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.
The historical marker on the corner of Luke’s Wood Road and Oenoke Ridge is all that remains of Pinney’s Corner.
Pinney Corner, former home of Henry Augustus Pinney, was a bustling community in the 1880s. Pinney, originally from Milford Pennsylvania, had a brief residency in Pleasantville, New York before moving to New Canaan in 1868. In 1870 he started a small shoe factory situated on three acres of land across from his home on the corner of Lukes Wood Road and Oenoke Ridge Road. His home, where he lived with his wife, Adelia Hoyt and his two surviving daughters (having lost three others as infants) grew as his wealth increased. Despite having a relatively small family, Mr. Pinney built an addition to the house that was attached to the original building by a single hallway The leftmost structure in the picture above is the original building.
The quaint storefront of Bluemercury at 120 Main St. has been a place of commerce since its construction in the 1850s. The building was originally built by Sereno Ogden who was also responsible for the construction of the Vine Cottage (c. 1859). The earliest known business to operate in this space was a meat market run by Samuel S. Crissy and various partners from 1868 to 1899.
Six minutes from the heart of town is the Clock Tower house on Sunset Hill Road.
This unique home was one of the auxiliary buildings from the former country estate of railroad executive, Lewis Peck Child. The Clock Tower of Sunset Hill is a gambrel-roofed brick structure that was built in 1900. The Childs (formerly of New Jersey) purchased the 71 acres of land in 1893 with its barn-like features.
The ground floor housed sheep and the estate’s German diesel generator, and the second floor was Child’s office. In a step up from the barn space below, the office featured a fireplace flanked by stained glass windows. The clock was made by E. Howard Watch and Clock Company and uses gravity to operate its mechanisms. The clock was wound by ascending a small ladder to the sizable mechanisms which allowed the operator to wind the 100 counterweight up by hand.
In 1650, the Connecticut Colonial Legislature enacted the first compulsory school law but it wasn’t until 1795 that the state began supplying state funds for education.
New Canaan’s first one-room schoolhouse was built circa 1799 by residents of New Canaan’s School District 2. The Rock School, as it was called, was located originally at Canoe Hill and Laurel Roads on a rocky outcropping donated by David Lockwood. It was built from repurposed beams and boards, served grades 1-12, and was in continuous use until 1933. Education was very different than it is today. The year was divided into summer and winter terms. The teacher was paid approximately $5 a month, and so was forced to take lodging with the students. At the time it was built, the school curriculum involved the “4Rs” – reading writing, arithmetic and religion. New Canaan was a parish of the Congregational Church until 1801, and much of the learning focused on scripture and religious teachings. Boys went to school from October through mid-March; they helped on the farms the rest of the year. Girls attended when they could be spared from household work.
Students had chores at school. They might be required to bring in firewood for the stove that heated the classroom, or water from the well. They all drank out of the same bucket of water using the same ladle. Books were extremely rare because paper was very expensive. Instead, students had “hornbooks” – small, wooden paddles with one sheet of paper protected by a thin piece of cow’s horn. The paper usually held the alphabet, pairs of letters to help with reading, and the Lord’s Prayer.
Sometime after it closed in 1933, the Town wanted to widen the intersection, which would mean demolishing the school. Charles Stevens purchased the building for $35, and had it moved across the road. With some slight modifications, it served as a residence for Mrs. Herbert Richdale from 1942-1970. When a portion of her property was sold to a developer, the building was threatened for a second time.
On November 13 and 14, 1972, students in Miss Eleanor Smith’s U.S History Class visited the Historical Society. During that trip, they were asked if they wanted to help save the Rock School from demolition. The students were excited by the idea, set up a steering committee, and began promoting the effort in the elementary schools. All grades participated in bake sales, candy sales, fundraising plays and movies, a potluck supper and auction, and even a walkathon. With the help of Don Hersam, publisher of the Advertiser, they had raised enough funds by the spring.
On May 1, 1973, the Rock School was moved to the Historical Society’s campus at 13 Oenoke Ridge Road. High school students escorted it along its route, which took three hours. The third and fourth grades of Center School greeted the little building at its new location, along with a 1902 student from the school. Over the next summer, students and other volunteers worked to restore it. It was formally dedicated to the children of New Canaan as part of the bicentennial celebration in 1976.
The first known structure built where 17 St. John Place now stands was, of all things, an observatory.
This structure was built sometime in the mid 1800s by Dr. Samuel St. John, who used the space not only to gaze at the stars but also as a library and a classroom. Circa 1900, the observatory was converted into a photography studio by William Weed. (This history was covered in a previous Now & Then article on the Second Congregational House.) The observatory was still standing in 1916, when the property was sold to Katherine Warren, who seems to have lived in the building. Finally the property was sold to James Howard Bailey of Norwalk in 1925. Bailey was the president of Hatch & Bailey Co. in Norwalk, which his father, James, helped to found in 1872 and is still in business today. Bailey constructed the current house at 17 St.