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Welcome to my world!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Exploring Greenwich, Connecticut: Putnam Cottage, Still Revolutionary After All These Years

The occasion for this centered around my donation of family heirloom chairs and the side table you see here. I'm sitting in an armchair that was handed down from my American Revolutionary War ancestor, Ebenezer Mead here in Greenwich, Connecticut. 

How many years had it been? Twenty? Twenty-five? I confess to you that as a member of the Capt. Matthew Mead Branch of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution it had been that long since I stepped into Putnam Cottage here in Greenwich, Connecticut. 

Bear in mind, too, that my journeys home for the past few years were after the Labor Day weekend. You know how it goes. You intend to call for an appointment to tour the house. Distractions, errands, a hurricane (Sandy, two years ago- remember?), a nor'easter storm comes roaring up the Atlantic coast (a week after Hurricane Sandy), and before you know it's time to board a flight back to Hawaii. 

After I attended the 9:30 a.m. service at the Second Congregational Church on July 6, I strolled around the Putnam Hill Historic District. (Also, click here)  It's a place that I am particularly fond of, a place venerable by its history, its architectural gems, and its sense of permanency in a time of rapid change. It is so New England, so very Greenwich. 

Time has a way of slowing down here. That suited me just fine, considering I was still a bit dehydrated, jet-lagged and in a state of uneven recovery after one of the more colorful non-flights from Honolulu to New York. Even when your sense of being in the same time zone as your neighbors  is perfectly synchronized the sense of calm is quite palatable. 

Just the day before I attended the annual Independence Day celebration at Greenwich's Town Hall. When co-chair and town ambassador Bea Crumbine recognized me as one patriotic soul who flew all the way from Hawaii to be there she and the others assembled had no idea how precarious my state of being was. 

That me on the left with Bea Crumbine and a local member of the Greenwich Boy Scouts at the Annual Independence Day  Celebration at Town Hall. If you think I look a bit fazed, well, you would not be off-target. Jet-lag was pulling me in all sorts of directions. 

I arose, smiled broadly, waved at the crowd -and then prayed that the Good Lord Up Above would keep me from falling over. I was there to honor history and country, not to be remembered for a tumble down the center aisle. 

But I digress. 

The grounds of Putnam Cottage were deserted. The walk in the sunshine under the protection of old shade trees -trees that stood like trusty sentinels- made solitude my best friend during those quiet moments. Even the drone of traffic on East Putnam Avenue was happily subdued. 

One week and one phone call later I would return to Putnam Cottage where I was warmly greeted by two docents from the Daughters of the American Revolution. 

This is one of the studier shade trees that tower over Putnam Cottage. 

Isn't this the archetypal entrance to a Connecticut home, especially one with such history?

Photos by visitors are not permitted. I downloaded this one from the Cottage's web site with permission.  See the foot warmer? The cast iron pot? The toaster and other fireplace tools? I grew up with such things in my family's home in Round Hill. The furniture is as it would have been over 235 years ago. 

This, ladies and gentleman, is an authentic 18th century colonial American foot warmer.  Aside from blazing fireplaces there was nothing even remotely resembling centralized heat or air conditioning. In the olden days they took hot coals from the fireplace, placed them in the drawer box, and closed the door. People would carry these to church and other places. They also sometimes placed them under their beds, causing a few to catch fire. I had one of these as well. 

This is the Tavern Room. The wood floors are original to the house. All this is a reminder of the primary function of Putnam Cottage, and that was as a tavern for locals and travelers alike.

See that American flag in the left corner in the photo above? That was where I received my award. I also had to read my essay to the audience.  I later found out that my picture was featured in the local daily newspaper, the Greenwich Time. Yikes! 

When I was a sixth grader at Parkway Elementary School I won an American History Month essay contest sponsored by the Putnam Hill Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. 

This is an image from a postcard a docent from the Daughters of the American Revolution gave me. 

For many years the tavern was known as Knapp's Tavern. At the time of the Revolutionary War it was owned by Israel Knapp. My American Revolutionary War ancestor, Ebenezer Mead, like other local patriots was a frequent visitor here. 

That's me ten or so years ago standing next to the gravestone of my
American Revolutionary War ancestor Ebenezer Mead in Christ Church
Greenwich's cemetery. It is across the street from Putnam Cottage.

Ebenezer Mead's grave marker. 
Israel Putnam is an iconic figure in our local American Revolutionary era history. A Massachusetts man born in 1718, Putnam had been in various colonial-era military conflicts such as the French and Indian War 1754-1763. It is written that Putnam ran off to Boston to volunteer to fight after the Battle of Lexington on April 20, 1775. He was appointed to the rank of Major General under George Washington. In June, 1775 he fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill

We grew up with the Putnam name seemingly everywhere. There was Putnam Park, Putnam Restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, "Put's Hill," Putnam Green, even Putnam Gynecology & Obstetrics. 

It was on a winter day, February 26, 1779, that General Israel Putnam made a rather risky and bold escape from British forces. He barely escaped capture by forces under the command of British General William Tryon, who was Governor of what was the Province of New York. Greenwich was raided a number of times over the years since it was in a battle zone between New York and the rest of New England. Tryon was notorious for waging campaigns against American Patriot civilian targets, including women and children.

