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"Walktober" Wandering Through My Own Hometown

For the past twenty-two years, The Last Green Valley, Inc. has sponsored and promoted "Walktober" - a time when folks can get out and enjoy both the beautiful October weather as well as the beautiful places to be found in "The Last Green Valley", the popular name given to the 1,085 square mile Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor which was designated by Congress in 1994 as an area of national significance. Half the size of Grand Canyon National Park and more than ten times that of Acadia National Park, the region is made up of 35 towns which are surrounded by rolling hills, green fields and forests - "a relatively undeveloped rural island in the midst of the most urbanized region in the nation."

One of the best ways to learn about some of the interesting history of the region, see some of Connecticut's quaintest towns, and revel in the beauty of the area is to take part in "Walktober" which provides both residents and visitors to the National Heritage Corridor a chance to: "Visit one of the 35 picturesque towns in northeastern Connecticut and south central Massachusetts and celebrate autumn ... Choose from more than 150 guided hikes, strolls, bike rides, paddles, horse rides and special events."*

As part of "Walktober", my hometown of Canterbury, Connecticut sponsored an event entitled the "The Best Old House Neighorhood" which was described in the annual event's brochure as:
"Enjoy a walk through Canterbury’s village center National Historic District. Learn about the architecture and see why This Old House Magazine named Canterbury as Connecticut’s “Best Old House Neighborhood, 2012.
The annual honor of being named a Best Old House Neighborhood is awarded to one town or city in each state in the United States and each Canadian province; Canterbury earned that honor this past spring following the hard work of the town's First Selectman, Brian Sear, and the Corresponding Secretary for the Canterbury Historical Society, Ellen Wilson. The two compiled data and photographs on the town’s homes (172 of 1,792 private homes in town were built between 1700 and 1900) as well as town history and other information that was then put on the town's application and sent off for review.

In February of 2012, the town found itself representing Connecticut when Canterbury was recognized as one of this year's "Best Old House Neighborhoods" so it seems only fitting that a few of those homes were shown off during "Walktober" with Brian and Ellen - both old house owners themselves - leading the way.

The walk was scheduled to meet at 1:00 p.m. on the Canterbury Green and before long folks were starting to gather in front of the town's restored former 1850 one-room schoolhouse which was also open to visitors for the occasion.

Ellen thought perhaps they'd get maybe 15 people to show up for the walk ...

... but that 15 ended up being closer to 100 before the walk started!

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Before everyone stepped off to take a look at some of Canterbury's historic houses, Brian and Ellen explained a bit about the process of becoming a "Best Old House Neighborhood" as well as what we could expect on our one-hour architectural tour around the historic district in the town.

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After everyone had signed in and we received our marching orders, our group took off across the back parking lot of the First Congregational Church, through the town's major intersection, and on to our first stop on the tour.

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An excellent example of Connecticut 18th-century domestic architecture, the Samuel Pellett House, circa 1752, on North Canterbury Road is a center chimney Georgian-style home which, according to research in the land records, may have been built at the time of Samuel Pellet's second marriage to Hannah Underwood. The couple planted two sycamore trees in front of the house to signify husband and wife but one was lost in the 1938 hurricane while the other survives to this day.

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From 1933 to 1944, the ell of the house served as the town's post office and tradition has it that Sarah Harris, the first black student of Prudence Crandall, worked as a servant in the house for a later owner.

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Leaving the Pellett House, we walked back up Route 169 towards the Town Green passing by the former home of Dr. Andrew Harris - one of two physicians in Canterbury in the early 19th century. Even though it wasn't one of the stops on our tour, I've always loved the house and felt that it should be included in this review!

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The early Federal-period style home was built circa 1815-1820 and was considered an elegant house at the time boasting many amenities including a conservatory. It's still a very elegant house but alas, no more conservatory. Prior to Dr. Harris building a home there, the site was home to John Adams' Academy on the Green in 1796; Mr. Adams later went on to become headmaster at Plainfield Academy - across the Quinebaug River from Canterbury.

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Dr. Harris' former home is located on the very edge of the 1-1/2 acres that is currently considered the Town Green and directly next to a sloping piece of land that has always been home to Canterbury's meetinghouse.

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Arriving back on the lawn of the current First Church, constructed in 1964-1965 to replace the 1805 church building that was destroyed by fire on December 23, 1963, we then learned about the house which was the home of Walter Brewster.

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A typical 18th-century house, the circa 1787 Colonial-style house was also the location of Brewster's shop were he performed work as a clockmaker, silversmith, and goldsmith in the late 1780s. In 1797, the house was sold to Abel Brewster, who did pewter work.

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Down the lawn and across the street from the church was the next house on the tour - the circa 1746 Colonial-style house that served as the parsonage for the First Congregational Church off and on from 1842 to 1975.

The date of construction of the house is estimated based on the date of the marriage of David Nevins, Sr. to Mary Lathrop, the daughter of Colonel Simon Lathrop, on October 14, 1746. Nevins, Sr. was a merchant who originally hailed from Nova Scotia and was killed in 1758 during the construction of a bridge over the Quinebaug River.

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A quick - and careful - walk across the street and we were at the next house on our architectural tour; the John Carter house, circa 1765.

The house is currently owned by the State of Connecticut (though I remember going there to visit my cousin when she used to babysit there) and is considered a good example of 18th-century Connecticut domestic architecture.

