The Houses of Meriden
MEMORIES OF MERIDEN
By Frances A. Breckenridge
January, Feburary, March, 1898
The steep declivities of nearly all the mountainous elevations of Connecticut face in a southerly direction. Between these hanging hills the land undulates from east to west, forming sheltered depressions, in which many, indeed most of the early colonists located their farms, often choosing the lowest and least sunny spot for their dwelling house and outbuildings.
Occasionally though, and nearly always by a family of known English origin, a large and roomy house, with some pretension to architectural symmetry and ornament, would be built upon the summit of a hill. Such is the position of the old "JOHNSON house," plainly to be seen from many of the city strees.
The original JOHNSON made a sensation by entering town with his family, in what an old resident called "an equipage." This equipage was a vehicle with a canvass top. Its prototype was exhibited at the State Fair of 1892. This vehicle was considered elegant, and gave a certain social position to the new-comers. The JOHNSON farm included part of the west mountain and quite all of the cliff known as West Peak. This purchase was not by other thrifty farmers considered an especial evidence of good judgement. The mountainous forest was, most of it, hemlock, and no self-respecting housekeeper of that era would buy hemlock wood for any purpose, unless cheated into it, a feet only accomplished by slyly inserting a log or tow of the objectionable timber into an honest looking load of hickory and maple. For many years the mountain was considered a near worthless adjunct of the property, but within the last few years it has acquired a value other than its forests. The men of the JOHNSON family were just the silent, grave, stern men of that day. The mother, slightly paralytic, equally serious and formal, and the two daughters, called by the children of that formal time "Miss Amanda" and "Miss Huldah," might have stepped bodily out of Mrs. Gaskell's "Cranford." The writer has just one memory of one of these ancient sisters. She sat stiffly upright, her withered hands crossed, ans she gave out that "she considered red flannel extremely conductive to health." Besides the equipage aforesaid, the family brought with them a good store of china and Wedgewood ware. Cut glass decantes and wine glasses adorned the mahogany sideboard. China and pewter cider mugs had their own place. The pewter cups and platters had a commixture of silver rather more than one of silver to sixteen of pewter. There are still extant certain peices of old china and glass, once their property. An old pitcher with the parting of the to-be bride of "Old Robin Grey" and her Jamie depicted on one side, and the ship with white sails flaming, and the tossing waves beneath which bore Jamie away from her, on the other, has been in some long gone time broken into many pieces, carefully replaced and joined together with putty now dried by time into a hardness equal to the pottery itself. An old stoneware flip mug, with a surface as smooth and fine as china, is hooped with metal bands.
The cut glass on the sideboard was not kept solely for show. Callers were always refreshed by a small modicum of cherry brandy or foreign wine from the decanters, dispensed in the tiny wine glasses. Their loaf-cake, rye bread, cream biscuits and honey were famous in all the region round about.
The formalities of a tea party were once described by a lady who assisted at the function. Upon the arrival of the guests, they were met at the door by both sisters, and by them helped in the arranging of best caps and lace collars. They were then escorted sedately to one of their chairs by one of the sistes, and "negus" was mixed with much precision and with distinguished solemity by the other. The delectable tipple was then dispensed by both, and was partaken with serious appreciation by all, including the minister and his wife, who were always the guests of honor at such solomn divertisements. The family coat of arms was, and perhaps still remains, cut into the panelling of what was the best parlor.
The old, old white rose, single to be sure, but fragrant, andwith buds when half opened of absolutely perfect loveliness, can still be found of the premises, as can also the almost extinct red and white striped York and Lancaster rose. The family is extinct, and the old house is to this generation a landmark - nothing more.
