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A Place to Hang our Hat

The small white cottage at 138 Main Street, home to the Farmington Historical Society, and its neighbor at 140 Main Street, are time travelers in a sense — unique 18th-century workmen’s cottages that provide a view into the town’s past.

The cottages, which were built in the late 1700s as a shop and housing for workmen, were donated to the historical society in 1998, by the town and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. After restoring the cottages, the society moved into 138 Main Street in 2003. The smaller cottage next door, a hat shop in the 18th century, is now rented out as a residence.

“These are possibly the last surviving houses of their type,” Ron Bernard, former president of the Historical Society, said in an interview in the Hartford Courant in November 1998. “In the 18th century, they were ubiquitous.”

Bernard said that the houses may have survived in part because of their simplicity; they were small and modest enough to be overlooked. “The history of the house in this century is one of being saved from the wrecking ball,” he said. “These little cottages have survived intact because they weren’t worth anything. Our commitment here is to preserve and protect these dwellings.”

The cottages show “the town the way it always was,” the society’s vice president, Peg Yung, said in the Courant. The town “wasn’t all big mansions,” she said.

The cottages are named after John Case and Alexander Gridley. Case built the cottages on land he bought from Samuel Deming in 1771, according to Dudley Prentice, who wrote the History of Farmington Houses (an unpublished manuscript) in 1974. The land, a total of 7 acres, also included the property at 144 Main Street. Not much is known about Alexander Gridley except that he owned a half-acre plot of land and a dwelling, probably the smaller cottage, for several years until he sold them to John’s son, Coral Case, in 1797.

Coral Case was a hat manufacturer, and his father assisted him in the business. The shop was in the smaller of the two cottages, 140 Main Street, and the workmen’s housing at 138 Main Street. Hatter’s Lane, across the street from the cottage, probably owes its name to the former shop.

John Case and his wife, Mary, didn’t live in either one of the cottages, but at the family homestead at 144 Main Street. In 1787, John is listed as owning land extending from the homestead to the north to 130 Main Street.
John Case died in 1791 at age 62. His gravestone in the “Memento Mori” cemetery indicates that he fought with “Capt.Whittlesey’s Co.” in the French and Indian War. John’s son, Coral, died in 1800 at age 37.

Julia Cowles, who lived down the block in the house called “Oldgate” at 148 Main Street, wrote in a letter in March 1800 that “Mr. Case “declines fast — he is going to have his freedom clothes made — a cambrick shirt to be buried in.” Case briefly recovered, but by August of 1800 Julia was writing that he had “had some more fits.”

After Coral Case’s death, his estate was divided among his widow, Polly; daughter, Betsy (Case) Beach; and son, John M. Case. Betsy inherited the family homestead at 144 Main Street. The distribution of the estate also mentions that one of the cottages was then occupied by a tenant, Chauncey Sweet.

In 1810, Betsy Beach, a minor (though married to Platt Beach), sold the house and cottages under the direction of her guardian, John Mix. Richard Cowles bought “6 acres and 2 roads with houses, barn, and other buildings” for $3,500. Like John Case, Cowles lived at 144 Main and probably rented out the cottages.
Cowles, the son of Isaac and Lucinda Cowles, married Fanny Deming in 1811; served in the military from 1815 to 1824; was town treasurer from 1832 to 1839; and was elected to the state legislature in 1834.

When Cowles died in 1845, he left 144 Main Street and the cottages to his two nephews, the sons of his brother Solomon. Edward Cowles became the owner of the main house at 144 Main Street. Samuel Cowles inherited the property “on the northeast corner … on which are 2 small dwelling houses with 2 gardens annexed to each.” At the time, the cottages were occupied by Chauncey Hills and Giles Stillman, who might have been workmen on the property.

In an 1850 census, Hannah Prince, identified as “black,” is listed as living in one of the cottages with several children. Hannah’s husband, Charles, was a barber, and two of their children, William and George, also became barbers. One of the cottages may have been used as a barbershop at this time.

The Princes lived in several houses on Main Street over the years, including one near Tunxis Street in 1840. Hannah, who worked as a domestic, may have moved to live near her employers.

In 1860, after the children were grown, Hannah lived with abolitionists Samuel and Catherine Deming at 66 Main Street. Deming owned a store on Main Street (later moved to 2 Mill Lane) where the Amistad Africans lived on the second floor for two months in 1841. The Mendians later moved to a dormitory built for them next to Austin Williams’ house on Main Street, near the Gridley-Case cottages.

