You know the feeling—that gentle tug of a place that draws you to it. You may not at first even be aware of it or the pull might be instantaneous. What draws you there? Why? Is it a sight, smell, or a memory from your past that is jarred? The connection you feel is undeniable as you look around and drink it all in. You feel comfortable there, like the familiarity of home. For each of us what attracts us is a matter of personal experience, preference and choice. But, the message is clear—this place is somehow part of us; it’s a whisper of who we were, are, or would like to be that draws us in and gives us pause.
For each of us the experience is a bit different. It might be the solitude and solace of a place that attracts us or the sense of community and the warmth of friendship. For others it might be a sense of familiarity. It may be the special beauty of a place or the humbling feeling that we are in the midst of something somehow greater than ourselves that gives us a sense of belonging. Maybe it’s the simple recognition that where you are represents a different time and place, a window into another world gone forever.
What follows is a series of personal reflections, observations, history, and essays about just such a place. Along with a group of others, I began a journey of sorts in 1991 to help preserve and create a place that has drawn hundreds to it and in the process has given us each that sense of connection. It’s a place of solitude, community, and beauty as well as an island of the past in a rushing tide of change—a place to pause, reflect, and experience. It is of all things—a farm.
Located on ten acres of woods and meadows at the intersection of two busy state roads, the Dudley Farm at first glance looks like many other surviving farms from the 19th century throughout New England. But, with a second look, it becomes obvious there’s a difference. Sitting on a slight hill above the road, with its picket fence and stone walls, the farm calls the passer-by. The regal house and weathered barn have a bearing of permanence and strength as they cling to the land like the Yankee farmers who built them. The meadows and woods climb gently beyond and with the buildings evoke a different time. They draw you in—you look and you’re hooked.
But that’s only part of the story of the farm. It’s also about the Dudley family who for six generations, worked the soil and did their best to survive for over 200 years. Nothing historic happened on the farm nor did any person of importance live there. But, day in and day out they worked, loved, laughed and cried; their farm is a reflection of who they were. Through it we can gain a glimpse into their world; to touch, see and feel the past.
This is also the tale of how the Dudley Farm was saved to become a museum dedicated to the preservation and representation of our rural past. By itself, that story may not be of any great importance, but to the small group that took on the task and the hundreds who have supported their effort to preserve the farm it was. At a time when farms are all but gone in Connecticut, the struggle to save the farm for future generations took on a crusade like quality. For those who struggled to bring the farm to life and the hundreds who visit each year, the Dudley Farm is a special place that tugs at the essence of who we are and were.
Although what happened at the Dudley Farm is unique to Guilford and the surrounding towns in Connecticut, it strongly speaks to issues of development and growth on a regional and national level. During the late 20th century, Guilford, like so many other communities nationwide experienced unprecedented levels of development and sprawl that forever transformed the very fabric of the community and threatened to destroy much of the unique cultural and historical heritage that had evolved there over 300 years. That transformation and the toll it was taking on the small and once insular community of North Guilford, the home of the Dudley’s and their neighbors since the first decades of the 18th century, was the prime motivating factor in the determined effort to save the farm. When faced with the seemingly unending grind of residential and commercial development that characterized the era, a lament repeated in neighborhoods across Connecticut, New England, and the nation could be heard—is this what we want? As each farm disappeared and each woodland succumbed to the sprawling drive of relentless growth, the Dudley’s farm became a symbolic connection to an agricultural and cultural heritage that was vanishing forever. It was there that a stand was made and thus a lesson for any community that might face the same crisis wrought by the sprawl of modernity. Can the heritage and history that has made us who we are be preserved for future generations or will it be lost forever in the name of progress?
Sure, there are many other historical properties and museums, Connecticut and New England are full of them. The small town of Guilford has five others. Laudably, each preserves an important slice of history from the 17th Century to the early 19th that allows us to peak into the past. Yet, the Dudley Farm is somehow different because it is a story unique in the context of time and place. What has happened there in the years since 1991 is quite remarkable—a story of a community of different people working together to save a place they all became connected to for the present and future generations. They made a stand, they saved the farm and with that a connection to the past.
Waving at David
Consider the past and you shall know the future.
