Excerpt from Chapter Two: The Gift, Saving the Farm by James T. Powers
When David Dudley was born in 1909, he became part of a four generation household on a farm he was destined to become the last occupant. Together with his brother Erastus Irwin, who was a year older, they must have been the focus of attention in the big rambling fourteen room house on the rise overlooking the Durham Road. David’s great grandparents and grandparents perhaps saw his birth as the continuation of their proud tradition of farming the land that had been in the family for generations. In the young child they would have seen the future and they, no doubt, would have smiled and watched over his every sound and movement as only those who are assured that their legacy would be preserved could.
David’s parents, Nathan (1881-1963) and Amy (1878-1967), were respected and active members of the North Guilford community and the Dudley home was often the center of the social life that bound the farm families of the area together. They too would have looked at their new young son with confidence in the future not knowing the tremendous changes that would engulf them and their farm as the new century their boy had been born into progressed. As Nathan and Amy settled into the rhythms of their daily lives with a second son they surely looked to the future with confidence and pride.
By the time David died in 1991, change had certainly come to the farm of his ancestors. David, who had never married, lived a simple and frugal life alone in the big white house for twenty four years following the death of his mother in 1967. His brother Erastus died in 1950 and his father in 1963. During those years David continued to go about his business as the world around the farm rapidly changed. The second half of the 20th Century saw North Guilford, like the rest of the town, dramatically transformed into a modern suburb as the relentless grasp of developers gobbled up land. Guilford had become a desirable location for the new commuter culture sweeping across the Shoreline of Connecticut and surviving farms were swallowed up as subdivisions sprouted where corn had once grown. Yet David’s farm seemed immune to it all; an island of constancy in that torrent of change.
David had lived a life of little fanfare, first as a machinist and later in life as an assistant to a local veterinarian. Though many people knew him it seems very few actually got to know him. David’s quiet, shy, and reserved nature masked a dry Yankee wit and a very private life that was in many ways a throwback to all those who had lived on the farm before him. Although he kept a large vegetable garden, Dudley never farmed the land as his father had. The great adventure of his life was his service in the U.S. Army during World War II during which he received a Purple Heart for wounds suffered while fighting in Europe. How much that experience influenced his life choices upon his return is uncertain, but from all indications he was a man content with his place in the world and his life on the farm that had always been his home.
During the latter part of his life, Dudley’s circle of family and friends shrank. He continued to care for the farm his family had called home for six generations before him and for many in the growing community of North Guilford he and his farm became living icons of a disappearing past. Oblivious to it all, he tended to his chores and tinkered in the great gray barn as traffic droned continuously on the always busy Durham Road just beyond the fading white picket fence that seemed to keep it all at bay. Those who stopped to visit or just to chat with him found him to be polite but reserved in the finest New England tradition.
After his mother Amy’s death, her son closed off most of the rambling old house and lived in primarily three rooms towards the rear. What had been the farm office of his father, the dining room, and the kitchen of the original 1844 section of the house became his domain. Without central heat and with minimal electricity and plumbing, David lived a rather simple lifestyle more in line with that of his 19th Century ancestors than his 20th Century neighbors. He cooked and heated with a wood stove in the kitchen and washed dishes in a simple cold water sink. His mattress was filled with straw and his bed was in the room where his father and grandfather had conducted the business of the once prosperous farm.
Anecdotes about David best reveal the old Yankee qualities of his personality and lifestyle. One of his relatives once told a story of how on occasion she would make homemade clam chowder and bring it up to him. David, she said, would always look at her with dismay and with a twinkle in his eye adamantly refuse to accept the offering saying he could not possibly eat it. After all, David would explain, he always cooked a chicken and vegetables on Sunday and that would always be enough to last him the entire week. He always insisted he would never be able to “fit it in”. After a bit more prodding, he would ultimately relent as she left it “just in case” and when she returned later to pick up the dish he would grudgingly admit the chowder was great.
Another relative explained how as a young girl she would occasionally visit David with her parents. She recounted gazing in wonder at what seemed to her hundreds of wishbones hanging from strings strung across the kitchen ceiling. Apparently David thought it bad luck to throw them away and saved them for the times a young visitor might arrive. He always took one down, she said, and together they would try their luck. She could never figure out why she ended up with the larger section and thus all the luck while David would gleefully chuckle saying maybe he’d be the fortunate winner next time.
But David’s luck did run out in 1991 and after a brief hospitalization he died. Having no direct heirs, he, in a surprise to the entire North Guilford community, left his money and farm to the North Guilford Congregational Church and the North Guilford Volunteer Fire Company. His reasons were never known but those two pillars of the community were perhaps singled out as organizations that best embodied the traditions his family for so many generations had upheld; a sense of service and commitment to neighbors and friends. Having led a rather reclusive life, he never belonged to the church or joined the fire company so his decision seemed at first a mystery. But, in retrospect, it was as if he was speaking for his ancestors; reaching across time to give a gift that might stem the tide unleashed by the rush of the 20th Century to preserve what he felt was the essence of what the community of North Guilford had once been.
