Barkhamsted Lighthouse

WALT LANDGRAF, forest naturalist for the Department of Environmental Protection, walks though the Barkhamsted Lighthouse site in Peoples State Forest, where a mixed-race community thrived from 1779 to 1860. Graves on the site include those of soldiers from the Revolutionary and Civil wars. (KATHY HANLEY)

For a tasty slice of local history, mix one Block Island-born Narragansett Indian, a wealthy woman from Wethersfield and a lighthouse that never guided any boats. Add a pinch of ostracism and a large dollop of late 18th-century life and bake for about 80 years.

Serve warm and enjoy the story of the Barkhamsted Lighthouse.

The year was 1740 and Molly Barber, a wealthy young woman from Wethersfield, was angry with her father because he would not let her marry the man she wanted. In protest, she married the next available suitor, James Chaugham, a Narragansett Indian from Block Island.

After a secret marriage, the couple moved to New Hartford in the area called Satan's Kingdom, before moving to Barkhamsted and settling in what would later be known as the Barkhamsted Lighthouse community along the west branch of the Farmington River. Here, at least one story goes, they had eight children and built a house in what was fast becoming a thriving community of Native American, African American and Anglo-American outcasts.

The "lighthouse" enters the story in the 1770s when the Farmington River Turnpike was designated a public highway. As the Albany-Hartford route became more popular, the stagecoach drivers would see the lights shining in Molly and James' house and, according to a poem by Lewis Sprague Mills, would declare "There's the Light House! Five more miles to reach New Hartford."

Mills' poem, "The Legend of Barkhamsted Light House," was written in 1952 and is considered one of the more accurate versions of the story.

While the core of this story can be substantiated, Walt Landgraf, a forest naturalist for the state Department of Environmental Protection and curator of the Stone Museum in Peoples State Forest, said some of the specifics have either been proven false or can not be factually supported. One major discrepancy is Molly's birthplace. Landgraf said no records could be found of a Molly Barber or a woman fitting her description in Wethersfield or even Windsor, another W-town along the river.

Another is when and where Molly and James' children were born. Landgraf said there is evidence that the children were grown by the time the family settled in Barkhamsted. He also said that little information is known at all about James prior to 1770, when he bought property in New Hartford.

But there is more to the story, said Kenneth Feder, an anthropology professor at Central Connecticut State University, who happened across the remnants of the lighthouse community in 1986 when he was leading an archeological study looking for prehistoric sites in the area. When they saw the foundations of the dwellings, his team dug around and quickly found several artifacts, including pots, coins and pieces of tools.

And once he learned the story, he was hooked.

"The cool thing about it was when we went out there to look at the site, I thought we would find that the story was [romanticized]," he said. "The funny thing is when we started delving into those records we found that essentially ... it's a true story."

He added that what he finds so interesting is that the tale of the lighthouse community is a story about "how people in New England on the social and economical margins were able to eke out a living."

Feder returned and studied the site again in 1990 and 1991 and researched town records in 1993 and 1994. He published a book about his finds in 1994 called "A Village of Outcasts: Historical Archeology and Documentary Research at the Lighthouse Site."

"That's the coolest lesson for me about the lighthouse - it's also a story about how our country is made up of not only these famous folks we always read about, but about ordinary people who do these extraordinary things living in extraordinary circumstances," he said.

Little of the original village can be seen today, except for several cellar holes, some stone foundations and a graveyard with about 60 unmarked headstones. Landgraf said about 800 people each year walk the Jesse Gerard Trail, which connects East River Road and Greenwoods Road and passes through the Lighthouse community site.

"To me it's [an example of] cultural richness to see these people from English backgrounds and Indian backgrounds and Negro backgrounds all getting together and living together," Landgraf said. "To think they each brought aspects of their own culture to the group. ... You can really get the whole scope of history through this [story]."