— Chinese Proverb
I can still vividly recall the first time I noticed the Dudley Farm, a sight that has been with me since and it typified my image of the farm for most of the next ten years. I was returning home from an interview for a job teaching history at Guilford High School in August of 1983. As I passed through the intersection of Ct. Routes 80 and 77 heading north I was absorbed in how the interview had gone and hoping I would soon be making this drive on a regular basis. Suddenly to my right I saw what could only be described as a vision from the past. There standing by the porch of his stately but weathered home was a man dressed in old blue denim overalls, a long sleeved shirt, and a straw hat. Together with the white clapboarded house, the faded barn, and the rustic nature of the grounds, the scene was straight out of the 19th century, 1883 to be exact. I slowed my car to a crawl to capture the image in my mind when suddenly I did something that surprised me—I waved. I know the man saw me, but he did not react, he just went about his business and so did I.
That’s the way it was for the next eight years as twice a day I would drive past the farm on my way to and from work. It was always a seasonal postcard from Currier and Ives; the farm house on the slight rise above the road, its white shuttered facade fading and a bit peeled, the weathered gray barn majestically set to the right and the sweeping hill with meadow and woods behind. The summer leaves turned the colors of autumn, the barren starkness of winter softened by snow, then the lush greens of spring. As the months and years passed the view became my haven from the 20th century—a vision of the past that would often reminded me of why I loved and taught history to begin with.
Most days the gentleman in overalls did not appear but his presence was often betrayed by the lone light in the rear of the house during the morning commute or by other hints of his activities. Plastic bags were stuffed with leaves and lined up against the foundation in winter, bundles of sticks collected for kindling, and wisps of smoke that gently rose from the back chimney. On occasion the great center bay doors of the barn were left open revealing his old pick-up waiting patiently for its next mission, the only sign of the present to intrude on the past. Every once in a while I’d see him, walking about his farm, coming from the barn, or fussing near the house. His appearance seemed to never change—overalls, but his hat changed seasonally; a narrow brimmed slouch hat in the spring and fall, straw in the summer, and a red and black checkered plaid in the winter. His tall thin build and the ease of his movements betrayed his lineage—a Yankee farmer from another time, just like his farm.
When the farmer was in view, I often slowed down fascinated by my peak at the past. If he noticed me I’d wave but he never waved back. I often told myself if he did return my gesture, I’d stop for a chat. As the months went by my list of questions grew as did the anticipated answers about his farm, life, family, and the story of the place he had always known as home. But, he never waved and I never stopped. No one at work knew much about the gentle man and his farm but over the years some of the kids knew him as the “old farmer”. To the few I encountered who actually knew him or of him, he was David Dudley, a gentle, quiet, and private man who kept to himself and lived alone in the big farm house.
Change was coming to Guilford. By the late 1980’s the town had exploded in a frenzy of suburban development and was transformed forever as what were left of the old farms that had characterized it’s past 350 years disappeared, the woods became neighborhoods, and the schools filled to bursting with eager faces. Yet there it was David’s farm, a developers dream. I lamented the farm’s probable future and, like so many others I would find out later, hoped its demise could somehow be prevented. Maybe, just maybe, the house, barn, and land could be saved from being carved up by the inevitable asphalt of progress.
Then one day it happened—though exactly when I cannot recall. I was running late and in a hurry to get home one afternoon when I saw Mr. Dudley. Almost instinctively I slowed down and waved as I passed when to my surprise a lanky arm waved back. After all those years he had waved! In my excitement I almost forgot that I was late for picking up my kids as I all but slammed on my breaks to go back and introduce myself. But I couldn’t. I vowed to pull in the drive and up to the old barn the very next time I saw him outside and eagerly hoped it would be soon. But that time never came. At first things seemed as always around the farm as the days turned to weeks but he never appeared.
Ominously, the character of the farm began to change as suddenly there seemed no sign of Mr. Dudley’s presence and the buildings and grounds became forlorn. Soon it became clear I had lost my chance to speak to him and his farm was now in danger. As I passed each day I knew that the bulldozers of change would be perched, ready to strike.
That’s the way it seemed to be, I would witness the farm’s inevitable doom and with it another piece of the past, gone forever. But, the farm remained, clearly unoccupied and slumbering in its dignity. Then one day in late 1991, an odd thing happened. My dependable little pickup truck began to buck and all but stalled as I passed the farm. Annoyed, I shrugged it off as bad gas and thought nothing more of it. About a week later it happened again at the very same spot, right in front of the farm. I changed my gas filter and moved on—until it happened again. It was the only place in my travels it happened. Was it my gas filter or fate? …
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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