Friday, July 16, 2010

Connecticut, circa 1938

On bold, sans serif Works Progress Administration letterhead, is the following typewritten note from WPA administrator Harry L. Hopkins:

"One of the most fortunate results of the American Guide Series is the opportunity it is giving us to
understand the contrasting character of the forty-eight States and to realize how the contributions of each have brought about the unity of the whole.

This book on Connecticut illustrates the point. The third smallest State in the Union, it
has sent out more people than it has kept at home. Connecticut blood is the basis of much that is prized in many States. It is democratic, zealous for education, mechanically inventive, and, being strongly individual, has furnished leadership in every field."

The short missive is signed by Hopkins and is included amidst the front matter of one of (to my mind, anyway) the WPA's great legacies--The American Guide Series. The series was part of the Federal Writers' Project designed to employ out of work writers, editors, etc. All the states (48 at the time) had their own guide in addition to certain regions and some large American cities. Connecticut's edition was published by Houghton-Mifflin in 1938. I think the sentiment I'm most fond of in that little letter is the idea that each state had something of unique value to contribute to the unity of the whole. 

I was vaguely aware of these books, somewhere in the recesses of my cobwebby mind, but I'd not really given them much consideration until I was reminded that they might contain some other information I was looking to confirm. It is a good thing, too, that I'd not delved fully into one until now because I've become a little obsessed with it. The writing is a little dated and many of the buildings (especially from the mid-18th century) are long gone, but the detail and history is very interesting. There are black and white photos and maps and suggested tour routes for every corner of the state. No doubt there are a few tidbits of information contained herein that are long forgotten, which makes these valuable in some cases as oral histories, too. In many instances locals were interviewed for these guides so there is a very personal feeling to some of the stories and anecdotes. It is striking to see how much we used to make in this part of the country and how little we now do. From the ubiquitous hat factories of Danbury to the smaller mills and shops of the surrounding communities, industry in general has really declined.

It will come as no surprise that roads--where they were, where they are,  and what they were called--can complicate an effort like this immensely. (Consider, obviously there was no I-84 and the Merritt Parkway was under construction at this time.)A little detective work, though, and a few miles of trial and error proved to work just fine and I was able to see a little corner of my stomping grounds through a slightly different lens. 

One small digressive piece of information--the little jaunt I made today was slightly haphazard. I had errands that took me near Wallingford yesterday and despite my best efforts, the journey didn't really go as planned. Not a failure, and surely not wasted time either, but frustrating and something that will pop up here later I suspect. Enough said. So today I went with slightly lower expectations and was more than pleasantly surprised with my results. 

According to Connecticut: A Guide To Its Road, Lore, and People, here is the description of my day's travels: "US 7 passes roadside markets catering to the motorist trade, numerous pre-Revolutionary houses carefully remodeled, and an old Lime Quarry (L), at 29.3 m. Traversing rolling, agricultural country, US 7 passes the American Beauty House (L), 31.2 m., a brick dwelling (about 1812) with four chimneys and a stone-arched Palladian window, made famous by Edna Ferber's novel 'American Beauty' (1931). The great house is a monument to days when the fertile fields supported country squires in style."

Unfortunately, most of the pre-Revolutionary houses mentioned are no longer extant, but the "American Beauty House" is. The moment I read the guide's description of the "four chimneys and Palladian window" I had a suspicion that I'd been past such a house one afternoon when I was rather, erm, lost. (I'm never really lost, but I'm happy without a map exploring so let's just say I didn't end up precisely where I'd expected to that particular afternoon.) 

As I drove along the highway and through what I decided was the old limestone quarry in question, I could see the brick house begin to come in to view on my left. (It is now a furniture store and houses the "Brickhouse Collection.") Four chimneys? Check. Palladian window? Check. It all matched. The location, the 1938 description, all of it. I think I actually squealed in the car when I realized that a) it was still there and b) it was THE house I'd been past a few times. I'd wondered about it since it is one of the only old dwellings on that stretch of the road, but I had no idea of this aspect of the structure's history. I find quite curious the mention of the Palladian window and four chimneys, but nothing whatsoever is said of the beautiful ovals (see better views below) at each end of the uppermost level. Writer's quirk, perhaps?
(The American Beauty House today, aforementioned Palladian window above the door.)

Now if you've never read Edna Ferber's American Beauty, don't feel too badly, it seems it was not one of her most memorable works. I can't weigh in as I've not fetched it from the library yet, but it is, from what I've discerned, an American epic kind of tale about a tobacco growing family here in Connecticut. I'm very curious to read it and see how the rest of the area and scenery is described by Ms. Ferber. 

I'm a sucker for a beautiful brick structure. My grandparent's home in Wisconsin overlooking the Mississippi was a younger (1840s) brick home, but one of the oldest extant structures in Buffalo County. That this home has survived nearly 200 years here--through the on again-off again plans for "Super 7"--is quite remarkable.
Thus endeth my adventure for today, one little piece of circa 1812 Connecticut explored in the 21st century via circa 1938 Connecticut.


sid fernando said...

I've been meaning to say to you for some time now that I love your voice, which is so consistent through all your pieces here. It really reminds me of another place and time---the 60s maybe?---when exploring and adventure and finding roadside treasures was a charming part of a lifestyle that is no longer practiced by anyone i know except you. So, thanks for doing it!

The Paper Tyger said...

Most kind of you, Sid. Carrying on the family exploratory legacy in a much smaller and more local way, but I'm enjoying it an awful lot. I've a "loose foot" as they used to say.

Murkland said...

I loved this journey and this discovery. wonderful story.

Peter Sour said...

This wonderful 'proud' replica of America's heritage is a crumbling mass if brick as CT's Route 7 has expanded -up against 'American Beauty'.
See for your self.PLEASE..