While attending TTRAG Symposium 2011 in early April, I purchased a used copy of Early Connecticut Houses, by Norman M. Isham and Albert F. Brown. Originally published in 1900, and printed in paperback by Dover in 1965, Early Connecticut Houses is a comprehensive survey of twenty nine homes built during the three major periods of settlement (spanning 1645 to 1750) of the former Connecticut and New Haven Colonies.
Many of the homes surveyed are now lost. But many still exist, with some even serving the public as museums. What’s positively wonderful about this book is how much detailed information the authors captured on the houses they surveyed, in terms of both schematic drawings and written descriptions. Furthermore, they also provided a thorough analysis of the architectural nuances and carpentry techniques that had evolved during this time period. Though written well over one hundred years ago (in fact, precisely because it was written over a hundred years ago), this book remains an invaluable resource to any student of early southern New England home building.
Now, whenever I buy or otherwise acquire a book, I’m in the habit of writing my name and the current date somewhere in the front matter. If it’s of any significance, I might also note the location, too. I’m not sure exactly what compels me to do this, but it’s a habit I picked up many years ago. In my newly acquired, used copy of Early Connecticut Houses, the previous owner, Amy Bess Miller, had also similarly inscribed her name, so I wrote mine just beneath hers.
Some time later, I became curious about just who the previous owner actually was. Was she a person still living? Maybe some one with an affiliation with the timber framing community that I ought to know about? My curiosity was piqued, so I searched her name on Google. The most significant (and what now seems the most likely) possibility astounded me.
Amy Bess Williams Miller, who passed away in 2003, at the age of 90, was one of the founders of the Hancock Shaker Village museum, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. According to her obituary in the New York Times, Amy Bess Miller had served as president of the museum from 1959 to 1990. During that time, she secured funding for the museum, and also directed site restoration of this former Shaker community. I also found that she had published a number of related books, including Hancock Shaker Village, The City of Peace: An Effort to Restore a Vision 1960-1985 (Hancock Shaker Village, 1984), Shaker Medicinal Herbs: A Compendium of History, Lore, and Uses (Storey, 1998), and The Best of Shaker Cooking (lead editor, with several co-authors; Macmillan, 1993).
Was this the very same Amy Bess Miller whom had previously owned my copy of Early Connecticut Houses? I think so. First of all, the name “Amy Bess Miller” (taken as a full name, anyway) doesn’t seem to be all that common. Secondly, the path the book might’ve taken since Miller passed away seems reasonably straightforward. Both the Timber Framers Guild and the modern timber framing movement were largely born out of the restoration efforts that Miller directed at Hancock Shaker Village throughout the 1970s (in fact, to this very day, traditional timber framing techniques are still taught there).
It’s certainly possible that some portion of Miller’s estate had been left to Hancock Shaker Village, and that very well might’ve included a book collection. Some how, perhaps after being re-sold a few times, Miller’s copy of Early Connecticut Houses found its way into the possession of Summer Beam Books, a book seller closely affiliated with the Timber Framers Guild, and from whom I purchased the book back in April.
Anyway, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. I hope this book served Amy Bess Miller well during her lifetime, and provided her with valuable insights while she was directing her restoration efforts back then. It has certainly helped me considerably in my own efforts, and in broadening my knowledge of traditional timber frame construction. This copy of Early Connecticut Houses is a highly valued addition to my set of working desk references, not only for its content, but also by virtue of the accomplishments of its original owner.
[By the way, if you'd like to read Early Connecticut Houses, you can obtain it freely online, as it's no longer subject to copyright restrictions. One free version is readily available from Google Books at this link.]