Twin Oaks – Ida Tarbell’s Farm

Part of the Historical Society of Easton’s Year of the Woman Series.

“…I had my little home in Connecticut which in the fifteen years since I had acquired it had not only grown increasingly dear to me; it had also taken on an importance which I had not foreseen. It had become the family home. Here my mother had come to pass the last summers before her death in 1917; here my niece Esther had married under the Oaks; here my niece Clara and her husband Tristram Tupper, battered by war service, had come in 1919 to live in our little guest house. Here Tris had written his first successful magazine story. Here their two children passed their first years. Nearby, my sister had built herself a studio to become her home. A hundred associations gave the place a meaning and a dignity which I had never expected to feel in any home of my own, something that only comes when a place has been hallowed by the joys and sorrows of family life.”  – Ida Tarbell from her 1939 autobiography, “All in the Day’s Work.”

The Ida Tarbell House is located at 320 Valley Road and has been listed as a National Historic Landmark since 1993. Tarbell named her Easton farm, Twin Oaks.

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Early History of the Property

Tracing the full Anglican era history of most Easton properties is a tedious and time-consuming process that often comes up short with definitive answers. The 40-acre farm that Ida Tarbell purchased in early 1906 is no exception.

The first land recordings that clearly delineate the transfer of the largest tract of land that makes up about one half of that farm can be found on page 471 of Volume 9 of the Weston Town Land Records that is dated May 28, 1808.

Ebenezer Lyon owned a farm on the southern side of Rock House Road consisting of multiple parcels of land he had acquired by purchasing adjoining acreages carved out the original Long Lots that sat between Henry Jackson’s Long Lot number ten and Samuel Morehouse’s Long Lot number nineteen. Number ten’s eastern border was today’s Sport Hill Road and number nineteen’s western border would have been today’s Valley Road. Lyon died in 1801 dividing his lands in his will between his children and his wife Martha.

One of his daughters was Elizabeth, often referred to either Betty or Betsey in most legal documents. Betsey was married to Hezekiah Platt. In May of 1808, Martha and Betsey’s siblings quit claimed a total of 18 acres to Betsey. That land sat at the southeast corner of Rock House and Valley Roads. In what was somewhat of an unusual move, that land was entered in Betsey’s name only, a rarity in the early 19th century when married women were seldom property owners. That parcel of land would become the site of the present house at 320 Valley Road. The very same home that Ida Tarbell would purchase nearly 100 years later.

Although Easton Town records list the build date of the house at 320 Valley Road as being c.1790, that date is not borne out in the 1808 land transfer, as there is no mention of a dwelling house in that recorded deed. The architecture of the home is also inconsistent with the 1790 timeframe. Side-hall colonial houses such as the Tarbell home would not be in vogue until at least the second decade of the 19th century. A far more plausible build date on that house would be c.1810-1815 when Hezekiah and Betsey Platt were beginning to raise their family. The original house was twenty-five feet by twenty-five feet in size with three rooms on each floor and a large center chimney that would have likely served four fireplaces.

Hezekiah and Betsey Platt’s eldest daughter was Sally Lyon Platt, born in 1813. Sally married Eliphalet H. Bradley (1806-1881) sometime after Hezekiah Platt had passed in 1825. Betsey remained in the home and Sally and Eliphalet joined her there, likely around 1830. An addition was added to the southeast side of the house that likely served as a separate living space for Betsey. Eliphalet made several purchases of adjoining parcels (most in 1841) that grew the total acreage of the farm to an even 40, although title to the original 18-acre homestead and house remained firmly in Betsey’s name until around the time of her death in 1857.

Eliphalet and Sally had a total of four children, only one of which lived past the age of three years. Hezekiah (1837-1838), Julia (1840-1843), and William (1843-1843, age 4 months) are all buried in Lyon Cemetery on Sport Hill Road. Only eldest son Matthias (1833-1894) lived to adulthood.

Beginning in 1833 the Fairfield County Turnpike, a toll road beginning at the Black Rock Turnpike that was intended to eventually run all the way to New Milford, was established. Valley Road was part of the southern end of that road. The route was chosen because it was virtually flat for its entire length, making transportation of goods faster and less expensive between the towns inland and the ports along the coast. With several button and comb factories already established along the Redding portion of the highway (Poverty Hollow Road), and plenty of inexpensive local labor available, the area around the intersection of Rock House Road and Valley Road became a center for boot making by the middle of the century.

According the United States decennial Census of 1850, Eliphalet H. Bradley was then running a successful boot factory on the property. Living and working on the property were a total of seven men who listed their occupation as “shoemakers.” The small house that sits to the south of the main house – and was later considered Tarbell’s guest house – was used to shelter those workers.

Sally Bradley passed away in 1865 at the age of only 52. Eliphalet soon married Jane White, who was nearly 30 years his junior. Jane passed in 1875 at the age of only 38. Shortly thereafter, Eliphalet married Addie, his 3rd and final wife when she was 40 and he was nearly 70.

