Alert “06880” reader — and proud homeowner — Deborah Howland-Murray writes:
In 1985, my husband and I purchased our antique home at 39 Cross Highway. Like any house over 200 years old, the walls held undiscovered mysteries.
Decades later, they are beginning yielding their secrets. Sifting through original hand-calligraphed parchment documents, my son Galen and I are learning that our cherished home of 33 years was equally cherished by generations of one family, all the way from pre-Revolutionary times until 1927.
We are realizing that the story of our house is interwoven with the story of Westport. We are also finding out how precarious is the fate of our antique repository of history, and of those like it in Westport.
Our house tells a tale of a people birthing a country. Captain Phineas Chapman, farmer and carpenter, built his home on land acquired in 1742, the year of his marriage to Sarah Ketchum. The home housed their family of 10 children: 7 sons and 3 daughters. We have come to know the part they played, and the price they paid, in our nascent democracy.
Capt. Chapman’s forebears arrived in 1635. His father, Rev. Daniel Chapman, was the first pastor of Greens Farms Congregational Church.
The minister’s male descendants were highly respected for their accomplishments. Phineas was made lieutenant in the Connecticut Militia in 1755, then promoted to captain for distinguished service in the French and Indian War.
His son Joseph was this area’s first physician. Sons Daniel, Albert and James bore arms in the American Revolution. James and Albert were highly decorated; Major Albert received the paramount honor of admission to the Society of the Cincinnati.
Our home bore witness to Gen. Tryon’s wrath during the Danbury raid in 1777. His advance toward Danbury took him along Cross Highway, arresting patriots along the way — including Captain Phineas and his brother Dennie. The same fate befell Daniel in Ridgefield.
Upon his return, Tryon was thwarted from crossing the Kings Highway bridge by Benedict Arnold. Instead, he forded the river upstream and flanked Arnold by marching through Chapman farmland.
The 3 Chapmen men were transported to a New York City sugar house turned prison. The 2 older ones were eventually released. Daniel died there. His health broken by the dank, horrifically overcrowded conditions, Captain Phineas died 5 years later.
The 1784 distribution of Phineas’ estate shows that he left a parcel of land a bit over 1 acre and 20 rods, with “dwelling and barn.” As we followed the land deeds throughout history, this parcel and dwelling — the “old homestead” — remained constant in description.
At some point, Phineas Jr. (1766-1823) was instrumental in building a school diagonally across from his house. The Chapman family valued education. Many relatives — including some of his 11 children — graduated from Yale.
Through marriage, the Chapmans became linked to one of the most influential families in Westport. Their cousin and admirer, Morris Ketchum, was a financier and locomotive manufacturer who brought the railroad to Westport. His meetings with friend Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, led to the issuance of war bonds and the printing of our first paper currency.
Three Westport homes built by Capt. Phineas still remain: our own; the house built for Albert, comprising the oldest part of 150 Compo Road; and Dr. Joseph’s home (incorrectly called Charles Taylor House) at 268 Wilton Road, beautifully preserved and expanded.
Ketchum’s Hockanum and others are nearby. Not located in a designated historic district, they are in peril of meeting the same end as the Redding home Daniel built with Captain Phineas, unceremoniously demolished in 2006.
Our research took on new meaning as I placed our home on the market. We met with representatives of the Historic Commission and the Westport Historical Society to determine what protections would keep our home safe from the developer’s bulldozer. I was astonished to find that there were virtually none.
Dedicated organizations have the power to forestall, but not prevent. Registering the house as a historical landmark will take more time than I have. And the restrictions are so severe that even an antique lover is dissuaded from purchase. There does not seem to be a middle ground.
I support progress. But there are uncountable new builds for sale in Westport. Is it progress to destroy homes that speak to us of our ancestors, of their sacrifice to create the democracy we enjoy? Shall we lose the opportunity they afford to teach our children about the entrepreneurial spirit that created our town, and country?
As a native Westporter, I sincerely hope not.