Monthly Archives: April 2014


Spring arrives slowly in Alaska. Piles of dirty snow sit on the north side of the house and in the shadowed patches on the south. Near our front porch the white mounds defy the sun, and hopes for an early spring are usually disappointed. This is when my thoughts turn to Whirlwind Hill and wildflowers.

"Front Door with Snow," Carol Crump Bryner, gouache and colored pencil, 2013

“Front Door with Snow,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache and colored pencil, 2013

My mother, who grew up roaming the fields and hills around the farm, knew her wildflowers and birds. The repeated rhythms of her stories about gathering spring flowers on the mountain come back to me in a list of names – hepatica, spring beauty, adder’s tongues, Dutchman’s breeches, trillium, violets. When she was growing up, she and her brothers and sister picked these wildflowers for May Day baskets.

The old-fashioned ritual of hanging baskets of flowers on doors on May first, “May Day,” knocking, and then running away to hide, appeals to me, but it’s not something that’s going to happen in Alaska. Instead, I hang a blue metal basket of hopeful pussy willows near the front door to remind me that spring will arrive eventually.

While my mother was still alive I continued a tradition started by her older brother Francis. Every spring when the adder’s tongues (also called trout lilies or dogs-tooth violets) bloomed in their usual spot by the spring at the cow pond, Francis picked a bunch and brought them up the lane to the farmhouse for his mother, my Grandma Hall. When my mother could no longer walk to the pond I picked them for her. They’re such lovely and cheerful little flowers, but they do have a slight reptilian quality because of their spotted waxy leaves, tongue-like stamens, and curled back petals. They grow in colonies that, if undisturbed, can last for decades. I find them in the same spots, year after year. They come back, much like I do to Whirlwind Hill, because their roots are there.

"Adder's Tongues," Carol Crump Bryner, gouache and colored pencil, 2013

“Adder’s Tongues,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache and colored pencil, 2013

From Lydia’s journal, May 5, 1924 – “Nice day. Agnes took Francis to school this morning – he took a large bunch of Adder Tongues he picked down in the meadow to Miss Martin. They are very nice, in full bloom. I think they will make her smile.”

On Monday:  The Kitchen

A Window on the Landing

The Hall farmhouse on Whirlwind Hill set the standards for all the houses I’ve lived in. Its staircases, wallpapered rooms, tall windows, wood plank floors, attics, odd-shaped closets, and paneled doors with round knobs formed my notions of the way a home should look.

In 1973, after living in Alaska for several years, my husband and I were ready to buy a house. Expecting our first child, and eager to start nesting, we were dismayed by how few houses were for sale in Anchorage. Finally, through a friend, we found a downtown house about to go on the market. It wasn’t pretty – certainly not by Connecticut standards. This big pinkish box with brown shutters had a cement front stoop whose left side sank into the ground. But when I walked through the front door I came face to face with a center staircase leading to the second floor bedrooms.

As I walked up the stairs I pretended not to notice the red shag carpet, lumpy plastered ceilings, and shiny black louver doors. I was hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed, and I wasn’t. On the landing, at the top of the stairs, the afternoon light shone through a tall window and cast patterns and shadows on the walls and floor. The bedroom doors were paneled, and they had old round metal doorknobs. It felt like home. We bought the house, and a few years later I did a painting of the landing window. I still have everything in the painting (yes – the plant lives!) except for the window, which, during a 1982 remodel made way for a door into a new bedroom.

"Hall Window," Carol Crump Bryner, oil on canvas, 1978

“Hall Window,” Carol Crump Bryner, oil on canvas, 1978

In the farmhouse, at the top of the back staircase, there was also a landing with a wood floor, multiple doorways, and a window. I have no pictures of this window from the inside, but I do remember the importance of having that light at the top of the dark, narrow stairs. I also remember the view, which in my great-great-great-grandfather Aaron Hall’s time would have been to Muddy River and his farm’s pastureland. From the outside the window is not striking, but like much of the rest of the house it was on the inside where the memories and the views were made.

"Farmhouse Window from Outside," Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2014

“Farmhouse Window from Outside,” Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2014

On Wednesday:  Wildflowers


“Cold and cloudy, rained hard during the night. It is lighting up at noon. Think the storm has passed. Agnes has taken the three children [my mother Janet, her sister Lydia, and her brother Francis] in the auto to Sunday School. Quite a chore for her to get them washed, dressed & ready & home again. It needs perseverance – am glad she has got it. Should be glad to help her but have been miserable lately. The apple trees are out in full bloom. Daisies are budded, blue violets all out…” – Lydia Jane Hall, May 1, 1924

Whirlwind Hill Violets

Violets may be starting to bloom in Wallingford now. To me they seem the most old-fashioned of flowers. Near the old barn site on my parents’ property the violets still grow in profusion, and I pick a bunch and put them in the middle of the kitchen table when I’m there.

My great-grandmother Lydia’s cousin, Mary E. Hart, painted watercolors and oils of scenery and flowers. (I’ll return to Mary Hart in more detail in the future.) The violets in this painting by her lie gracefully tied in a loose bouquet. Maybe they were a gift or maybe just an arranged still life. But they seem to me as fresh as they must have been all those years ago when she put her brush to the paper.

"Violets," Mary E. Hart, watercolor, ca. 1860

“Violets,” Mary E. Hart, watercolor, ca. 1860

On Monday:  A Window on the Landing


Last spring we had a Hall family reunion. We came from all over the country to gather on a Saturday in May at the Crump barn on Whirlwind Hill.

On my first day back east before the event I took my favorite walk around the Whirlwind Hill block. The three mile circle starts at the end of our driveway, winds around the reservoir, passes the swampy and woodsy stretch of Scard Road, straightens out and turns to the right on Branford Road, then turns right again to navigate the roller coaster that is Whirlwind Hill. Names of former and present neighbors, some still on their farms or in their houses, come to mind as I pass by – Hale, Riotte. Keogh, Scard, Barnes, Bartholomew, Cella, Foster, Mahan, Kranyak, Pyskaty, Farnam, Parks, Williams, Hall, Ives, and Guidone. Near the end of the walk, on the last downhill stretch, I reach the site of the Hall farmhouse that burned in 1971. Since then, the remains of the house have been taken away, but the foundation endures – a dirt-floored, stone-lined hole invisible from the road because of the trees and weeds and bushes that grow where the house used to stand.

Farmhouse Foundation, May 2013

Farmhouse Foundation, May 2013

My feelings about this spot are bittersweet. I’m sad that the house is gone and that trees grow where the walls should be. But I’m happy that the foundation is still there for me to look at. Looking at it is not easy, however, because I’m afraid of ticks – the little ones that you can hardly see and that give you Lyme disease. I had to steel myself to make my way through the brushy growth to reach the edge of the cellar hole. I stayed only long enough to take a few photos and spent a long time afterward brushing imaginary bugs off my legs and arms and head.

For the reunion on May 4, I sketched a very rough family tree putting our great-grandparents William Ellsworth and Lydia Jane Hall at the top. My cousin Nancy and I made nametags that were color coded to indicate the Hall brothers and sisters who were grandparents to the cousins in my generation. At some point during the day people started adding to the tree – family members whose names I hadn’t known, or didn’t remember, and names of the newer generations, many of whom I was meeting for the first time.

Hall Family Tree with Additions

Hall Family Tree with Additions

The poster board filled up, and by the end of the day it had begun to look like the old foundation. A small stone here, a larger one there, all joined by the mortar of family. I suppose this is a tenuous comparison, but it pleased me to think of the strength of family ties this way.

We had a glorious day – sunny and warm and infused with the joyful cheer that comes when families gather to celebrate the past and build memories for the next generations.

