Union Society Building
Union Society Building Committee
Town of Eastford
To assist the Town of Eastford, the USBC assesses the needs of the historic 1806 Union Society of Phoenixville House and raises funds for its improvement.
The Union Society of Phoenixville House, located at the junction of Routes 198 and 44, was constructed in 1806 by mill owner Smith Snow. In the 1800s, when children worked 12-hour-days in factories and on farms and had little time for education, Union Societies across the U.S. formed to teach children to read during Sunday School. This building, along with other homes, hosted the Union Society Sunday School in Phoenixville. In 1907 a nonprofit Union Society of Phoenixville purchased the building, which also hosted social events for area villagers. All were welcome regardless of spiritual belief, ethnic origin, gender or age. Most of the participants were poor immigrant families, some so poor that they could not afford Christmas gifts. That holiday, in particular, was a highlight of the year for many families because an orange and box of hard candy was given to each child. In 1918, gifts were given to 87 Phoenixville children. In 1933, a reunion attracted 150 people. Membership dwindled in the late 20th Century. In 2002, the Town of Eastford purchased the building. The USBC was formed in 2006 and, through the present, has worked to save the building, assess its needs and raise funds. Since 2005, at least 30 people have gotten paid work from Union Society’s projects. More than 130 businesses, organizations and individuals have helped the town raise more than $20,000 in dollars and about $180,000 in grants. All funds go to the Town and are directed by the Selectmen. In addition to fundraising, some 40 volunteers have worked to improve the building. USBC Members are: Carol Davidge, Chair; Ed Windecker, Vice Chair; Tom DeJohn, Betsy DiQuattro, Mary Ellen Ellsworth, Jean Hixson, Chris Sardi.
In 2002, after a Town Meeting approved the action, the Town of Eastford purchased the 1806 Union Society of Phoenixville House where villagers had gathered for 150 years with the objective of teaching children to read during Sunday School and providing morally uplifting activities. Everyone was welcome to attend, regardless of spiritual belief, ethnic origin, gender or age. Mostly poor immigrant families participated at the Union Society. Since 1907, the building had been owned by a private organization, which like so many volunteer organizations in the new millenium, found itself with too few members to continue. The deed says that the property is transferred for Town use and not for commercial or residential purposes. Today, only two Union Society buildings still stand in Connecticut, one of which is Eastford’s. But this historic house was in poor condition, and in December 2004, requests for bids to demolish the building were sought by the Town. Meanwhile the Board of Selectmen also asked Mary Ellen Ellsworth and Carol Davidge to see if the building could be saved, and delayed demolition. Thus began the search for the history of the Union Society House.
Mary Ellen met representatives of the State Historic Preservation Office and The Last Green Valley as well as the State Archaeologist and others for a tour of the building to obtain independent observations. All said that the building should be saved. Carol contacted noted Connecticut historian Bruce Clouette to learn more about why the building was called “The Union Society.” The early 1800s was a time of great controversy because the Congregational Church was also the official government in towns, and the only people who could vote were men who owned property, were members of the Congregational Church, and paid taxes to the church. Baptists, Methodists, Episcopaleans, Quakers and others protested, arguing for “toleration” or “disestablishment” (i.e., separation of church and state and the right to vote). “A ‘union’ church is one that embraces Congregationalists and other denominations,” and if Congregationalists in Eastford supported a “union” church, this “would be a very advanced idea indeed for 1810,” wrote Clouette. Carol also contacted Skip Stout, professor of divinity at Yale University and an expert on colonial religious life. “I have never heard of such a group. I think you may have something rare there,” he said.
Encouraged, we contacted The Last Green Valley, and the Town of Eastford received a grant for $9,450 to assess the viability and importance of the building. Consultants included restoration carpenter William Gould of Pomfret, Bruce Clouette of Storrs, and John O. Curtis of Massachusetts, who was curator at Old Sturbridge Village for many years. Gould discovered many valuable architectural assets including original grain painted interiors, and he and former Union Society President Mark Sheldon placed a tarp over the deteriorating roof.
In his assessment report, Curtis concluded:
“The Union Society House is among the oldest buildings in the community. The Union Society house has played an important and integral role in the social life of Phoenixville. To lose the building and the site is to lose forever an icon that has long been an enduring link with the community’s past. The open space preserved for so many years by the Union Society occupies the key intersection in the Village (of Phoenixville). Its very openness is a welcome rarity in this age of gasoline stations at every crossroads and rampant commercial development. In its quiet way, it speaks eloquently of the unspoiled charm of a village landscape….”
