The Ultimate Connecticut Yankee

The Ultimate Connecticut Yankee

To find John “Whit” Davis and his sprawling above ground time capsule, follow Mechanic Road south as it mimics the course of the lower Pawcatuck River, past wintering white herds of shrink-wrapped yachts, to a place where the way seamlessly acquires a more pastoral moniker: Greenhaven. Here, guarding Connecticut’s southeastern-most boundary, where the river feeds Long Island Sound, stands the endangered Davis-Stanton homestead.

Surrounding the mid-17th century farmhouse are more than 300 acres of prime bottomland that have been cultivated every year for the past 353 — and before that by its indigenous owners, who frequented this coastal ideal for millennia.

Whit Davis, 82 and ambitious as the day is long, still plants, among other crops, several acres of Indian white flint corn in dutiful homage to a shared history he stubbornly has nurtured for decades, a past he isn’t ready to let go of right yet. Indeed, Davis sees the past as his future. Rather than liquidate his priceless waterfront holdings to ensure a cozy retirement, he has preserved the vast majority of his estate in hopes that others can appreciate a period piece of Connecticut remarkably untrammeled by time. The development rights to 258 acres have been sold to the state, and the house is destined to become a museum, assuming a hurricane doesn’t intervene before necessary repairs can be made.

“The property and the farmhouse are extremely important historical sites,” according to Connecticut State Archaeologist Nick Bellantoni. “They represent thousands of years of history – Native American, English, Colonial, American and African-American history
all connected in this one place. It’s really a microcosm of Connecticut.”

The seeds of the hardy flint corn that Davis plants this spring have been preserved like silver keepsakes, heirlooms bequeathed from one generation to the next, down a dozen so far. The pedigreed kernels descend from the original variety that Thomas Stanton acquired in trade with the local Indians. Stanton, who arrived in America from England in 1635, made that first cross-cultural planting in the spring of 1654.

Inside the three-story house, at once stately and tumbledown, is yet more evidence that its Connecticut Yankee inhabitants have been adept at holding onto things. “Let’s clean out the attic and throw a tag sale” has never passed their lips. Strewn about are enough chairs from assorted centuries, most quite serviceable, to accommodate the Continental Congress.

Stolid dusty tables are piled high with hundred-year-old family scrapbooks, paintings, yellowing newspapers, farm publications, boxes of crockery, wooden toys and whatnot ad infinitum. Ornate foot-pedal organs, two elegant chair commodes (one with thunder mug), and Victorian wicker baby strollers compete with antique seed planters and hand-woven Indian baskets for breathing room. Just inside the front door is a large glass cabinet filled with Paleolithic arrowheads and stone tools that predate the Christian era by thousands of years.

From odd closets and hidden cupboards, Davis proudly parades historical artifacts that rise above the familial clutter. The bone-handled British sword was collected from a dead soldier at the battle of Bunker Hill, and a cutlass and scabbard were used in the War of 1812. Accompanying a tinderbox — complete with striker, flint and sulfur-dipped matches, all in fine fettle – is a letter of provenance from the Standish family to Davis’s grandfather maintaining that the handy item once belonged to Miles himself.

The blackened round table in the living room is where the Mohegan sachem Uncas sat down with his friend Thomas Stanton to write his will, Davis says. A cobbler’s bench used to make boots for George Washington’s troops is squirreled away too deep to accession. The farm, which the Davis family acquired from the Stantons in 1772, also supplied the Continental Army with hay and Stonington whaling ships with salt pork, bacon, cider (high and low octane), cheese and such like necessities.

On the third floor, which once served as slave quarters, up rough uneven stairs where years of weary footfalls have worn saucer-like indentations into the treads, are perhaps the most striking artifacts of all. Arrayed on the hand-sawed board walls are the artistic expressions of those once held in bondage: a pregnant woman, a flotilla of boats, a swordfish and neat tally marks, possibly attesting to the fishing prowess of those who lived here three hundred years ago. The legendary slave Venture Smith toiled for the Stantons in the mid-1700s, bought his freedom and became a prominent businessman in the colony. When he was able to purchase his wife’s freedom as well, he maintained that he got a bargain; it turned out that she was pregnant at the time.

At the 1995 Stanton reunion held at the farm, Davis rededicated the giant stone weighing more than 400 pounds that Venture Smith is reputed to have lifted when all others had failed at the task. He invited a family from Middletown who are descendents of Smith to take part in the ceremony.

