Litchfield County Sketches

By Newell Meeker Calhoun

Litchfield County University Club

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A Hill-town Meeting House

OUR county has many meeting houses which have been fountains of life for the larger towns and cities. These hill-town churches have furnished able men and women for the city churches, making possible the great things wrought by them. The country towns have given to the colleges some of their best students, as well as their famous athletes; to the learned professions their most distinguished men, and to the business world its most successful financiers. At the same time the West has been seeded by the best products of the hill towns—their young men and women. It is impossible to conceive how the great Middle West, and the real West, could have been saved for God and for country without the rich fruitage of the New England meeting house. These hill-town churches need to be looked after carefully by the sons and daughters who had their birth and nurture in them. Their foundations should be kept in repair, the paint often freshened, the old bell kept ringing on the Sabbath, and the Gospel ministry sustained. This is one of the things that are worth while. No love for foreign missions, no pathetic appeals for Western frontier work, should lead to the neglect of this. Both home and foreign work can now be done in the hill towns, to which liberty-loving foreigners are coming from the ends of the earth.

Behold, then, a picture of a hill-town church, not exactly as it is, although it has not so greatly changed as some, but as it was within the memory of the writer.

It was white, within and without, and stood on a hill like Jerusalem of old. Thither the tribes went up much oftener than the ancient Jews to their hill temple. This
A Hill-town Meeting House hill town is eight miles due south from Litchfield, and for more than one hundred years was known as Litchfield South Farms, being an integral part of that splendid town. It is hardly fifty years since it became a separate town by the name of Morris, one of its honored family names. In the sixties there was still an academy there, a long, low, rambling building, a sort of “annex” to the house in which Mr. Samuel Ensign, the schoolmaster, lived. Mr. Ensign was the son-in-law of Mr. Morris, the founder of the school, one of the first academies in the county. Not many boys attended the school, and those were for the most part from outside the town, and boarded in Mr. Ensign’s family. This schoolmaster loved a good horse, and drove one which was the admiration of the small boys. In snowy weather he was wont to drive his wife to church, and we watched for the beautiful white horse as we did for the minister. Mr. Ensign, unlike the schoolmaster who presided over “The Gunnery” in Washington, did not care for games and sports, but was dignified and severe in his appearance, artistic in his tastes, and cultivated in his manners. The home atmosphere for the boys must have been delightful, for Mrs. Ensign was a charffiing woman, refined and educated.

The church itself, in the old days, had wood stoves on either side of the entrances, with long pipes running the length of the building, sometimes smoking, and always having a sooty appearance. Around these stoves men, women and children gathered during the intermission between services on Winter Sundays. Foot stoves were still in use by the older ladies, these being ifiled with the live coals from the church stoves. In the Summer the men visited under the horse sheds in the rear of the church, and ate their seed cookies or gingerbread and discussed the crops, while the women and children went to the old Smedley house kitchen, where there was a well with an oaken bucket, which, as it went down, wound up a rope with a heavy stone attached, by means of a large wooden drum. The children drank from the big dipper and gazed with awe down into the dark well. In this room there were milk pails and pans and a cheese press. Outside the door were a bed of fennel—meeting seed—and some rose bushes. Close by was the country store and postoffice. The farmers who were not too severe went quietly and got their week’s mail, secreting it in their pockets. The county paper—the old Litchfield Enquirer — was usually gotten at this time. Many, however, felt that the mail should not be taken from the office on Sundays, but that it should be kept closed. The war changed this somewhat, for news from the front was looked for, a letter from George or John, telling about the battle of Antietam, or the Wilderness, or Cold Harbor. News items were exchanged and family matters talked over, for this was very likely the only social occasion during a month or months. The morning sermon was discussed at the noon hour, digested, so to speak, in preparation for the second one, which was sure to come in the afternoon. My father’s family stayed all day, unless it took all the morning to break out the roads, as it sometimes did in hard Winters.

We left home about half-past nine for the four miles’ drive or walk, and usually did not reach home until halfpast four or thereabouts. After that we had our second meal, and what so appetizing as an eight miles’ journey to church, two sermons and Sunday School? During the Winter the Sunday School was suspended, and in place of it there was a prayer meeting, led by one of the deacons. This was held in the meeting house, for the conference room, as it was called, had not then been built. The boy remembers one such prayer meeting, led by a deacon whose only gift was a religious voice. The Scripture was Romans, the twelfth chapter, but those exhortations of the great apostle were so graven on the mind that they have stayed there ever since, although much has been lost. This hill-town church had in those days for its minister the Rev. David Parmele. He was ministerial in dress, in voice and in manners. Everything about him proclaimed “I am a minister of the everlasting Gospel.” The black clothes, the high collar, the silk stock, the gold-bowed spectacles and the awful voice all told the same story. Mr. Parmele when he appeared in public invariably wore a silk hat, a better one on Sundays, and a second best on week days. He even wore a silk hat when he took care of his horse, presumably because he had no other. How do we know this? Because there came a day when, as usual, he walked sedately up the aisle of the meeting house and deposited his silk hat on the communion table, went into the pulpit and preached a solemn sermon, came down after the service and took up his hat to walk out. Of a sudden something seemed to. strike him, for, leaving his wife at the church door, he started with rapid gait toward the parsonage. Thus, by his very strange actions, attention was called to him and his barn hat, covered with cobwebs and hay seed. He had fed his horse at noon, and had gone to church forgetting to change his hat.

