Even though she was born to a life of privilege, Edith Chase did not lose touch with the daily realities of life for others. She strived to make things better for others and involved herself in civic projects and organizations to enhance the quality of life for those in the community where she lived.
She was a religious person, and one of the first responsibilities she accepted was teaching Sunday school at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Waterbury. She taught one or two classes every Sunday during the school year for over 20 years.
In addition, Miss Edith participated in civic organizations such as the League of Women Voters, Red Cross, Community Chest, Junior League, YWCA, Visiting Nurses, Children’s Health, Mental Hygiene, and birth control. She served on the boards of Waterbury Hospital, The Mattatuck Museum, Riverside Cemetery,
the H. S. Chase Foundation and the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. From a business standpoint, she also served on the board of the Waterbury National Bank until it was acquired by Bridgeport Trust Company.
During World War Two, Miss Edith did not just sit back. She joined the Motor Board, Civilian Defense, and the Rationing Board. She served in bond drives, the warming hut in Waterbury, and volunteered at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington during the summer months while at Topsmead.
There were three areas where she undertook a much greater involvement. The first was the Chase Dispensary. This was started by her father and it provided medical care for poor people in Waterbury. She funded its activities and was involved in many decisions regarding its operation. The second was in 1921, when the Chase Family funded the renovation of Library Park in Waterbury. Miss Edith represented the family and was involved with the Olmstead brothers for landscaping and the well-known architect Cass Gilbert regarding design details. The third thing was also that same year, when Miss Edith joined with a group of local civic minded individuals to begin discussing the possibility of establishing a foundation in Waterbury which would contribute funds to local worthwhile projects. As a result, in 1923, the Waterbury Foundation was established, which has evolved into the current Connecticut Community Foundation.
By 1962, the Chase Brass and Copper Co. was a division of Kennecott Copper and Brass Company. Kennecott decided to sell the Chase office building on Grand St. in Waterbury which Miss Edith’s father had hired Cass Gilbert to design. Miss Edith brought together a group of local leaders who formed a corporation to ensure the building would be sold to a responsible party. Finally in 1966, the City of Waterbury purchased the building as an annex to its city hall.
These are only some examples that show how Edith Chase was a woman committed to her community, and deeply engaged in trying to help others to make society a bit better.
This month I'd like to continue my recollections of Topsmead employees. We got to know the farm employees well as each summer we lived in a house that was built in 1934 for Dad and was connected to the 3-car garage. Since my mother's death in 2001, the house has been used as the office for Topsmead State Forest.
After purchasing the Buell farm in 1927, Miss Chase always had a farm manager who lived across the driveway from us in the white Buell Farmhouse. You are probably familiar with it because it sits directly across from the parking lot we all use today.
The first farm manager was Wade Grant who worked from 1928 to 1931. He was followed by Paul Schnierer who managed the farm from 1931 to 1951. His wife, Emma, oversaw the dairy and managed the books for the farm. During this time, the maid and cook occupied the front section of the farmhouse in two rooms on the first and second floors, separated from the rest of the house. This is the section facing what we now call Chase Road. They used the front door to access their rooms. Paul and Emma Schinerer occupied the rest of the farmhouse and used the door facing the driveway to access their living quarters.
The Schinerer's were followed by George Taft, his wife Lois, and their 5 children. This is when the Buell cottage, which had been rented to the Abrahamson family since 1941, became the maid's cottage as the Taft family needed the entire farmhouse for their use. In 1955 Bernard Stairs became the next and last farm manager until Miss Edith's death. His family included his wife Norma and their 5 children. Mr. Stairs also became the first manager of Topsmead State Forest.
The farm could never be left unattended. All the workers received every other Sunday off so that there was always someone at the farm to handle the chores such as milking the cows and feeding the animals. Early on there were two men whose main job was to care for the horses: Thomas Ketchem in 1928 and Paul Gay from 1931 to 1946.
Some of the workers who I knew the longest included Decimo Simoncelli (1925-1965) who maintained the main house gardens and landscaping. Alec Derouin originally started in 1920 as a butler for the family at 42 Church St., then in 1934, became the full-time gardener at Underhill until his death in 1966. My father told me about George Wilson who was hired by the family in 1917, and then became Miss Edith's first chauffeur, handyman, and gardener at Topsmead when it was only a cabin before the main house was built. He served in that role until his death in 1927.