In 1880, the Census showed Eliphalet and Addie as proprietors of a “Poor House.” They were housing a total of nine paupers in the same tiny house that had held seven workers when Bradley had been making boots twenty years earlier. The farm also produced over 50 bushels of potatoes and 200 bushels of apples. Eliphalet passed in 1881, leaving his son Matthias and widow Addie to run the farm. After Matthias died in 1894 from Bright’s disease, Addie struggled to maintain the property, and by 1900, it was heavily mortgaged and only she and her sister were residing there, neither of them listing an occupation as a means of support. Addie moved to Bridgeport shortly thereafter, leaving the property vacant until Ida Tarbell agreed to purchase an option on the place during the late summer of 1905.

Twin Oaks c.1912

Easton in 1905

Most people reading this article will likely agree that today’s Easton is a bit of a refreshing oasis in the middle of Fairfield County. Remote enough to enjoy the pleasures of true country life, yet close enough to New York City to provide access to the opportunities of high paying employment and the indulgence in the cosmopolitan pleasures the city has to offer. But Ida Tarbell purchased her little farm in 1905. What was Easton like then?

The first telephone and telegraph lines appeared in town in 1904. It wouldn’t take long for telephones to gain in popularity and numbers, but in late April of 1906 when Tarbell first walked across the threshold of her recently acquired farmhouse on Valley Road, there were no telephone lines yet available that far north.

Electricity wouldn’t appear until much later. Likely sometime in the mid-1930’s. Most early electric power plants operated on a 2300-volt distribution system. The further away from the source, the lower the voltage became. In less than 5 miles, the voltage drop was so severe that many electric devices couldn’t operate. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 provided electric power cooperatives with the funds to increase the voltage to 7200 volts, resulting in adequate power as far away from the source as 40 miles. That act also subsidized the installation of power lines and poles, that had up to then required enough customers to be deemed feasible and profitable for power companies to service.

The automobile was in its absolute infancy in 1905. In 1910, Easton had less than 20 vehicles registered to residents – including automobiles, truck, and motorcycles. Access from the outside world to Easton would have to have been at least partially by rail. The only problem, Easton didn’t have a railroad that ran through town. The closest train service to Tarbell’s new Valley Road farm would have been Stepney Depot in Monroe, a little over five miles away.

The question would seem to be, why would Ida Tarbell have chosen Easton as the place to establish the permanent home she had long been seeking?

Happenchance may turn out to be the best answer we’ll be able to determine. Tarbell never reveals the real reason she chose to settle in Easton. In fact, she never even mentions the town by name in her 1939 autobiography. She simply describes it as “forty acres and a little old house in Connecticut.” According to Tarbell, the purchase came about by a purely fortuitous “series of circumstances.”

Tarbell declines to elaborate, but it can be surmised that her father’s 1905 death likely contributed to her finally abandoning any real hopes of returning to the family home in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Tarbell had started writing for Samuel McClure in New York City in 1894.  By 1905 she was editor and part owner of McClure’s Magazine, often running the daily operations of the publication during Sam McClure’s frequent long absences. She had written a highly successful biography of Abraham Lincoln and had gained international fame as a result of her two-year series of articles that exposed the greed and corruption of the Standard Oil Company. Teddy Roosevelt had given her the label of “Muckraker.” By late 1905, the death of her father and the stress of working at McClure’s had Tarbell seeking the solace of a place in the country she could call her own.

During the first few years of the 20th century, the town of Redding had become a summer haven to a multitude of writers and artists who lived and worked in New York City. Some of the oldest homes on the Ridge and in the Aspetuck Valley were purchased and restored by the people Tarbell knew and would later refer to as “The Valley Crowd.” One of the most prominent members of that group was Noble Foster Hoggson, a well-established architect and author who in 1902 purchased the old Abel Morehouse homestead at the foot of Church Hill at the intersection of Poverty Hollow Road. The transformation of the house and grounds was nothing short of spectacular. Several of Hoggson’s friends and relatives purchased or built nearby homes and the valley soon became a festive party place where poor factory workers had once toiled in the local mills and button factories.

The Valley Crowd assemble for a skating party on the mill pond at the foot of Meeker Hill Road in Redding in 1910

Hoggson named his estate, Fairfield Manor, and it was there that Ida Tarbell was introduced to the valley that would soon become her home. Fairfield Manor was less than two miles north on the same road as Twin Oaks.

Life at Twin Oaks

Ida Tarbell took possession of her 40-acre Easton farm in January of 1906. Her first order of business was to bring water into the house. A new well was dug, and pipes laid to a large storage tank in April of the year. While no records exist of how the early system was laid out and how the water would have been pumped from the well and into the storage tank, it likely occurred one of two ways. Either by a wind driven pump or an early hit and miss gasoline powered engine that would have powered a pump. The latter is the more likely of the two since no known photographs of the property appear to show a windmill and Tarbell’s nearest neighbor G. Burr Tucker, amongst his other ventures, sold gasoline powered pumps.

Tucker also sold antiques. Tarbell and her niece Esther had originally planned on outfitting the house with inexpensive furniture acquired from a department store basement. However, upon seeing a sign on Tucker’s house indicating he sold antique furniture, they decided to take a look.

“In looking over Burr’s miscellaneous assortment my eye fell on an old-fashioned melodeon, charming in line, its bellows broken but easy to repair – $10. I couldn’t resist it, and so I became almost from the first day a customer of my nearest neighbor. It was a great day when Burr went “teeking” as they called the hunt for treasures. We would watch for his return, and when his white horse and wagon loaded high with loot appeared down the road we were on the ground as soon as he was.”

Ida Tarbell with one of her dogs using the most popular mode of transportation of the day in early Easton – a horse drawn carriage. The Veranda on the south wing was added by contractor E.P. Mills in 1906. It has since been removed.

The spring and summer of 1906 also saw Ida Tarbell along with John S. Phillips, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and John Siddall resign from McClure’s and begin production of their own publication, The American Magazine. The added stress and financial strain on Tarbell made Twin Oaks a more important part of her world than she would ever imagine.

In the beginning, Tarbell would have been content to allow the fields to go to seed and the gardens overtaken by weeds. But that never came to pass.

“And what I had not reckoned with came from all corners of my land: fields calling to be rid of underbrush and weeds and turned to their proper work; a garden spot calling for a chance to show what it could do; apple trees begging to be trimmed and sprayed. I had bought an abandoned farm, and it cried loud to go about its business.

“Why should I not answer the cry? Why should I not be a farmer? Before I knew it, I was at least going through the motions, having fields plowed, putting in crops, planting an orchard, supporting horses, a cow, a pig, a poultry yard – giving up a new evening gown to buy fertilizer!”

Ida Tarbell’s garden in 1912

Tarbell soon developed a plan whereby she would only spend what she could lay aside from her income on Twin Oaks. She would divide that money three ways, with a third each being devoted to the house, the land, and the furnishings. The royalties from her earlier books provided most of those funds.

Edward P. Mills, who lived on Redding Road, would oversee most of the early contracting work on the property. He added stone walls and a veranda to the house. In winter, Mills and his crew would cut ice on the Foundry Pond up the road in Redding in order to fill Tarbell’s icehouse. In 1908, that icehouse along with a shed were moved farther away from the main house by neighbor Paul Trup.

The early summer years at Twin Oaks were full of visitors, many from The American, where it was considered amongst the highest honors to receive an invitation from Ida Tarbell to spend a few days at the farm. Kathleen Norris named the resident pig, “Juicy.” The Siddall’s cat, Sammy Siddall, spent the entire summer at Twin Oaks. Tarbell’s mother came to live there, and her sister Sarah, a trained portrait artist, build a studio home on the northern side of Rock House Road only a few yards east of the farm.

One of Tarbell’s favorite friends was Jeannette L. Gilder, a fellow author who maintained a summer home on Redding Ridge. Both Gilder and Tarbell were also good friends of Mark Twain, and Tarbell fondly recalls riding over to Stormfield with Gilder to have tea with Twain. His guest book confirms an August 6, 1908 visit by the pair.

Mark Twain kept a detailed guest book at his Stormfield Estate in Redding. Ida Tarbell and her friend Jeannette Gilder had lunch with Twain there on August 6, 1908. Tarbell presented Twain with a copy of her biography on Lincoln which he later donated to the library he would fund in Redding.

It is most interesting to note that it was Twain who first introduced Tarbell to Henry Huttleston Rogers a senior director of the Standard Oil Company. It was from the candid interviews with Rogers that Tarbell was able to amass her information for her expose, “The History of the Standard Oil Company.” It was also Twain who introduced Rogers to a very young Helen Keller, and then convinced Rogers and his wife Abbie to fully fund her education at Radcliffe. The fact that Tarbell was writing her autobiography at her farm in Easton in 1939, the very same year that Helen Keller was building her final home at Arcan Ridge only a few miles away is certainly an interesting coincidence.

Tarbell’s niece Esther was so enthralled with her aunt’s Connecticut home that she applied for and was accepted as a teacher at the Sanford School in Redding. Too far to walk to the school during winter months, Esther boarded with the family of the minister of Episcopal Church on Redding Ridge. It was at the Sanford School where she met science instructor James Aldrich. The two were married at Twin Oaks on June 27, 1914.

1914 Wedding announcement of Esther Ida Tabell to James Madison Aldrich in June of 1914

Tarbell remained at The American until 1915. After serving as a correspondent for the Red Cross Magazine in France during the latter stages of WWI, she returned to Twin Oaks where she continued to write from her first-floor office at the front of the house. She lectured for several more years before sitting down to write her autobiography in 1939. Ida Tarbell died from pneumonia in Bridgeport Hospital on January 6, 1944. She was 86 years old.

Ida Tarbell in her garden during her final years at Twin Oaks