Oak Knoll – Take Me Home, Country Roads

Just after the turn of the last century, Easton and Redding began to see an influx of city dwellers looking for the peace and tranquility that country life could offer.

Sound familiar?

Well, back then it wasn’t a pandemic driving people out of the city, it was the general unpleasantness of living in the city during the summer. And it wasn’t just big cities such as New York and Boston. It was all cities. Even cities as close by as Bridgeport.

While most heavily populated urban communities were well on their way to full electrification during the first decade of the 1900’s, there were still many amenities that either hadn’t yet been invented or that were not widely accepted while they were still in their infancy. Air conditioning and electric refrigeration were two that would have made city life in July and August a great deal more bearable. In 1903, both were still several years from becoming the reality we all take for granted today.

The heat, dirt, and noise found in most cities was simply too much to bear for those who could afford a country home. Even if the family patriarch had to remain in the city to work, the rest of the family could enjoy the pleasant breezes and fresh garden vegetables that a country home could offer.

Redding Native Jesse Banks Cornwall c.1880

Jesse B. Cornwall and his wife Grace were Bridgeport residents who lived at 1401 Fairfield Avenue in a home that was likely built during the 1870’s. Like most urban houses of the era, it sat rather close to the street. While not a problem in 1870, by the early 1900’s, Fairfield Avenue was one of the two main east-west thoroughfares that connected the towns along the shores of Long Island Sound, and while automobile traffic was still rather sparse, trolley traffic was nearing its peak. There were two trolley tracks that ran by the front door of the Cornwall home. Electric trollies weren’t particularly noisy, but the near constant ringing of their bells announcing arrivals at stops along the way, were.

Only one block to the south was State Street, another thoroughfare with two more trolley tracks and additional bell ringing. Just one additional block to the south of State Street were the tracks of the New Haven, New York, and Hartford Railroad, with four sets of rails carrying both passenger and freight trains that ran twenty-four hours a day. More noise from the rumble of the railroad cars and the blowing of the whistles as the trains ran through the city.

And then there was the soot and dirt. At the turn of the century, most locomotives were coal burning steam units that spewed copious amounts of black smoke and ash that rained down on every clothesline filled with drying sheets and linens within several blocks of the tracks. There could be times when freshly washed items would appear worse after they were laundered and dried than before they were cleaned. As some locomotives began to burn oil, the smoke from their stacks produced a soot that was not only foul-smelling and dirty, but also contained an oily residue that stuck like glue to everything it settled on.

Constant train traffic such as this through Bridgeport left the summer air heavy with smoke and soot.

Bridgeport was teeming with industry during the first decade of the twentieth century, and with that industry, came tall smokestacks that poured additional soot and acrid-smelling smoke into the air. During the hot and humid months of summer, that smoke filled the air and hung over the city like an ominous cloud.

Dust from street traffic was also a problem – especially for those homes that sat closest to the roadway. Outside of the downtown business section, most streets in Bridgeport were maintained as dirt roads into the mid-teens. Horse and wagon traffic created enough dust when conditions remained dry, but as more and more automobiles began to appear, so did the dust clouds behind them. Horse drawn water tanks regularly sprinkled the busier city streets, but when it was hot and dry, it didn’t take very long for those roads to dry out and the dust to reappear and blow through open windows to settle on the furniture and coat the drapes that hung by the window frames.

Add 90-degree days and 75-degree nights to the mix and it doesn’t take long to imagine the misery that city dwellers experienced during most of July and August.

The remains of the Jesse Banks hat factory at the corner of Giles Hill Road and Newtown Turnpike in the 1950’s.

A Little Cornwall Family History

Jesse Banks Cornwall was born in Redding to Nathan and Amanda Natalie Banks Cornwall on June 1, 1856. Nathan worked as a hatter in Amanda’s father’s (Jesse Banks) shop located at the northeast corner of Newtown Turnpike and Giles Hill Road.

