Twenty years ago this week, hundreds of people gathered at the Bradley-Hubbell House off Black Rock Turnpike to celebrate the recreation of its perennial flower garden and to fundraise for the historic homestead. Led by a joint initiative between the Historical Society and the Easton Garden Club, the event was called “Behind the Stone Walls.” The theme was an apt reference to the walls that frame much of our landscape and link us to this town’s agricultural heritage. With over 500 people in attendance, the crowd was a mix of visitors: historical and horticultural buffs from neighboring towns, longtime residents, and new homeowners eager to learn more about Easton’s history. Tickets were sold to access ten private residential gardens ranging from Colonial to Modernist with sculptural installations. And yet, the star of the show was the little flower garden off the south side of the Bradley-Hubbell House. Lovingly installed after much research and labor by Easton Garden Club members, it is the product of a true community wide effort.
Seen today from the roadway, the garden offers beautiful blooms throughout the growing season. Tended still by some of the same women who helped reestablish the garden two decades ago, the Historical Society recently honored their efforts by installing a new sign. With so many fresh faces in our town however, this anniversary seems a good opportunity to highlight the significance of the Bradley-Hubbell Homestead, and maybe even remind longtime residents how thankful we are for their hard work and assistance in preserving this remarkable site.
The Bradley-Hubbell House is located at 535 Black Rock Turnpike, and it was built by Aljah Bradley in 1816 over the foundation of an earlier home from about 1750. It is often pointed out that the earlier eighteenth century house stood witness to the British troops marching past on their way to the burning of Danbury. While we have no local firsthand accounts describing this event, we do know that this roadway was a critical artery between neighboring towns since the earliest days of Fairfield’s settlement.
When the new owner, Aljah, purchased the property, he used the older building’s foundation, chimney and fireplace masonry when constructing a home for his young wife Elizabeth and soon to be nine children. Local craftsmen and family members helped build the structure and it is a fine example of the early Federal style with simple decorative elements. Descendants of the Bradley family would go on to farm the adjacent land that stretched across both sides of the Aspetuck River for the better part of a century. As subsistence farmers, their lives were tied to the land and the seasons. They raised flax, wheat, rye, potatoes, and vegetables and they relied on oxen to help plow their fields. They had cows to provide milk and sheep for meat and wool. Elizabeth and her daughters made their own candles, butter, and cheese all while keeping house and spinning the flax and wool for the family’s clothing. Archaeological testing confirms that a kitchen garden existed on the south side, and the women of the family would have tended to that as well. We do have a firsthand account written by John Dimon Bradley, the eldest son of the family. He served as selectman to our town both in 1860 and 1864, and later in his life, he recorded his memories of growing up on this farm in his Aspetuc Chronicles.
The property stayed in the Bradley family until 1912 when a total of 66.8 acres was sold to the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company to make way for the Aspetuck Reservoir. As Class I water company land, the house sits on an environmentally sensitive parcel of watershed and no further development would be permitted. This status essentially preserved the surrounding landscape so that the area’s appearance today is not too dissimilar to that of the nineteenth century. To their credit, the water company also preserved many of the older buildings on their properties and used them to house employees rather than demolish them.
In 1917 the old Aljah Bradley house became home to Franklin Homer Hubbell who was hired as a land resource manager. A graduate of agricultural studies at UMASS, he was a trained pomologist: someone who specifically studies the cultivation of fruit and orchards. As such, he began the Aspetuck Orchards on Flirt Hill which was part of Bridgeport Hydraulic’s property and he started the first roadside fruit stand in Connecticut with the Apple Barn on Black Rock Turnpike. And just as John Dimon Bradley served in political office, Franklin was also elected as Easton’s selectman both in 1960 and again in 1965. He was widely known and greatly respected in our town.
Along with his wife, Helen, and their three children, the Hubbell family enjoyed life in the old farmhouse. They appreciated the period features of the home and made very few changes to it albeit for some midcentury kitchen appliances. We even have a firsthand account of their life during the early twentieth century from their daughter, the noted children’s author, Patricia Hubbell. She describes a joyful childhood where she and her siblings were given free range to explore nature. We also get glimpses of their life through her poetry that was often inspired by her family and their time outdoors, particularly in her parent’s garden.
