Chances are if you love history, you may end up living where there are lots of old buildings linked together by old timey roads and stories. That’s exactly how I ended up in Easton. After many months looking for a home in Fairfield County, my family was just about to give up the search. Nothing really seemed quite right. Finally, we sought the help of a local realtor who asked with exasperated directness “so, what exactly are you looking for?” I responded, “I want a home that has all the charm of historic New England without needing Bob Villa’s crew for repairs. And I want a quiet, bucolic road but it shouldn’t look like a wilderness trail.” “Boy,” she said, “I have the perfect place for you.”
We fell in love with our home and this town on our very first visit and that is just how Helen and Bellamy Partridge felt in 1937 when they saw the old run-down Colonial they would call home.
Back then, the Partridges were two well established writers in New York City. Bellamy was a trained lawyer who left that profession to serve as a war correspondent and later as an editor, notably for the literary journal Book Chat. He had published both fiction and non-fiction titles and found a profitable side job as the ghost writer for William Kissam Vanderbilt documenting his world travels.
Many in town are more familiar with Helen’s name because she co-authored Easton-Its History with Francis Mellen in 1972. A graduate of Mount Holyoke with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English, Helen was also a seasoned journalist and author. She helped support their family by writing short romantic novels under the pseudonym “Phoebe Sheldon.” During the lean years of the Depression, she also worked as a publicist, and it was a job promoting local Fairfield restaurants that brought her to Connecticut. Attracted by the slower pace and rustic charm, she and her husband began looking for an affordable house for their growing family.
As they searched Fairfield County, nothing was either the right fit or the right price. Finally, an older realtor by the name of Mr. Whitney asked them a rather interesting question. “Do you want a view or a brook?” I suppose that may have been a very insightful question considering our regional landscape. Helen nevertheless replied, “I want a dutch oven,” referring to the large cast iron pots one can see hanging in a Colonial hearth. She continued, “and I want a house that we have to work on because we can’t afford anything else…” He replied, “I’ve got just the house for you.”
The property they were shown on Silver Hill Road dates to 1765 when David Jennings built it before his marriage to Mehitable Squire in 1768. The two-story farmhouse with its large central chimney immediately impressed Helen. Bellamy, not certain as to why his wife wanted the property so badly, was wise enough to just go along with it. He would later joke that they were two of the biggest fools on earth for buying the ramshackle old building. The fence was leaning over, the windows were partially broken, and straw hats were stuffed into the openings. There was even a hole in the upper floor that they could see clear down into the kitchen below! And yet, the hand-hewn timbers, the massive kitchen fireplace with the requisite crane and dutch oven, the wide planked floorboards, and the wrought iron hardware all together charmed them and made them feel at home.
There was a catch. The house belonged to the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, and it had been bought from the Tyler family with a life use clause. Grandmother and Grandfather Tyler were supposedly still living but not in the house and the fear was that they might want to exercise their right to return. Bellamy conferred with Sam Senior, head of the water company and put his legal prowess to use repairing the deed for purchase. But the couple had an on-going joke for years afterwards whenever they saw an elderly farmer driving a horse and wagon down Silver Hill Road. Could that be old Mr. Tyler returning to live in their house? The comic potential inspired them and they began to work on a book with just this premise resulting in Bellamy’s January Thaw. Becoming a best-seller and a Broadway show, the opening passage paints a poetic portrait of their historic home.
“In color the old house resembles the rich earth of the Connecticut countryside. A long time ago the shingled exterior was painted a dull red but the redness is now gone leaving a soft brown on the weathered wood that can be achieved only by years and years of sun and rain and sleet and wind, a bitter concoction identified and accepted by all good New Englanders as “this gol darn climate.” The house is as much a part of Connecticut as the rocks which dot the hillsides. It is, indeed, more indigenous than the rocks, which are really outsiders, having come riding in on the ice sheet from someplace up north, whereas the old house belongs-it grew here.”
Their old farmhouse and their new hometown inspired more successful novels from Bellamy in the years that followed, particularly The Old Oaken Bucket, which deals with notions of local lore, preservation, and small-town politics through the satirical portrayal of the “Eastview Garden Club.” Of course, the creative inspiration stemmed from Helen’s real-life experience as a member of Easton’s Garden Club.
