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Grant To Help Fix Historic Phelps House

Historical Society To Use Tavern As Teaching Tool

By Trish Davis
Courant Staff Writer

A busy place was the old house then
From early morning til late at night;
For in those days neither women nor men
Ever wasted a moment of good daylight . . .
And round the roaring, crackling fire
They gathered, mug in hand,
and sipped splendid cider as heart could desire
Good old Toddy, and foaming flip
And they talked of all they had seen on the way
Tales of adventure, it might be of danger
And every man had a word to say
And a welcome to give to the surliest stranger . . .

-A poem written by Mrs. Jeffrey O. Phelps II, three years after her husband inherited the house from his father, Jeffrey O. Phelps I. From the collection of the Simsbury Historical Society.

SIMSBURY -- If walls could talk, those inside the old yellow house off Hopmeadow Street would boast of what many cannot: surviving seven generations.

"This house represents a large chunk of history, from the Revolutionary War up until the 1960s," said Stephen Rice, director of the Simsbury Historical Society. Over the course of two centuries and eight owners, the colonial-style mansion has withstood many changes.

Now, the historical society is preparing to transform the two-story house yet again. In the coming months, it will undergo extensive renovations thanks to a recent $67,005 grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council. The grant will help the local society's $140,000 mission to recreate a period -- from 1786 to 1849 -- when the house servant as a tavern and gathering place for townspeople and visitors to Simsbury.

The Phelps house was one of three applicants to receive a grant from the council, said Laurie Rayner, associate director of Connecticut Humanities. The competition was stiff, Rayner said, but it was chosen because "I thought it was fabulous with the stories they will be able to tell about the families of the tavern life, which was so important to the community."

"Phelps Tavern: The Entertainment of Strangers," is the reinterpretation of the house, built by Capt. Elisha Phelps in 1771. At that time, a bustling atmosphere was routine at the house. Tradesmen, soldiers, women and children strolled through the narrow wooden doors, often to partake in "lively political discussions," or card games -- sometimes even taking shelter.

The house was donated in 1962 by Mary Phelps Ensign -- the sister Jeffrey Phelps III -- to the society, stripped of some of its modern touches and turned into museum. "Everything's different from when I lived there," said Joan Phelps Messenger, who moved out of the house that same year. "It was just my home."

Today, the house has exposed, uneven floors, blackened fireplaces, and sections of wooden structures that date back as far as the nation's struggle for independence.

"That was a time of great change in the United States' and Simsbury's history," Rice said. "It was a time of hope and promise with the Farmington Canal. It was also a time of disappointment when the canal failed to deliver what was promised."

The Farmington Canal, built in the 1830s as a form of commerce on the Connecticut River, collapsed a little more than 10 years later. A depiction of life along the canal, and other forms of travel, will serve as an exhibit in one of the house's nine rooms.

Other highlights of the project will include interactive exhibits such as a guessing game and a cast- iron pot that visitors will be able to lift and compare to modern-day cookware. There will be a case study of Jeffrey 0. Phelps, the grant-nephew of Elisha, who lived in the house the longest of any family member -- from around 1810 to his death in the mid-1830s. Jeffrey was a farmer and an investor in the Farmington Canal.

The ballroom upstairs, with high-arched ceiling and uphill floors, will house manikins dressed for different occasions at the house -- such as Masonic and political meetings and parties.

The renovations of the Phelps house are a part of the society's goal to refurbish its nine buildings at the society's homestead, Rice said. Through donations to volunteerism, he said, the Phelps house should be completed by February 2011. Before that happens, though, the society is required to match the grant and raise a third [$35,000] of it in cash. On Thursday, the society will host A Midsummer's Eve, a fund-raising event with live entertainment, colonial games and revelry on the grounds of the Phelps Homestead.

Ultimately, Rice said he hopes the new exhibits will enliven the house and provide a fresher experience for younger visitors. In some cases, it's already starting to work.

"It's interesting to see how all the different owners have helped change the way this area looks and all the surrounding areas," said Kim Parent, 18, an intern at the society for three years. "So it's kind of neat to look at history through the eyes of one family."

The Hartford Courant, Hartford, CT, July 14, 2000

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