Samuel Cowles mortgaged the cottages in 1855, when they were occupied by “Levi Risley and Mrs. Prince.”

Not long after, the bank foreclosed on the former Case homestead and the cottages. The main house at 144 Main Street was sold to Henry W. Barbour, a farmer, according to the Architectural Resource Survey of Farmington (1985-1986). Accounts differ on the cottages’ history at this point, but they passed through a succession of owners. They were sold to Ira Hadsell, then William Francis, and then Barbour’s mother, Annie Sedgewick. In 1871, After Sedgewick’s death, Barbour inherited the cottages.

Barbour lived at 144 Main Street and used the cottages to house his farm workers. Two employees, Fred H. Hotchkiss and his son Charles, are listed as residents in Farmington, Connecticut: The Village of Beautiful Homes (published in 1906).
In 1915, after Henry Barbour died in a car accident on Diamond Glen Road, his widow and daughter, Harriet and Anne Barbour, sold the house at 144 Main Street and the Gridley-Case cottages to Winchell Smith, a Broadway actor, playwright and director. Among the plays written by Smith are Brewster’s Millions (1906), The Fortune Hunter (1909), The Boomerang (1915), and Lightnin’ (1918), which was for a time the longest-running play in American theatrical history, with 1,291 performances.
Smith lived in a Georgian mansion at 188 Garden Street, the other end of his extensive property that then included the cottages. The mansion was built overlooking a bend of the Farmington River, at its junction with the Pequabuck River. Smith’s grave monument can be seen at Riverside Cemetery in Farmington. Also there is the gravestone of his uncle, William Gillette, the actor, dramatist and creator of Gillette Castle.

Smith wrote and produced the silent film classic “Way Down East,” and it was he who brought Lillian Gish to Farmington to star in the film in 1919. Smith owned the grist mill by the river at the time, which was used in a scene in the movie. The scene shows Gish crossing the river in the winter by jumping from ice floe to ice floe.
At the time when Smith owned the cottages, John Alsop and Marie Bissell ran an antiques shop in the smaller one at 140 Main Street. Dudley Prentice wrote in his History of Farmington Houses: “The owners’ tastes in antiques were very good, and their stock was well chosen, but in spite of this the shop did not prosper, and the business was given up after a few years.”
One of the customers of the shop was Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, who lived across Meadow Road at 154 Main Street. Lewis devoted his life to collecting the letters, prints and drawings of Horace Walpole, an eighteenth-century English politician and man of letters, and Lewis’ home is now the Lewis Walpole Library.

Lewis wrote in his autobiography, One Man’s Education, about John Alsop:

“He lived in the family’s large 1840 house in Middletown that was filled with family possessions, but he was hampered by an inadequate income. During [my] first year in Farmington he rented a cottage there to economize and to run a small antique shop that he and Marie Bissell had just opened. Both had excellent taste — they were among the first to rediscover Victorian ornaments — but the Bissells were building a new house, John couldn’t be bothered with routine, and the shop languished after the first buying sprees. He never ‘did’ anything in the usual meaning of the word, yet although he died forty years ago his effect upon [me] was so profound that even now I may ask myself, ‘What would John Alsop do?’ and then I try to do it. Gerald Murphy once told how he asked John if he thought a certain man was ‘happy.’ ‘Yes,’ said John promptly. ‘How do you know?’ ‘Because,’ John replied, ‘he’s unselfish.'”

An employee of Winchell Smith’s, William Hopkinson, and his wife lived in the larger cottage for a time, and Prentice wrote that Mrs. Hopkinson often looked after the antiques shop while the owners were away on buying trips.
After Alsop and Bissell closed the shop, the cottage at 140 Main Street was again used as housing for workmen, with some of Smith’s employees living there.

Winchell Smith died in 1931, and it is at this point that the former Case homestead at 144 Main and the neighboring cottages parted ways. The cottages were sold in 1935 to Raymond and Genevieve Bien, and the main house at 144 Main Street was bought by Oliver Harrison Smith in 1937.

The Biens, who’d met on a hike in Massachusetts, moved to Farmington from New York City when they bought the cottages. Raymond Bien worked at Aetna Life and Casualty until 1960, when he retired. They then divided their time between Farmington and Florida.