There were many more employees who kept Topsmead functioning throughout the years. Unlike the Topsmead we know today, Topsmead in Miss Edith's time was filled with people and personalities that made my summers richer and more interesting.
My memories of Topsmead include the many people who played a variety of roles on the estate. Because my father, John Orintas, had the longest tenure of any of the Topsmead employees – our family had the opportunity to get to know most of the other people who worked there over the years. My dad started working for Miss Edith on May 25, 1925, as a handyman and later as a chauffeur. He was given every other Sunday off, and his duties included working for Miss Edith in Waterbury and at Topsmead. Dad drove and maintained the cars as well as all the farm equipment. He mowed the lawn around the houses in both locations and ran errands daily, picking up the newspaper, any needed groceries, and the mail.
George Wilson was the first chauffeur my father told me about. He preceded my father. In addition to driving, George also helped in the garden, especially in the early days when there was just a cabin at Topsmead and relatively few employees. George’s wife Agnes worked for the Chase’s as both a cook and maid. Mr. Wilson passed away in 1927, and after an absence of a few months, Mrs. Wilson returned and stayed on until December 1941.
Typically, however, there were both a cook and a maid who handled the household activities. The domestic workers routinely got the 4th weekend of the month off. If they were at Topsmead, Dad would drive them back to Waterbury if they didn’t have other arrangements. One of several maids I remember was Eva Champagne. She started working for the Chases late in 1925 at their home at 42 Church Street. After Miss Edith’s mother passed away in 1933, she worked directly for Miss Edith. Eva became great friends with my mother and after Eva married and moved to Long Island, she would occasionally return to Topsmead to visit with our family and others. Another maid was Bridget Harrick, a sweet, kind, and loving person. She was sincerely interested in other people and all the families at Topsmead loved her. She was also a talented seamstress. (A fun fact is FTSF board member Jani Golding, a good seamstress in her own right, I believe might still have Bridget’s sewing machine.) Towards the end of her life, Miss Edith paid for Bridget to return to Ireland to live with her brother, something Bridget requested versus being in a nursing home in Waterbury. I had the opportunity to have a nice visit with Bridget in Ireland in 1967 – about a year before she passed away.
Other maids who worked for a shorter time (a couple of years each) were Mae Kyle, Molly Carmody, and Sarah Doyle. As you can see it appears the Chase’s gravitated to hiring Irish women for domestic duties. The Burrall’s maid, Grace Smith also served at Topsmead.
There were also several married couples that worked as cooks and butlers. Mr. & Mrs. John McDonald, Mr. & Mrs. Dudley, and Roy and Irma Lockhart in the early 70’s - whom I knew the best.
Next month I’ll share some memories of the farm managers and others who worked outdoors.
Summer was when I spent the most time at Topsmead. In early July everyone pitched in to help with the first cutting of hay. The first cutting is the best, most nutritious hay of the year. Hay was actually the primary crop for Topsmead Farm – even more so than apples. Miss Chase grew hay for her own use at Topsmead, and she rented out several fields for other farmers to grow hay on too. Hay was stored loose in the top of the barn until we got a baler in the early 1950s.
In addition to haying, there were summer tasks such as mowing the grassy area between the roads and the stone walls. The men used a big three foot wide, walk behind Jacobson mower. Then along the sides of the lane from the house down to Underhill they used a regular lawn mower to cut a two-foot-wide boarder. The lawns around the house were cut by a Locke mower (reel type) that with side attachments could cut about a 6’ swath. My dad (John Orintas) cut the lawn around the main house and around the farm buildings.
The gardens always needed attention as different types of produce began to ripen during July. The apple trees were sprayed with lead arsenate diluted with water as a pesticide. (Note: Widely used this pesticide was finally banned in 1988.) They used a large tank sprayer pulled by a Cletrac, crawler type tractor that moved on a track like a military tank. The workmen donned heavy protective suits, that made them look like fishermen from Gloucester. They walked through the orchards with spray nozzles spraying all the apple trees.
I also have good memories of picking blueberries at a spot off Jefferson Hill Road South. There were high bush berries and low bush berries too. They were delicious, especially when my mother Isabelle would make a pie for Dad, my older brother and me.
