Minuteman Hill: “The Street Where I Live”

My recent post on the Battle of Compo Hill got alert “06880” reader June Eichbaum thinking — and writing. She says:

When I open the window and the air smells like onions, I know it’s spring.

Before there were houses, Minuteman Hill — where I live — was an onion farm. During the Civil War, Westport farmers harvested barrels of onions. Union troops ate as many onions as Westport could grow, as protection against scurvy.

In the late 1800s yields dropped after years of single-crop farming robbed the soil of nutrients. Demand from the Army declined, and the Irish potato famine fungus arrived in America, causing an onion blight.

Minuteman Hill is a drumlin — an inverted spoon — that rises 100 feet above the moraine and wetlands below. Thousands of years ago, melting glaciers relentlessly scraped, mixed and reworked minerals, decaying vegetation and loose particles. Glaciers literally tilled the ground to make the soil in my garden as they melted.

The Minuteman statue. In the distance is Minuteman Hill.

The Minuteman statue. In the distance is Minuteman Hill.

Our street’s namesake is the bronze statue created by Henry Daniel Webster of a life-sized Minuteman soldier, crouched at the ready with musket in hand. He gazes up to where patriot sharpshooters sacrificed their lives in 1777, after ambushing British troops marching back to their war ships after burning an arsenal in Danbury.

The Minuteman is cared for by the community. When it snows, people put a woolen cap on his head and a scarf around his neck. At Christmas, he dons a Santa costume. On July 4th the Minuteman dresses up as Uncle Sam, surrounded by flags. He oversees the fireworks at the same beach where invading British ships dropped anchor.

In 1855 a house was built on the site of that Revolutionary War battle, next door to where we live now. It was sold in 1878 to Signorney Burnham, who rebuilt it in an eclectic Victorian style.

The Burnham house, on the site of the Battle of Compo HIll. (Photo by Jill Eichbaum)

The Burnham house, on the site of the Battle of Compo HIll. (Photo by June Eichbaum)

Burnham bred prize cattle, imported from his farm on the Isle of Jersey. Their manure improved the soil, and their grazing gave the land respite from farming. Burnham Hill marks the cows’ path down to Old Mill Beach.

Before 1950, our neighbors’ great-aunt owned the entire hill (it was then part of Compo Hill). My neighbor tells how her great-aunt sold a piece of the hill every time her husband wanted to travel to Europe (apparently quite often).

In 1950 she submitted a proposal to the town to subdivide some of the land. She penciled in a path to access those parcels, writing by hand “Minute Man Hill.”

Today, Minuteman Hill is a dead-end street of 22 homes. More than half sit along one of the 5 spokes that radiate out on the flat land at top.

In the early 1950s Harry Suttenfield built a modest home for his growing family on land adjacent to the elaborate Victorian. His house has been our home for 20 years. The trees he planted create a sense of place so grounded and strong that living here feels like a reprieve from a world of soundbites and short attention spans.

Weeping cherry trees on Minuteman Hill. (Photo by June Eichbaum)

Weeping cherry trees on Minuteman Hill. (Photo by June Eichbaum)

For the 7 days each spring that 2 weeping cherry trees bloom, their ethereal beauty is breathtaking. As the petals gently descend, our entire front garden, driveway and road are covered in delicate white. From a distance, it looks like snow.

Directly in front of the house, Suttenfield planted what today is an enormous sycamore tree. He also planted an apple orchard. Five trees remain. From late August to early October, neighbors pick apples. We take turns using a bright red gadget that it is as fun as it is practical.

The apples from our tree taste better than any I have ever eaten. They also make great pies.

Do you have a story about your neighborhood, home or road? Click “Comments” — or send it to dwoog@optonline.net.

A rose arbor on Minuteman Hill. (Photo by June Eichbaum)

A rose arbor on Minuteman Hill. (Photo by June Eichbaum)

18 responses to “Minuteman Hill: “The Street Where I Live”

  1. The “Burnham House” had an interesting history in the mid-to late 1900s, when it was the summer home of Supreme Court Associate Justice and Chief Justice nominee Abe Fortas, and his wife tax lawyer Carol Agger Fortas.

    Carol Fortas’ college room mate Helen Muller lived on Wright Street (when it was still two way) in an old sea captain’s house, and the two of them were avid gardeners both there and later at Minuteman Hill. After visiting the Mullers for year the Fortas decided to buy in Westport and purchased the old farmhouse on the top of Minuteman, as well as a lot of the surrounding property around it as a place to summer, and (big surprise) as an investment. They lived in July and August in the guest house and rented out the Burnham house on a year round bases. Over the years they continued to sell off portions of land with deed restriction to maintain the view from the top of the hill, and eventually they owned just the Burnham House for a zero investment.

    In 1966 they added a garage to the farm house and moved into it. The would keep it vacant year round and summer there or occasionally rent it for the winter. ..but never the summer. They always spent summers in Westport, coming up just about every weekend from DC where both of them practiced law before Justice Fortas went to the Supreme court, and later when he left it.

    The house was full of bold face named luminaries over their time there, mostly politicians, financiers, captains of industry and people in the arts, as Justice Fortas was an accomplished fiddle player and member of the Boards of Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. On weekends the big entrance hall of the Minuteman house would be turned into a concert hall for chamber music. He’d play his rare fiddle (which was given to Carnegie Hall on his death) with world famous musicians suck as Isaac Stern, or locals like attorney (and owner of a Stradivarius ) Herb Cohen, husband of Ruth Steinkraus Cohen, would join in on minimally practiced chamber concerts. Supreme Court Justices would visit, including Earl Warren, William O Douglas, who Fortas met while teaching at Yale, and Justice John Marshall Harlan II, who had a home for years in Weston.

