The Skiff Mountain-West Woods Area of Sharon During the Two Centuries Since the Revolution

by Klara and Paul Porzelt, May, 1976

 

The Skiff Mountain and West Woods area of Sharon, Connecticut, was settled shortly before the Revolutionary War. In 1761, Nathan Skiff, coming from Tolland, Connecticut, settled there and gave the area its name. He was born March 7, 1718, married Thankful Eaton on November 5, 1741 and died 1778. He served as a soldier in the Revolutionary Army. He had three sons: Stephen, B. 1742, who was a First Sergeant in the army, Moses, B. 1745, who died in the army, leaving two sons Elyah and Elisha, and Nathan (1751-1833).

We bought one of the old houses on West Woods Road known as Westwood Farm in 1950. This house was once known as the Skiff House. It was built by Samuel Skiff [written in 1744-1824], a brother of Nathan who came to Ellsworth in 1772 from Chilmark on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. He married Mary Skiff and had six children, one of them being Asa Skiff (1777-1864) who acquired our house from Samuel Skiff in 1806. Asa married Susannah Skiff, had four daughters and one son who never married.

When we bought Westwood Farm (below) in 1950, it was the only house on West Woods Road between MacBurney’s Corner and Ellsworth. The map published by Richard Clark in 1853 shows that there were six farms along this road then. Since 1950, one house has been built on the Ellsworth end and three weekend cottages were erected and are owned by the Learsy’s, Gene Grincuna and Ken Jones.

 

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Our section centers around what we call MacBurney’s Corner where four roads converge and where a little schoolhouse, formerly known as the West Woods School once stood. Two of these roads are known as West Woods Road, one going to Ellsworth on which our house is, and one going to Sharon past George Emory’s house (which on one map was called Silvernail Road). The third road goes uphill to Skiff Mountain and is called Skiff Mountain Road, and the fourth is Keeler Road, named after the Keeler family whose farm is just where the road enters Macedonia Brook State Park.

We call the intersection MacBurney’s Corner because the house, barns, and land there have been owned by the MacBurney family for 160 years until we bought it in 1965 from the Estate of Grace MacBurney. She also owned the little schoolhouse which had taken care of the local kids for a long time. In 1950 the schoolhouse was still standing, but in bad repair. We wanted to buy and restore it, but Grace would not sell.

Grace was a spinster and had been a schoolteacher. The old house when she lived there had no electricity, running water, heat or telephone. She got her water from Macedonia Brook, which comes down through our property and meanders through her farm. She used to do some cleaning work for neighbors who did what shopping she needed or, once in a while, took her along for a shopping trip. One day, a neighbor, Margie Ammerman, who had built a little house on land bought from Grace (where Bob and Kathy Hock live now), noted that she had not seen her go for water for several days. She went to the house and found her body. She had been dead for several days. She was the last of the MacBurney’s.

The MacBurney family had bought the house and farm in 1805 from Levi Lacey, a blacksmith. When we remodeled it in 1965, we found lovely old beams and a charming Dutch fireplace. We used it as a guest cottage for some years and sold it in 1972 to Carola and Hans van den Houten. We kept the old barn which showed that they used to have dairy cows at one time. It is one of the few old barns in the neighborhood. The original part was built around 1800, and it was in bad repair, and Bill Armstrong put a new roof on. Bill, who is a Master at Kent School and now a famous author, wanted the manual labor to work out in his mind the plot for his next book.

To come back to “our” West Wood Road, our 1853 map shows that there were six farms along this road then, owned by Henry H. Calkin, Asa Skiff, Porter Dean, Christopher MacBurney, P. Waldron and Chalon Drake. As we said at the beginning, in 1950, all were gone except ours. The house owned by Henry H. Calkin was in an old apple orchard owned by us half way between the “corner” and our house. There was no farm in those times without an apple orchard. It furnished the settlers with everything from vinegar to apple butter, apple cake and apple brandy. The wood was used for machinery and particularly cogs. One can still see the outline of the foundation of the Calkin house, which measures about 20 by 15 feet. The stone wall just below it has a rectangular enclosure about 25 by 10 feet which probably was used as a pigsty.

