Prayer Spring Farm

Last fall, I wrote extensively about a Georgian saltbox in the Oronoque community of Stratford, Connecticut, that was facing demolition. My two main articles about this house were Imminent Historic Teardown, and Oronoque Saltbox Requiem. I’d also been given access to the home to survey and photograph it during those final days, and I’d recently published the survey results in my online archive.

I’d had no knowledge at that time, however, of the origins of this house, and quite frankly, was far more concerned about capturing material details of the home’s architecture and framing, before it came down. But realizing I’d been long overdue in providing an account of the home’s history, I visited the Stratford Historical Society just this past week, and with help from their staff, was able to finally learn the story of the Oronoque saltbox.

Image of Prayer Spring Farm and Oronque saltbox, Stratford, Connecticut., late 1800s.

Upper Main Street of Stratford, Connecticut, in the late nineteenth century. Prayer Spring Farm is toward the left and center. The Oronoque saltbox can be seen ahead in the distance. The old stone retaining wall on the left still exists today. (Image Source: Stratford Historical Society).

It turns out the Oronoque saltbox had been part of Prayer Spring Farm, a property owned by the Reverend Nathan Birdseye (1714-1818). The legend behind its name is that, during a prolonged drought, Rev. Birdseye prayed for relief. And shortly after, a spring was discovered that had provided water to the farm ever since. Rev. Birdseye lived well over one hundred years of age, and was said to have even delivered a sermon in his one hundredth year.

According to notes in the Stratford Historical Society’s collection, Rev. Birdseye built the Oronoque saltbox in 1772, for his son, Captain Joseph Birdseye (1740-1817). Joseph’s younger brother, Ezra Birdseye (1749-1832), also appeared to have been associated with the house. Perhaps the brothers shared the home, or Ezra took ownership after Joseph’s death.

This next photo shows the Oronoque saltbox as it appeared in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Note the large, balustraded front porch, and overhead supported by four columns; all very Victorian additions that were subsequently removed in later times. Two Gilded Age ladies are relaxing beneath the large shade tree:

Image of Prayer Spring Farm saltbox home, Stratford, Connecticut, late 1800s.

The Prayer Spring Farm saltbox on Main Street. At that time, Main Street was a simple carriage path, with trolley tracks heading up to Shelton and Derby. (Image Source: Stratford Historical Society).

What I love most about this photo is it reveals the original rear “lean-to” roof of the home. When I’d surveyed the Oronoque saltbox last October, I’d discovered the lean-to wasn’t in its original position, but had been elevated and extended in width, allowing the rear kitchen wall to be pushed farther back. An interesting blend of both timber and early dimensional framing defined this addition, leading me to believe this work had most likely been accomplished in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. A small ell, serving as a summer kitchen, had also been added to the rear of the saltbox at that time.

The following photo zooms-in on the previous one, showing some details of the original lean-to roof, which I’ve annotated in yellow font:

Image of the original rear roof of the Oronoque saltbox.

A close-up of the Oronoque saltbox, highlighting details of the original lean-to.

The lean-to breaks just above the kitchen window, at which point, the roof assumes a more gentle pitch. I often refer to the lower, gentler roof section one sometimes finds at the very rear of a saltbox as a “catslide”. However, this isn’t really correct, as “catslide” is a southern term which means the same as “saltbox”, or “lean-to”. But as I’m not aware of any correct architectural term for these roof sections, I tend to say “catslide”.

Nonetheless, what I call the “catslide” enabled the rear wall to be extended just a bit farther back, providing more floor space, while still allowing a reasonable amount of headroom. Just eyeballing the photo, it looks like the rear wall was just about four feet beyond the kitchen window.

Here’s another photo of the Oronoque saltbox, taken in 1950. A note on the back indicated Harold DeLacour was then owner:

An image of the Oronoque saltbox in 1950.

The Oronoque saltbox in 1950. (Image Source: Stratford Historical Society)

Here, the Oronoque saltbox appears much closer, architecturally, to what I’d encountered last fall. The lean-to had been elevated and widened, and its rake line is completely straight. In fact, the rake appears much higher above the kitchen window than it was in the previous photograph. The rear wall had been positioned farther back as a result of the wider lean-to, and a second kitchen window had also been added. The ell attached to the kitchen, with its characteristic tall and narrow chimney, is also visible, as well as a barn behind the home.

Below is a diagram from my survey report giving a sectional view of the Oronoque saltbox frame. I’d initially drawn this diagram to compare the original and extended lean-tos. But now, I’ve also included an approximate representation of the catslide:

Image of a sectional representation of the Oronoque saltbox frame.