    Though I never saw him there, on more than one occasion Fortas talked about “when Lyndon and Lady Bird were here visiting”, referring to President and Mrs. Johnson, prior to his taking office. The President did however call frequently while he was in office through the summer of 1969.

    The Fortas and their guests had a virtually unbroken pattern at Minuteman. Gardening and grounds work on the property, with frequent trips to Main street to Welsh’s Hardware, Westport Food Market and Economy Liquor. At 1230 all activities would cease and everyone there would pile into their vintage Rolls Royce and beat up old American sedan and head down to Compo Beach, even in the rain. There would be a group of houseguests and friends who’d pitch camp near the pavilion, unloading tables and chairs and umbrellas which were kept down in one of the rental lockers at Compo. Mandatory swimming would be followed by surreptitious cocktails, as liquor was prohibited. Ted Muller , Helen Muller’s husband, made “mouse milk” drinks ( a euphemism for gin Martini). Justice Fortas and several others would head to the pavilion and return with tray loaded with hamburgers, hot dogs, fried and onion rings. All the while conversations would take place among the guests, frequently making decisions which would be translated into agreements in Washington in a Congress which was far less contentious than it is today.

    When the commute became too strenuous for the two Fortas to maintain Minuteman Hill they sold the house, but occasionally returned to Wright street until his death in 1982, and Carol Fortas death in 1996.

    • Adam — this is fascinating. Thanks for the great info. But we’ve got a new policy on “06880”: full names, please!

  2. Maggie Mudd

    I absolutely love learning this local history! Thank you all for this glimpse into the past. What an assembly of talent!

  3. Fred Cantor

    Fascinating indeed. I especially did not know the origin or history of Burnham Hill road.

    And reading about the apple tree brings back how we had two pear trees in our backyard and two apple trees on our front lawn because I believe our property had been part of Silverbrook Farm–we lived on Easton Road right by Silverbrook Road. If anyone has historical info on that farm, I’m sure there are many people who would be interested.

    In any event, we had so many apples that we would bring a bunch in to Rippe’s in exchange for their apple cider. I loved Rippe’s cider.

  4. Cathy Smith Barnett

    Very interesting history! I grew up on Guyer Road and that area was also an onion farm. I don’t know if this is true but I’ve heard that Mrs. Guyer, who owned Meadowmere Farm, protested against her family’s wishes to sell the land. She sat on the roof of her house on the corner of Hillspoint and Valley Road and with shotgun in hand she warded off the “trespassers.”

  5. Joan Nathan

    When we first moved to Westport in 1964, we rented a house near the far end of Burnham Hill (it was the most recent tear-down). After all these years, it’s a pleasure ti learn the history of that area.

  6. Carl Addison Swanson III

    The Minuteman, the statute, has a strong history as well and the target of many jokesters . It was painted pink in the summer of 1967 and then again, a multi-colored attack in the summer of 1972. He has survived all such assaults and it is good to see he is treated so kindly today. Nice article. Each time I bike down to the beach I will salter my nostrils for the smell of onions and expecting to have my eyes water?

    • Tom Allen '66

      CAS, it was also painted blue with yellow dots summer ’64. Remember? Re the Suttenfield house on Minute Man: I cut the grass and trimmed the hedges on Harry’s property weekly in the spring and summer 1962-66. Harry’s daughter Linda ’69 was and remains one of my sister’s closest friends.

  7. brad french

    I did work on the Silverbrook farm. It’s driveway is off Weston Rd. When the farm was sub-divided and Bonnie Brook went in, all the farm loam was scraped up and sold off.

  8. Brett Aronow

    Thanks June for that interesting history of our hill. I can attest to the beauty of the weeping cherry which has brightened my day while in bloom when I pass by (several times a day at least!) Your neighbor and I were just wondering how old that tree must be — it’s amazing! And I have to say I’ve snuck some apples — and they are delicious as well! And thanks Adam as I love hearing about all the history! –Brett Aronow

  9. June Eichbaum

    Hi Brett, You know you don’t have to sneak apples! The deer never sneak apples. They just stare at us while chewing with their mouths open and listening to the clicks of Nancy’s Deer Scarer! June Eichbaum

  10. Mark Potts

    Minute Man Hill has been memorialized in song, though indirectly. The very talented singer-songwriter Cindy Bullens lived with her family on Minute Man Hill in the 1980s, and her 2005 album Dream #29 contains a song called Mockingbird Hill, which she told me is a sort of roman a clef about their time there. It tells a sad story, but Cindy’s actually a great fan of Minute Man Hill and Westport.

  11. This is not just a fascinating story, but also gorgeously written. We have many memoir writers at the Westport Writers’ Workshop who write stories of their family’s local histories, both in Westport and surrounding Connecticut towns. I will use this as an example of a moving way to write about “place”. (Perhaps I will encourage them to send the best of them to 06880.) Even as a relative newcomer to Westport (1998), I appreciate stories like these which make me aware that my family has made made a place not only in a town, but in a history.

    • June Eichbaum

      Jessica, Thank you for saying such lovely things about my writing. Given your own accomplishments as a writer and founder of the Westport Writers’ Workshop, your comments mean a lot to me.

  12. And does anyone else find it ironic that the very symbol of our town, whose RTM recently passed a 27-to-1 anti-gun resolution, is a statue which represents (one can say, glorifies) the Second Amendment’s protection of the rights of an “armed militia?”

  13. June I saw a painting at one of your neighbors house (on Compo Parkway at the top of the HIll) that depicted a cow and a happy woman overlooking a hill. She told me there was a farm nearby.. thanks for the info.. I always wondered more.