Home is where the hearth is

In New England we are fortunate to have many well preserved Colonial American homes to remind us of America’s own rich architectural history and the lives of inhabitants from a bygone era. Built from local hand-hewn lumber, these rugged and sturdy homes were designed for practicality and functionality with their chimney and fireplaces centrally located for structural stability and heat efficiency. The heart of the Colonial American home was the hearth that provided hot food, light, and comforting warmth to families who worked so hard day in and day out.

Miles Messenger home in 2011
Miles Messenger home in 2011

I was the fifth and final generation of Messenger’s to grow up in our Early North American Colonial style home in Canton, Connecticut. Originally built in 1745, the “Old Miles Messenger Home” had its second floor and attic “raised 1785 June 20, Monday” according to the old English letters that are carved into the collar beam. In the 1820’s the old home served as an inn when the Albany stage coach passed its door. To suit the needs of its patrons, the funeral parlor doubled as a bar room that was equipped with a pipe organ for entertaining and homemade apple brandy was served on tap. Hollow wooden pipes crafted from long augers gravity fed the brandy from the three foot diameter by five foot long ‘cider vat’ that was stored in the attic. In 1864, my great, great grandfather, Samuel Messenger and his son Francis purchased the home, farm, mill, and apple orchards.

On the farm
On the farm

Throughout the years, our old home was adapted to suit the needs and lifestyles of each generation.  At the time of my upbringing my family shared the home with my grandparents and my father spent the majority of his free time committed to the painstaking work of restoring as well as modernizing it.  By remaining authentic to the original home design my father had replicas of the exterior doors made in the same “double crusader cross” style that was designed to ward off evil and the 12 on 12 “guillotine” windows with their hand blown glass panes were replaced with more efficient ones.  Despite the modern adaptations our old home still possessed a lot of charm and character; the stair treads were worn from years of heavy traffic, the floor boards creaked, and the house groaned with old age in stormy weather.

Circa 1950
Circa 1950
The hearth
The hearth

The heart of our Colonial American home has always been the hearth.  The chimney which stands more than four stories tall is primarily constructed from local field stone with a twelve foot square base.  On the first floor of the home there are three fireplaces each with a stone hearth and two bread ovens, the largest of which can bake an astonishing twenty-four loaves of bread at one time!  In the attic there is a smoke chamber in the chimney that is equipped with iron hooks that were once used for curing hams and bacon.  In the old days, bushels of apples, shelving for canned goods, barrels of salt pork and vats of homemade butter were stored in basement.

Miles, Francis, Emma, and Bert Messenger
Miles, Francis, Emma, and Bert Messenger

Our early American ancestors lived their lives dependent on the seasons and tied to the land and animals that they farmed for survival.  Families would gather around their kitchen hearths to pass the long, dark winter months by telling tales of lore, reflecting on the years that had past, and discussed the spring planting to come.  Often my large extended family would congregate in Granny’s kitchen to catch up on gossip and she always had a fresh pie in the oven.  Our hearth gave us warmth and comfort and our old home as Granny said provided us with a “snug harbor from the storms of life.”

The barn and home on a snowy winter day
The barn and home on a snowy winter day

Here are a few fascinating books available for check out at the Oliver Wolcott Library if you would like to learn more about Colonial American life, tools, and architecture.

American Yesterday, Do: A Little Book of Early American Know How, and The Seasons of America’s Past by Eric Sloane.  In addition to being an accomplished artist, Eric Sloane documented and illustrated the great American heritage of craftsmanship in more than thirty books.  If you would like to view Sloane’s collection of early American tools, the Sloane-Stanley Museum in Kent, Connecticut is open to the public from May through October.

Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town by local resident Rachel Carley. This exquisite publication tells the story of Litchfield’s rich architectural inheritance and is filled with stunning and never-before published photographs, maps, and paintings of Litchfield, Bantam, Milton, Morris and Northfield, Connecticut.

The New England Colonial by Elizabeth Powell.  American history comes to life through the text and beautiful color photographs of the stately New England Colonial Homes featured within the pages of this book.

Colonials: Design Ideas for Renovating, Remodeling or Building New by Matthew Schoenherr.  This wonderful book offers a multitude of inspiring and complimentary ideas to update a variety of Colonial American home styles.

Old-House Dictionary by Steven J. Phillips.  This comprehensive and illustrated dictionary to American domestic architecture (1600- 1940) is an easy to understand guide for both amateurs and professionals.

From Hearth to Cookstove: Collectibles of the American Kitchen 1700- 1930 by Linda Campbell Franklin.  With more than 1000 illustrations of implements, tools, and gadgets this fascinating book traces the domestic history of the American kitchen through the ages.

-Tricia is the Library Assistant and Publicity Coordinator for the Oliver Wolcott Library

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