Sectional view of the Oronoque saltbox frame, contrasting the original and extended lean-to roofs.

During some period of time between 1940 and 1950, the Oronoque saltbox was home to Rex B. DeLacour, a brigadier general of considerable renown. According to another note in the Stratford Historical Society’s collection, it was during his sojourn there that a fire had started in the kitchen, and spread through much of the house.

Image of the Oronoque saltbox after the fire.

The Oronoque saltbox after the fire. (Image Source: Stratford Historical Society)

By 1951, Rex DeLacour was deceased, and the house was owned by his brother, Harold DeLacour. A local resident who knew something of the DeLacours told me he believed it was Harold who repaired much of the fire damage. He then sold the home in 1951.

Image of firefighters inside the Oronoque saltbox kitchen.

Firefighters inside the Oronoque saltbox kitchen. At this point, the men appeared mostly to be posing for the photo. Note the chief with a cigarette in his mouth, and one firefighter raising his axe in an exaggerated manner. (Image Source: Stratford Historical Society)

Images of exposed blackened timbers in the Oronoque saltbox kitchen.

A view of the same location, from my survey last fall. Note the exposed timbers, blackened by the fire of well over sixty years before.

Many years later, the Oronoque saltbox came under the ownership of Thomas Malick, who eventually sold the property, in late 2012, to an oil company concern that subsequently demolished the home, and replaced it with a Mobil gas station and Alltown Convenience store.

Epilogue

When I’d surveyed the Oronoque saltbox last fall, I’d found that, though many of its timbers had been blackened by fire, they were remarkably whole. Only the center post in the kitchen showed signs of charring; the others were merely singed. It’s often reported that the highly dense, primordial-growth wood found in most early New England timber frames is quite slow to burn, in sharp contrast to today’s chemical-laden and overly engineered wood and composite products. The frame also appeared to be in remarkably good shape; it was mostly plumb and true, and its joinery still tight, with no significant withdrawal to be seen anywhere. Unlike many early New England homes, the Oronoque saltbox had never been moved; furthermore, it was situated on an apparently stable foundation, with no obvious sags, bows, or cracks.

In my opinion, had this home been properly restored, and maintained going forward, it could’ve lasted another 240 years. It had been argued that the home’s location made it no longer suitable as a domicile. But neighborhoods and land-use practices change, evolve, and cycle-back over the decades. The Oronoque saltbox could’ve been re-purposed for some commercially viable role (for example, as a bed-and-breakfast, or perhaps a commercial office space offering the cachet of working in a 240 year old structure), until some future time, when it might’ve become valued once again as a residential structure. An often acknowledged characteristic of these very old homes is their almost unlimited adaptability.

But unfortunately, our collective mindset today is highly conditioned to prefer unending consumption, quick commercial gain, and a certain convenient forgetfulness, over the value of cultural heritage, and its continuity across time and generations. When the Oronoque saltbox was destroyed, the last, remaining vestige of all that had been Prayer Spring Farm was lost forever. Today, the area is indistinguishable from any other overly commercialized neighborhood.

Finally, as yet another example of our unfortunate attitude toward historic homes, I point to the demolition threat currently facing the Sanford-Bristol House (c. 1790), of Milford, Connecticut’s River Park Historic District. In my opinion, this threat likewise is driven by the same misplaced goals I’d alluded to in the preceding paragraph. See the articles Open Letter To Mr. William Farrell, Who Ya Gonna Call?, and Email Your Support For The Sanford-Bristol House, to read a bit further about this ongoing preservation fight.

Acknowledgements

Many, many thanks to the Stratford Historical Society, and their excellent research staff, for assisting me in my request for more information on the history of the Oronoque saltbox, and for sharing material from their extensive collection.

A satellite image of the Oronoque saltbox during its final days.

The satellite image currently (as of this writing) returned by Google Maps for 7296 Main Street, Stratford, Connecticut, shows the Oronoque saltbox and job site during the days I’d been surveying the home, in the latter part of October, 2012. (Image Source: Google Maps)

About John Poole

My interests include historic homes, architectural preservation and restoration, improving the energy performance of old houses, and traditional timber frames.
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9 Responses to Prayer Spring Farm

  1. sandy says:

    Great post John, very informative. Sad at the end though, a mobile station? Really?
    Anyway, love the salt box design, and the timber framing. Restoration of this structure would have been my choice also.