Clouette documented the history of the house in state and local records. There are very few original documents, and he could not verify that the villagers were part of a “union” church. However, he dated the building to 1806 when mill owner Smith Snow built the house as a wedding present for his bride. By the 1850s, Snow no longer used the house and it was passed to various descendants. During this time it and other homes in Phoenixville were used for the Sunday gatherings. Oral history, recorded in the early 20th century, reports that these gatherings go back to at least 1857. The house was known at “The Community House.” In 1906, the Union Society of Phoenixville incorporated to purchase the property and carry on its community work. Sunday Schools, whist games, pot luck suppers, wild game suppers, oyster supper fundraisers for the fire company, meetings of 4-H and Boy Scouts, and flea markets were held during the 20th century. Most fondly remembered are the Christmas festivities, where children presented pageants, sang solos, and Santa presented an orange and a box of hard candy to each child. In 1918, 87 children received such holiday gifts.
In 2006, The Last Green Valley provided a second grant to the Town, $25,000 for historic restoration of the crumbling foundation, and mason H. Ray Paine of Pomfret repaired the damage. In September 2006, an informational meeting was held, followed by a Town meeting in October which approved establishing a Union Society Building Committee (USBC) to assess the viability of the building and make recommendations to the Town. Members met from October through March 2006 and recommended saving the building in March 2007. In June 2007, a Town meeting approved seeking listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, as pre-requisite to obtaining future grants. The building was listed on State and National Registers in December, 2007.
Also essential to obtaining grants was the Historic Structures Report (HSR), to be done by historic preservationists, who publish the history and document the architecture. In 2008, a grant for $1,500 to conduct a Historic Structures Report was provided by Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation (matched by $1,500 in funds raised by the USBC). Architectural preservationist John Hinchman, who grew up in Pomfret and now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, along with graduate students Meredith Keller and Meredith Marsh, studied the building and found original walls, stairs, and wallpapers, the location of the former chimney and rooms within the house. Meanwhile Fundraisers by the USBC included tag sales, a tapestry sale, and an annual auction held at Heritage Day.
In 2009, structural engineer Beth Acly discovered that many of the roof rafters had decayed so that the roof might collapse. The Town received a grant for $3,000 from Connecticut Trust for architectural plans by Acly and architect Robert Hurd of Hartford. The Town applied for and received an Emergency Endangered Building Grant of $28,950 from the Connecticut Department of Economic Development’s Historic Preservation Division, which was matched by $16,500 from the original Union Society group, USBC-raised funds, an $8,000 grant and an $8,000 Town loan to enable the roof to be replaced. ($3,000 of the $8,000 loan has been repaid from USBC fundraisers). Heritage Building and Design of Pomfret was the low bidder, and the roof rehabilitation was completed in December 2010.
The Town received a grant for $3,000 from Connecticut Trust for architectural plans by Acly and architect Robert Hurd of Hartford. The Town applied for and received an Emergency Endangered Building Grant of $28,950 from the Connecticut Department of Economic Development’s Historic Preservation Division, which was matched by $16,500 from the original Union Society group, USBC-raised funds, an $8,000 grant and an $8,000 Town loan to enable the roof to be replaced. ($3,000 of the $8,000 loan has been repaid from USBC fundraisers). Heritage Building and Design of Pomfret was the low bidder, and the roof rehabilitation was completed in December 2010.
Shown below: In 2010, roof repairs underway at the Union Society of Phoenixville House.
As part of the roof grant, the State of Connecticut required a 10-year preservation easement on the building and property, requiring that the building be maintained and that an alternative experience exhibit be shown to educate the public about the project. Shown below is a hand-on display at Heritage Day 2012 including a model of the building created by volunteer Karen Butts and Scouts Robert and Nathan Johnson.
In the fall of 2009, the Selectmen applied for a Small Town Economic Assistance Grant to add an ell that would place handicapped-accessible facilities outside the historic building to save the original historic fabric of the house. A grant for $100,000 was awarded to the Town in September, 2010. A grant of $4,250 was awarded by Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation matched by town funds raised by the USBC and $1,000 from the Eastford Historical Society. After state reviews and approval, in August 2012 bids ranging from a low of $136,568 to a high of $183,400 were received, all more than the town had for this project. A Town Meeting to obtain the necessary funding for the addition was held October 15, 2012, but the proposal was defeated by a vote of 49 to 41.
The USBC continues its outreach and fundraising efforts. It is also working on architectural designs to make the house usable to the public.
Since 2005, at least 30 people have gotten paid work from Union Society’s projects. More than 130 businesses, organizations and individuals have helped the town raise more than $20,000 in dollars and about $180,000 in grants. All funds go to the Town and are directed by the Selectmen. In addition to fundraising, some 40 volunteers have worked to improve the building, including painting the exterior.