General Putnam wore a tricorn hat. He was shot at while on his escape to Fort Nonsense in Stamford to gather reinforcements. A bullet hole pierced the side and it is on display at the Cottage. Putnam cursed and shook his fist at the British he had just escaped from. 

By the time Putnam returned with reinforcements the British had already retreated to New York. 

For this Putnam was given command over American forces in the Long Island area. It was at this time that his fortunes declined, too. 

General Washington eventually assigned him to recruiting troops for the American cause. He was then given command of Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton in the Hudson Valley, New York region. When Putnam abandoned these he was called before a board of inquiry, and eventually he was exonerated. 

Later in 1779 Putnam suffered a stroke that paralyzed him, thus curtailing his military career. In 1790 General Israel Putnam died. 

Thousands of cars pass by this historic spot daily without being able to stop and see the monument dedicated 114 years ago. It is at the corner of East Putnam Avenue and Old Church Road. Putnam Cottage is situated on the right side of East Putnam Avenue (pictured above). 

In 1900, the Putnam Hill Chapter of the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) commemorated a monument on the "brow" of the hill. The inscription reads, "This marks the spot where on February 26, 1779, General Israel Putnam, cut off from his soldiers and pursued by British Cavalry, galloped down this rocky steep and escaped, daring to lead where not one of many hundred foes dared to follow."

These are not the original steps that General Putnam took to escape from the British forces chasing him. These were  carved into the rocks below about a century ago. 

Three days after my arrival in October, 2012 Hurricane Sandy hit the region with a force that is seen perhaps once every century. The entire regional power grid had been turned off. I was staying in the Stanton House Inn just three blocks away.

The next day a cousin picked me up and we went exploring around Greenwich.

As you can see, the cottage barely escaped harm from falling branches and uprooted trees during Hurricane Sandy. 

The house barely escaped from falling trees and limbs during Hurricane Sandy.  Note the hollow tree limb in the center-right of the picture. Many of the downed trees like this one were hollow inside, ravaged by hungry, persistent termites. 

The 1900 monument to General Putnam's ride was almost covered in fallen branches in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's wrath across the region. 

Three days before my return flight to Hawaii I received some wonderful news. The Israel Putnam Association and the Putnam Hill Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution had agreed to accept three Mead family heirloom furniture pieces.

I wanted them in a place and museum setting where they would be safe and accessible to all. The chairs are in particularly delicate condition. Both date from the latter 18th century. The Greenwich History Society turned down my request. "We already have enough of your family things here." Truth be told, our family archives and collections are the largest owned and held by the Society. I understood. It was worth a try.

It gave me a great deal of peace of mind that these 18th and 19 century heirlooms passed down from my ancestors to me will have a permanent home in Putnam Cottage. As I grew up in Round Hill I spent countless hours in that armchair (left) writing and doing homework -including my late-father tutoring me in mathematics, a weak subject in my elementary and junior high/middle school years. Hat tip to Christopher Semmes, photographer, for this image. 

This path from the driveway leads to the back entrance as well as to the restored Colonial-era herb garden near the kitchen.

American colonial gardens such as this served as a source of home-grown perfumes, spices and apothecary. Since the tavern hosted guests as well as fed them this would be absolutely necessary. 
The Putnam Cottage Colonial Garden features a variety of herbs. 

Chamomile is a daisy-like plant that even in the 21st century is used for its calming and medicinal purposes

Hyssop, you say? "Purge me with hyssop and I will be clean," says the Bible. This member of the mint family  has been used as an aphrodisiac when combined with pepper, ginger and thyme.  It's been used as a cough reliever and an expectorant. 

Common Rue was cultivated as a medicinal herb, a condiment, and some say as a repellant of insects. 

Don't worry! The outhouse is just for show. 

I felt invigorated and reconnected by my visit to Putnam Cottage, and I look forward to my next one. My passion for the American Revolution was energized, especially since I have a direct connection to that history and to this enigmatic house in my ancestral home town.

Rather than be dismayed by the fact that so many overlook this place, I see it as an opportunity to establish a new paradigm with educators and the general public.

Yes, we need to increase the appreciation for the educational resources places such as Putnam Cottage offer. The docents work for little or no compensation at all. All of us need to do more to sustain and invigorate the constructive, educational roles all such places offer.

Putnam Cottage is the scene of historic reenactments. Go to this link for a Greenwich Time album one such event featuring Sheldon's Horse Second Continental Light Dragoons.  The Putnam Cottage web site also features these

Putnam Cottage is a lovely circa 1690 home that is located at 243 East Putnam Avenue in Greenwich, Connecticut USA. It is situated directly opposite Christ Church Greenwich.

Docents are with the Putnam Hill Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Call them for an appointment at 203-869-9697. Go to this web link for a list of events, both past and present.

There is at this time an admission charge of $5.00.

It's the revolutionary thing to do! Enjoy your trek into the past.

"Let us gather political wisdom from the American Revolution. It has taught the world, emphatically, that oppression tends to weaken and destroy the power of the oppressor; that a people united in the cause of liberty are invincible by those who would enslave them; and that heaven will ever frown upon the cause of injustice, and ultimately grant success to those who oppose it."
Reverend C. A. Goodrich
History of the United States

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