Marking the centennial of women’s suffrage, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is celebrating the “Year of the Woman” in 2020. The Historical Society of Easton has also embraced this as the central theme of this year’s efforts to promote local history. Strong, intelligent, and talented women have been part of Easton’s history since the beginning, but it was perhaps during the years of early to mid-twentieth century when Easton enjoyed the residency of several of the most important women of the arts that the town has ever known.
While women such as writer Ida Tarbell and recording artist Vaughn De Leath purchased some of Easton’s historic homes, there were two female literary masters who defied convention in the midst of the Great Depression of the late 1930’s by building brand-new homes on opposite sides of town where they could work in the tranquility of rural Connecticut. One was Helen Keller who built a modest home in the Aspetuck Historic District that she would name Arcan Ridge. The other was Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and playwright Edna Ferber who built a spread on Maple Road that could easily have rivaled her other creation, the fictional Texas ranch of Reata from her best-selling novel, Giant. Ferber would name her home in Easton, Treasure Hill.
It was March of 1938 when Ferber finally got Walenty Bilash to sign over the deed to 116 acres of rolling farmland that sat near his own home on Maple Road. The price was a reported $25,000, not at all a small sum of money for vacant land in Easton during the middle of the Great Depression. Ferber complained about the length of time it took her attorney to get Bilash to close on the deal, suggesting that Bilash was worried about the land being used as a Nazi indoctrination camp such as the one the Bund had recently attempted to establish in Southbury in 1937. Like so many of Edna Ferber’s off-handed comments, her words were often laced with heavy doses of her sarcastic wit. There was no chance that a woman who openly trumpeted her Jewish heritage whilst railing against antisemitism would have aided the German based Bund.
Ferber’s plans for her country estate were nothing less than lavish, especially for a town such as Easton where a large home would have encompassed no more than 2,500 to 3,000 square feet in that era. The Treasure Hill mansion would have nearly 6,000 square feet of living space in the main house alone. The home was designed with four master bedrooms on the second level, each with its own bath and one with its own study. The living room was to be thirty-four feet in length with French doors to the stone patio in the rear and a massive fireplace on one end. The plans called for a large multi-windowed library, a formal dining room, an enclosed sunroom, and servants’ quarters. In all, the original house would contain six bedrooms and six baths, for a total twelve rooms in all. There would also be a stone pool house built beside the massive 50-foot in-ground pool, a three-car garage, a barn and a caretaker’s house for the family that would oversee the planned farming operation.
Edna Ferber hired thirty-eight-year old Louis Andrew Forsell to oversee the construction. Forsell was a handsome six-footer with light brown hair and blue eyes. A first-generation American son of Swedish immigrants, Forsell had begun his career in carpentry and construction working for the United States Housing Corporation during World War I, when he helped build government sponsored housing projects such as Seaside Village in Bridgeport. He and his wife Iris lived on Rock House Road in Easton. It would be his job to hire the workers and make certain the house was built to Ferber’s liking.
Ferber wanted her home to be “gay” in appearance, but insisted it be built of stone. And not just any stone. She wanted her home to be built of the stone that had been part of her property since the age of the glaciers. The stone would come from the hundreds of yards of old stone walls that delineated her property lines and multiple fields.
From Ferber’s 1963 autobiography, A Kind of Magic:
“That’s right, the stones are right here on the place,” Lou Forsell said patiently. “All those stone walls, about a mile of them, and more. But I wouldn’t do that. I’m just telling you that because it would be a whole lot cheaper if we go out and buy the stones. Outside.”
“But I want the house built of the old stone walls on the place. They’ve been here for a million years. They were dragged down by the glaciers. They were here before the Puritans, before the Indians, before the earth cooled, probably, and jelled them. I want my house built of the old stone walls on the place. The walls were built a hundred years ago – two hundred.”
Lou Forsell was a knowledgeable builder, a practical man, a kindly and thrifty man. Now the steady blue eyes took on a look of compassion. “I get your notion.”