    • John Poole says:

      Thanks very much for your comment, Sandy! A restoration effort that your former crew could certainly have undertaken and succeeded at, with spectacular and lasting results, if only historic properties were better managed down here. ~ John

  2. Hey John!

    I don’t think I ever told you I once lived in a Saltbox home in Colorado. Worked great for passive solar, and it created some interesting spaces inside. My Step-Dad and I built it when we first moved out there, and though it doesn’t have the charm of Oronoque, it certainly gave me an appreciation for that design.

    Thanks for another great post and for all your tireless efforts to preserve.

    • John Poole says:

      Hey Chris!

      Thanks for relating that. You’re definitely right about the interesting interior spaces, given the roof system. It’s my personal favorite house form. I grew up in a colonial revival saltbox, and the Mansfield house is an early 18th c. saltbox.

      They’re amazing houses!

      Other than that, there’s another big preservation battle going on nearby. Will give you a call soon to catch up on things.

      Thanks!
      ~ John

  3. Daniel L. Bosques says:

    John,

    Thank you for your research and presentation on the Oronoque Saltbox. Truly, one of the nicest and biggest I’d seen yet (regrettably only in pictures), and shamefully no longer here.

    Once again, I learn from your dedication, and persevering spirit. You da man!

    Dan

    • John Poole says:

      Thanks very much, Dan!

      It really was the largest saltboxes I’d ever seen. And truly a shame that it’s now gone. I’m just thankful to have had the privilege of seeing that house first hand before its demolition, and to have captured a great deal of information about it.

      Let’s hope we can steer the Sanford-Bristol House away from this fate. That home would likewise be a terrible loss for local history were it to end up in a landfill.

      ~ John

  4. Bill Smith says:

    John.

    Nice followup on this lost home. I have a special place in my heart for saltboxes since I had the pleasure of helping to care for a pre-revolutionary saltbox home for many years.

    The owner passes away about 20 years ago, I moved away from that area soon after but I always remembered how the family had fought to maintain as much of the original fabric as possible. The 2nd floor partitions were merely (Merely indeed!) wide chestnut boards.

    A year ago I had the opportunity to swing by and to my horror discovered a McMansion had been added on. At least the original is still intact, visually, from the front. A screen capture from Google Maps is here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bills03303/9414727847/

    The images above relating to the fire are the most telling. That was quite an insult to the property but it survived and managed to look good and strong. Wood is one of the best materials at surviving fire, but it’s no match for an excavator bucket.

    Again, your documentation is wonderful, but it still isn’t the house.

    • John Poole says:

      Hi Bill,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad you’re so fond of saltboxes; I am the same. The chestnut paneling you recall is very old, pre-dating finishing with early wainscot or lath-plaster. And chestnut, wow. How fortunate that those partitions have survived in place.

      What I also found interesting from the satellite image is that the house is turned away from the main road and facing due south, to take advantage of solar heat gain in the wintertime. In some areas, that was a routine thing to do. Here in Connecticut, not so much. Homes here more often always faced the roads they were built on. (New England history trivia for the day).

      It’s too bad the old house has all that modern construction attached to it, but as you point out, at least it was preserved. In some ways, that might not always be a bad thing, as it might help the homestead be more appealing to a boarder population of future owners, rather than just old house purists. Maybe. Perhaps only time will tell.

      As of late, I’ve been obsessed, BTW, with the notion of “future proofing” these old homes: without destroying original fabric, how does one ensure an old or historic home is desirable to future owners, rather than viewed as something to be destroyed? Energy efficiency is certainly one aspect of this. Another might be attaching or associating them in some relatively noninvasive way with other structures. But these are all just ruminations on my part; I have no program drafted yet for how this might work.

      Regarding the Oronoque home, I agree with all you’ve said about its demonstrated ability to have survived all, except that excavator/backhoe bucket. I consider myself privileged and honored to have been the last person to have been in that house (save for the demo company personal, of course, but they don’t count in this sense) who really cared about the place and took a positive interest in it. But I really wish it were still there. It’d been much nicer to have created all that detailed documentation and know that it pointed at a structure that still existed.

      BTW, if you want to peruse the complete set of photos I took while I was in the Oronoque home, they’re posted here. Soon, I’ll create another entry with all the historic photos (a few more than what I included in this blog posting).

      Thanks again, Bill, for your highly thoughtful comment, and remembrances and image of that saltbox home you helped restore/preserve.

      ~ John

  5. John Poole says:

    Thanks, Alexandra! I agree; that one in particular, showing the home and surrounding farmland and fencing, is quite nice. It gives you an idea of just how pristine this area once was. ~ John

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