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The Taste Of Home, The Taste Of History

Courant Community

On Nov. 11, the Newington Historical Society held its annual Open Hearth and Spinning Demonstration in the Kelsey House, a historic treasure that almost got away.

In the living room, docent Eileen Cormier was pleased to show visitors why.

"The house was saved because of these four murals," said Cormier.

That and the ingenuity of the town historian, who had read about the original artwork in a 1920-era report. The home, which was then located in the southwestern section of town, was in the way of a bridge construction project.

"The house was already boarded up and ready to be demolished, but she gained permission to come into the house," said Cormier.

The town historian figured that the most likely place to find one of the murals would be over the fireplace in the living room, so she carefully began to remove a section of wall paper there. As she did, the first mural started to appear.

"They are a rectangular format with an oval mat, painted directly on the walls," Cormier said. "It is very unusual to have four of these in one room."

The house was rescued by the historical society, with the help of donations, many dedicated workers, and solid determination. In 1979, the home was moved from the southwest part of town to where it now stands, just off Main Street. In 1982, it was included in the National Register of Historic Places.

The house, which is post and beam construction, was built in 1799 by Enoch Kelsey and his son, David.

"We have restored it back to an earlier time, but not the original time," said Historical Society President Jim Late.

Freehand painted wall decorations around doors, windows, and ceilings of the home add to its rarity. Late said the freehand designs were probably not done by the muralist, but rather by an itinerant painter who would have boarded with the family while doing the work.

"He may have had a pattern book, and the good wife would have chosen what she wanted," said Late.

In each of the rooms, a small portion of the original artwork has been preserved, and restorative artists were commissioned to refresh the rest.

Many of the furnishings in the house were donated by the Robbins family, which owned the house next door and saved things through generations, according to Cormier.

The collection includes a Windsor chair, which by family tradition was owned by Newington clock maker David Lowry, and another far smaller chair in the living room that probably belonged to his wife. Cormier said they believe that the beautiful tilt-top table with bird cage mechanism that pre-dates the house belonged to the Robbins or Lowry family.

In an upstairs bedroom, Ben Nichols encouraged visitors to examine the well-preserved high boy that was made by Wethersfield cabinet maker Oliver Deming in the late 1700s.

"What is different about the underside of the drawers and the inside?" he asked.

Those who ran their hands over both surfaces quickly discovered that the underside had a rough, undulating surface and the inside was smooth. At the time the piece was constructed, Nichols said, attention was only paid to the parts of the cabinet that would be seen or used.

In the weaving room, Late – in period duds – demonstrated his skill at the barn frame loom, which came to the society in parts and had to be put together. He was making a rag rug out of old sheets that had been cut up.

"This is a two-shed loom with two shutters," he said.

Christine Mansolf, a new weaver, was working on place mats on a smaller frame, with four shutters.

"The principle of weaving hasn't changed for thousands of years," said Late.

Another thing that hasn't changed is that the hearth – or the kitchen – is the heart of the home. Linda Crawford and her helpers, Bruce Blake and Nan Kennedy, served up a delicious spread of home-cooking that took the chill out of the air and put smile on faces.

Hearth-roasted chicken, ham, and vegetables, tomato basil soup, buttermilk biscuits, and corn casserole shared the menu with a baked whole pumpkin, homemade applesauce, old-fashioned apple crisp, and molasses cookies.

Crawford said she has been cooking for the annual November event for several years.

"It takes about four hours to roast the chicken, if I have a good fire," she said.

The chicken is moved around in the fireplace to keep it from drying out or overcooking.

"We keep the event open to the public, and free admission, because we like to get people involved in Newington and the things we have in our historical community," said Executive Director Dot Abbott.

To view this historic gem, or to learn about upcoming historical society events, call 860-666-7118.

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