Tag Archives: Aaron Hall Esq.


"Pen," Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil, 2015

“Pen,” Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil, 2015

Among the Whirlwind Hill documents my mother treasured were a dozen or so letters written between 1812 and 1815 to my great-great-grandfather Salmon Hall. Until recently I assumed these letters to be written by his brother Aaron Chauncey Hall. All the signatures on the letters were either A. C. Hall, or A. Hall.

A. C. Hall signature

A. C. Hall signature

But just last week I discovered upon closer reading, that many of these old letters were written by my great-great-uncle, Asahel Hall, son of Aaron Hall Esq., older brother of Salmon Hall, and younger brother of Aaron Chauncey Hall. His signature is different than Aaron’s and the letters he wrote more detailed and informal. I was happy to be able to finally connect this Asahel to the Dr. Asahel Hall lauded in an obituary that my mother kept with these letters.

Dr. Asahel Hall signature

Dr. Asahel Hall signature

Asahel grew up on the farm, became a doctor, and during the war of 1812, when he was just twenty years old, became a surgeon’s mate at Fort Griswold in New London, Connecticut. (I wonder what this says about the medical profession in those days, that a twenty-year old could become a doctor?) Later in his life he settled in Poughkeepsie, NY, where he practiced medicine, married, and had four children. One of his sons, Henry Clay Hall, was a long-serving United States diplomat to Mexico, Cuba, and Central America, and was consul-general in Matanzas and Havana, Cuba. Abraham Lincoln signed Henry’s appointment as vice-consul general of Matanzas.

Asahel’s letters home to his brother from his post at Fort Griswold are affectionate and personal. He often laments the fact that he hasn’t heard from his four brothers and six sisters, and wishes he could come home to see them.

“Dear Brother, The mail has come in & nought [sic] do I hear from you & why? Are you too busy to give me a line, or your mind & attention given to the fair daughters? If the latter be the case, I will not presume but admonish you to relax a little and give me a word or two to revive a flagging spirit.” – Asahel Hall, in a letter to his brother Salmon from Fort Griswold, Connecticut, May 20, 1814

He also spends time thinking about women.

“Dear Brother, I am comfortably seated by a good fire in a warm room, although it is devilish cold without & in fact it has been so cold for a number of days, I have hardly made the daring attempt to call on the fair ones. Just after my return, I attended two parties & my favorite lady was there. She almost tempted me to sin. Her glistening arms & ruddy cheeks – her fine fair form & lips so sweet, would almost raise the devil with any fellow.” – Asahel Hall, in a letter to his brother Salmon from Fort Griswold, Connecticut, February 1, 1814

And he gives Salmon advice on planning for the future.

“I had some conversations with Father, about you & business. He said he had not mentioned to you anything about living with him the ensuing year, but was of the opinion it would be best for both for you to tarry another year, as in the course of that time the prospects of affairs might change, & some good opportunity arise for you. He said he would give you so much per month or give you a proportional part of the products of his land, etc. etc. Under all circumstances I could but believe an agreement in one or the other of those points, would be better than entering into any other business.” – Asahel Hall, in a letter to his brother Salmon from Fort Griswold, Connecticut, February 1, 1814

Salmon took his brother’s advice, and so the Hall farm was passed down for generations to enjoy.

Letters sustained me for much of my life. I became homesick easily, and newsy letters arriving at camp, college, summer jobs, and my eventual exile in the far west were always welcome. Both of my grandmothers and my mother regularly wrote me news of all sorts. In this letter sent to me at camp in 1958, my grandmother reports on all of my Hall first cousins except Dean, who hadn’t yet been born.

Grandma Hall's letter to me at Silver Lake Camp, front page, summer, 1958

Grandma Hall’s letter to me at Silver Lake Camp, Front page, summer 1958

Grandma Hall's letter to me at Silver Lake Camp, back page, summer 1958

Grandma Hall’s letter to me at Silver Lake Camp, back page, summer 1958

During my teenage years I corresponded with a pen pal, Merle. She and I wrote letters back and forth from her home in England to my little red house in Wallingford, Connecticut. We talked about lipstick, nail polish, new dresses, our parents, our siblings, our pets, and boys.

I never met Merle, but felt I knew her through the details she sent to me about her everyday life. And now I’m gradually starting to get acquainted with my distant and sometimes mysterious forefathers and mothers. Although their lives and times were different from mine, we shared a similar desire to stay connected, to send and receive news, and to give advice. Maybe the ancestors didn’t talk about lipstick and perfume as I did with Merle, and I certainly never advised anyone to take Calomel the way one brother advised another, but we enjoyed the process of writing a letter – of putting pen to paper and using words to bring another person closer to us and to let them know we care.

A letter from Asahel to Salmon

A letter from Asahel to Salmon

On Monday:  Foraging

House Divided

Long ago I had a dollhouse with a removable front. I could peer into the rooms, and because the roof came off too, I could look down onto the bedrooms, bathroom and staircase. For me this was magic – to be able move the furniture around and pretend that real people lived there. I’m a romantic when it comes to imagining the rooms in the houses I pass by on my walks. The glimpses I get into lit-up nighttime windows give just the barest hint of the lives lived inside.

