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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.