The Calkin family was one of the old Sharon families having come from Lebanon, Connecticut. The list of soldiers who fought in the Revolution in 1775 contained the names of Reuben Calkin, Sergeant Jesse Calkin and Elisha Calkin. In 1858, Henry H. Calkin conveyed his house and ten acres to A. Curtis Abels for $162.50. Subsequently, Matthias Chapman owned it and in 1870 moved it to the east side of our house.

Skipping our house, the next farm about a half mile up was owned in 1833 by Porter Dean, who came here from Oxford, Connecticut in 1831, a widower with two children. His son, Charles Chase Dean, joined the First Heavies at Derby during the War Between the States, and served three years among the siege guns. Later he was a Deacon at the Ellsworth Church. These Dean’s are not related to the Dean’s of Knibloe Hill Road, running down to Hitchcocks Corner (now Amenia Union). In 1853, Samuel Dean had a big farm there which is now owned by his grandson, Ray Dean. In the 1850’s, Christopher MacBurney bought the Porter Dean farm. Around 1875, Leman Morey bought the place, which then became known as the Morey house. Born in 1845, he married Caroline M. Johnson in 1868, and had five children. They all moved to Bridgeport where Leman died in 1899. Around 1885, George Chapman bought it and in 1900 moved the house to Kent.

The moving of houses was quite usual in those times. Probably the reason was that our hilltop farms were “farmed out” quickly and people had to move elsewhere to make a living. The houses were of frame construction and could be moved easily. So when they left, they sold their home to be moved.

The Christopher MacBurney farm, the next on our road towards Ellsworth was located on the right side of the road where now is the log cabin type cottage about one mile from us. Christopher married Molly Chapman in 1847. In 1870, Levi Howe bought it, and it became known as the Howe House. George Chapman bought it around 1880, and in 1905 moved it to the Elbert Chapman farm on State Road.

west-woods-2-map

When we bought our place in 1950 from Dan Longwell, he kept about 180 adjoining acres and bought a large chicken house from us, moved it to the place where the Howe place had been, and made a weekend cottage out of it. When they moved back to Neosho, Dr. Allan Larkin bought it. Lightening hit the cabin some years ago, and it burned down without anybody noticing it. Larkin then built the present log cabin and sold it about three years ago to Ray and Carol (Buckley) Learsy. Paul Skiff Chapman, son of Elbert, lived there, about whom more later.

The next, the Waldron farm, was bought by George Chapman about 1865. In 1875, he moved it to the rear of Skiff (our) house. Thus, our house is a conglomerate of three original houses. We have no information on the farm owned by Chalon Drake. He died 32 years old in 1860 and is buried in Ellsworth Cemetery.

Coming now to our house which is now known as “Westwood Farm”, it was formerly referred to as the “Skiff House.” At the end of the eighteenth century it was owned by Samuel Skiff (1752-1825). We have no exact date when the house was built, but believe it to have been built around 1792.

In 1806, Capt. Asa Skiff (1777-1864) acquired it from Samuel, and he bought additional land from Arvin Skiff. In 1814 he bought land from James Woodward, in 1836 from Philip Waldron and in 1858 from Porter Dean. Asa married Susannah Skiff in 1804, and had four daughters and one son who never married. Asa was in a company which drilled in Ellsworth until after the War of 1812. Around 1860 Asa sold his place to Matthias Chapman III (1804-1864) who left the property to George Chapman.

The Chapman’s were another old family in our section. Obadiah Chapman came to Sharon in 1741 from Colchester and settled in the southern part of the town. When he died he left four sons; Obadiah, Pelatiah, Matthias I, and Robert. Matthias I (1770-1837) was prolific, having seven children by his first wife and six by his second. He came to his death by the instrumentality of a sled-stake in the hands of George Stone, who had come to air a grievance about a cider barrel. The famous Sharon Judge Ansel Sterling managed to save Stone from hanging, but “he died in Hartland after, and that was most as bad.”

Matthias III (1804-1864) and his wife Amy had ten children. His son, George W. Chapman inherited the house, and it was in the hands of the family until 1921 when Elbert R. Chapman sold it to a Polish chap of the name of George Ryba. On the deed Ryba marked his name by a cross. He did not know how to write.