Hall Family Reunion, photo courtesy of Charles Peters

Hall Family Reunion, photo courtesy of Charles Peters

On Friday:  Violets

The House

On a frigid night in January 1971, my father, a volunteer fireman with the East Wallingford Fire Department, was called to a house fire on Whirlwind Hill. I was living in Alaska then, and it was days before my shocked and grieving mother could bring herself to call and tell me that my grandparents’ farmhouse was gone. The house had stood empty since my grandmother’s death that August. The men fought the fire all night long, but lost. The photo in the paper the next morning showed the ruins of the house covered with snow and icicles.

Farmhouse Ruins, Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2013

Farmhouse Ruins, Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2013

This was the end of the house with the five stairways, the six bedrooms, the two attics, the one bathroom, and the large living room with nine doors. But it was the beginning of our memories and our longing.

My brother and I dream about this house that we loved, and in our dreams our grandparents and aunts and uncles are still vividly alive. They greet us on the porch, and we walk together in a hazy silence through the half-remembered rooms of our childhood.

One of the reasons I started this Whirlwind Hill project was to bring the farmhouse back to life in words and pictures. It probably looms larger in my imagination than it ever did in its physical presence, but it was a wonderful and memorable place. For more than two hundred years its walls sheltered my ancestors and watched them move through their daily routines.  During the next weeks and months I’ll revisit its rooms, peek through its doors, look out its windows, climb its stairs, and maybe discover some secrets in the dusty corners.

Kitchen door of the farmhouse around 1920 - the child in the doorway is possibly my mother, Janet Hall Crump at age 2

Kitchen door of the farmhouse around 1920 – the child in the doorway is possibly my mother, Janet Hall Crump, around age 2

On Wednesday:  Foundations


Seeing the Big Picture

You may notice that I skip around a bit in my blog posts.  Events won’t necessarily be going in chronological order. The way I’m writing my posts is not all that different from my collage-making process.

I started doing collage when I was learning how to paint. I was exasperated because the paint colors I mixed came out muddy and muted instead of bright and clear. My painting teacher suggested I try collage.

Making a collage gives me the chance to “paint” a picture using bits and pieces of color and pattern that already exist – I pick the pieces up, sort them out, and put them together like a puzzle. It’s a searching and discovering way of doing art and similar to my approach to writing “On Whirlwind Hill.”

Pile of Collage Scraps

Pile of collage scraps

I have most of the scraps – the pieces of history, the photos, the journals, etc. I’d like to come upon more. I hope I do.

I’ll put the scraps out there for all of you to see. They won’t necessarily be in an orderly timeline, nor will I use every bit of information I have, but by the end of the year I hope there will be some kind of “big picture.” For me the fun is in the finding-out and in the deciding what pieces to put where.

Sunny Day on Whirlwind Hill, Carol Crump Bryner, collage, 2014

A Sunny Day on Whirlwind Hill, Carol Crump Bryner, collage, 2014

On Monday: The House


When I had a tooth pulled a few years ago I fussed and complained about it for days before and for days after. My great-grandfather William Ellsworth Hall didn’t make a very big deal about his adventures at the dentist. Nor did he say much about the start of the Civil War. Here’s what he wrote in his 1861 journal.

Saturday, April 20 – “Went to New Haven. Had 8 teeth out. Spent the night with Aaron.”

Sunday, April 21 – “Went in town to have teeth out. Had 8 out. Walk home. War news.”

Monday, May 6 – “Got my teeth. Came home.”

He may have complained about his teeth to his wife, but didn’t share his feelings in his journal. Sometimes it bothers me that the past reaches me in this consciously or unconsciously edited way. William was a busy man and penned only a few words each day. But he wrote what he thought were the essentials, and it’s fun for me to have these glimpses into his life.

