As Topsmead evolved over the years, the buildings were an integral part of its operation. Today several remain while many are now gone. Some were built to meet specific needs; others were acquired along with property purchased. This month is the second of three reflections on this topic. I’ll describe most of Topsmead’s structures so you can get a better sense of what the estate was like during the time Miss Edith lived there.
In August of 1928, Miss Edith purchased the Buell farm, (about 46 acres) from George Buell. At that time I believe there were the horse barn and the cow barn, plus two houses, the farmhouse (which stands today across from the current parking lot) and the cottage, (relocated across Buell Road) across the driveway from it. I don’t know if there were any other buildings there at that time. Miss Edith began refurbishing the cow and horse barn immediately. The farmhouse became the home for the manager of Topsmead Farm. Extensive improvements were made in 1935 when the dairy was added to the south side of the house and an enclosed porch to the west side. The cottage across the driveway became the home of gardener, Decimo Simoncelli and his wife Marion until the early 1940’s. It was then rented to the Abrahamson family from November 1942 until about April 1951. After that, it became the maid’s cottage as there was no longer enough room for them in the front section of the farmhouse.
There were two other buildings at the farm, the oil shed, and the big equipment shed I don’t know when they were constructed, but they were there when we were children. The oil shed was next to (left of), the three-car garage which was built in 1929 to house Miss Edith’s personal automobiles. In the front section was a modified Ford Model A which was converted to a road roller, used to smooth out the dirt roads. The rear end of the car was converted to a concrete steel drum driven by a chain drive. The rear end of the oil shed housed all of Dad’s lubricants and parts for maintaining the equipment at the farm. The big equipment shed was opposite the cow barn and housed the big 2 1/2 ton, dump truck; the Clevetrack tractor; the sprayer; the Fordson tractor; a plow and harrow; snow plows, and the smaller truck.
In 1932, a maintenance shed was built to the east of the horse barn. It was used to store all the hand tools and small equipment such as lawnmowers, roadside trimmers, etc. needed to repair or maintain buildings, equipment, or grounds.
In 1934, our house was built around the three-car garage. It was designed by Fred Webster and was meant for summer use only, having no cellar, or central heat. It had a crawl space for a basement and a combination oil cooking and heating stove in the kitchen, a fireplace in the living room, and an oil stove in the upstairs hall. All of these buildings still exist. The Topsmead Unit DEEP supervisor currently uses the living room in our house as his office.
In 1943 a chicken coop, designed by Fred Webster, was built to the south of the cow barn. It contained two sections. One housed the newest chicks, the other, the one-year-old chickens.
In 1944 a new pig enclosure and farm incinerator were built across the road from the barns and shed, keeping any scents away from the farm proper.
In 1945, a turkey enclosure was built to the south and east of the maintenance shed. It housed about 25 turkeys each year thereafter.
In 1953, a small sheep shed was built.
Then in 1954, the picnic shed was moved from Terryplace to the field behind our house.
In 1958 this was replaced by a new shed added on to the south side of the equipment shed, and the tractor road had to be shifted slightly southward to accommodate it.
Finally, in 1956, a small coop was built to the west of the chicken coop to house a few doves which were to be raised for squab. This adventure only lasted a short while. This was the last building added to the farm complex. All the small animal sheds etc. are no longer there.
As Topsmead evolved over the years, the buildings were an integral part of its operation. Today several remain while many are now gone. Some were built to meet specific needs; others were acquired along with property purchased. This month and in the next two months, I’ll describe most of Topsmead’s structures so you can get a better sense of what the estate was like during the time Miss Edith lived there.
Topsmead is the name Miss Edith gave to her estate and the area where the main house, (as we referred to it), is located. It all started with a cabin built in 1918 that was designed by William E. Hunt. This was a rustic retreat for Miss Edith on the “top of the meadow.” In the early 1920s plans were discussed for a more substantial and comfortable home. Richard Henry Dana was chosen to design the building to be in the Cotswold style of architecture. Miss Edith loved her rustic cabin and wanted it to somehow be incorporated into the new building. It was only through many letters back and forth with Mr. Dana, that he persuaded her that the cabin would not fit with the overall design. In the end, the fireplace, which was in the cabin, was kept and now serves as the focal point in the living room.