As our town provided Bellamy and Helen with ample subject matter, the Partridges generously gave back in the form of volunteerism and fundraising. When January Thaw was produced on Broadway, a local production was permitted with all proceeds benefiting the Easton PTA. Helen and her husband also contributed their time and resources to the local Red Cross and they hosted many gatherings at their home.
It was within the context of these events that the Partridges would surely have met members of the Mellen Family. Local farmer John Zabina Mellen, regarded by many during his life as a keeper of town history, was originally from Massachusetts but he had married into one of the oldest Easton families. His wife, Harriet Turney Perry could trace her lineage all the way back through her father John Lee Perry to the Reverend James Johnson, the very first minister of the Congregational Church founded in 1762. In fact, the members of the Mellen family are incredible stewards of our town’s history. They maintained scrapbooks and diaries dating back to the early 19th century that are still preserved thanks to their diligence.
Francis Perry Mellen, John and Harriett’s son, grew up looking through these books and he loved hearing the old stories from his elders. And just as his forefathers had kept records of local events, Francis documented happenings around town throughout his life by pasting newspaper clippings into notebooks. His scrapbooks are a valuable reference preserving many articles and images that exist nowhere else-all about our town and all in one place.
In addition to his own family’s records, in 1935, the outgoing minister of the Congregational Church, the Reverend Luther Stonecipher, entrusted to Francis all the materials he had compiled for a history of Easton while serving the parish. This would have also included the work of the previous minister, Herbert Hines, who wrote his Yale dissertation in 1916 on the Easton Congregational Church titled, “A New England Country Parish, its Background, History and Romance.”
Francis took care of these resources, but he made little headway in organizing the materials and it may have been a rather overwhelming task. Despite being an avid reader, he was not a historian by occupation. He worked down at the Bullard Company in Bridgeport as a machinist where he was especially busy during the subsequent war years. By 1960, however, friends and neighbors encouraged him to take on the task of synthesizing his collection of stories into a readable work. It was then that Francis, perhaps recognizing the need for assistance, took his materials to Helen Partridge. Though she was taken back at the volume and condition of the collection, she found its contents fascinating. As Helen recalled in a 1986 interview, Francis came to her door one day with a large box of papers. In it, there was page after page of notes, some handwritten, others typed, some even written on napkins. She agreed to work with him on this project and their partnership seems to have been mutually beneficial. Francis needed an experienced author and Helen needed a distraction from her grief. Bellamy, her husband, and creative partner for more than thirty years had passed away that July.
Francis would travel from his home on Center Road up to Silver Hill weekly to sort through the files and devise subject chapters for all the various topics that ranged from the very first settlers in the 18th century to the building of the reservoirs in the 20th. When interviewed at this time, Helen referred to their role not as author or historian but as “editor.” She saw Francis and herself merely as compilers of a history already written in the folklore of the town and in the stories passed on over the course of generations. And while they did make every attempt to confirm dates and events, they did not try to prove or disprove any particular account.
This is a significant point because no sooner had a final draft been completed than a heavy dose of criticism began. First, there were some in town who were not happy about the title of the book. Easton had only been “Easton” since 1845 and some felt its earlier existence as a part of Weston and Fairfield was slighted. Others pointed out correctly that the book included unprovable hearsay as much as fact, so that “Easton-Its History” was a rather misleading title. Some people even opposed the idea of a book simply because they felt too few would be interested in buying it. Bickering and gossip amongst residents held up the project and Francis and Helen decided to halt publication.
Their time researching and compiling stories, however, was not in vain. In 1962 they were tasked with providing a series of small plays for the town’s bicentennial celebration on September 8th commemorating the founding of the North Fairfield Parish. This highly successful production covered the whole breadth of town history from the indigenous peoples to its modern suburbia. These vignettes were performed for an audience of over 500 and it took place on the northern hillside of Christ Church looking out over the old Union Cemetery where many of the individuals depicted are buried. Residents wore period costumes and direct descendants even portrayed their ancestors. Francis Mellen for example, was dressed as the Reverend James Johnson.
Easton residents thoroughly enjoyed the show, and the event had the positive effect of encouraging interest in local history and historic preservation. In 1968, when the old Adams Schoolhouse was in danger of being lost, the Historical Society of Easton was formed in response. After its members successfully moved the building to its present location on Westport Road in July of 1969 and restored it the following year, the newly formed Society turned its attention towards publishing the long dormant Easton-Its History.
