New Canaan Now & Then: Silvermine Tavern

Located three miles away from the town center and just outside of New Canaan’s borders, the Silvermine Tavern has been an institution for most New Canaanites. The tavern, pictured above, was built by Joseph Cocker c. 1810 as a cotton factory.  The business could not have been too successful because, when Cocker died in 1812, he had massive debts.  The factory changed hands many times over the next few decades seemingly with each new owner adding to the building.  These expansions included a weaving room,  living quarters for employees, and eventually the incorporation of the gatehouse, which became the entrance to the Tavern.  In the 1850s, the property was bought by Henry Guthrie, an English immigrant, who despite only being 22 at the time, owned three mills and a shipyard.  He used the building to produce door knobs and handles for furniture.  The finishing work was done by local girls in what became the main dining room of the tavern. 1909 saw the beginnings of what would become the Silvermine Tavern.  It was in this year that the building was purchased by Otto Goldstein, a German immigrant.  He converted the factory into his home and a bar for the local area, pulling on his past experience as the owner of a beer garden in New York City.  That business apparently met its end when a vat of fermenting mustard exploded in the basement.  Goldstein also owned the Goldstein Fur Dying business, which was run from the mill that was located directly next to the tavern.  According to local residents, the coach house, which stood close to the old mill, served as a speakeasy during  Prohibition. In 1929, the business was sold to J. Kenneth Byard and renamed  the Silvermine Tavern.  Byard had the idea to begin a restaurant as well as add accommodations for overnight guests.  He purchased the old mill to add to the business. For some reason, Bryard  first converted the mill into a waffle restaurant, but later, along with the coach house, it was remodeled to have overnight rooms. Byard was an antiques collector and quickly filled the restaurant with his collection.  Many of the antiques used to decorate the rooms came from  an antiques store across the street and were often hung on the walls  with the price tags still attached.  Eventually the antiques store was purchased by one of the owners of the Silvermine Tavern and became known as the Country Store.  This building was originally a country store with space for the owner and his family to live upstairs.  When run by the Silvermine Tavern, it served as guest accommodations, gift shop, museum, and at one point gallery space for local Silvermine artists.

New Canaan Now & Then: Benoni St. John Building

In addition to being the oldest building on the block, 102 Main Street is one of the more important historical  buildings in town. In 1801 when New Canaan was finally organized into its own town, the Main Street that we know today simply did not exist.  

There was one blacksmith’s shop, five homes, and fields scattered around what was then known as Upper White Oak Shade.  There was no need for an organized “downtown” area when this region was first settled back in the early 1700s because it was essentially the rural part of either Norwalk or Stamford.  A settler would simply have to travel to either town to do whatever shopping needed to be done.  Of course this sort of journey proved to be too long for most, so stores did eventually pop up in areas like Silvermine and Oenoke Ridge to serve their local communities. When Benoni St. John built 102 Main Street as his store and home in 1804, he could probably see which way the wind was blowing.  The newly formed town would eventually need to develop a village and Main Street was the logical location.  It was the most traveled section of road in New Canaan as it led to Five Mile River landing.  Up the road was the Congregational Church, where all town meetings were held until 1825.  

Business went so well that by 1805 there was already competition. Nathan Seely and Stephen Hoyt opened their own general store next door to 102 Main Street.  The only real difference between the stores seems to have been political affiliation.  The owners of the general store in 102 Main Street were all leaders of the Whig party in town while the second general store was owned by leaders of the opposing parties.

New Canaan Now & Then: St. A’s

Now a rectory and offices, Stapleton Hall facing South Avenue used to be the center of the Catholic community in New Canaan. When it was first built, it symbolized what the community could do if everyone banded together and the growth of a parish in just 60 years. The first Catholics moved to New Canaan in 1850 from Norwalk. It is not clear how many made the trip, but it seems that at least the majority of them were Irish immigrants. Despite moving to Town, they remained part of St. Mary’s Parish in Norwalk, which required a 5 mile trip each Sunday to attend mass.

New Canaan Now & Then: ‘The Little Brown Church on the Hill’

Next door to the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society in the building that now houses St. Michael’s Lutheran Church was St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, photographed c. 1912. Even though it was built in 1834 and hails as the oldest church in New Canaan, this was not its original location. The first church was located about three-quarters of a mile northwest near the cemetery located at the bottom of West Road.  Construction on this church began in 1764 and does not seem to have ever been finished.  Perhaps due to its incompleteness, or that it was possibly never consecrated, the church was never given a name, but was referred to as the “Episcopal Society in Canaan Parish.” It was finished enough to allow services though, but services were only held sporadically. For nine months out of the year, parishioners had to travel eight or so miles to worship in Stamford or Norwalk.  

Eventually in 1791, New Canaan parishioners voted to separate from the Stamford and Norwalk parishes and to form their own. In 1832, work began on the second Episcopal church located today at 5 Oenoke Ridge. The land was purchased by Captain Stephen Betts of the Continental Army and Edward Nash for $200 and construction finished in 1834. Research is inconclusive as to why it was named for St.

New Canaan Now & Then: Mead Park

On April 12, 1915, Florence Heath Mead, wife of Benjamin P. Mead, donated “18 acres, more or less,” to the town of New Canaan. There were a few stipulations: (1) that the property “shall be known as the ‘Mead Memorial Park”; (2) that its only use could be as a park; (3) parts of the park could only be sold to the New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company or its successors; and (4) that $300 be set aside for maintenance and improvements.  

Benjamin Mead had been a very active member of the town.  He first moved to New Canaan in 1873 to manage a general store located on Main Street where Chase Bank is today.  He later went on to be town clerk, first selectman, legislator, senator, and state comptroller.  He apparently never lost an election.  He died in 1913. Looking to memorialize him, Mead’s friends suggested donating land that Benjamin had purchased in 1895 from the Rockwells.  A former cranberry bog and a cornfield, it had been a gravel pit under Mead’s ownership.  By 1915, gravel had been extracted and local residents used the land as a dump.  The proposed donation of the land caused an uproar in town.  A town hall meeting on the subject attracted some 350 residents.  While the attendees were waiting outside for the meeting to begin, they debated the pros and cons of accepting the gift, including the tax burden and that the land would be “another sewer bed for a playground site.”  But despite these objections, the land gift was accepted in a 136 to 110 vote.  

Not too much was done with the park in the first few years.  The first goals were to build a ballfield and a skating pond.  The field was measured out, but it took until 1920 before there was something resembling a baseball field in the park.