…David’s gift immediately became the talk of North Guilford and at the Fire House and the Little Store on the Durham Road it was all the buzz. Speculation was mixed with astonishment at the church hall and the school playground. “He did what?” “He gave everything?” “Do you know why?” It was an extraordinary gift; David Dudley, the quiet, gentle man whose farm was familiar to all had given his family homestead and savings to the North Guilford Congregational Church and the North Guilford Volunteer Fire Company. The scope of the gift was startling and though welcomed by both venerable institutions created immediate problems. The value of the property on the corner of routes 77 and 80 would be a developers dream and generate a substantial sum from its sale. David’s bank account alone, the accumulated savings of generations, would be a much needed boost to both groups as they were always strapped for funds. But…
For the members of the Fire Company, news of the gift spread faster than an alarm for a burning house. Could there be a mistake was replaced with discussion about the sudden windfall and what it meant and how it might be spent. Perhaps a new truck and equipment? What about an addition to the always crowded firehouse and a training facility? As the group met and the officers discussed the gift, it became obvious that although a wonderful opportunity for the company, some began to question the impact it might have on the organization.
The North Guilford Fire Company No. 4, had been formed fifty years earlier as an all volunteer department to provide fire protection and emergency service to the growing but still sleepy farm community. The residents of North Guilford had a tradition of taking care of their own going back to the days of Cohabit and the Fire Company was the latest manifestation of that sense of community responsibility and service. Like the militia of old colonial North Guilford, it consisted of volunteers who trained together, responded when needed, and elected its officers. They learned to depend upon each other in dangerous situations that were often life threatening and through the common struggle to save lives and property formed a bond not unlike their militia forbearers.
William Dudley waited impatiently outside the small sturdy meeting house on the crest of what had come to be known as Long Hill. As he waited for the rest of the company to muster for their monthly training, he couldn’t help thinking back to those early days when together they had established a community out of the area long called Cohabit. He recalled with pride the day his peers had chosen him captain of their newly formed militia and how though with little formal training, he had assumed command with all the enthusiasm he brought to his other positions within the now prospering settlement. Though it was now twenty five years since their trek northward from Guilford village in 1712, it often seemed like only a few days had passed since they were erecting homes together, shaping the timbers from their own lands into sturdy houses and barns. But now, as he stood with his neighbors; the Bartletts, Bentons, and Fowlers, he was overwhelmed by a sense of accomplishment and pride only men like he and his neighbors could feel—a sense of connection to something more important than themselves that they had built together. North Guilford Parish was indeed their home and they all would sacrifice everything if necessary to keep it safe.
Hence the problem: The Fire Company was a nonprofit organization funded through tax dollars from the town for items such as equipment and training; how would David’s gift impact all that? Furthermore, would the money be swallowed by the town and the Guilford Fire Department which Company No. 4 belonged? Other than new equipment and training needs—what might the funds be used for? What effect would David’s gift have on membership? Would it result in paid personnel? Would members, already hard to find and keep, stop volunteering as the needs of the company changed due to his generosity? The needs and desires of the North Guilford Congregational Church, the Fire Company’s partner in the gift, also needed to be addressed. Some sort of settlement with the best interests of both parties and the greater North Guilford community would have to be worked out. But what?
By the summer of 1992, discussions with the Church soon revealed that they would be better served by accepting the savings portion of David’s gift. The idea of having to deal with the property and all it entailed was more than the small congregation was willing to tackle despite the possible greater sum generated by a sale. In September an agreement was reached and the Fire Company gave up its claim to the $300,000 monetary component of Dudley’s will in return for sole ownership of the property. This relieved the Fire Company of their most pressing dilemma; whether or not such a large cash donation was in their best interest and even feasible. But by agreeing to accept the property at the corner of routes 80 and 77, the Fire Company was now on uncharted waters. What would the best use of the property be? Would a sale in the end be in the best interest of the company and the community?
Wrapped around and through the debate that raged at the Fire House was another issue, one often discussed and usually lamented. It was the rapidly changing nature of North Guilford and the toll in the minds of many being taken in farm land and open space; sprawl. How would the character of the community change if the land was sold off in parcels and houses or a shopping area replaced the farm? There was no denying that North Guilford had changed. Farms, woods, and fields were being replaced with houses and roads, as the many new residents, drawn to the idyllic character of the area, were by their very presence transforming it and diminishing the very thing that had brought them. Many of the new homes were large and the owners commuters, and the sense of community that had typified the region was disappearing. With a strong belief that the rural, farming traditions that for so long had been the hallmark of the community were vanishing the Fire Company members knew that what happened to the farm might be significant. Here they agreed, was an opportunity.
Saving the Farm: Journey Through Time, Space and Redemption
by James T. Powers will be released worldwide March 2, 2013!
About the Book: Saving the Farm; A Journey through Time, Place, and Redemption is the story of how the Dudley Farm of North Guilford, Connecticut became a museum to preserve and represent a vanishing past. By itself, that story may not be of any great importance, but at a time when local farms are all but gone, the struggle to save the farm for future generations took on a crusade like quality for the small group that took on the task and the hundreds who supported their effort. Faced with unrelenting residential and commercial development, a lament repeated in neighborhoods across New England was heard in the small community of North Guilford—is this what we want? Can we preserve the history and heritage that made us who we are or will it be lost forever in the name of progress?
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