In 1861, Nathan enlisted with the 11th Volunteer Infantry on Sept 19th. He fought during civil war and was captured and interred by the Confederate Army during the Second Battle of Petersburg on June 18, 1864. He was held as a POW until Nov. 21, 1864, when he was released as part of a prisoner exchange. He continued to serve in the Union Army until December 21, 1865, being discharged at the rank of First Lieutenant.

Amanda Cornwall died in 1862 while Nathan was serving in the Union Army. 6-year-old Jesse then went to live with Amanda’s sister, Carrie Sanford, and her husband George. They lived at today’s 21 Sanfordtown Road. George operated a carriage factory across the road closer to the intersection with Newtown Turnpike. It was working for his uncle where Jesse learned the basics of manufacturing and sales.

In 1879, Jesse partnered with a man by the name of Patterson, and they opened a piano and organ hardware manufacturing plant in Bridgeport – the Cornwall & Patterson Manufacturing Corporation.

In 1902, the company moved into a larger plant at the corner of Bedford Street and Fairfield Avenue where it intersects with State Street in the city’s west end. Jesse and his wife Grace May Hall lived only a few blocks to the west at 1401 Fairfield Avenue.

By late 1902, the Cornwall’s had had enough of the unpleasantries of city life during the summer and began serious contemplation of establishing a home in the country where they could reside between June and late October. Jesse was only 46 years of age, and while already quite wealthy, he wasn’t yet ready to leave his business in the hands of his underlings for the entire summer. He wanted a place where he could commute. But his commute would be by automobile! Something virtually unheard of only two years into the new century.

Getting There

Cornwall was enthralled by the freedom and the speed that an automobile could provide him. He was good friends with Andrew L Riker, the chief engineer for Locomobile and the man who would soon take over the reigns as president when the company moved from building electric buggies to luxurious, gasoline powered automobiles. The Blue Ribbon Carriage and Body Company provided virtually all the bodies for the new Locomobile. Their plant was about halfway between Cornwall’s home and his factory, and he walked by it every day.

It took little persuasion to get Cornwall to purchase one of the first Locomobile gasoline powered cars. He would buy several more as the years progressed, his last a 1911 model the year before his death. He and Riker were prominent members of the Bridgeport Automobile Club. It was that organization that held the inaugural Sport Hill Race Easton in 1902 and made it a Memorial Day tradition until 1910. Cornwall was one of the earliest participants.

In late 1902, Jesse purchased the land at today’s 7 Sanfortown Road from his uncle George Sanford and began planning his summer home. The property was sixteen miles from Cornwall’s factory in Bridgeport. That trip in 1903 took a little over fifty minutes in good weather. But rain could be a real game changer since none of the roads between Bridgeport and the Sanfordtown section of Redding were hard surfaced. Dirt quickly became mud, and mud required chains be installed on the early treadless, balloon tires that all automobiles wore. The other major issue with early tires was the propensity of the tubes inside them to easily puncture. Roads with protruding rocks were a tire’s worst nightmare. The vast majority of early automobiles carried more than one spare tire.

Weston resident & Metropolitan Opera star James Melton in 1946 with his 1908 Locomobile Touring Car. The canvas and isinglass windscreen seen here offered some protection, but didn’t provide the driver with a very clear view of where he was going – especially if it was raining!

The other issue with rain was the total lack of weather protection for the occupants of the vehicle. The photos we have of Cornwall’s Locomobile in 1906 show neither a folding top attached to the rear of the car, nor a windscreen of any type. Most early production automobiles came with neither. Tops, windscreens, and side curtains were all something an owner could have made, but those weren’t generally items offered by the companies that installed the bodies on the chassis that the manufacturer sent to them. Some of the early windscreens were made of canvas with transparent isinglass panels for the occupants to see through – better than nothing at all, but very difficult to see clearly through. Glass windscreens and windshield wipers on automobiles didn’t appear until later in the fist decade of the 20th century, and wipers that didn’t need to be manually operated weren’t available until 1919. Driving an early automobile in the rain was both unpleasant and and at least marginally dangerous.