The second building to be constructed at Topsmead was the dovecote built in 1934. This was designed by Fred Webster, a Waterbury architect. Mr. Dana had passed away. The dovecote matched and complimented the design of the main house. It has a bedroom upstairs, and on the first level is a half bath and a gardener’s shed. The two entrances to the living quarters are a main door off the driveway and also on a paved walkway from the kitchen, while the entrance to the gardener’s workplace faces the garden on the North side.
The third and final building at Topsmead was an open three-sided garage built in late 1941 and early 1942. It was designed by Fred Webster and again complimented the design of the main house. The garage was added for convenience. Prior to its building, Miss Edith would have to call down to the chauffeur, John Orintas, to bring up a car for her use, or she would have to walk down to the farm to get a car herself.
In September of 1921, Miss Edith purchased approximately 5 acres from Albert Schramer. This property bordered the northern edge of her property and was along East Litchfield Road. I believe that there was already a barn on the property. A guest house was built in 1926 to accommodate the number of friends who visited and could not be comfortably housed at the main house. The house is now gone. There was, and still is, a mowed path from the guest house through the field to the main house. Underhill was also the location of the main garden. A building called the loft was added to the barn, and to that was added a greenhouse, approximately 25 by 15 feet in length so that the vegetables could be started earlier. This area was serviced by its own well. The wellhead can be seen, and the barn still remains though the greenhouse is gone.
In June of 1923, Miss Edith purchased about 65 acres from Frank Turkinton. This acreage was in 3 parts, the largest of which housed an old barn. Later another barn was added, connected to the old barn to house the haying equipment. The old barn also housed the buggy and a horse-drawn sleigh.
In 1938, a picnic pavilion was built along the west side of Jefferson Hill Road South along with a fireplace and a hand-pumped well. A grove of trees surrounded the pavilion to provide shade. These barns were vandalized by thieves in the late 1970s and burned down to cover their crime. Vestiges of the old stone barbeque can be seen at the site.
The farm was purchased in August 1927 from George Buell. It amounted to about 46 acres. I know of two homes and a large barn on the property. I don’t know if there were any other buildings there at that time. The following are the farm animals I remember at Topsmead.
HORSES – A pair of Percheron draft horses, Roxy and Rex, were acquired in 1928 to pull equipment such as the hay wagon, stone boat, field rakes, and any other farm equipment. Rex died on 7/8/1942 of a heart attack while working the upper field by the four corners. Roxy was put down on 9/15/1942.
MILK COWS – Miss Edith chose the Jersey breed of cows as they produced a higher milk fat content and could produce more cream and butter. The cows, I believe were also added in 1928. They were registered purebreds. They always had complicated, long names; we just called them by common names, like Meg. We always had three milking cows. Dr. Gilyard, the veterinarian, artificially inseminated them to maintain the herd. If a bull calf was born, it would be sold.
PIGS – They were added early on. Three piglets were purchased each year and the farm workers could purchase a share in them for the products they would yield when slaughtered. The pig pen was located south of the barn and equipment shed by the curve in the road. There was a grove of pine trees to the east.
CHICKENS – About 50 chicks were bought each year and were kept for about 3 years. They were originally kept in a section of the barn. In 1943 a new chicken coop was built south of the barn. It contained two rooms. The newest chickens would be kept in one room, the year-old chickens in the other, and the 2-year-old chickens in the barn. The eggs were collected by the farm manager’s wife or family. They were candled in the farmhouse basement, packaged, and refrigerated in the dairy. The oldest were slaughtered before the new chicks arrived and stored at the Litchfield Locker Co.
TURKEYS – They were added in 1945. A new raised enclosure was built on the rear and side of the maintenance shed which was to the east of the barn. It was raised about 3 feet off the ground. Ms. Edith bought about 25 turkeys each year.
SHEEP – Ten sheep were bought in November of 1946. They were of the Southdown breed. These were changed over to the Suffolk, as the Southdown’s would fall, and had problems trying to get up again. The picnic shed was brought over from Terry place and placed in the field behind our house, the garage and the equipment shed. In 1958, a larger sheep shed was added on the south side of the equipment shed.
BEEF CATTLE – Around 1955 a Black Angus steer was obtained, since Bernard Stairs was familiar with raising beef and could slaughter the animal. There was usually one steer, but I do remember that for a few years, we had two. The steers grazed in the same fields as the milk cows, east and south of the farmhouse and the barns.
