The removal of dead trees and overgrowth that is about to be performed at the Darling House property may be emblematic for the re-established working relationship between the town and the Amity Woodbridge Historical Society (AWHS). “We are turning a corner with the town,” said AWHS president Alexia Belperron. After several months of communication breakdowns, the town agreed to keep the original agreement in place, even extending it to 2030. That agreement makes the Historical Society the agent of the town in the preservation and management of the Thomas Darling House and surrounding property.
In addition, the Historical Society is about to welcome a new caretaker tenant to the apartment that was added in the 1970s to the Thomas Darling House museum for a resident caretaker, putting aside the rancor that had erupted over the previous caretaker. The new tenant is a young couple from Hamden who both work in education and bring some archival experience, Belperron said. “They are interested in being part of something bigger,” rather than just looking for a place to live.
The disagreement between the town and the Historical Society had erupted last year over the previous tenant, who developed a successful working farm at the site – the fruits of which many welcomed, but the farm didn’t add to the 18th century living experience the Historical Society is trying to preserve for generations to come. “What people don’t truly appreciate is how remarkable the historical integrity is” of the structures found on the Thomas Darling property, Belperron said. That includes the homestead itself, built in 1775, but even more so the outbuildings, such as the cow barn across Litchfield Turnpike, which was built first. Unlike similar sites in the state, these structures have never been converted into something other than the use they were meant for. “These have existed in relatively good shape for a long time. They are beacons for preservation,” she said.
Sometimes the idea of preservation clashes with the idea of making things look attractive. One example of that is landscaping. Where some would like to rid the property of weeds and overgrowth, others demand caution and careful planning. “We are not interested in modifications in landscaping,” Belperron said. Even so, she welcomed the removal of the dead trees. But if the soil is disturbed “we may lose historic plantings, that was a big concern with us. All of these things require thoughtful, careful planning.”
Advisory Committee: The Board of Selectmen in July put in place an Oversight and Advisory Committee “to advise and assist the Town of Woodbridge in the maintenance, care, preservation, improvement, and usage of the historic outbuildings, their surroundings, and the farming fields of the Thomas Darling National Register of Historic Places. “The “oversight” in the committee’s designation has since been removed.
Serving on the committee are five members, namely Chairman Dick Blackwell, an interested citizen; Town Clerk Stephanie Ciarleglio, keeper of town records; Don Menzies, past president of the Historical Society; farmer and former Selectman Chris Sorensen; and Leland Torrence, a member of the Conservation Commission. Sandy Stein is the Board of Selectmen liaison to the group. Richard Weis, a preservation architect, is advising the committee pro bono.
“The overriding goal is to create an immersive experience, for all visitors to the Darling House, providing an understanding of what it was like to live and farm in 18th and early 19th century Woodbridge,” said First Selectman Beth Heller when the board created the committee back in July.
Preservation is its priority, and in that sense the committee and the Historical Society are working hand in hand. However, the committee is also charged with developing an overall strategy “for stabilization, repairs, development, priorities, timetables and budgets,” which the Historical Society already did and presented to the Board of Selectmen earlier this year. The committee also is charged with developing specific grounds keeping duties and responsibilities of the caretaker, which traditionally has been the purview of the Historical Society.
“It overlaps with what we are doing,” Belperron said. When Blackwell presented a first report to the Board of Selectmen, she said the Historical Society had no input. “We were left out of the decision making. It’s a recipe for conflict.”
The Advisory Committee members meanwhile have been immersing themselves with the tasks at hand. They’ve had about six meetings and a site visit.
Dick Blackwell, who moved to Woodbridge to be close to his children and grandchildren, said he took a tour of the property with his family last year and was enchanted. “It’s a wonderful legacy to have,” he said. Growing up in Alabama, he could not fathom to behold a building that is older than the country itself.
“The goal is to make people from Woodbridge and surrounding areas understand what it took to survive,” he said. “We have to appreciate the sacrifices our ancestors made, living without running water, without electricity.” He emphasized that the committee’s work is done in conjunction with, and with input from the Historical Society. “I am happy we are working together,” he said.
At the September Board of Selectmen meeting Blackwell presented the three most urgent projects the committee identified, the preservation of the old cow barn, an environmental study to review the grounds and outbuildings for hazardous materials; and the dead trees that need to be removed.
The Historical Society has applied for a grant to engage a preservation expert in early 19th century construction to assess the cow barn and the horse barn, and to provide a plan that focuses on the preservation of the building.
Currently the remnants of a one-room schoolhouse, lovingly dubbed “Little Lucy” are stored in the cow barn. If they cannot find an interested taker, the pieces will be appropriately disposed of by November 1. They do contain lead paint and asbestos.
Both the cow barn and the horse barn are filled with other historic items, such as a wooden sleigh, a carriage and farm implements. “The schoolhouse needs to be removed and the antiques protected,” Blackwell said.
On the way to Great? In addition, the Historical Society has applied for, and was granted, a Good to Great grant for non-profit organizations. The grant is for $48,000, to be matched by $16,000 from the Historical Society, for improvements at the homestead. The Historical Society has maintained all along that in order for them to receive the money they must be in control of the property and be in control for the foreseeable future.
Despite the town signing its agreement with the Historical Society, and extending it to 2030, the State Historic Preservation Office has not released the grant yet, and the project is in limbo. “The project won’t start until SHPO is confident the Historical Society has the agency described in our agreement,” Belperron said.
Fall event: In the meantime, the Historical Society is planning to welcome the public at an outdoor fall event Sunday, October 18 from 2-4 p.m. at the Darling House. A hike in the trails behind the Darling House will be offered starting at 1:30 p.m.
The horse barn may be open for people to walk through, in small groups and socially distanced. Farm tools and items from the collection will be on view.
A Beecher librarian will be present a story time with young visitors. For details, check out the website at http://www.woodbridgehistory.org/.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent