By George Laurence Nelson
Note: This is an excerpt from George Laurence Nelson’s memoir of his love affair with the ancient old house in Flanders, Kent, CT. New Life for old Timber is available for $6 through the Kent Historical Society Gift Shop.
Introduction: Helen and Laurence Nelson were warm and colorful participants in all the activities of Kent during their life in the town. Their talents contributed to a lively interest in music, town history, the Library Fairs, Community House programs, the Art Association, and endless personal relationships.
In addition to their gifts as writer and artist, their garden, full of color, unique in its small-scale plan, drew admiration. Laurence’s fine voice, accompanied by one of his musical instruments, and his gift for storytelling, made any gathering at the Old House a delight. They made “Seven Hearths” a charming center for their family and friends by the warmth of their personalities and their affectionate understanding of human foibles.
The Historical Society, of which they were charter members, is honored to be chosen as the means of preserving “Seven Hearths,” one of the early Kent Houses in the Historic District, as the headquarters of the Society and as a memorial to Helen and Laurence.
The Old House, as Laurence lovingly referred to it, had its high and low periods, from the time John Beebe Jr. built it, through its occupancy by several other Kent families to its low ebb as a tenant house before its revival by Helen and Laurence.
We hope you will enjoy “Seven Hearths” and find in it some of the flavor of the old village, the warmth of its last occupants and rewarding art study.
We bring you “New Life for Old Timber” as a delightful picture of the old house and village in 1919 with the flavor of Laurence in its telling.
Emily M. Hopson
Kent Historical Society, 1982
“When the old house first came into our possession it had been waiting patiently while the quiet life of the hill country passed it by. That was nearly thirty years ago, and for an appreciable period of time, the surge of life within had ceased completely. Bleak and gray, it hid its dejection effectually beneath the great maples. They spread their branches in a towering profusion of green that rustled about the eaves, and reached out to envelop the two great chimneys that dominated the steep pitch of the roof. Dense lower branches concealed the opalescence of the many-paned windows, and almost hid the lean-to in the rear which sheltered the well, the old milk room, and the kitchen pantry. Needless to add, the interior remained in constant twilight relieved by a timid spot of sunlight.
“The appearance of the surrounding land completed the picture of abandonment. Everywhere thistles, nettles, burdock and plantain competed with the grass which had grown to the height and volume of a sturdy crop of hay. This growth attempted to conceal the haphazard confusion of sheds and chicken coops, cluttered with an assortment of junk and wire, which the grass seized upon and bound tightly to the ground. A vine which we never did identify, bearing the clusters of minute purple and white flowers, enveloped the fences. It twisted its hardy wood stems about the wire and clinging to the ground shot out in all directions to reappear wherever it found support on a plank or tangle of chicken wire. Here and there currant bushes struggled amidst the nettles and the flamboyant rhubarb leaves alone succeeded in retaining a place in the sun. A few old-fashioned roses revealed where a garden might once have flourished, and a clump of day-lilies managed to raise their clear yellow blooms above the confusion.
“Apparently there comes a time in the life of a community when a period, or manner of living, draws to a close and another begins. This change is imperceptible at first, but gains momentum over an appreciable number of years. Such a period had come to the community in which our house had played an important role and families which had lived on the land for generations were fading out completely. Some of these folks were childless, and when they passed away, the auctioneer was called in to dispose of the accumulation of the years. Others sold out and departed; they were leaving the land and many an old farm and house were to be had for prices that today would hardly pay for a new heating plant, or for the building of a garage.
“But this changing cycle worked to the advantage of artists like myself, who were searching for a studio home for the summer months or for year-round occupation. The old places were intriguingly quaint, and often afforded studios in the house or in barns close by, readily convertible to the painter’s needs.
“The glamour of that first day as owners of a house, of soil and trees, lingered a whole summer as we explored the labyrinth of rooms, knocking out partitions, opening papered-over doors and fireplaces, cleaning and fumigating. As fall drew near enough had been achieved to enable us to look forward to occupying part of the house upon our return the following spring, when the real work of painting and papering would begin. There were scores of broken and cracked window panes to replace and broken plaster needed mending. I was soon to discover what it meant to become a ‘Jack of all Trades’ with the necessity of mastering more than one.