The Stanton-Davis house itself is an artifact, the oldest in Stonington and perhaps the oldest surviving wooden structure in Connecticut. It is a vivid reminder of a multicultural past when the white, Indian and black tribes lived, worked and jockeyed with one another at very close quarters. Thomas Stanton, who established a trading post on the Pawcatuck River in 1650 and spoke the local Native languages, built the house on land granted to him after the Pequot War. He was designated as the colony’s official Indian interpreter (at a salary of $25 a year) and was often called upon to settle disputes.

Down the centuries the Stantons and Davises have maintained ties with the region’s Native Americans. Some Pequots lived on the property for several generations after the land transfer. Early in the last century, Whit Davis’ grandfather would journey to Lantern Hill in Ledyard, an all-day roundtrip by horse and buggy, to buy black ash splint baskets from the Pequots, even though serviceable baskets were available much closer to home. After the remains of a young Indian were unearthed on the farm during the 1930s, Davis’ father notified the local tribes, who reburied the child in a traditional ceremony that made a deep impression on young Whit.

Today, Davis, along with his wife Velora and granddaughter Rae-Jean, are invited to participate in the Mohegan Tribe's annual cultural days every August. They bring along baskets full of Indian white flint corn, johnnycakes and homemade cornbread. Davis has asked the Mohegans to preside at his funeral, and they have agreed.

One of the Pequots who lived on the property in the mid-18th century, a man called Garner, left his paddle and an artfully carved war club with his white landlords for safe keeping. The items have been kept safe to this day.

Whit Davis isn’t your archetypal museum curator. Layered up against the farmstead’s bracing drafts on a windy January day, he sports a blue/black vest that fits snuggly over a red sweatshirt and gray scarf, work jeans, red-checked Elmer Fudd hunting hat and worn black sneakers. He doesn’t pepper the discussion with highfalutin words like accession and provenance. He does serve a mean Indian cornbread, however, and can explain why it is moister, tastier and less crumbly than modern variants: the white flint kernels contain twice the oil that their hybrid descendents do. He had them tested.

And Davis can spin a fair country yarn, too. He was 14 years old when the 1938 Hurricane tore through town, and watched the water rise to the very tassels of the corn stalks that are down the hill (but not by much) from the house. Silos toppled and the sheep barn was blown ass over teakettle, but other people had it worse. The debris from neighboring homes — and the neighbors themselves washed up on the farm, some dead and some alive. On Napatree Point all 44 houses and a yacht club disappeared into the whirlwind that September day. One man floated in on a mattress and managed to hold on to a stone wall until the Davises rode to the rescue. His wife and two daughters had been crushed when their house collapsed. A young girl washed up near the house – alive and well, and quite winsome, apparently. “I thought I’d found a mermaid,” Davis recalls. “It was all there but the tail.”

The hurricane was an exclamation point on the Great Depression. Family farming isn’t easy in the best of times, but the Davises made do. “We were lucky because we had food, everything you could think of, eggs, johnnycake corn, ham, chickens, geese,” Davis recalls. “We lived off the land like a bunch of woodchucks.” Many of Davis’ schoolmates were not living so well, and he would often share his lunch with a friend. One telltale sign of hard times was the footwear: “In grammar school kids would have holes in their shoes, and they would use the cardboard tops off of cereal boxes — the tops were double layered — in their shoes. If it was a rainy day you carried a box top in your pocket for a spare. If you had leather on the bottom of your shoes, well, wow, boy, you were living pretty high.”

Farming’s hard work and hard times sometimes are leavened with interludes of rural hijinks. One day, nearly seventy years ago, his father and a farm worker were checking on sheep grazing in a rocky pasture overlooking Long Island Sound when they saw a small sailboat round the point and slip quietly into the cove. There was a young woman on board they knew and a much older man with wild frizzy hair whom they recognized but hadn’t met.

After the sails dropped, other things commenced dropping as well. The man in the boat had a reputation for being fairly intelligent, so the two men decided to see just how acute he was. “They tossed a rock near the boat to see what he would pull up first, the sails or his pants,” Davis says with a grin. “He tried to do both at once and nearly fell overboard.” The out-smarted mariner was none other than Albert Einstein, who was summering at Watch Hill.