With support from many individuals and whole families, additional stories were added, further historical source material was consulted and funding for printing was raised. Sally Meuller, the town librarian, and her husband Oliver co-chaired the committee and Helen would later say that without them the book “might never had been published.” Rita and Andrew Doremus also served on this committee with Rita typing the entire final manuscript. Interestingly, the book’s layout and illustrations were designed by Robert Neubauer, a prominent Easton artist. You may recognize his name and his work from the Easton Public Library where many of his watercolors grace the walls. Neubauer was active in the Historical Society and was also an amateur archaeologist mapping early indigenous sites in town. His research, along with that of the Reverend Kenneth H. Kinner of Christ Church provided the basis for much of the materials in the first chapter regarding the earliest inhabitants of our region.
With the books release in 1972, Helen used her longtime connections in publishing to help promote it widely and articles about Easton-Its History appeared in local and major newspapers throughout the state. The timing of the book and publicity turned out to be fortuitous. In 1973, the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration was coordinating local events and allocating funds for the upcoming national celebration in 1976. Easton was selected as a “Bicentennial Town” for its historic projects, preservation efforts and programing. The town received a commemorative flag, additional funding and once again, Helen and Francis’ book served as the basis for reenactments held along with a musical concert and a costume ball.
Today, over fifty years later, Easton-Its History is still the only comprehensive book published about our town. Unfortunately, few reading it are aware that it is an amalgam of fact and hearsay. Under no circumstances should you ask Bruce Nelson about General Tryon’s dinner with a local Tory named Moses Burr in 1777 that is recounted in this book. On second thought, you should. You’ll get a very thorough explanation as to how there is absolutely no evidence for it and plenty to prove it didn’t happen. Was there a burgeoning counterfeiting ring minting coins off Rock House Road as mentioned in Chapter 11? Dan Cruson emphatically argued against it. But the idea that bandits ran such an operation in the northern part of town certainly captured the imagination of locals for generations and the story lives on.
Teasing out what is provable from this book is an ongoing challenge particularly when much of the evidence may now be lost. Pastor Craig and I searched the altar furniture at the Baptist Church this winter for James Ward’s name carved in the pulpit. We both read the same passage about the church’s builder, and we were both disappointed not to find it. And then there are those magical instances where you actually stumble on something Helen and Francis wrote about. This was the case in the fall of 2019 when Bruce and I were asked to visit the old Vaughn De Leath property on Sport Hill Road. There were quite a few surprising architectural features we did not expect to see in this old Baptist parsonage that dates to 1829. One of the most striking was a brick-lined Catholic chapel complete with articulated niches for statuary and a stained-glass window. Partially dismantled, it was clear that this was the sanctuary built by the 1920’s radio star. Every time I am tempted to completely write off something I read in this book, I remember standing in that basement.
If you’re new to town or if you have lived here your whole life and want to learn more about Easton, here’s my advice. Easton-Its History is not the be all and end all of reference books and it wasn’t written as one. Think of it as a conversation starter with local legends and facts mixed all together. It’s the kind of book that you flip through and find a chapter of interest to enjoy. Since it is no longer in print, you’ll have to find it at a used bookseller or yard sale, but our library has several copies along with a separate index not included in the original edition that you can download from our website.
And when a topic catches your interest, follow up on it next time you grab a cup of coffee at Greiser’s; chances are Bruce or Phil Doremus might be there. Or sign up for one of Frank Pagliaro’s “Local Wisdom” talks. Be on the look-out for our town library’s new geocaching project created in partnership with our Society that highlights some of Easton’s most historically significant buildings.
If you still have unanswered questions, you can also search our archived Courier articles and consult the meticulously researched Historical and Archaeological Assessment Survey of Easton from 2009 that is now available as a pdf on our website. And if your interest has you clicking this link, you should probably consider joining us at the Historical Society!
Whatever you do and at whatever level, I still recommend you start with some part of Easton-Its History because it gives us a sense today of what Eastoners in the past thought of themselves. It captures something of their beliefs, their legends and how they perceived their place in the world. And that’s exactly the kind of “history” that connects us personally to our ancestors.