Her recollections were quite helpful to the Historical Society as they tried to understand their use of some of the subsidiary buildings. We know now that the rather elaborate small structure located to the south of the house was constructed by her father as a playhouse for his children in the late 1920’s. It served as both a dollhouse and later as a “nature museum” where artifacts like snake skins and bird’s nests would be collected and displayed. Franklin was a keen horticulturist who had several gardens on the property and when his children grew up, the “playhouse” became his tool shed.
In the early years of their residency, particularly during World War II, he tended a large vegetable garden on the north side of the house and his wife, an active member of the early Easton Garden Club, set out an extensive perennial flower garden on the south side. When Helen passed away in 1974, Franklin moved his vegetable patch over to the sunnier side of the house. Neighbors and family recall he remained an avid gardener well into his advanced years and he continued living on the property until he passed away just a few months shy of his 100th birthday in 1996.
In 1997, the water company had planned to renovate the empty home and lease it to new tenants, but the Historical Society intervened and requested to take over the property. Consulting preservationists noted that the house had never been significantly altered from its original early nineteenth century design, and primary documents and artifacts for both the Bradley and the Hubbell families made it an attractive site for conservation and educational development. The Historical Society was able to secure a long-term lease that included the main residence, the barn, the garage, and the playhouse with 4.35 acres of the surrounding land in 1999. Fundraising and conservation quickly ensued to stabilize the structure of the main house. Research and planning set out to convert the residence into a historic home museum dedicated to the two families as well as the greater agrarian heritage of the town.
As part of this study, the Historical Society president, Lois Bloom, approached the Easton Garden Club with the challenge of recreating a period garden. An incredible group of women including Abby LePage, Janet Hoyt, Hove Herrmann, Barbara Broderick, and Princie Falkenhagen formed a committee to research and design the space. Not only did they seek the advice of experienced landscape historian Sheila Wertheimer from the Florence Griswold Museum, but they also consulted with Patricia Hubbell who provided period photographs and invaluable recollections.
Rather than trying to remake the earlier Bradley Garden, the committee decided to reconstruct the perennial flower beds set in the 1930’s by Franklin and Helen Hubbell. Patricia provided a list of flowers from springtime tulips and poppies to summer perennials full of color like peonies and iris. These are set off with several types of annuals and tender perennials. Helping the Garden Club was local business owner Sal Gilberti who donated materials and labor. Even the local Boy Scout troop installed the fencing which was based on the early images of the property in the Bridgeport Hydraulic Archives. In total, the garden installation took place over the course of two years from planning to first flowers. While some of the species and varieties have changed over these past two decades, most of the plants set out in the initial layout remain.
There were great hopes for the Bradley-Hubbell House to serve as a cultural center for Easton when it received its official recognition on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2003. The Society began holding educational “Living History” events with costumed participants. Exhibitions were held along with lectures and holiday festivities encouraging residents to utilize the space. Proposed site drawings from 2001 and again in 2007 show an interest in expanding the site with a large parking area that suggest extensive use was fully expected.
Years earlier, there had been similar attempts to create a historic museum and park-like center off Westport Road around the Adams Schoolhouse. While these previous proposals were unsuccessful, volunteers and Society members were certain the Bradley-Hubbell Homestead would provide Easton with a center on par with neighboring towns. In particular, they were looking to the example of Weston’s Coley Farmstead that hosts community events and educational programing.
Open houses, tours and site rentals for private events did bring in revenue, but the money was quickly absorbed by maintenance costs leaving little to expand offerings or develop the grounds. Despite all the extensive planning, the fatal flaw in the overall project was ultimately the lack of an endowment that could fund its continuous operation. Dwindling monies meant the restoration work on the barn and the playhouse were put on hold indefinitely and by 2016 an urgent plea to the community went out in the hope of finding additional volunteers and donations.
The Garden Club continued to help with contributions through the sale of watercolor paintings based on the flowers growing on site, but the situation was so bleak that the Society considered returning the property to the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, now Aquarion.
A rather creative agreement was reached in which the water company permitted the Historical Society to rent out the house. The revenue from this arrangement has allowed for some maintenance of the property. While this is not a perfect solution, it did preserve the house during a difficult financial period. New board members have joined the Society and we are working on funding, restoration, and potential educational tours. Will the house return to a community role? We do hope so, but for now, the Bradley-Hubbell House is not just a place for history. It is once again, a family home. And while the building itself is not accessible to visitors, the garden is there for all to see. If you are curious about the plantings or want to help, come by on Tuesday mornings at 10 am and bring your gloves. When you stand in the garden and look out over the Aspetuck Reservoir you realize the open space and vista are just as important as the historic home.