Not that a career in agronomy was ever much in question, but Davis, who is an only child, became hooked on family farming at age 11. His father set him up with a garden plot, a pony and a cart, and the industrious youngster cleared $75 his first growing season. He hasn’t missed a crop since. He grows sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and such in a field above the house and keeps a passel of chickens, too. In the dead of winter, he and some local cronies cut salt hay off the Continental Marsh, named after the revolutionary army it supplied with hay. He donated the ten-acre parcel years ago to the local land trust, while retaining the mowing rights. Once a booming activity in Connecticut, salt haying is making its last stand on the Davis-Stanton farm. The hay, which is cut in the winter so as not to damage the marsh and is valued as high-quality mulch, fetches $11 a bale wholesale, but it is an arduous undertaking. Davis and friends harvest about 700 bales a season. One of his four children, Larry, who lives next door to the homestead, does the upland haying, bringing in more than 8,000 bales in a good year. His granddaughter Rae-Jean Davis, 36, helps with the farm chores, too.

Summertime means seven-day workweeks. Davis labors from dawn till dusk on weekends harvesting produce and collecting eggs to take to the local farm markets — in Stonington Borough on Saturdays and at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic on Sundays. Mind you, this is no gentleman farmer shtick. “On a real good day, we can go through 40 dozens eggs and 100 dozen ears of corn,” says Davis, who also plies a daily egg route. In his spare time he is the local sales representative for a manufacturer of outdoor wood furnaces. A working model sits next to his house and serves as the sole source of heat for the homestead. He tends the furnace daily, feeding it wood harvested off his property. Davis no longer lives in the house, but commutes from Groton.

All of the above would seem to leave little time for curatorial duties. But Davis, who served on the Stonington Conservation and Inland Wetland Commission for two decades and as the town dog warden (he has the scars to prove it) while running the farm, is adept at multi-tasking. Besides, he has had some help during the five years it has taken to garner the myriad approvals required to establish the non-profit Davis-Stanton Homestead Museum, Inc., which was legally consummated last fall. For example, Arthur Liverant who heads the prestigious Nathan Liverant & Son of Colchester is appraising items pro bono, and more than 100 pieces have been evaluated so far.

“Whit has been a great conservator of his family’s ancestral residence and possessions,” says Liverant, who as a teenager first met Davis when his father took him along to admire the farm. “There are so few houses like this left anywhere, with its large fireplaces and massive chimney stack, and other elements of late 17th century and early 18th century architecture. Here is a place, a house and surrounding land, which in 2007 is almost exactly as it was 275 years ago.”

Frank Eppinger and his firm, O’Brien, Shaftner and Stewart, also donated their services as they shepherded the project through town zoning variances and permits, estate requirements, institutional bylaws, and the establishment of the critical 501-C3 non-profit designation. Money and items donated to the museum are now tax deductible, and there is already about $4,000 in the kitty. The bad news is that upwards of $300,000 is needed, and soon, just to shore the structure up, straighten it out and get it back to plumb. For example, smack dab in the middle the homestead kitchen, with its original colonial-era fireplace and 150-year-old harpoons gracing the pealing walls, stands a shiny new two-by-four propping the ceiling up. Floors throughout slant and undulate. Windows sit akimbo. The estimate for the total restoration is $1.5 million.

This spring the fundraising commences in earnest. Davis has ruled out governmental funding sources. There is promise, however, in the museum’s nine-member board of directors, which is clearly devoted to the project and includes Davis, his son Larry, business and cultural leaders, and two members of the Mohegan Tribe: tribal councilor and former tribal chairman Mark Brown and tribal archivist Faith Davison. “Once you lose something of this historical value, you can’t bring it back,” Brown says. “I’m on the board as an individual, but if there is a request for the Mohegan Tribe to participate along with other supporters of this project, that decision will be made by the tribal council as a whole.”

Historical homes are not exactly a booming tourist phenomenon of late, and fundraising isn't an exact science. The survival of the Davis-Stanton Homestead Museum is very much in doubt. But if the past is prologue, Frank Eppinger is optimistic: “How this family kept this farm together through the centuries —when other farmers were heading west, giving up or selling out — borders on the miraculous. If money is the last hurdle in this effort, I think Whit, with some help, can make it happen.”

Among the museum’s charter benefactors is Heather Thibdeau, a local teenage girl whose older brother once worked on the farm. Of all his crops, Davis is most proud of the dozens of local youngsters who have studied and toiled under his tutelage through the decades. All have graduated with an advanced degree in hard work, plus a minor in local history.

Davis was invited to the young man’s twenty-first birthday party, where Heather handed him an envelope with $200 inside, money she had earned from baby sitting jobs. Touched by her generosity, Davis treated her and her family to a special guided tour of the homestead.
“She was right up front with me during the tour, and I was speaking right to her,” he says. “I wanted to acknowledge her. Imagine her doing what she did when there are so many things a young person can spend money on today. She’s got the spark, and I was trying to fan the flame. I’m hoping someday she might be a docent here.”