Journal of William Ellsworth Hall, 1861

Journal of William Ellsworth Hall, 1861

The women and men who built the Hall farm were probably even tougher than my great-grandfather. The first settlers carved the town of Wallingford out of land “purchased” from Quinnipiac Indians Mantowese and Sawseunck in 1638. In his “History of Wallingford Connecticut” Charles Davis describes the purchase.

“Lastly, the said Theophilus Eaton, John Davenport, &c., accepting from Mantowese this free gift of his land as above do by way of thankful retribution give unto him eleven coats made of trucking cloth, and one coat for himself of English cloth, made up after the English manner.”

At the time of this treaty the Quinnipiacs in the area numbered about two hundred and fifty. By 1774, a mere four were left in Wallingford.

The original 1670 town plan for Wallingford shows the six-acre house lots (forty-two in all) mapped out on the “Long High Way” – the street that would eventually become Main Street. To the east of these lots, in the direction of the Hall farm, the planner wrote two words – “East” and “Wilderness.”

Charles Davis describes the challenges for the first settlers.

“Making a new settlement was quite a formidable undertaking…Wolves, in thousands, infested the new settlements. They killed the cattle, they stole and carried off the sheep, and did what they could by their unearthly howlings at night, to add to the horrors that thickened on the skirts of the wilderness. The moose, the deer and the bear roamed at will through the unbroken wilderness.”

Whether or not it was right for my ancestors to become owners of land that had belonged to Indians and animals that “roamed at will,” is a thornier issue than I can cover in this blog, but it does give me pause to remember that the land I think of as mine and ours was not always so.

When I visit Wallingford and take walks around the block that makes up Whirlwind Hill, I pass a lonely wooded area. It used to be the site of the Scard farm, but in just the few years since the house was taken down, the woods have reclaimed their place. I think about John the Immigrant’s three sons who were among the thirty-eight original settlers of Wallingford. How intrepid they must have been to clear the land one tree at a time to build their homes and their lives and their community. Farming was, and still is, an incessant battle against the forces of nature, and they worked daily to be good caretakers of their land.

In these woods I can almost feel the ancient presence of people and animals that walked and roamed among the trees before any of our family arrived. Someday these familiar acres may be wilderness again, and the thought humbles me as I continue on my way to the top of Whirlwind Hill.

"Wallingford Woods, Carol Crump Bryner, pen and colored pencil, 2012

“Wallingford Woods, Carol Crump Bryner, pen and colored pencil, 2012

On Friday: Seeing the Big Picture


At the Top of the Tree


Creating a family tree is a complicated business. The generations grow in number, names become confusing as they are repeated from family to family, and, to an outsider, the result can be just plain boring.  But there’s always a starting place – a first person – who is either at the bottom (on the trunk) or on the top of the tree.

I’ve always pictured our genealogy looking like the growing Christmas tree in the Nutcracker Ballet with the star family member at the top and the heirs and assigns adorning the branches below like ornaments lovingly collected over the years.

Our star, the Hall at the top of our tree, is John, The Immigrant. Sometimes called “The Emigrant” and sometimes “The Immigrant,” he was twenty-five years old when, in 1630, he left his home in Old England to come to New England. I’ve read that he traveled on the ship “The Griffin,” but haven’t been able to verify that. What I do know is that he got on a boat one day and left his home, never to return.  Did he bring with him on his journey a treasured pocket watch, a family Bible, a lock of a loved one’s hair? Did he hold close a letter, or a journal, or a map of this new land? Maybe his crossing was rough and his cabin small and dark. It can’t have been easy, and I wish I knew more details so I could have a sense of who he was, what he felt, and what he left behind.

Alexis de Toqueville said of the Puritans, “I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.” It would be a good guess to suppose that John was a Puritan, and that he left England to pursue religious freedom.

But I also want him to be an adventurer, eager to cross an ocean and build a country. His travels took him first to Boston and then New Haven. He married Jane Wollen, fathered seven children, and in 1670 helped establish the town of Wallingford, Connecticut. Three of his sons were among Wallingford’s first settlers, and were it not for this great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather venturing into the unknown, there would have been no Hall farm on Whirlwind Hill.