Parson Parmele, as the ungodly called him, was a good man, and served his generation well. The children, however, hid when they saw his horse and carriage coming over the hill. Although there were many boys and girls in the family, they seldom came forth until he had disappeared beyond the turn in the road. We welcomed the family doctor because of his kindly words and jolly, sympathetic face, but the minister—our minister he ought to have been—seemed to us to belong to quite another world. - He reminded us of sickbeds, funerals and heaven. Ah, well! ministerial dignity became the men who preached the theology of John Calvin.

This hill-town church in Litchfield South Farms nurtured a fine set of young men and women, in spile of their being afraid of the minister. Some of the boys went to college and into the ministry, and most of those trained in the old church have brought honor to their native place. The fathers and mothers were dignified, intellectual, shrewd men and women of the old New England stock. Few, very few, foreigners, perhaps not more than a half dozen families, lived within the borders of the society. The tide of emigration West had not yet depopulated the hills arid valleys, and immigration from all lands had not yet set back into the country towns.

The meeting house was well ifiled on Sundays at both services, the older boys sitting in the gallery on the one side and the girls on the other. It was considered an honor to graduate from the family pew to the- gallery, for it marked a stage of development from being under authority immediate, to being trusted. If that trust was violated, the offender was brought back again and seated in the pew with the smaller children. The singers sat in the rear gallery, and were led by the melodeon when there was any one to play it, or by the singing master with his tuning fork. As I remember it, the singing was all done by the choir, there being no such thing as congregational singing. Indeed, as a boy, the idea never occurred to me that the congregation had anything to do with that part of the service. Most people stood, it is true, and followed the hymn with a book that had no music written in it, with occasional glances at the choir, and in many instances they turned about with great deliberation and faced the choir, the better to see and hear it.

The best thing that can be said of these hill-town churches in our county is that they are character builders. They have done for the souls of men what the schools have done for their minds. Moral integrity, purity, strength of will, hardness of moral fibre, all have been the result of just this kind of Congregational church life, where those constituting the church and congregation have managed its affairs and been held i’esponsible for its failures. The Congregational hilltown churches have been the fruitful mothers of men. Out of them have gone Beecher, Finney and Bushnell, Senator Platt, of Connecticut, General John Sedgwick and a host of others, who have upheld the honor and made famous the towns and State that gave them birth. The greatest honor that can come to any town is to say of it, at the mention of some name that has become famous, “This man was born there.” John Pierpont, scholar, lawyer, poet, priest and warrior, was born not very far from this South Farms meeting house, in 1785.

He was graduated from Yale College in 1804, a classmate of John C. Calhoun. Yale conferred on him the honorary degree of Master of Arts in 1821, and Harvard the same degree in the following year. He was the grandfather of J. Pierpont Morgan, the eminent financier. In 1840 he issued his book of poems entitled "Wares of a Verse-wright Made to Order.” Previous to this he had published his “Airs of Palestine.” In 1861, at the age of seventy-six, Mr. Pierpont became an army chaplain, serving for one year. From 1862 to 1864 he held a clerkship at Washington, and rendered his department of government valuable service in the compilation of statistics. Whatever was his work, he magnified it and honored the position. He was a fine product of the hill town and its meeting, house. Sturdy, brainy, conscientious, patriotic, with a frame of iron and a will to match, he did his part of the world’s work, and did it well. Along with these qualities were those more tender and gentle, with that lofty imagination and pure idealism which made him a poet. This is witnessed by many of his poems, manifestly by that one entitled “Hymn of the Last Supper”:

“The winds are hushed, the peaceful moon
Looks down on Zion’s hill;
The city sleeps, ‘tis night’s calm noon,
And all the streets are still.”

The Rev. John Pierpont, of Litchfield South Farms, bore witness by his noble life and manifold activities to the Pilgrim spirit set forth in his poem, published in 1824, entitled “The Pilgrim Fathers”:

“The Pilgrim spirit has not fled:
It walks in noon’s broad light,
And it watches the bed of the glorious dead,
With the hoiy stars of night.

It watches the bed of the brave who have bled, And shall guard this icebound shore,
Till the waves of the bay, where the Mayflower lay, Shall foam and freeze no more.”

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