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Ellen informed us that in the early 20th century, Canterbury's post office was kept in the rear part of the house and that although some of the windows have circa-1840 six-pane sashes, others have the older, smaller-pane sashes which indicate what the original windows were like.

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Next door to the Carter House and also owned by the State of Connecticut, is the Prudence Crandall House though it certainly didn't start out as that. Also known as the Elisha Payne House, the circa-1805 house was designed by architect Thomas Gibbs for Luther Paine in a Federal-style which became known as the “Canterbury Type” because there are several similar houses in town.

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Distinctive features of the Canterbury Style include having a gable atop a hipped roof with twin chimneys and a complex two-and-a-half story entrance composition with a triangular pediment above a Gothic-influenced Palladian window above an elaborate doorway. And yes, I had to look that up!

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In 1831, the house became a boarding school for young ladies, run by Prudence Crandall of Rhode Island who had been invited by Canterbury residents to head the school. When Crandall accepted the daughter of a free African American farmer, the aforementioned Sarah Harris, to the school, many townspeople objected and began to remove their daughters from the school. In response, Crandall decided to attract students from free black communities in New England to her school who could be trained as teachers.

As a way to force the school to close, in 1833 the State of Connecticut passed the “Black Law” making it illegal for the school to operate. At that time Crandall was arrested, spent a night in jail, and faced various charges until her case was dismissed in 1834. Following the case's dismissal, a mob of disgruntled and dissatisfied townspeople then attacked the school and forced it to close at which time Crandall married and left Connecticut. The “Black Law” was repealed in 1838 and years later, in 1886, the Connecticut Legislature honored Crandall with an annual pension. In 1995, Prudence Crandall was designated as the Official State Heroine of Connecticut and her former house and school became the Prudence Crandall Museum which is operated by the state.

Following Ellen's presentation at the Prudence Crandall House, we backtracked south down Route 169 to another home located on the historic Canterbury Green ...

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... a circa 1820 Federal-style house built for widow Sarah Adams. The front and side porch were added on later and I would also like to note that I attended 4-H there with several of my cousins when I was in junior high. I should probably also note that our 4-H leader, Elsie Hawes, once lamented to my mother that she feared I would "never be domesticated." Yikes.

In the 1850s the house was owned by Marvin H. Sanger, a merchant, banker and prominent Canterbury political figure. Mr. Sanger represented Canterbury in the State Legislature in 1857, 1860, 1882, 1887, and 1889 and was Secretary of State for four successive years from 1873 to 1877.

In 1908, Hiram Hawes purchased the house and in 1922 used the barn to the rear of the house as the manufacturing shop for his Split Bamboo Fly Fishing Rods which were widely known in their day and are quite the collector's items today.

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Leaving behind the former home of Hiram Hawes and his fly-fishing rods, we then walked to what some have said is the oldest house on Canterbury's Green, a circa-1800 Federal-style building which has an earlier cross-gambrel-roofed, one-and-a-half story rear ell (circa-1709) that was once the parsonage of Canterbury's very first minister, Mr. Samuel Estabrook who was installed as the town's pastor on June 13th, 1711.

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The town's first parsonage, which according to tradition was also used as a jail at one point in time, was also the home of Reverend James Cogswell who became pastor in 1744 and who ran a school for boys there before the Revolution. One of his more notable students was Benedict Arnold from nearby Norwich. You may have heard the name!

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Just a bit up Westminster Road from there was the last house on our tour of historic architecture and one that I have another personal connection to as my mom lived there as a young girl though long before she lived there, it was the home of George Washington Smith.

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Smith, the son of blacksmith Washington Smith, was a notable Canterbury manufacturer wo owned a mast-hoop shop that made the wooden fixtures for attaching sails to the masts of sailing ships; the machinery from one of his shops is now on display at Mystic Seaport. An undated newspaper clipping noted that Smith made the machinery in his shop himself and also "built the house he lives in" and, although he exported his product as far away as China, "he was a modest man known locally for carrying his business papers in his hat."*

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Though the porch columns, archways, bay window, and round-arched windows all reflect an Italianate influence, the form of the house is of no particular style.  As Ellen pointed out though, its extensive detailing reflects the widespread availability of manufactured architectural ornamentation that was widely used in the Victorian period.

The main thing that I noticed about the George Washington Smith House was that it was a lot smaller close up than it seems from the road as I have always thought of it as "the big yellow house at the bottom of the hill from the school" but now, having had a chance to stand right next to it, I might not think of it quite the same way anymore. Now I'll just think of it as the house that my grandfather rented for his family before he built his own house and where my mom grew up on Westminster Road!

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All in all, it was a great day for a walk around my hometown's Green and learn about some of the history that I always knew was there but never quite took the time to check into though I really should have. I mean, come on, even if you count that whole poisoning Prudence's well and mob violence that went on in the 1830s, Canterbury is ultimately a pretty cool town with some of the history it contains though when I lived there as a kid, I always figured it was the sticks. Turns out it's a very historic part of the sticks!

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I'd like to extend a very big thank you to Ellen Wilson and Brian Sear for putting together our walk through some of Canterbury's history and to The Last Green Valley for putting together "Walktober" every year to begin with.  This was my second walk through Canterbury's history (though I almost didn't make it back up the hill from last year's walk down by the big bend in the Quinebaug River!) and I can't wait to see what's on the agenda for next year! I'm always up for learning something new - especially when it's close to home!

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