In the middle of a field on the farm stands a lone maple tree. I visit it every time I go back to Wallingford. When I stand under its branches I can see the farmland, and I imagine how it used to look. The tree makes me think of John, and I thank him for this place.

The Tree, Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil

On Wednesday: Wilderness

April Window

The farmhouse where my great-grandmother Lydia Jane Hall lived for sixty-two years was a house of many rooms – each room having its own set of long windows, each window its own special view of the surrounding countryside. Lydia kept a daily journal and made patient and sensible observations about the farm and the world around her. Because I’ve read and loved her journals, I feel close to her. I like to picture her sitting at one of the long windows looking out at the seasons of the farm.

During a 1985 workshop at the Visual Arts Center of Alaska, I made a series of monoprints to illustrate some of the journal quotes using views from these windows. I’ve taken a certain amount of artistic license with the “views.” Although these were real places on the farm, they’re not necessarily something one would have seen from a window. They’re places a housebound woman might have been remembering when looking back at her life on the farm.

To make my monoprints, I painted on a piece of battleship linoleum, placed a sheet of printing paper over the painting, and rubbed the back of the paper with the bowl of a wooden spoon so that the paper would pick up the paint from the linoleum surface. There’s usually only enough paint to make one print – thus the label monoprint. The images often appear ghostly – the effect I wanted for these windows from the past.

Because each print illustrated a quote from a single calendar month, I’ll post one a month for the duration of my blog.

In this April entry she writes about being lonesome. Her daughters Hattie and Ellen had married and moved to town. They visited and helped out as much as possible, but they had their own homes and families, and Lydia missed their cheerful presence.

April Window. monoprint, Carol Crump Bryner, 1986Wednesday, April 9, 1913

“A cold morning – getting warmer toward evening. Men harrowing for oats, trimming trees, etc. – alone and lonely. Miss my girls.”

On Monday:  At the Top of the Tree

A Piece of the Past

In 1968, after I married and settled into a California life, I received a gift from my grandmother Agnes Hall. Folded into a plain white envelope was the 1746 deed to part of the land that eventually became the Hall farm. This document, deeding land to my great-great-great-great grandfather Asahel Hall, had stayed for five generations in a desk in the farmhouse living room, maybe waiting to be sent across the country to me. Inside the envelope with the 1746 deed was a second deed and this note from my grandmother.

“These old deeds take this part of the Hall family back to Revolutionary times…Do what you want with them but they are really family history and perhaps I shall take you back by names and dates to the original founders of New Haven and Wallingford.” Yours with love, Grandma Hall

 And this is how my history and knowledge of the farm accumulates. I’ve searched for some, stumbled upon others, and been handed treasures by relatives. For me there are never enough of these bits, and the truth seems never quite complete. I love this quote from Julian Barnes’s novel “The Sense of an Ending.”

 I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory.

 I hope to proceed with my stories of the farm in “subjective time,” filtering these bits and pieces of history through my memories, and writing about what I hold closest.

1746 Deed

 My grandmother suggested I frame the deed and hang it on the wall, but I prefer to be able to hold it in my hands once in awhile. More than just a piece of paper, it’s a treasure touched and written on by an ancestor whose son fought in the Revolutionary War. I know it’s a legal term, but the words “Know Ye” seem very grand. The legal part of the deed was printed with hand carved type and the rest written in sepia ink with flourishes added to the letters. In some words the letter s looks like an f, and I can’t read it without thinking about the “heirs and affigns”, which I suppose includes me. I have other deeds to this land, some of which are earlier, but this is the first that mentions a dwelling. I want to believe this is the original Hall homestead. If Wallingford was the center of my world growing up, my grandparents’ farmhouse was, for me, always its heart.

Hall Homestead, ca. 1750

On Friday:  April Window