There were no traffic signals between Redding and Bridgeport. No stop signs either. There was a state imposed fifteen-mph speed limit, but who was going to enforce it? Neither Redding, Easton, nor Fairfield had a police force, and while the State Police were created in May of 1903, the entire force consisted of five men being paid three dollars a day to enforce the state’s liquor laws. With virtually no other motor vehicle traffic, it was clear sailing between Redding and Bridgeport except for one consideration that had to be kept in mind before cranking the engine and beginning the trip.

Between Redding and Bridgeport there was no place to purchase gasoline. Period! Gasoline needed to be purchased in Bridgeport, and in 1902 there were very few places where that could be accomplished. Gasoline stations as we know them had not yet been established. The country roads that Cornwall would have used to travel from Bridgeport to Redding followed the general route of today’s Black Rock Turnpike, only without the scenic views of the two reservoirs in Fairfield and Easton that hadn’t yet been built. Cornwall would have driven to Cross Highway in Redding before turning west and then proceeding to Newtown Turnpike and turning south towards Sanfordtown. Steeper roads such as Giles Hill would have made the journey shorter in distance, but would have normally been avoided since the Locomobile would have only been equipped with rear brakes – again, that was the normal setup in early automobiles. Having only a puny set of rear brakes made stopping a challenge even on a flat road.

The House

The Cornwall’s Redding summer residence was designed by Bridgeport architect Charles T. Beardsley Jr. Beardsley also designed the Plumb Library in Shelton as well as numerous homes throughout Fairfield County. In 1910, Cornwall would hire him again to design his beautiful Tudor style mansion at 625 Clinton Avenue in Bridgeport. Construction on the Redding “cottage” began in June of 1903 with Judd Burr overseeing the work.

Architect Charles T. Beardsley Jr.’s floor plan drawings for Oak Knoll in Redding 1903.

The original house had a living room, dining room, and kitchen on the first level, while there were six bedrooms and one bath on the second floor. The first-floor walls were constructed of field stones, all found on the property. The fireplace in the living room was similarly made from fieldstone. The floors consisted of parquet squares, while the exposed beams that supported the second story floors were constructed of cypress and stained with dark finish. The adjoining dining room was surrounded with five-foot high wood paneling topped with a plate rail. A kitchen behind the dining room had a sink with running water supplied by several natural springs on the property that were connected to the house by an underground pipe. The springs were able to provide enough water for the entire estate.

The second-floor bedrooms – all six of them, were moderate in size, averaging about 10 X 14 feet, but all six had their own closet, a relatively recent component of house designs at the time. Each of the four front bedrooms was served by its own dormer. The home’s single bathroom was also located on the second level.

The home’s basement housed a central heating system that provided steam heat to the space above. There were two fuel storage rooms – coal would have been the likely choice, although wood could have also been used. In addition, there was a cold storage room where food could be stored. It was 1903 and the house wouldn’t see electricity until sometime during the Great Depression.

The home also had a magnificent, covered piazza that ran across the entire front of the house and a stone patio that sat on the southern end.

Almost as soon as the main house was complete, Jesse authorized construction on a second building to the rear that would house a large living room with a fieldstone fireplace on the first floor and three additional bedrooms and a bath on the second floor to accommodate the servants. This building was not originally connected to the main residence. Jesse called the second building the Casino. When the living room in the Casino wasn’t being used by the owners of the main house, the servants were allowed to use it for their own pleasure.

A two-car garage – likely the very first structure in Redding designed precisely to house an automobile – was built behind the Casino and a large carriage house was constructed to the southwest of that. The first garage was followed by a second one that was attached to the northern end of the carriage house in August of 1906. A small barn was built behind the carriage house.

