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A Merritt Family Forest History: The Farm On Fort Hill

The following is a reminiscence by Nelson A. Merritt about the family farm on Fort Hill, a portion of which was to become The Merritt Family Forest.
The article was written in 2011.

The farm that I was born and raised on was called Fort Hill Farm, thus named because it was located on the very site of the original fort of the Indian Chief Sassacus, the ruling chief of the Mashantucket Pequot Indians.  The farm itself was around 270 acres, one of the rather large ones in eastern Connecticut. It overlaid the original boundaries of the Indian fort almost exactly from the Eccleston brook on the east to the Poquonnock brook and Poquonnock plains on the west. The farm was bounded, as the fort had been, on the north by the original Indian trail (part of which is now U.S. Route One) that led between Fort Hill and the other Pequot fort located on Pequot Hill two miles to the east in Mystic.  On the south it was bounded by land that consisted of Indian hunting grounds, land which is now the Haley farm, leading to the seacoast.

In the very center of the farm on the top of Fort Hill there is a fresh water spring, a few acres in size that had supplied water to the thousands of Indians, braves, women and children, who had lived in the fort. It is still there, a pristine, primeval spring. It has been said that the water comes underground from a source about 300 miles away in the Adirondack Mountains.  In any case, the spring has never gone dry as far as is known. The water is not deep enough to swim in because there is a brook draining it off, but it was excellent for ice games when frozen over in the winter.  When groups were out on the ice, those who had skates on would pull the others on sleds or barrel staves as the case might be, up and down the 500 foot length of the ice surface, an exciting, lively party.

Fort Hill Farm is much higher in elevation than the surrounding territory; the view of the seacoast was unbelievable.  One could see the mouth of the Thames River in New London and the splendor of the Atlantic Ocean on the other side of Fishers Island Sound to Long Island. When a ferry left New London Harbor it could be seen going past Fishers Island and Watch Hill as it plowed through the waves of the Atlantic Ocean to Block Island.  On a calm day the white of its hull stood out in sharp contrast to the blue background of the sea.  In my grandparents’ time a mariner’s telescope was kept in the attic for spotting ships coming in to New London and Mystic on the Atlantic Ocean well out beyond Fishers Island, some from the Caribbean, others were traders from up and down the coast.

When my grandparents, Francis Edwin Merritt and Abby Crouch Merritt, purchased the farm as a young couple in the middle of the 1800’s there were several small sections of it missing, a few small farming plots, a grist mill and a church or two having been acquired from the original owner by small farmers shortly after the Revolutionary War.  My grandfather diligently re-acquired these missing pieces as they became available; in a few years the entire facility was complete again.

The house on the farm was built in 1732, long after the Mashantuckets were gone from the fort.  There were six rooms plus a bathroom on each floor. There was a very large kitchen on each floor with a wood burning range at one end and an oval table that held at least ten or twelve people on the other end.  It was customary for the family running the farm to live on the first floor and the grandparents to live on the second.  Each kept their best things in their parlor which was to be used only for Sunday dinners. There was a common cellar and a full attic, the cellar being used in the winter for storage of potatoes, turnips, apples and barrels of cider.  The attic was a very large open room running the length of the house with windows at each end.  It held a loom for weaving, spinning wheels and carding equipment that were used by earlier generations to make cloth of various kinds for blankets and clothing.

A single story annex on the back of the house covered a cistern for holding rain water in early times before there was a deep well.  In later years, the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds, the house was completely updated with a deep driven well, electric pump and piping to the kitchen and full bathrooms on each floor as well as piping to the outlying buildings.  Electric lighting was also supplied to the house and all the buildings.  A wood range was retained for cooking, however, and fireplaces were used in each room for heating.

The size and complexities of the overall facility were overwhelming.  Besides the house there were three barns, The Cow Barn, which held the milking cows, had electrical milking machines.  The second barn was the East Barn, which housed the heifers and calves that would eventually be milkers once they had grown up.  Electrical milking machines were not needed there.  The cows and calves from the East Barn were very numerous.  The grazing area that they used for about nine months of the year was made up of what is now the Merritt Family Forest.  Then there was the Horse Barn, which housed the horses in stalls with their harnesses and other paraphernalia hung on pegs on the walls. The Horse Barn had a large area for storing implements such as horse drawn mowers and also had an extensive work area with forge, anvil and heavy tools of all kinds for working on the machinery around the farm.

All of the barns had haylofts that had to be filled each year with hay for the animals for the coming winter. Both the Cow Barn and the East Barn had horse powered hay lifters that picked the hay off of the hay wagons and transported it along a rail in the peak of the roof of the hay loft to a point where the operator “tripped” the lifters, dropping the hay in selected locations.  These powered loaders were great labor saving devices over the situation at the Horse Barn where the unloading was all manual.

There was a long carriage shed some distance from the barns that sheltered various wagons, including very elaborate surreys and fancy buggies and a one-horse milk delivery wagon.  These provided all of the means of transportation there was until Francis Merritt bought his first Oldsmobile truck and Oldsmobile sedan in the middle 1920’s. At the end of this shed was a closed-in woodworking shop complete with electric power tools of every kind that can be imagined. I am told that my grandfather Francis E. Merritt built this shed and furnished it with tools so he could do his own ‘thing’ after he retired from active management of the farm and his son, Francis L., took it over. Grandfather had worked at the Noank Shipyard before and during the Civil War and he was a skilled designer and craftsman.

There were a number of smaller buildings–a milk house which had a boiler in the basement that provided steam and hot water for washing and sterilizing milk bottles and cans.  It also had electrical refrigeration for cooling the milk as well as equipment for filling milk bottles automatically.

There was a gasoline powered rotary saw station located in what was called the wood yard.  This was used to cut the logs brought in from the woods into short lengths for the fireplaces and stoves for the coming winters. Wood of various lengths was also sold.  Whenever there was time available we went into the woods with horse and wagon, axes, hammers and wedges and saws to cut and split logs regardless of the time of the year, although it was better to “sled” the wood out in the winter when the ground was frozen.  The saws we used were called crosscuts and each required two people as there were handles on each end. There were also corn cribs, chicken and turkey coops and a pig sty.

Besides the unusually large assembly of buildings, equipment and machinery to be used and maintained there were large pieces of equipment that would not fit in the buildings such as the stone wall builder, large hay wagons and steel rollers for keeping up the roads on the farm.

This was the farm I came into on June 16, 1920. I was the fifth child with two older brothers and two older sisters–boy girl, boy girl.  Two more came later, girl, boy, making a total of seven eventually.

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