DOVES – Finally in 1956, some doves were purchased to be raised for Squab. A small shed was built for them on the south side of the barn alongside the chicken coop. This experiment lasted only a short time as it required more effort and care than the results warranted.
During the period between 1929 and 1941, the ladies took several trips to some southern states during the months of March and April to appreciate the earlier arrival of spring in those locations. On two of those trips, one in March of 1929 and the other in April of 1935, dad drove the ladies on their southern tours. While he was away, he wrote to his future wife (they were married on October 22, 1929). On the 1929 trip he wrote 17 times, and to his wife and son on the 1935 trip 9 times. Following is some information about those trips.
The 1929 trip was from March 4, 1929 to March 28, 1929. On this trip only Miss Edith and Miss Mary traveled. They toured in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Washington D.C. They toured in the family’s Pierce Arrow touring car which was very large and drafty according to Dad. It was also top heavy and could not be driven at higher speeds due to the conditions of many of the roads. Dad was given $100.00 to cover his expenses during the trip. He had to find his own hotel room and places to eat as well as getting his laundry done. During the trip he often had difficulty in finding a decent room on a budget of $2.00 per night, and decided to pay $4.00 to get better accommodations.
On the second night out, they arrived in Reading Pa. about 4:30 pm. Miss Edith did not care for any of the hotels available, so they drove on to Harrisburg, arriving at 7:30 pm. All the suitable hotels were full. Miss Edith called some friends, and she and Miss Mary spent the night with them. Dad found a room later in the evening.
Miss Mary was ill from March 7th through March 12th, but they continued touring and sightseeing. On 3/12, they met friends from Waterbury in South Carolina and later, on 3/16 they met Miss Edith’s Aunt Alice and Uncle Ned. Dad was able to see some of the sites that they went to, but he particularly enjoyed seeing the buildings and monuments in Washington. D.C.
The 1935 trip was from April 22, 1935 to May 5, 1935. All three ladies went on this trip to Princeton, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Annapolis, Richmond, Williamsburg and Washington, D.C. They met Miss Sherwin in Virginia on 4/23 and she and her chauffeur toured with them for several days. On 4/24 they had a flat tire and on 4/25 bought a new one!
This tour involved visiting many gardens and homes throughout the areas. They cut part of the tour short as the apple blossoms were not in full bloom. They were back in Washington on the 29th and Miss Sherwin asked her chauffeur to take dad out for the night. Dad reported that he was sunburnt and dusty from driving and experiencing bad roads. On 4/29 they started home from D.C. Dad had trouble finding their street and was 40 minutes late picking them up. They went to see the cherry blossoms, and then started on their way home. They were expecting to get to Philadelphia, but when they reached Wilmington Delaware, they decided to stay there for the night. They left Wilmington at 8:00 AM and arrived in New York City at noon. They got a hotel, visited with sister Kate, and went to the theater. On 5/1/35, they were back at 33 Church St. in Waterbury.
Miss Edith had some lifelong friendships, a few of which began during her years at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington from 1907 to 1910.
She attended Miss Porter’s. She lived in NYC with her mother. After her mother’s death, she moved to Beach Bay, Mass., then later to Marblehead Mass. She would stay at Topsmead for about one week each summer, usually came around the time when Miss Porter’s School would be holding their annual reunions. Later in life, Miss Wetherald adopted a daughter and would also bring her to Topsmead. She was about the same age as my brother and Barbara Abramson, my future sister–in–law whose family rented the Buell cottage at the farm; she would be a playmate of ours during her stay.
Miss Edith, Miss Lucy, and Miss Mary would also travel to Massachusetts each summer to visit Miss Wetherald and tour the area.
She also attended Miss Porter’s and came from Helsinki, Finland. During their 1935 tour of Europe, the ladies stayed with her for about a week before they visited Russia and then again on their return to Helsinki. Miss Pohjala was interested in health care and social politics in Finland. She was called the mother of the Finish Health Insurance Act. She started out as a newspaper reporter but then received a nursing degree and served in the 1918 Finish Civil war and the Estonian war of independence of 1918-1920.
She returned to America to further her education and worked at New York hospitals for 5 years. She graduated as a nursing teacher from Columbia in 1927. Meanwhile, she also continued as a journalist.
In 1933 she launched her 30-year political career and became a member of the Finish Parliament to promote health care and social issues. Later she was a member of the Finish delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. She visited Topsmead several times and attended the Miss Porter’s reunions.
