(New Life for Old Timber Afterword, written by Emily M. Hopson)
The Historic District of Kent in Flanders preserves a cluster of houses which were part of the original center of town. They are located on each side of the twelve-rod highway laid out in the First Division of lots sold in Windham in 1738. This highway ran from the Cornwall line over the top of Cobble Hill and of Spooner Hill to the New Milford Line.
The first homesteads on this route formed the country village incorporated in 1739. The greatest concentration of them lay between the Berry Farm at North Kent and the foot of Cobble Hill at today's Route 341. The country village flavor remains in the dignity without pretention of the ten houses still standing in Flanders.
In March of 1751, John Beebe, Sr., who owned the lot that stretched from our south boundary north to beyond Walter Gawel's house, gave three acres to his son John Beebe, Jr. This was the southwest corner of his lot on which "Seven Hearths" now stands. John Jr. had been married the year before and this gift would help him start his store and provide for his family.
John Beebe Sr. had a sawmill and probably provided the lumber for "Seven Hearths" as he had for his "mantion" which stands to the north across Studio Hill Road.
At that time there was no road through the Beebe property. The road up East Mountain, which went to Litchfield, was further north.
John Beebe Jr. had really big plans for his house, which he finished in 1754, according to the date found on the south chimney. The building measures 52 feet by 32 feet. Its frame was built as a single unit, a departure from the way adjacent Flanders Houses were built. There is no small unit with subsequent additions as in the other Flanders Houses.
Across the north end John Jr. built a complete section within the frame of the house for his store.
This measures 13 ½ feet by 32 feet, with an entrance on the east and the main entrance on the west, facing his neighbors and the "12-rod highway" along which his business would come.
The south wall of the room has a large fireplace, paneled, with a cupboard to the right side.
Beneath the front entrance on a lower level, a door enters the north cellar with its tremendous chimney base. Hooks in the ceiling indicate that carcasses for butchering could be brought in and hung. Upstairs at the east end of the big room, stairs lead down to the cellar for access to the meat supply, while another stairway leads up to what was a big unfinished room, where names of furs over hooks on the beams indicate it was used as a trading post.
The rest of the upstairs area, as far as the wall to the hallway, was an open area used variously as a meeting room, social center, ballroom, and in the middle 1800s an academy. In Atwater's history of Kent it says, "George Segar, born in 1838, enjoyed the educational advantages of the Flanders Academy, at that time the most noted educational institution in the town of Kent."
Beyond the area of the store the space to the south was planned for living quarters. Nine-and-a-half-foot ceilings throughout the house are unusual in so early a house, and especially in a country village. Besides thinking "big," John Jr. had ingenious ideas about construction that are unique to the house.
The main front door is unusual. It has a double stretcher with seven panels on the outside and four panels on the inside. The door is hung on heavy strap hinges. The latch is also unusual in that it rises whichever way the brass knob is turned. Most of the interior doors still retain the original hand wrought H.L. hinges.
The south rooms are small in comparison to the store. The room on the southwest corner, most recently a dining room, sometimes a library, had a fireplace which had been sealed and destroyed to make closet space between this room and the kitchen. The chimney had to be rebuilt and the fireplace has been restored using antique jamb stones and bricks. The east wall of the room has paneling to the ceiling around the fireplace, with a floor-to-ceiling built-in cupboard and paneling to window level around the room.
Across the hall on the north, the parlor has a handsome corner fireplace with a beautiful mantelpiece showing Queen Anne influence. Its center panel measures 40 by 52 inches. There is panel wainscoting around the room. The whole has a feeling of delicacy and formality.
Behind the parlor to the east is another small room with a corner fireplace, paneled to the ceiling, with a cupboard to the right side. Currently a sitting room, it may have been a bedroom originally and was frequently so used during the life of the house.
The kitchen, which has nine doors, originally had a big fireplace and a Dutch oven. This fireplace was also sealed and the oven destroyed when the closet was built between the kitchen and dining room. This has been rebuilt with bricks from the old chimney.