(interviewed by Jenny Riggs)
As Spring is slowly unfolding in the Litchfield Hills, it’s nice to think about getting out into the garden. Edith Chase enjoyed her garden at Topsmead. It was located north of the cabin (and later the house we see today) near East Litchfield Road. When on that road you may have noticed an old driveway and small barn that are still visible. The ladies always called that part of the property, “Underhill” presumably because it was downhill from the house. A small house was built there in 1926 which served as a guest house.
George Wilson, Miss Chase’s chauffer was the first person to care for the garden. In addition to his driving duties, he was a general handy man, and his wife was the family’s cook. George is pictured here with a cultivator that he used in the large garden. It measured approximately 75 feet by 150 feet and was designed to have four quadrants arranged around a large central grape arbor. White champagne grapes grew on this and four benches underneath gave people a lovely place to sit and enjoy the garden. Turf grass walking paths bisected the garden, framing the different quadrants. The north edge of the garden was planted with flowers so that it always looked pretty. The garden produced every vegetable imaginable: asparagus, beans, lettuce, peas, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, and sweet corn. There were fruit trees also. A small orchard of apple trees grew along the perimeter of the area parallel to the road. Additionally, there were 3 peach trees near the guest house. Purple grapes grew on trellises along the sides of the garden.
Often when the ladies went to the cabin for the day, they’d simply lunch on vegetables that were in season at the time. Just like many of us hope to do in the coming months. Happy Spring!
For many of us, March is a wonderful time to escape New England as winter makes its last attempts to chill our bones and spring fights back with thaws and mud! With the exception of the war years, Edith Chase often traveled to Europe for up to three months in the winter and early spring – leaving in January and returning in late April or early May. These trips typically occurred every other year, with the off years filled with enjoying horse drawn sleigh rides at Topsmead and domestic road trips to points south or west. Pulling from notes his father left him, Bob recalls that 100 years ago in 1922, Miss Edith traveled to Europe leaving by ship out of New York city in late January. It took 9 days to cross the Atlantic landing in England and immediately she went on to Paris. That was a mere stopping point for her destination which was Milan, Italy where she arrived on the second day.
That year, Edith spent two to three weeks in Milan, Florence, Venice, and London visiting art galleries repeatedly, returning to favorite lunch and tea restaurants, taking in operas and concerts, relaxing, and reading. Oh, and she shopped! Hats, scarves, gloves, artwork, glass, antiques, and furniture. With such a leisurely schedule if she felt a little under the weather, she’d spend a day in her room, by the fire, reading and recuperating.
Upon returning by ship to New York, in 1922 her mother met her as she disembarked. Edith typically spent the night at her sister Katherine’s home at Sutton Square in New York. The family chauffeur drove her home to Connecticut the next morning in the spring sunshine - where Topsmead waited patiently to celebrate her return.
You may recall that Topsmead was built as a summer home, and Edith Chase and her friends Mary & Lucy Burrell, during the 1920s and 1930s lived in their homes on Church St. in Waterbury during the winter months. Did you ever wonder if the ladies used Topsmead in the winter?
Bob Orintas reports that after 1925 when Edith’s new Cotswold cottage was completed, the ladies would occasionally spend time at Topsmead in January and/or February. Sometimes they would stay for as long as a week or two. They often went without a maid; cooking and looking after themselves. They read, knit, and took walks to admire the winter scenery. After August 1927 when the Buell Farm was purchased, Topsmead became a working farm, and Edith had a pleasure horse named Mandy. She and the ladies would take Mandy out for sleigh rides through the Litchfield countryside during winter visits. Bob recalls that sometimes when they drove to Topsmead the car would get stuck in the snow and the farm's tractor was used to pull them out. All part of winter fun!
Initially the house had a coal fired furnace and forced hot air system that kept it fairly comfortable. The big fireplace in the great room most certainly was used, and Bob remembers his dad mentioning candle coal (aka cannel coal) that was burned in the bedroom fireplaces. A quick Google search tells us that candle coal was prized as an excellent fuel that burned with a bright flame, was easily lit, and left virtually no ash. It commanded a premium price as a fuel for use in home fireplaces because it burned longer than wood, and had a clean, bright flame.
It’s lovely to know that even in its infancy, Topsmead was appreciated for its beauty year-round.