Here in “0684-Old,” we look back at New Canaan’s rich local history—our lost districts, shops, community buildings and organizations, major figures and the historical events that bind modern townies to our earliest residents.
Stephen Hanford (1737-1784), the great grandson of the first minister of the Congregational Church, purchased ten acres from his uncle and constructed this house from 1761-1764. At the age of 27, he moved in with his wife, Jemima Kellogg. He worked as a weaver and licensed tavernkeeper. Due to his success, he was able to purchase adjacent land and expand the property. Upon his death, his second wife, Sarah, sold the house to Elisha Leeds. In 1788, Leeds’ daughter, Martha, and her husband Dr. Joseph Silliman (1763-1829) moved in and raised seven children. Dr. Silliman was active in the life of Canaan Parish and became a land surveyor (an extremely important position because new surveys were required following the confiscation of estates that had belonged to Loyalists. He was also the Treasurer of the School Society, a Justice of the Peace, and the moderator for the first Town Hall Meeting after New Canaan was incorporated in 1801. Generations of Sillimans remained in the house for the next 126 years. In 1825, Joseph Silliman sold the south meadow of his property to the Town.
This photograph was taken sometime before 1888 of 372 Brushy Ridge Road, a home built by Timothy Hoyt in 1732. It was known as Long Meadow Farm. The man seated in the picture is Timothy’s descendant, Samuel Hoyt; his wife, Clarissa, stands in the doorway. Samuel Hoyt was a harness maker who most likely supplied the local farms. His most notable customer and neighbor was Gilbert Birdsall, who owned the Birdsall Inn on Main Street (now the Morse Court parking lot.)
Eventually the Hoyts sold the house in 1907 to Albert and Laura Mills. Little is known of Mr. Mills, a salesman for the Gage Hat Company, but his wife, Laura, is legendary. Twenty years after his death, she remained in the house with 13 Dalmatians for company, along with a herd of Jersey cows. According to Mrs. Harold Gillen in her article in “Landmarks of New Canaan,” Laura was a hoarder, and the house was filled with shoes and dirty dishes on the mantel, men’s nightshirts bulging from the drawers, and the constant drone of the radio. Despite the messy interior, Laura ran a successful dairy business and, in her own words, “was not afraid of man, beast or devil.”
Mills styled herself the “Witch of Endor.” As if to support this claim, Mills was never without her felt cloche hat that had taken on a point over the years. She claimed to be a member of the Mazdaznens religion. (This is most likely a misspelling of “Mazdayasnian” which is another term for the religion Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion that was first recorded in the 6th century BCE.) Her membership in this religion is further supported by the care Mills gave her cows and dogs; she treated animals as if they were human. (A core belief in Zoroastrianism is that all living beings, both humans and animals, have an important role to play and must be treated as such.) In an attempt to convert Mr. and Mrs. McGhie, who purchased the house in 1933, Laura Mills gave them a pamphlet on her religion. The McGhies did not appear to have been convinced. Laura Mills is also the reason why there are no records on Samuel Hoyt’s harness business. Mills apparently threw the records and all the old furniture that came with the house into a bonfire at some point. She felt that, after the McGhies bought the house, they should simply burn it down and buy a Sears Roebuck mail order house to replace it. They refused.
The first owner of the land on which 7 St. John Place would later be built was Dr. Samuel Benedict St. John. His great-grandfather was Brigadier-General Joseph Pearse Palmer, who was a participant in the Boston Tea Party and fought in the Revolutionary War.
This photo taken on Main Street looking South shows the Cody Pharmacy (on the right), the entrance to East Avenue (between the trees on the left) and the Raymond Building prior to the addition of the exterior paneling (also on the left.) While the photo is undated, the horse and carriage and the appearance of Main Street with its lovely sidewalks indicate that it was taken c. 1900.
The reason Main Street had this appearance was because the borough of New Canaan had been created a decade before, and had been hard at work improving the village. On January 5, 1889, Francis E. Weed and Junius Benedict submitted a petition to the Connecticut legislature for a charter to create the borough of New Canaan. In essence, borough governments, such as those already in existence in Stamford and Norwalk, could tax its residents within the borough to fund improvements to the village – something that residents living farther outside of Town did not want to do. Weed and Benedict wanted proper lighting, improved sidewalks, and a better police force. The legislature passed the bill and the borough of New Canaan was created on May 9, 1889.
Now 80 Main Street, Nichols Opera House was built in 1890 by George Duff Nichols. The original plan for an 850 person auditorium was to be the new Town Hall, but the Town decided it did not need one. Nonetheless, the Opera House became the de facto town hall. On either side of the entrance to the opera house, Nichols also had two storefronts built. A few months before the building was even finished, the southern storefront had already been rented out to the town for $350 a month. When the building was finished in December of 1890, it was the location for the town clerk’s office, the selectman’s office, and, with three jail cells in the basement, the town jail. All of the town’s important documents were also kept in the fireproof vault that had been installed in the storefront for this purpose. The auditorium was regularly rented out for town meetings and the rented offices were sometimes used as a courtroom.
When it first opened, the Nichols Opera House could compete with the finest in the state. The stage, the backdrops, and the dressing rooms were top quality. There was even a banquet hall in the basement. It was also the first building to be electrified in New Canaan. The first show held there,”Annette, the Dancing Girl”, opened on December 23, 1890. Shows were also held on the following day, Christmas Eve, with a banquet starting at 12:30 am. In order to accommodate the out of towners, Nichols arranged for an extra train to leave New Canaan at 11:30 pm. However this sort of event did not last long. It quickly became apparent that a small town such as New Canaan could not support an opera house. Within a year, the opera house was mostly hosting plays put on by local companies, and local events. No operas were actually ever performed here. Unsurprisingly, the underground banquet hall did not prove to be successful, so Nichols converted the space into a corset and underwear factory. The electric lights also did not last long. After two months, Nichols had the building converted to gas light fixtures. It was most likely too expensive to run the generator needed to power the building.