As mentioned above, the Chapman’s also owned the Calkin house downhill which was moved and added to the east side of our house in about 1875.

There is a George M. Chapman (1869-1918) buried in Ellsworth Cemetery. He was married to a Peck and is the grandfather of Paul Skiff Chapman, (b. 1906), who still lives in nearby Winsted. Paul’s mother taught school at the West Woods School House on MacBurney’s Corner and boarded with the MacBurney’s. That is where Paul’s father met her. She had gone to Mt. Holyoke College. They were married in the Ellsworth Church in 1930 by the Rev. G. F. Goodenough who in 1900 published a book about Ellsworth. Their only son, Paul Skiff Chapman, died young.

Paul Chapman comes by occasionally to reminisce. He remembers cutting hay on our place when he was a kid in the 1920’s, storing it in the “large barn” of which only the foundation remains today, and in the winter, moving it by sleigh to the “Valley Farm” owned by them on Route 41 where the Learsy’s live now. He remembers the room in the North East corner of the house where they stored the milk. This is our pantry now and has a trapdoor leading to a stone step.

On the road is another stone block with steps on the house side and none on the road side wherefrom the milk cans were loaded on the wagon to take them to market (below).

When we bought the property, it had a maple sugar house with a boiler, a smoke house, a root cellar, a spring house, a chicken house and a log cabin (below). There was also a pheasant pen, with breeding houses, feed houses, etc. We raised pheasants for a number of years. The breeding house is now a carpenter shop.

west-woods-farm-milk-stone

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west-woods-farm-root-cellar

Another cash crop was charcoal, which went to the iron furnaces in Kent or Lakeville. We found in the woods several round places of about 30 feet diameter where no trees would grow. They were old charcoal pits. Probably the farmer worked those in the winter to augment his cash income. It took about one-quarter acre of hardwood to make enough charcoal to make one ton of pig iron. Some 1,500,000 tons of iron ore were mined in the region. Our whole countryside must have been denuded of trees a hundred years ago because of the voracious appetite of the furnaces. I wonder what our present day environmentalists would have said, but we have a new crop of trees now.

We noticed an enormous growth in our trees in the twenty-five years we’ve been here. We used to be able to see the barns of Skiff Mountain Farm from our living room window in the summer. Now we can only see the top of the silos.

In 1930, our house was bought by Dr. Stafford McLean and his wife, the former Elizabeth Cutting. They modernized it essentially in the form it is now. Dr. McLean died and Elizabeth married Dr. Booker. Mrs. Booker loved the place as much as we do and came several times in recent years to visit old memories.

They sold the place in July, 1945 to Daniel and Mary Longwell. Dan Longwell was co-founder with Henry Luce of Time, Inc. and was Chairman of the Editorial Board of Life. He used the place to entertain celebrities such as Churchill, the Prince of Wales, Ginger Rogers and others.

We bought the house completely furnished, but a clipper ship model, gift of Ginger Rogers, was accepted. Dan died a few years ago in his old home town of Neosho, Mo. The last time we saw Mary and Dan was turning a corner on a path of the Forum in Rome. We bought the place from Dan Longwell on July 14, 1950. While we made no fundamental changes in the house, we added the terrace and the winter garden (formerly an open sleeping porch), and built two barns and did a lot of fencing, etc.

On the West Woods Road going to Sharon, also known as Silvernail Road, near the crossing, lived in the early 1850’s a farmer by the name of Loren Benson. The house changed hands several times. Then it became known as the Gourlay property. When we came here, Owen (Jake) and Janet Jacobsen lived there. They both died and the Abel Plenn’s have it now. He is a writer.

Around 1860, Eliyah Juckett built a house on the same land where now the Roger Lewis’ live. The house was demolished some years ago. Maggie Silvernail rented the house for a number of years around 1910 from Rodney Lovell who owned it at the time.

On the 1853 map, one other house is shown owned by J. Woodward. Today, several people have houses on this road; the W. H. Johnstons, the Roger Lewis’, and Lois Salmon and others.

