A new exhibition two years in the making, “Forces of Change: Enslaved and Free Blacks in New Canaan,” opens Friday, March 3 at the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society at 13 Oenoke Ridge. We met with the organization’s executive director, Nancy Geary, to get some background and an overview of the widely anticipated exhibition.
Here’s a transcript of our interview:
New Canaanite: Give us an overview of the exhibition.
Nancy Geary: The exhibition has had a number of titles. It’s now called ‘Forces of Change: Enslaved and Free Blacks in New Canaan.’ And starting when Canaan Parish had slaves, it tracks the life and work of Black residents in New Canaan. It will include documents from the early-1700s through to Stand Together Against Racism’s protest following the murder of George Floyd. What is the origin of the exhibition?
Taking a step away from “downtown” New Canaan for a week, the subject of this article is more hidden than our usual Then & Now buildings. But for those who attend the First Presbyterian Church, or those who explore the Nature Center with keen eyes, the main house of the Lindenfield Estate is probably familiar. The history of Lindenfield, or the Bliss Estate, begins in 1875 when Osborn E. Bright, an attorney from Brooklyn, bought eight acres of land on Oenoke Ridge from Joseph Fitch Silliman and built his summer residence. When finished, the new house stood very close to the neighbor’s cow barn, so close in fact that Bright’s wife, Maria, offered to build the neighbors a new barn if they would tear down the existing one. A new barn could also not be built within 100 feet of the Brights’ land. At the same time, the Brights also bought a piece of land from the same neighbor for $200. Probably a deal too good to pass up on, the old barn was torn down and a new one built out of smelling distance. In 1899, the property was sold to Miss Catherine A. Bliss from New York City for $22,500. Over the next thirteen years, Miss Bliss expanded the house and improved the grounds. A full wing was added along with a large living room and a porch. The living room was so large that it was able to fit a thirty six foot rug, which was said to have been the second largest rug ever woven in America at the time. The house built by the Brights would eventually become a hall and a dining room with bedrooms on the second floor. A farmer’s cottage was built along with a cow barn, a laundry, a grapery, a heated greenhouse, and a potting shed. To compliment all of this new construction, the property was lavishly landscaped with various rare trees and shrubs. Wetlands behind the house were drained so that flowerbeds could be installed as well. The stone wall along Oenoke was repaired and an entrance was installed. Because the driveway was lined with linden trees, the estate was named “Lindenfield.” Miss Bliss had an active social life in New Canaan and New York City. She was a member of Grace Church and helped it purchase 140 acres on Ponus Ridge. The house and the property became Grace-in-the-Fields, a retreat for underprivileged mothers and children to vacation, and is now the New Canaan Country School. When Miss Bliss passed away in 1916, the property was inherited by her niece, Susan Dwight Bliss. Susan, like her aunt, was also a summer resident, but still managed to be a great benefit to the town. During WWI she had a large vegetable garden planted on her property to help the war effort. When the Great Depression swept through New Canaan, she employed over 200 workers on various jobs around her estate. Bliss was also an avid collector of rocks from her frequent trips and had a special octagonal building constructed to hold her collection.
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.
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.
Today features the home of George F. Lockwood located at 40 Cherry Street. The first time the house appears in town records is in 1849, when it was bought by Charles Benedict from Hezron Ayres.
There is no mention of when the house was built or who owned it first. Hezron manufactured shoes in New Canaan at his shop on Brushy Ridge. In the 1830s, while his fellow manufacturers could only afford to pay their workers with drafts on the local general stores, Hezron paid his 46 employees in cash. Despite this success, his business eventually failed in 1851. Following Ayres, the next owner of the house, Charles Benedict, was another shoe manufacturer. He was a partner in Benedict, Hall, & Co. located on the corner of Main and Locust Street where the firehouse now stands. (This building was the subject of a previous “Now & Then” article back in February.) Charles was also one of the founding members of the First National Bank of New Canaan (originally housed in the vacant building next to Town Hall), as well as the New Canaan Historical Society. When Charles passed away in 1899, 40 Cherry Street was given to his son Charles S. Benedict.