In this section of the town are also the farms owned respectively by members of the ALLEN and COE familes. Commodious and handsome dwellings have been built on both of these estates, which have descended from father to son. The old farmhouses are still standing, but are in no way distinctive. Nearer the city is another farmhouse which antedated its centennial by many years. Low in its elevation, it is large upon the ground. Substantially built, its wide low hall with its staricase rising directly from it, gives an air of roominess not usual in dwellings of that period. This hall now furnished with "things new and old" gives access to the cosy rooms on each side, with their cupboards and corner fireplaces. This is and has been for more than a hundred years the "RICE Farm." There, many a year agone, Deacon Ezekiel RICE, a widower with seven children, brought home as his bride the sometime widow of Dr. HALL of Wallingford. Into the family of seven girls and boys, the new wife brought her three daughters. From that time, all the young people lived in the peace of a singularly harmonious home. Somebody, with more truth than elegance, said of them that "they were stirred together with a long stick and never afteward did anyone know to which side of the house did they belong." To these ten, six more were aded, and the sixteen grew up and all but one married. From the shelter of its broad roof have gone out into the world those who are known in pretty nearly every state in the Union. Among its later inmates are those who have been and are in close relationship and friendship with men and women know beyond the limits of our own country for their important station in the political world, and for the wealth of their intellectual resources.
The house and land surrounding is still owned and occupied by members of the family name. Before the present dwelling was built, more than a century ago, there was another, of which onlyt he door stones and an old well were discoverable some years since. At the southwest corner of the low door yard terrace, there stands a vigorous, and although distorted, very beautiful maple. This tree was a good size when the present house was built, and is at least a hundred and fifty years old. A tall and vigerous pine tree has a pretty bit of family history connected with it. One of the daughters, then a little girl, went to Middletown with her big brother, she riding behind him on a pillion. Going over the mountain she saw the tiny tree, only a few inches high, and she transplanted it in the home door yard. Some years ago it seemed to be dying. It is a landmark and would be missed, but it has taken a new start and bids fair to live through another generation. Besides these, visibly striving to renew its youth, is an ancient stump of a "golden sweeting" apple-tree, the parent of which was brought to Wallingford from England. It is, itself, the parent of all that especial fruit in these parts.
From the first this home was the center of good cheer and of an intelligent, social culture.
In the northern section of the town is standing another quaint dwelling. It's long, low, picturesque roof once sheltered one of the large families of the olden time. It is still occupied by a member of the family, and like the three before mentioned, is still held in the family name. This was not exactly a farmhouse. Years ago, its owner, Squire Patrick CLARK, conducted a thriving tin business that with its numberous surrounding low workshops gave that corner of the town the name of "Clarksville". Tinware making was then the most important Meriden industry, antedating that of ivory comb making, which afterward outgrew its predecessor, but of which no trace is left excpt the pretty artifical lake known as "Prattsville Pond." In its day the tin business quite held the town. Not only were the shops at Clarksville kept busy, but there were those of "Squire" Noah POMEROY at the "East Side", and two separate concerns belonging to members of the YALE family in the center of the town, and another, quite as thriving as any of the others, carried on by "GOODRICH & RUTTY." Of these old workshops not a vestige can now be found. Streets with sidewalks and electric lights now traverse the precincts where the "apprentices" soldered the pots and pans, doing their evening "stint" by the obscure radiance given out by tin lamps filled with whale oil, or by tallow candles.
The POMEROY shops are gone. Even "Black Pond," the adjacent east side natural lake, the only natural lake in the town limits, has lost its weird notoriety as a fathomless water. Since the trees from the overhanging mountain side have been cut away, the sunlight falls as brightly there as anywhere, and it is now known to be no deeper than any mountain side lake is apt to be.
As the tinware and ivory comb business declined, the present industries which give Meriden the title of "Silver City" grew naturally out of the small but very well paying trade in britannia metal. This was at first confined to the manufacture of spoons and tea and coffee pots of homely and inelegant pattern, and except perhaps a simple beading, of perfectly plain finish.
The leading Connecticut industry, rivaling for many years that of clockmaking, was tinware. Northern tin-peddlers pervaded the Southern States, and what were then known as fortunes were thus accumulated, of which Meriden had its generous share. Since then other business ventures have started, developed into more or less importance of their own and passed out of the needs of this newer day.
But the great factories of this later dispensation, growing still more and more extensive in their operations and varied in their merchandise, have grown up from and have been evolved out of, more or less directly or indirectly, those low, unpretentious, nearly forgotten workshops of seventy years ago. The men who conducted the enterprises of those years were all of them economical, thrifty and painstaking. Besides these qualities, they were both, farmers and manufacturers, eminently God-fearing, Sunday-keeping men. They strove, --even if they sometimes, being human, failed-- to have "a conscience void of offence."
The Houses of Meriden