On Keeler Road, junction with Caray Hill Road, was the former R. Peck farm. In the 1950’s, George and Harriet Reid owned it. Now Jeanine and George R. Vila live in this lovely old New England farm house. George is the former Chief Executive of Uniroyal. They are great horse lovers and fox hunters and converted the old barn into box stalls.

Other old houses on Keeler Road was the S. Hunter farm owned in the fifties by a charming couple, Van Zandt Wheeler, and the H. Benson farm, a lovely old stone house, which was owned in the 1950’s by James G. and Irina Blaine. Jim was the grandson of James G. Blaine who unsuccessfully ran for President of the United States in 1884. Irina was a niece of Prince Youssoupoff, the slayer of Rasputin. Jim’s hobby where his trout in Macedonia Brook which he fed every day with great love. The property is now owned by Willy Schmidt.

Before the Keeler Road enters Macedonia Brook State Park, it runs through the property of the Keeler brothers, Chester and Alfred. Chester is one of the few remaining blacksmiths making beautifully crafted iron ornaments. He made some lovely hinges for our living room.

The Pecks were another great family in our neighborhood. In 1853, the Skiff Mountain Farm was owned by L. Peck, later a Frank A. Peck (1866-1926) took it over. The small lake there is still known as Peck’s Pond. The house was burned down about five years ago. It was a charming old farm house, but in bad repair. There were two Peck families in the neighborhood living within a few miles of each other, but there has been no blood connection for 200 years between them. From Harrington, Connecticut came Gideon and his wife Sybil who settled “on a mighty hill called Skiff Mountain as it condescends into the Valley of the Oblong.” Gideon died in 1825, and left five children of whom the youngest, Ozias, lived and labored on the home farm. Of the other family, Calvin Peck came here from Greenwich. He was a Deacon at the Ellsworth Church.

Across from Peck’s Pond on Skiff Mountain Road is the house formerly owned by Luther Skiff (1793-1856) and grandson of Nathan Skiff. The place is now owned by the Power Company and Herbie Orth lives in the house. The road continues to the Kent line across which are now the Kent School for Girls Stables and the Old Skiff Mountain Cemetery where dozens of Skiff’s found their final resting place, together with Peck’s and other old families.

In the 1850’s there was a road running through the Skiff Mountain Farm between the barns which cut over to Modley Road. We used to walk through our woods up the hill in back of our house until we came to an old apple orchard. There we saw the foundation of an old farm house. Next to it was a big root cellar with a stone over the door about 6 feet long. We wondered how those people with their simple tools moved such an enormous rock into place. We also wondered what happened to the house since there were no timber remnants left. This was the Matthias Chapman farm in the 1850’s. There were two other houses on this now abandoned road in 1853, one owned by R. Stewart and the other by J. Benson.
old-root-cellar-exterior

old-root-cellar-interior

One other road, almost abandoned several years ago is Lambert Road, which branches off the Keeler Road at the sharp bend. There was one farm on it on the 1853 map owned by W. Calkin. The road is being widened again. Two girls, Dorie Stroh and Lucille Tegg built a house on it recently. It runs into Route 41 above Amenia Union.

One last word about Macedonia Brook. It starts a little north of us on the property now owned by the Learsy’s, runs through our old property, then through the former MacBurney property, the Vila’s farm etc. and finally runs through Macedonia Brook State Park into the Housatonic below the Kent School Complex. We always wondered where the name came from. In our mind, the name Macedonia is associated with a small country in the Balkans from where two thousand years ago, Alexander the Great conquered the then known world.

The two West Woods Roads are essentially still the same, we believe, as they must have been 150 and 200 years ago, except for a short portion near Ellsworth which was widened a few years ago, but not macadamized. The road winds through the woods with stone walls on both sides much of the way. Of course, most of the woods were once farm land worked by the people mentioned before. During the spring, the woods are pink with thousands of Mountain Laurels, the state flower of Connecticut. In the summer the trees on both sides form a cathedral-like vault. It is a monument to the people who opened up this country and laid the firm basis on which it still rests. We hope the road will continue in its present form for a long while.