29 North Avenue — the charming saltbox home featured in Monday’s “06880” — has a long history.
Jacques Voris — whose roots in Westport go back to at least the 1700s — knows that home, and the surrounding area, intimately. He writes:
I am grateful that Annette Norton chose to restore the house, rather than turn it into yet another generic, soulless, overly large one.
In Monday’s article I am quoted as a background, using words I have said over the years. I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify and update some of that information.
I know that for many people this story is meaningless. The people discussed are long dead, and in the grand scheme of history had little impact. However, I find it to be a remarkably human story that gives a sense, a taste, of what life was like in bygone days.
My family has always called it “The Squatter’s House,” because it was said that when it was built they squatted on the land without title. That is why it is so close to the road: It was built in the right of way, a gray area where no one had clear ownership of the land.
The situation was normalized later, in a land swap with the town. Alas, while it is a juicy story, we have little in the way of proof.
The first house on the plot of land was probably built around 1780 by Daniel Mills. He was born in Stamford in 1748. When the situation at Lexington and Concord drew militia from all over New England, Daniel and his brothers marched off with their neighbors.
He seems to have given perfectly good service in his time under arms. But his views later changed, to that of a Loyalist. He and his brother Ezra were tarred and feathered in Dutchess County, New York.
Daniel’s other brother John moved to Canada after the war, so strong were his Loyalist views.
What changed? We don’t know. I have long had a feeling that the death of his uncle Beebe fighting the French and Native American allies around Fort Edward played a factor. Defending your rights “as an Englishman” is one thing, but allying with the hated French is another.
In any regard, after the incident in Dutchess County Daniel moved to Greens Farms, where some cousins lived. They were children of Beebe, as well as his uncle Robert Mills, and the descendants of his great-grandfather Aaron Fountain.
Hezekiah Mills, Daniel’s son, next owned the house. Kiah was veteran of the War of 1812, and a blacksmith. His shop was further up the street, about where 59 North Avenue is now.
He married Charity Mills, his second cousin once removed. She was the daughter of John Mills and Eunice Frazier. John was Kiah’s second cousin, being the son of Ebenezer Mills.
It is likely Kiah and Charity remodeled the house about 1830 into something close to its present form. An architectural review of the house done some years ago noted elements that were consistent with the 1830 date, but also cited tool marks on timbers that would be from earlier.
I have little troubling seeing my frugal Yankee kin reusing much of the material when rebuilding the house.
The stories of Native Americans visiting the house referred not to random passersby, but allegedly were kinfolk to Charity. That we have such ancestry is a longstanding story in our family, but I can find no documentation to bear it out.
Their son, William Henry Mills, next owned the house. When he marched off to fight in the Civil War with Company C of the 28th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry he left 9 children in the care of his wife Betsey Ann Batterson.
While she raised the children, tended the farm and was midwife to the neighborhood, she was not alone. There were many kinfolk around her. She was also a good churchgoing woman, who sat in the front pew in the east center of the Greens Farms Church.
Then the house was owned by Henry Eldridge “Hen” Mills, the last large-scale onion farmer in Westport according to his obituary.
His son Elmer owned the house next. He is the source of much lore about the house. Elmer seems to have been interested in a good story more than good history.
He was a colorful person. Shakespearean actor, manservant to powerful people, he had style and panache among a family of dour Yankees. Elmer was the last person surnamed Mills to own the house.
The story doesn’t quite end there though. Elmer sold the house to James Edward “Jimmy” Godfrey, his cousin. Jimmy was the son of Eugene Godfrey and Julia Mills. He added indoor plumbing to the house in the 1950s.
Julia Mills was the daughter of William Henry Mills and sister to Hen Mills. People today still recall his daughter Elizabeth “Betty” Godfrey, known as “Nurse Betty.”
So Annette, there is a story about your house. It’s probably more than you will ever care to know.
You are now the trustee of a legacy of a family, a history that has deep roots in Westport. May you and yours add another long chapter to this history.
Diane and Will Farrell and their young family lived in this house in the 1980’s. I remember a lovely birthday party for their oldest.
Diane’s husband is named Win. I can’t imagine how he lived in that house with low ceilings — he’s a tall guy!