In 1970, the Biens sold the cottages to James McArthur Thomson, a neighbor who lived across Winchell Smith Drive at 130 Main Street, an imposing Federal-style house with 30-foot columns, built in 1802 by General Solomon Cowles.
General Solomon Cowles house, 130 Main Street.

Thomson, an architect who had apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright, bought the cottages to protect them from “further deterioration and possible doom,” said Ron Bernard, the former president of the Historical Society. The cottages, especially the smaller one, had fallen into neglect, and Smith sought to bring back their their original character. He restored them with the help of Richard Butterfield, a retired architect. He also improved the grounds, trimming the overgrown trees and shrubs.

Thomson, who served as chairman of the Historic District Commission, was also active in the Historical Society, the Stanley Whitman House and the Hill-Stead Museum. It was Thomson who donated the first piece of property to the Farmington Land Trust — the Canal Aqueduct Path, a former towpath for barges that runs from Route 10 to the Farmington River.

After Thomson died in 1993, his house at 130 Main Street and the cottages were left to the town. Thomson said in his will that he wanted his house to be given to a nonprofit historical organization. The Antiquarian and Landmarks Society of Hartford sought to move into the house, but the proposal was rejected by the town in 1996 after residents opposed it.

In 1998, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving endorsed donating the cottages to the Farmington Historical Society. When the society received them, it vowed to continue Thomson’s restoration work.

For the renovations, the society raised $265,000 in a fund-raising campaign by the end of 2002, with the help of grants from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the Connecticut Historic Restoration Fund, and donations from the Farmington Savings Bank, United Technologies, society members and many others.

Like Smith, the society sought to preserve the buildings’ unique character and charm in the restoration work. Through the centuries, the cottages have retained many of their original features, including the twelve-over-eight windows, named for the number of panes.

A stone chimney in one cottage is original, too. Chestnut beams, with the bark still on them, have survived the centuries; they’re hidden under plaster strengthened with animal hair. The cottages also have their original wall paneling and pegged wooden floorboards. One section of the lath and plaster wall has been left exposed upstairs at 138 Main Street for students of architecture.

The bay window in the society’s headquarters was added nearly 100 years ago, and a brick chimney was built in the early 19th century.

To help in the renovations, the Historical Society hired architect Roger Clarke; architectural historian Anne Grady, of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities; and landscape planner and historian Sarah la Cour. East-West Builders, which worked on the restoration of the Butler-McCook House in Hartford in 2002, was contracted to do carpentry work and hire subcontractors.

One of the first projects the society completed was renovating the wrought-iron fence around the cottages. The society also installed new cedar-shingle roofs; added copper gutters; repaired and painted the walls, windows, ceilings; restored the brickwork; added storm windows; fixed the plumbing; repaired the eroding foundations; installed new heating and air-conditioning systems; brought the electrical systems up to code; and added a new garden with a stone wall around it, brick pathways, lighting and a fountain at the center. The society is currently working on adding plantings in the garden.

The Historical Society now has a permanent home in the heart of Farmington village. The headquarters is used for meetings, exhibits, research, storing historical records, and other programs related to preserving and sharing the town’s heritage.

1. Alexander Gridley is listed as mortgaging a “1/2-acre piece of land with a small dwelling house” for 40 pounds to Hosea Gridley of Watertown, CT, in 1787. In 1794, the mortgage was released, and in 1797 Gridley sold the property to Coral Case. The deed listed “a house, shop and other buildings standing.”

2. Dudley Prentice, who wrote the History of Farmington Houses, an unpublished manuscript, in 1974, differs on the dates of the deaths of John and Coral Case, saying the son died before his father, at age 37 in 1791. Prentice also refers to Coral’s wife, Polly, as John’s wife, and to Coral’s daughter, Betsy, as John Case’s daughter.

3. Richard Cowles, the son of Isaac and Lucinda Cowles wasn’t a member of Julia’s immediate family, but belonged to another branch of the Cowles family. Julia, who died in 1803 at age 18, was the daughter of Zenas and Mary Cowles. “The Diaries of Julia Cowles” was published in 1931.

4. There are conflicting accounts of the ownership of the cottages and 144 Main Street. The Connecticut Historical Commission conducted the Historic and Architectural Resource Survey of Farmington in 1985 and 1986. Its findings differ in parts from those of Dudley Prentice in his unpublished History of Farmington Houses.

History of Gridley-Case cottages and photos (except where noted)
by Brooke E. Martin. Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008