House Detective

Easton HSE Birdsey Beers House187 Moved From after BHC from botom of Flat Rock

 

Sometimes my position as the Director of Research at the Historical Society of Easton has some odd perks that come with the tedious work of tracing property records and family histories back in time. One of those is the opportunity to literally stumble onto some additional family history of my own.

About two years ago, I came across a photograph of an old saltbox house that was labeled on the back: “c.1910 Birdsey Beers – house moved to northern Easton.” That wouldn’t mean much to most people, but I knew that name, if not the house. Birdsey Beers was my 3-times great grandfather. He was born in 1811 and died in 1893. And the more I looked at that photograph, the more I thought I had seen it before. It turns out, I had. It was used in Dan Cruson’s Images of America – Redding and Easton. The caption read in part, “This mid-18th century, one-and-a-half-story house was once located on Park Avenue, just south of Flat Rock Road. It was moved to the northern part of town when the Easton Reservoir was built in 1927.”  There had been no mention of Birdsey Beers. Well, that was a start, but who bought it and who moved it, and more importantly, where did it end up?

The Bridgeport Hydraulic Company and its predecessor, the Citizen’s Water Company, began taking property in Easton by the eminent domain powers granted each of them by the state legislature as early as the 1880’s. There were two dams and two smaller reservoirs built in the section of Easton known as the Narrows long before the present reservoir was constructed. Much of the land that had been taken had once been farmland. Many of the houses and barns were razed, but many were also spared – their purchases having been made for the land, not the structures. The house I was concerned with was likely taken for the construction of the present reservoir. That reservoir had been planned as early as 1910, but WWI ended up delaying the start of its construction until 1925. I wasn’t so much interested in knowing when the company acquired the property as I was in knowing when they sold the house and to whom.

Many of the houses not lying in the basin that would eventually be flooded by the new, larger reservoir were used as housing for some of the workers and engineers during the construction of what the BHC often referred to as Number Three – the third and final dam built in the Narrows. It’s my guess that is what happened with the old Beers house.

It was another chance finding about six months later that I came across an old newspaper article that showed the house being moved. Unfortunately, the article had been cut from the paper and the masthead with the newspaper’s name and date was missing. But the most valuable piece of information was the name of the new owner – Minnie Edwards. This would turn out to be the most crucial piece of information in the eventual solving of the puzzle. Not knowing who bought the old house would have meant an absolute dead-end. Since the BHC retained the land on which the house once sat, there would be no land recordings for the sale of the structure. There was no deed needed because the sale involved no transfer of land. There would have only been a simple bill of sale issued to the new owner.

Minnie Edwards was one of Easton’s premier entrepreneurs – perhaps the best female entrepreneur in Easton during the mid-twentieth century. She bought and sold houses and farms, held mortgages, and developed large parcels by dividing land into smaller building lots. Her family still owns and operates Maple Row Farm. Knowing that Minnie had purchased the old Beers house would go a long way in discovering where it went and if it was still standing.

Much of the land north of Route 59 was owned by the Edwards family in the early and mid-twentieth century – a lot of it still is. Moving the old Beers house to a new location likely meant placing it somewhere on property that Minnie and her husband Irwin already owned. By my best estimation, the most likely location should have been on Sherwood Road. But this is where it got tricky.

Dan Cruson had mentioned the move coming when the reservoir was built in 1927. Without the masthead on that old newspaper article, and with certain years of the local papers not yet digitized and in a searchable database, I mistakenly assumed the house had been moved sometime close to the 1927 date. That would have meant it should have appeared on the 1931 map of Fairfield County, and certainly in the 1934 aerial survey of Connecticut. It didn’t. And that’s because as it turns out it wasn’t moved until the mid-1930’s.

I spent more than few hours driving around northern Easton hoping to catch a glimpse of a house that appeared similar to the one in the 1910 photo. No luck. I searched property cards looking for construction dates – perhaps from the 1920’s or 30’s when the house would have been moved, perhaps from the late 1700’s when I know for a fact that the house was originally built (I had all the land records back as far as 1797 when Ephriam Beers first purchased that property and the house was listed as part of that transaction). Again, no luck.

And then, about three weeks ago I got lucky. I was talking to Adrienne Burke, the owner of the new Grieser’s, and she mentioned an old home she had recently visited on Sherwood Road. We talked a little, and I began to get the feeling that the house we were talking about might have been the one I had long been looking for. It wasn’t visible from the road, so that meant I wouldn’t have seen it while driving. The address was number Twenty.

Easton HSE 20 Sherwood Birdsey Beers

I pulled the house card from the town records. A 1820 build date. That was wrong. The house I was looking for was much older, at least by 30 years. But then I began looking at the small photo attached to the record – there were now dormers, but the rest of the side view sure looked correct. I then managed to find the last property listing on Realtor.com and those photos confirmed beyond any doubt that I had finally located my ancestor’s house. The windows on the first floor were a perfect match, correct location, correct numbers, exact number of window-lites top and bottom. Owners of the property date back to Minnie Edwards.

It took a while, but the mystery of the fate of Birdsey Beers’ house has finally been solved and I can now get on with the more pressing endeavors of the historical society.

 

  4 comments for “House Detective

  1. Joseph W Schwartz
    January 26, 2020 at 5:13 pm

    Despite having the legal right to eminent domain, countless executives of the with whom I have spoken claim that the power was never used: that all of their property acquisitions were negotiated withe the owners. Of course the affect of the prospect of using eminent domain (hanging over) the negotiations can not be minimized.

    • bnelson
      January 29, 2020 at 11:45 am

      In general, I would say that the BHC didn’t often resort to going to court to force the issue, but they did occasionally petition the court to bring condemnation proceedings against property owners whom they were unsuccessful at reaching a negotiated price with. I was able to find a couple of instances in the local papers of the day. One such example is on page 2 of the February 12, 1916 edition of the Bridgeport Evening Farmer that cites a case where the BHC took John and Rose Juracks of Easton to court to force a settlement for 75 acres of land the company wanted off of Wilson’s highway in conjunction with the construction of the Hemlocks Reservoir. But you are absolutely correct that the mere threat of exercising their state appointed powers of eminent domain was usually enough to convince reluctant property owners to settle. The cost of a court battle could easily exceed any additional monies a panel of impartial assessors might award.

  2. Susan Lucas
    January 26, 2020 at 6:00 pm

    Lovely story Bruce. I’m wondering if you have been able to visit the house and go inside?

    • bnelson
      January 26, 2020 at 6:14 pm

      I have not. I was able to view much of the interior by looking through the photographs that were posted with the last real estate listing – I believe from 2017. The first floor appears to represent a fairly faithful restoration of what the original structure would have looked like when it was first constructed in the late 18th century.

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