When my husband Don Dickison and I bought this enduringly special little house in 1986, I remember Win commenting that “it was a good house to sit down in.”
I remember Grover and Gail Mills whose father was a school bus driver and They were in the class of 1959 in Staples.
Bravo! Spending your “spare time” researching family/house history, I see. These people up on Ancestry or Family Search?
As to the undated first photo, the woman’s clothes suggest circa 1878-1882 to 1895 or even close to 1900. I go with the former. Thus the woman is Betsy and the man is William Henry. Compare that man’s features with the sitting portrait of WHM below. If that is the case, those children are likely grandchildren if your statement that she had 8 BY 1860 is correct. (Or is it that she had 8 in total?)
AND, that “why did they build so close to the road?” myth is just that — myth. EVERYBODY did. There was no concept of “front yard” for several centuries; cf the two red saltboxes over the line into Fairfield just north of 95 or any of the pre-1750 houses standing (Hartwell) or gone along Battle Road (Concord to Lexington). The point was to get off the road and into the house.
With regards to the photo, having looked at the dates in my genealogy records, I can date it between 12 April 1893 and 10 March 1895. The two standing adults would be Hen Mills and his wife Mary Lillian Hull. The seated gentlemen being William Henry Mills. He is holding Elmer Mills, and the rest of the children are the three children of Hen and Mary
I had a wonderful teacher Mrs. Mills – in fifth grade at Saugatuck Elementary around 1959 – I really liked her. It was probably her married name.
Jacques Voris beautifully captures the history of the site, especially with the old photographs and hand-drawn map. The house harkens back to a time when “shelter” meant something quite different than it does today! Because of the comparatively low price, I looked at this house as a potential opportunity to create a demonstration home for a first-time buyer. The intention was to create an affordable and sustainable upgrade. In order to maintain the existing “footprint” and meet Passive House standards, the exterior walls would have required additional depth, further reducing the diminutive interior of the house (and its market for resale). Houses evolve over time to satisfy personal and societal needs: Comparing the two photos, note that the window pattern and door size have changed, that there is a decorative panel over the front door, that the entry overhang has been removed, and that the chimney has been relocated toward the rear. As modestly sized as the house is, the back section (in both photos) represents and early addition to the first floor. It pleases me that a caring new owner-occupant was found, one who added her own personal touches to the home.
About 70 years ago, when my bride and I were dating, we visited with her cousin, Betty, “Nurse Betty” Godfrey while she was living in that house. Uncle Jim Godfrey was a builder who built many homes all around Westport, including the Godfrey Lane development opposite the grounds of the Fairfield Hunt Club off N. Bulkley Avenue. We were close to Betty, Uncle Jim and Aunt Kay throughout their lives and were caretakers for Betty until she passed. Congratulations on the updating of the house. Mary Anne always liked it.
When I was born 4 months premature in May, 1952 Betty was the Head Pediatric Nurse at Norwalk Hospital and a Staples classmate of my mothers. About the time I was brought home, Betty left to become Dr. Lebhar’s right hand person. Betty used to tell me that I was such a perfect baby that she needed to follow me to Dr. Lebhar’s office to make sure I stayed that way. Usually she’d repeat that story while giving me a polio shot.
Thank you so much Jacques for the history and Annette Norton for restoring the home. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the barn.
I too have fond memories of the Mills family; including Larry Mills who i went to school with, but most meaningful his dad HOMER MILLS, an old time stone mason who I worked for during summers and learned, among many other more important things, how to build a stone wall without cement.
My memories of walking from my home on Long Lots up to his home on North Ave lunch pail in hand VERY early in AM to report for duty are firmly embedded in my Fondest Memories file.
Thank you for keeping history alive, and by no means meaningless !
A CUNY academic, who also is a Mills family descendent, provides interesting information about Hezekiah’s death (read footnote 8):
Jacques: Thank you for providing such fascinating information about your family. Annette: Thank you for saving this Westport treasure!
What a fantastic post, Jacques. A fascinating tale, chronicling the history of a building that many generations called home for over two and a half centuries. Many instancies of life’s ups, downs, and left turns, took place within those walls.
Kudos to Annette Norton for being a protector of history, and not a destroyer. A welcome change in this day and age.