio, an enthusiastic committee solicited contributions, and on August 2, 1960, the Studio was moved to its present site.

All the while the Historical Society was all too aware that its lease on the room at the New Canaan Library would expire in 1963 and could not be renewed. Plans had already been drawn for a library building to be erected on its vacant lot, south of the Studio, when it April 1963, St. Michael’s Lutheran Church made a proposal to acquire a portion of the former Silliman land for a parking lot. St. Michael’s had acquired both the original St. Mark’s church building and the so-called “Ludlow house” to the west, which had been built in 1825 as New Canaan’s first town house. This, the Society recognized, could be converted into the needed library. So in a complicated transaction, the Society acquire from the Lutheran Church the former town hall and land, completing its long front along Oenoke Ridge. The Society now faced considerable expense for restoration of a building that had known years of hard use, yet by early 1964 this was functioning as the Society’s library and offices.

Meanwhile, starting in December 1960, a Society committee, headed by Dr. Jerome Selinger and Judge Stanley P. Mead, had worked tirelessly to receive public backing for a historic district that would preserve the appearance of the area centered on God’s acre. After months of research and a number of meetings, the support of the property owners and civic organizations was obtained, and a town meeting on June 27, 1963, approved the creation of the Church Hill Historic District, the second such district in the state.

The next year, when the historic Cody Drug Store at the head of East Avenue was slated for demolition in the widening of Main Street, the Cody family offered its contents – cases, paneling, posts, prescription books, everything – to the Society. All was put into storage (some articles upstairs in the Town House), while a memorial wing was added to the Town House on the west, and a scaled-down replica of the Cody Drug Store built. The drug store had been founded in 1845 by Samuel Cooke Silliman, Jr. as part of his general store but later became a separate business, which was acquired by Lucius Monroe in 1854 and carried on by him with his son Lucius, Jr. as the New Canaan Drug Store until 1919. Thereafter the business was owned by their pharmacist, James J. Cody, and was widely known as the Cody Drug Store. The memorial Drug Store was dedicated in September 1966, during the two-day “Landmark Weekend” that marked the United States Department of Interior’s official designation of the Rogers Studio as a National Historic Landmark – the only New Canaan building to be so designated.

Out of “Landmark Weekend” came the formation of the Society’s now-famous Costume Museum, for in the course of looking for actors’ costumes, a closet full of clothing had been discovered on the second floor of the Town House. There the Costume Museum opened with a Victorian show on February 4, 1968. These second-floor quarters were extensively remodeled in 1987.

During 1969-70 what had been the Houston’s garage behind the Hanford-Silliman House was remodeled into the Tool Museum and Print Shop, the former displaying the tools New Canaan carpenters, farmers, shoemakers, and others had used to make a living. These had been donated over the years but hitherto had not been displayed. The Print Shop housed an antique Hoe-Acorn press, a gift of the Advertiser, which had stood unused for many years and had to be carefully restored to working order.

The Society was well aware of the costs of preserving old buildings when in 1972 it was offered another, one that had been built about 1799 as District School No. 3 and was facing demolition. Luckily for the Society, at that time one of its Board members was a history teacher at the New Canaan High School, and she was able to inspire the students to raise enough money through “Save Rock School” activities to pay to put the old schoolhouse aboard a flatbed truck and move it in June 1973, from Laurel Road to the Society’s grounds. There, east of the Rogers Studio, a foundation had been prepared, ready for many students under supervision to restore the building and make replicas of 18th-century desks and furnishings.

Then, in 1975, following the largest financial gift the Society has ever received, a three-story fireproof addition on the back of the Town House was completed and dedicated in memory of Jane (Watson) Irwin, the gift of her family. Into this the library and offices were moved, with an area above for costume storage and below for valuable collections and newspapers.

Toward the close of the Society’s 100th year, our archives were enriched by two unexpected gifts from far away. From California, Justus Hoyt, son of former president Stephen B. Hoyt, sent a carton of family papers. Besides land records, wills, letters, and books, this contained the town’s record of moneys paid to the wives and children of the New Canaan men who served in the Civil War and the records of New Canaan’s post office for 1849-1853, kept by Postmaster Benjamin Hoyt.

In September, Paul W. Prindle, F.A.G.S., noted genealogist who formerly lived in Darien, selected the New Canaan Historical Society over four others as depository for his Weed family genealogy research. He came from Orleans, Mass. to deliver in person cartons of his more than fifty years of work and the research of the late Edwin Franklin Weed. This will be available to others, especially anything wishing to publish a Weed family genealogy.

When I first set about writing this brief history of the New Canaan Historical Society’s first one hundred years, I included name after name of a century of helpful people, wishing to give credit where credit was owed. I soon realized, however, that most names would be meaningless without brief biographies, which space did not permit, so I have eliminated all but essential ones. If you were to read 100 years of minutes of Society meetings and the reports of the officers in 35 Annuals, you would be as aware as I was of the contributions made from 1889 to 1989 of the many dedicated volunteers, who so faithfully served the Society. In 1989 that is beginning to no longer be the case. With so many women following careers and so many calls on everyone’s time and money, volunteers – men and women – are few and far between in New Canaan today.

From the days when it “passed around a paper,” the Historical Society has always failed to make the financial goal it set out to meet – be it a “Castle Ball” at Waveny, a gala at Philip Johnson’s “Glass House,” an auction, a fund-raising drive, a Colonial Festival, or a tag sale – but somehow the Society has so far managed to pay its bills. Antique buildings are in constant need of tender loving care – a new roof, a coat of paint, chimney repairs, supporting beams, etc. – and expensive materials are needed for today’s preservation of photographs, manuscripts, and costumes.

Unlike the New Canaan Library and the Nature Center that receive more than a million annually in New Canaan tax dollars, the Historical Society has never asked for or received money from the town. In the past, often anonymously, some individual could be counted on to make up a deficit or pay for a vital repair, but the benefactors who underwrote the Society’s needs have died, and in 1989 it is to corporations and charitable foundations that the Society must turn.

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