Ferber had her way. At Lou’s recommendation, an Italian immigrant master stone mason by the name of Angelo was hired to select the stones, point and fit them with near perfect symmetry. Angelo wasn’t a just workman, he was more of an artist in Ferber’s estimation as she watched him assemble her mansion from the piles of rocks that had been moved to the construction site via an old-fashioned stone boat – a kind of a sled made from heavy timbers that was designed to carry heavy loads by being dragged across the land.
It was late summer in 1938 when the slate roof went on at Treasure Hill and true to New England tradition, after the last tile was fastened into place, “A growing green-leaf branch was now plucked from a tree and fastened like a pert tassel to the highest point at the front and center-face of the roof. The roof tree. A lucky symbol. A green flag of triumph of well-done work completed, of life continuing to be lived in civilization.”
It was Wednesday, September 21, 1938 when the greatest hurricane ever to hit New England roared ashore. Ferber was staying in her rented house in Westport while the work continued at Treasure Hill. Like a frantic mother whose child was lost in a storm, she could do nothing more than look out the window as the streets flooded and the trees around her toppled.
“The House! The roof, the new trees, the farmer’s cottage, the pool-house, the wells. There was no getting out, no telephoning, no driving. The power lines were down, the roads were blocked with great trees prone across them.”
You could feel the anguish in her written words about those few days of wondering if her new house had survived. It had. The lone casualty at Treasure Hill was a century-old Beech tree near the edge of the woods that had splintered and fallen.
Work continued through the fall and into the winter. Ferber had given up her summer rental in Connecticut and returned to New York City for the season. Weekend drives to Easton allowed her to check on the progress being made at Treasure Hill. The furnace had been installed and fired up to keep the workman comfortable; allow the freshly plastered walls to dry evenly; and keep the plumbing from freezing. The interior of the house was coming together. The finely crafted woodwork in the library and the beautiful wood floors were being oiled and waxed by early December. Lou Forsell’s band of Swedish workmen were nearing the finish line.
And then tragedy struck.
It was the morning of December 8, 1938. The workers had lit a fire in the massive living room fireplace. The luxurious wood paneling at the west end of the thirty-four-foot room was being oiled and waxed with its final coats. Thirty-one-year-old Evan Ohlin, a handsome Swedish immigrant Forsell had hired from Bridgeport, was one of the workmen tasked with oiling the wall. He tossed a cloth soaked with turpentine into the open flames. His overalls, his shoes, and of course, his hands were all soaked in the highly inflammable liquid.
“Now, with a hellish leap, the flame sprang out at him as the rag met the fire. His clothes, his head, his hands – he was a pillar of fire. Screaming he ran through the house and out the door and rolled in the snow and rolled and rolled and lay there. He died of it. And sometimes, during the years of my life at Treasure Hill, as I started up the stairway to bed, and glanced back at the living room dim in the moonlight, he would come alive again and I would shut my eyes and turn my head away in pain; one of the few pangs of pain that Treasure Hill ever brought me.”
It was the spring of 1939 when Ferber moved into Treasure Hill for good. She had hired a full-time caretaker-farmer who would live with his wife in the smaller house built for them to the northeast of the main house. Treasure Hill would become a working farm – not so much for profit, but for the joy that it brought Ferber. She was active in the decision making and she was serious about running a first-class country farm.
Ferber would live at Treasure Hill for nearly twelve years. It was only upon the death of her mother in 1949 that she decided the time had finally come to sell the place. Treasure Hill had been her refuge, the fulfillment of her childhood dreams. It was there she finished writing Giant in 1950, but by then, perhaps much like the Benedicts’ love of Reata, the luster was waning. It was time to move on.
The house still stands, elegant as ever; a reminder of the talented woman who designed it and loved it so dearly.
An interesting side note for some of the older Eastonites reading this – Walenty Bilash was the father of future Samuel Staples School principal Helen Bilash.