Starting on the north, the first door leads from the sitting room. Then comes the doorway to the back stairs and beyond it is the doorway to the upstairs closet. Between them is a cupboard that originally was in the tavern that operated across the street in what is now the Wurtzel House. Two old black Windsor chairs at the kitchen table came from the same place. That house is the oldest in the district and dates from about 1739.
The doorway to the present bathroom formerly led to the pantry, while the door to the present pantry led to the milkroom. Next, a doorway leads to an enclosed entry, which contains a windlass - the large wooden wheel which hangs over the well to raise and lower the waterbucket. This water system, directly outside the kitchen was far more convenient than is found in many early houses. In addition, just outside there is a wooden gutter that carries water to a cistern a few yards away. The stone sink, with a hole to drain water to a bucket below, stood inside, just beyond the outside door. Across the room the door on the south leads to the dining room, and beyond the fireplace is the door to the cellar, with a third door into the hall.
The cellar, which is high, extends completely under the house. The north end under the store is separated by a brick wall with a large door, isolating that area.The chimney base is tremendous. Unusual construction is shown in the bracing of the hearths of the upstairs rooms.
The chimney base on the south is built over an arched vault probably used for root storage in the winter. Between the chimney base and the cellar wall are the remains of an ash bin formerly connected with the kitchen fireplace.
Because the brick wall has stood firm and the chimney on the south has settled more, the upstairs floors and the main stairway tilt to the south. However, the house is completely sturdy.
Upstairs the two bedrooms on the south were the only ones originally. Between them is a large closet, also the only one upstairs. The southwest bedroom has a simple small fireplace, mantel and cupboard. The east bedroom is without a fireplace.
Across the hall two doors enter the former ballroom. A handsome small fireplace placed at a peculiar angle in a big open room has a delicate mantel and cupboard. Some time in the later history of the house, the ballroom was made into bedrooms and another was made from the west end of the trading post, giving three additional rooms. This may have been done when it was used as a two-family house.
The attic, reached by a new stairway from the former trading post, now an artist's workshop, is a big handsome unspoiled room. It is of barn construction, without a ridgepole but with beam braces at an angle at each corner on the north and south ends. Since John had seven sons, it is possible that part of the attic was a dormitory, as was frequently the case with large families.
When the roof was renewed it was found that the entire east side had an underlay of birch bark as a kind of insulation.
Paneling in the house is carefully done. Whether Beebe did it himself or whether it was done by journeymen who traveled about specializing in cabinetry is not certain. The paneling in his father's house is very beautiful and has been attributed to the hand of Reverend Joel Boardwell, who owned the house at one time. He was minister of the church nearby for the period from 1758 to 1811. With John Sr.'s pride in his "mantion" for which he twice borrowed money to finish it, and the similar paneling in the neighboring Flanders houses, a study might show that they were done at approximately the same time and perhaps by specialists.
When the Nelsons bought the house in 1919, it was in disastrous condition, full of trash and dirt, but still basically sound and unspoiled by drastic changes. There was no running water and no plumbing. The well, providing a trickle, was full of scrap iron, buckets, bones. Once cleared, it provided a fine supply of water piped into the kitchen. The cistern supplied the upstairs bath and the regular kitchen water.
Luckily the house has survived its rise and fall in fortune without damage. When the Historical Society received the house in 1978 it needed repair and restoration. The old floors are intact. Most of the window panes are original. Except for the upper section of the south wall the siding is original. The south chimney had to be rebuilt when the two fireplaces were opened in the kitchen and dining room in 1979. In the spring of 1981 a partition between the "ballroom" and a back bedroom (made from part of the "trading post" at some time) was removed, making an upstairs gallery for more exhibition space.
With Laurence's casual selection of accessories, John Jr.'s lack of precision, and the still unfinished restoration, perhaps we should call it "the imperfect house" but we feel it has charm and a very human quality.