Because attendance at history museums is declining, granting agencies want historic properties to find an “adaptive re-use” and serve multiple functions. Once rehabilitated, the Union Society House can serve local and regional groups, consistent with its history as a gathering place. Since 2005, eight major grants for the Union Society building have been awarded to the town. These have allowed nationally-recognized architectural conservators, archaeologists, engineers, and historians to assess the building, and all have recommended saving it plus adding an ell for handicapped accessible facilities. The intersection of Route 198 at U.S. Route 44 in Eastford shows the only 19th century village vista between Bolton and the Rhode Island border on U.S. Route 44 and Route 101. Ten thousand cars pass this intersection daily. It is a gateway to northeastern Connecticut and to the Town of Eastford. The Eastford Historical Society, The Last Green Valley, Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, legislators and many others support saving the Union Society of Phoenixville House.
Eastford’s Charter Oak Descendant at the Union Society Property
In 2013, Ed Richardson (below left) of the Connecticut Notable Trees Project and Mark Sheldon (right), former President of the Union Society organization and former member of the USBC, validated a white oak on the east lawn of the building as being a descendant of the original Connecticut Charter Oak.
“In the mid-1980s, probably 1986, Mark Sheldon, President of the Union Society of Phoenixville, received a phone call from the town hall saying that they had been offered an offspring of the Charter Oak by the CT department of forestry. The TOB said that there was no town land on which to plant the tree, and would the Union Society be willing to plant the tree on their property. As president of the Union Society at that time, Mark accepted the tree and designated that it be planted in the center of the lawn to the east side of the Union Society of Phoenixville House. At that time it had a 6 inch caliper. The background is that the Connecticut Charter Oak was blown down by a ferocious tropical storm on August 21, 1856. Estimates of that tree’s age are that it was from 800 to 1000 years old. Many of its acorns had been planted over the years. In 1974, from the Charter Oak’s first generation descendants in Bushnell Park, hundreds of acorns were planted by the State Forest Department in anticipation of the U.S. Bicentennial. In 1976, the offspring seedlings were offered to each of the 169 towns in Connecticut, 109 towns accepted the trees, but in 1986 only 57 had survived. Ten years later the Forest Department again offered the descendant trees, which had continued to grow since the Bicentennial, and these are the trees that the Town of Eastford called Mark Sheldon about. Mark specified at that time that this tree must be planted in the open space on the east lawn where it would have plenty of open air to grow undisturbed. Recently, on October 22, 2013, Edward A. Richardson of the Connecticut Notable Trees Project based at Conn College, came to the Town’s Union Society property to assess this tree, at the request of Carol Davidge, Chair of the Union Society Building Committee for the Town of Eastford. Present were Mark Sheldon, Carol Davidge, Leslie Lavallee, Marion Richardson and Ed Richardson. Photos were taken to document the occasion. Ed measured the tree, declared that it is a white oak with growth consistent with the growth of a sapling dating to the Bicentennial of the United States (1974). Ed declared that, because of Mark’s history of the tree and its physical attributes, the tree on the Union Society property is a descendant of the original Charter Oak, and that it is perfect in several ways. First the spread is perfectly 30 feet in any direction at this time. Second, the fall foliage is spectacular. Third, it is healthy and strong and must be well cared for and preserved as a descendant of Connecticut’s Charter Oak. Ed is placing this tree on the list of historic trees in the Connecticut Notable Trees Project see (http://oak.conncoll.edu:8080/notabletrees/). As of November 1, this tree was shown on the calendar list of activities for the week including October 22 as: “new tree: 90 point white oak, Eastford”. A paper copy of the entry is attached. The following is now on the Connecticut Notable Trees Listing see:(http://oak.conncoll.edu:8080/notabletrees/ViewTreeData.jsp?selected=225592):
Carol Davidge (Oct 1, 2013)
Ed Richardson (Oct 22, 2013)
Notes: From Connecticut’s Notable Trees (1990). “The 1965 and 1976 Commemorative Charter Oak Seedlings”
“By the 1976 celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial, the tradition of planting offspring of the Charter Oak for commemorative purposes in Connecticut was well established. In the fall of 1974, acorns were collected from the first generation Charter Oak descendants in Bushnell Park and planted in the State Forest Tree Nursery, Pachaug State Forest, Voluntown. The State Forestry Bureau offered a seedling to each Connecticut municipality as a living monument commemorating 200 years of democracy. The 109 seedlings requested and distributed by early July 1976 were one year old and 12 to 15 inches tall.
Ten years later 57 trees, or 52 percent of the original number, were found alive (Appendix II). Thanks to the Forestry Bureau’s own follow-up, requesting a map of where each town planted its tree, we are confident that our count is accurate. Reasons for high mortality of this group of Oaks are probably the same as for the 1965 trees. Many towns placed the trees directly into a landscape setting-rather dangerous for such small plants. At this time (1990), the surviving trees are 3 to 12 inches in circumference and 6 to 20 feet tall.”