Jesse Cornwall’s 1905 Locomobile Touring car Type D bore his brass initials on the grille and his license plate was #38, the 38th plate to ever be issued by the state of Connecticut. This garage is believed to be the first such structure in Redding designed to specifically house an automobile.

Completed in time for the summer season of 1904, the entire estate was dubbed Oak Knoll.

Cornwall in his Locomobile exiting his driveway at Oak Knoll in June of 1906.

Life in the Country

Numerous newspaper articles of the day regarding the comings and goings at Oak Knoll appeared almost weekly in the Newtown Bee. One told of Cornwall’s completion of the massive stone wall that runs along Newtown Turnpike and then northward along Sanfordtown Road until it reaches George Sanford’s place. Another mentions the two-hundred rose bushes that Cornwall had delivered in May of 1905. Other articles detail the massive fireworks display that the Cornwall’s provided every Fourth of July beginning in 1905.

The Bee also documents the fact that shortly after Oak Knoll was completed, Cornwall purchased a nearby home on Newtown Turnpike, renovated it, and then allowed his caretaker, Frank Ferry and his family to live in it.

A couple of other interesting notes were the delivery of the elaborate headstone for Jesse’s parents to the Hull Cemetery where they are interred. Amanda had died in 1862, and Nathan in 1888, but it wasn’t until 1905 that a beautiful granite stone was installed to identify their graves. Yet another interesting fact was that one of the contractors who worked at Oak Knoll was Jesse’s first cousin, George S. Banks. In 1908, Banks would be the deputy sheriff who took a bullet in the leg while pursuing the two intruders who had just robbed Mark Twain’s estate in Redding.

It was during the construction of Oak Knoll that Redding was seeing it’s first telephone poles installed between the Ridge and the Center along Cross Highway. The Bee noted there was a crew of fourteen men doing the installation, but that nearly every hole needed to be blasted due to the heavy concentration of rocks.

Jesse Banks Cornwall retired from business in 1910. In 1911, the family sailed to England for a planned summer tour of Europe. Shortly after arriving in England, Grace became ill. She and Jesse remained there while the children traveled the continent. Grace was finally well enough to begin the trans-Atlantic journey back to the United States in November – two months later than they had planned. However, on the voyage home, her health deteriorated, and she died at sea.

In summer of 1912, Jesse became ill and was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died on August 18th of that year.

The estate kept the Redding property for several more years, although the family put it up for sale in 1913. Cornwall’s wealth at the time of his death was in excess of $380,000. Oak Knoll was valued at a whopping $2,000 when the estate was entered into probate.

On a recent visit to Oak Knoll, I was pleased to see that very few changes had been made to the original house that would have detracted from its original look and character. There have been several tasteful additions, such as a larger, modern kitchen, and a couple of rooms that complete the connection of the Casino to the main house. The original cypress beams, parquet floor, and fieldstone fireplaces all remain. The upstairs has been reconfigured to accommodate larger bedrooms, each with its own en-suite bathroom. All-in-all, I would have to imagine that Jesse would have been pleased with the changes that brought the home into the 21st century.

But it was some of the contents of the barn tucked behind the carriage house that really piqued my interest. Sitting towards the rear were four amazing pieces of history that haven’t likely seen the light of day since Jesse Cornwall died in 1912. There were two carriages, a sleigh, and an incredibly well-preserved Coldwell horse drawn lawnmower. All four are all completely intact and appear to be waiting for their original owner’s return. Hmmmm…I wonder?

The Coldwell horse drawn lawnmower had a built in roller to flatten the hoof marks left by the horse. Coldwell eventually merged with other companies and became part of the Toro organization. This photo is c.1910 and shows an identical unit to the one in the barn at Oak Knoll.

Information and several photographs contained in this article obtained from the August 1906 edition of American Homes & Gardens, and various articles in the Newtown Bee between June of 1902 and October of 1908.

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