By Richard W. Stevenson
“Barns are disappearing from the Connecticut landscape,” writes architectural historian James Sexton.
When one irreplaceable example on Roxbury’s South Street was demolished several years ago, the loss prompted action by an interested local group, the town’s Historic District Commission.
“If we couldn’t save Roxbury’s barns, we could at least document the ones we still have,” said Wendy Walker, the commission’s chair. The result is Barn Stories from Roxbury, Connecticut: A Survey and Oral History.
“We thought we’d find about 200 barns and other buildings,” said commission member Georgette Miller. “It turned out to be closer to 300.” For two years on and off Ms. Miller and fellow Roxburian Pamela Edwards did hundreds of interviews, capturing the memories of the barn owners themselves, many of them men and women whose families have lived and farmed in Roxbury for generations. In total, the elegant, 200-page book reflects several years of work by a cadre of citizen researchers, professional historians, photographers and designers.
As the book’s introduction notes, “we interviewed Roxbury's farmers to shed light on rural life in our town, a way of life few of us can remember or even imagine. The farmers told stories of milking, haying, going to school, plowing with horse teams, breeding stock and more of a lifestyle that exists, for the most part, in fading memories."
Barn Stories makes its official bow at a publishing party at Minor Memorial Library on Saturday, October 30 from two until four in the afternoon, a gala that will also display paintings and photographs of Roxbury barns by local artists. The book, which was designed by Jack Huber and includes essays by historians Rachel Carley—who also did the barn survey-- and James Sexton is more than a coffee table book and more than a scholarly document, although it is both of these. Ms Carley’s effort, for example, provides an engaging history of the town, a necessary ingredient that sets the stage for the barn stories to come.
For anyone who’s ever pondered the derivation of Chalybes Road, Ms Carley offers one authoritative answer: “…the outcropping called Mine Hill early attracted prospectors with its deposits of minerals and granite and intrigued colonists as the site of chalybeate (mineral) springs." As to Good Hill, she writes, "To the southeast, Good Hill, near the border of Woodbury, bears a name bestowed as early as 1673 when a party of men on an exploratory survey declared the spot to be a place of 'good hopes and anticipations'." Jack’s Brook, local legend has it, "takes its name from an African slave who killed himself on the banks, believing that when he died he would return to his native land of Guinea."
Visually the book includes period prints, explanatory diagrams, maps, old photographs and many four color images of barns and other buildings taken by Donna Cloutier and by Lincoln Turner, a member of the Historic District Commission. Additionally, memories and anecdotes from Roxbury farm family members provide fascinating local history, first hand. Several excerpts make the point:
Cathy Bronson of Maple Bank farm reports that their land has been in the family since the early 18th century, when it was granted to them by the reigning English monarch. "After eight generations itís still in the family," she said. "When we took over in 1980, we had 55 acres. When Howie and I first started here years ago, people would tell us, 'Oh my grandfather had a farm like this.' Now people don't know anyone who farms."
From Bob Ognan: "My grandfather, Nicolas Ognan, and my grandmother came to Roxbury in the 1880s from Czechoslovakia. My grandfather had the first threshing machine in Connecticut." The grandfather also raised tobacco, which he sold to Cuba. The family kept goats, pigs and chickens, grew corn and potatoes, and made cider from the apples in the Ognan orchard.
From Bud Voytershark: "We'd get up at four in the morning. It was just me and my brother. We'd call the cows in from the fields, then milk them. It would take and hour or so: we had 6 milking machines. After that, we'd clean the barn. Then, we'd have breakfast. Afterwards, I'd start mowing hay or something. We had a hay baler, hay chopper and about a half dozen tractors with attachments on each one of them. We sold the farm in 1996 or 1998, somewhere around there."
Barn Stories from Roxbury, Connecticut: A Survey and Oral History gives us an in-depth look at farm life past and present in one small town, a key resource now that will also be valuable to future historians. It was made possible by grants from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism and individual donors, and by support from the Town of Roxbury. After October 30, Barn Stories will be for sale in local bookstores, at the Roxbury Town Clerk’s office, at Maple Bank Farm, and at Minor Memorial Library, priced at $35.