LEILA LIVINGSTONE MORSE
I don’t think that she attended Miss Porter’s, but I am not sure. She was a frequent visitor to both Topsmead and Church Street in Waterbury. She was the granddaughter of Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph. She sang in public and the ladies attended her recitals. Dad said that she operated a tea room in Stockbridge, Mass. Miss Morse used to come to Topsmead and Church St. in Waterbury several times a year. The ladies also traveled to Stockbridge to visit her.
In the early 1930’s she developed a fondness for my brother John Robert, born in 1932. She gave my father a painting by her uncle, Edward Lind Morse, and mailed several first-day issued stamps of her grandfather to my brother when they were issued.
Miss Edith had several friends in Litchfield with whom she maintained relationships. These are a few that I am aware of:
The first of these was Mrs. Eleanor Bronson. She owned the French chateau style home on upper North Street which is now owned by Forman School. She also was from Waterbury and they were socially active in both Waterbury and Litchfield. There was a running joke between them that they both went south for the winter--- to Waterbury.
Mrs. Fredrick Sherman lived on South St. in the Oliver Wolcott house. I remember one summer when we took the open house tour that we found Miss Edith and Mrs. Sherman both in the kitchen of the house acting as docents for the visitors.
Natalie Baker was a riding companion with Miss Edith when she was riding her horse, Mandy, from 1929 to 1934.
Miss Elizabeth Renshaw, who I believe lived on Fern Avenue, was a very close and valued friend of all the ladies. She was a member of the Litchfield Garden Club, and would bring Miss Lucy to the meetings. Miss Renshaw and the ladies would host each other for dinner at their homes, and exchange recipes and plants. Miss Renshaw taught Miss Edith how to make maple syrup. On several occasions, she joined the ladies on motor trips throughout New England. She was most helpful when Miss Mary had a heart attack in NYC, where they had gone for a few days of shopping. She brought down clothing and necessities so that Miss Edith and Miss Lucy could spend time with Miss Mary. Dad went with her on that trip so that he could retrieve Miss Edith’s car and drive it back to Waterbury.
Anne and Walter Howe owned an estate to the east of Topsmead on East Litchfield Road. Mr. Howe was the U. S. Ambassador to Chile from 1958-61. He was also the person who acquainted Miss Edith with the Connecticut Forest and Park Association.
Miss Edith maintained contact with the families who owned property adjacent to Topsmead and made many purchases of their property to add to her Topsmead holdings. They would visit and maintained casual, neighborly relations.
One neighbor was the Beirne family, who lived on the north side of East Litchfield Road where Jefferson Hill Road intersected, before Route 118 was built. There was Martin Beirne, his wife Mary, two daughters, Peggy and Eileen as well as Martin’s sister Winifred, who we called Winnie. I have an old photograph showing the two girls at my brother’s first birthday party in September of 1933 at Underhill. Miss Edith bought two pieces of land from Martin. The first, in 1926 was a 32 acre field south of Jefferson Hill where the butterfly garden and bird viewing blind are now located. A second piece was purchased in 1936 that was the old Beirne farm adjacent to their house and land; it was about 46 acres. It had a house and several barns and outbuildings. The house eventually became the gardener’s house occupied by Alec and Eva Derouin.
Another close neighbor was the Buell family. There was George and his wife, and his brother Phil. In 1927 Miss Edith bought a 46-acre farm from George Buell which became Topsmead Farm. In 1929 she bought an additional 36 acres from him which was adjacent the farm, and also a large piece along the east side of Jefferson Hill South Road. Finally in 1959 she bought from Phil Buell a 54-acre plot along the west side of Buell Road where Marsh Road intersects.
In that same area was the Catlin family. Miss Edith used to treat the children to ice cream cones in Litchfield Village during the summer.
The Hausmann family lived in several homes on the north side of East Litchfield Road. My father use to board with Jacob Hausmann before he married my mother in 1929. In 1937 Miss Edith bought Jacob’s home and land – about 3 acres. This was directly across East Litchfield Road from the Underhill entrance. Later in 1966, she bought Albert Hausmann’s house and land about 3 acres a little further down East Litchfield Road.
There were two local farming families who leased meadow land at Topsmead for haying. They were the Liepaka and Labaha families. They lived on what we called the Thomaston Road, now Route 254.
All these families were well known to Miss Edith and together formed a nice neighborly community that included Topsmead.
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.