I thought about my old dollhouse when I read my great-great-great-grandfather Aaron Hall’s will, inventory, and property distribution documents. The actual real estate settlement and uses of the land are still confusing to me. Where exactly was the “Lot adjoining the Garden,” or “The Meadow north of the bridge,” or “The Side Hill and Meadow, under the Rock?”

The thing that piqued my interest and made me chuckle was the description of future use of the “dwelling house and buildings” for the two important women in Aaron’s life – his wife Annis, and his daughter Mary. At the time of Aaron’s death Annis was seventy-five years old. Mary was forty and unmarried. Annis was Aaron’s third wife and Mary’s second stepmother. Aaron and Annis had been married for twelve years when Aaron died. Mary and Annis both lived in the farmhouse, and as far as I know they continued living there. Mary never married, and Annis died in 1844.

I have no photographs of Annis, but do have this tintype of Mary taken in the 1860’s.

Mary Hall, around 1860

Mary Hall, around 1860

Aaron left to his “beloved wife” no property except what she brought with her to his house at the time of their marriage. She was to share the use of the chaise and horse with his daughter Mary.

And she was to have the use of the house as stated here:

We set to the widow Annis Hall, the use of one-third part of the dwelling house & buildings north of the highway towit:

  • The east front room with the bedroom adjoining.
  • One undivided third of the keeping room.
  • The east third of the garret.
  • The south part of the old cellar to the amount of one third of all the cellar room.
  • The south part of the milk room.
  • Her right in the oven, and at the well, with the right of passing to and from the above named apartments and appendages.
  • Also her right in the wood room. [In the written document this looks like “mood room,” and I thought what a wonderful place that would be to have in a house – a place to hide out when you were just in some kind of mood.]

To his daughter Mary, Aaron gave six acres of land, $150, and his chaise. Her share in the house was also specified:

The use of one-sixth part of the dwelling house, while she remains single, towit:

  • East front chamber with the bedroom adjoining.
  • One undivided sixth part of the keeping room.
  • The west end of the garret to the amount of one sixth of all the garret room.
  • The remaining part of the old cellar, with the right to use the oven and the well.
  • Also the right to use the stairs and passes leading to and from the apartments and privileges herein set to her.

I try to picture how the women lived in this way, if indeed they did. Maybe it just had to be put down in writing in case some kind of argument ensued. But it’s hard for me to think of the rooms I grew up with – dining room, kitchen, living room, bathroom, parlor, etc. being used so very differently. I don’t know how many other people were living in the house in 1839 when Aaron died, but the 1830 census counts ten people. By 1939 my great-great-grandfather Salmon had married Cornelia and had added three children to the household – Aaron, Mary Jane, and my great-grandfather, William E. Hall.

I wish I still had that dollhouse. Maybe some day I’ll make a model based on the Hall farmhouse, but for now I’m content to speculate about nineteenth-century domestic life on Whirlwind Hill.

"Farmhouse Rooms," Carol Crump Bryner, pen and colored pencil, 2015

“Farmhouse Rooms,” Carol Crump Bryner, pen and colored pencil, 2015

On Monday:  Spoons

Have you Counted Your Handkerchiefs Lately?

Have you ever thought about counting all the small (and medium and large) things you own? How many pillowcases do you have? Dishtowels? Spoons? Buttons? Cowbells? Nightcaps? Dung forks? And do you think your heirs will count them when you’re gone? Probably not.

"Dung Fork," Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil, 2015

“Dung Fork,” Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil, 2015

But in 1839 when my great-great-great-grandfather Aaron Hall Esq. died, exact inventories were important parts of an estate settlement. Aaron had nine children and one wife, and he was very clear about passing specific property on to them. To read about the belongings he left behind is to gain a more vivid picture of the day-to-day lives of my ancestors.

Last fall, when I was in Wallingford, I went to Probate Court in the Town Hall to find Aaron’s will. I’d put off my search until a day when I had several free hours, thinking it would take a long time. But the efficient woman behind the counter needed only the name of my great-great-great-grandfather and the year of his death. It took her less than ten minutes to find and bring me a large portfolio containing this treasure, and later that afternoon I came back to pick up my copies of the nineteen legal-sized pages of beautiful handwriting and juicy information.

Detail of Will of Aaron Hall, Esq.

Detail of Will of Aaron Hall, Esq.

These are formidable documents. I’ve read the pages over and over, and still don’t quite understand what much of it means. The inventory is pretty straightforward, but the distribution of property, which I’ll talk about on Wednesday, is complicated and often pretty amusing.

The six-page list of Aaron’s real and personal property includes “wearing apparel,” “farming utensils,” “household furniture,” and “real estate.” My great-great-grandfather Salmon Hall and his brother Billious Kirtland Hall, the will’s executors, counted, recorded, and assigned a value to every item of clothing, cutlery, farm equipment, livestock, hay, money, etc. on the property. This section of a page includes an inventory of the bed sheets (I count 58 total) valued from 25¢ to $1.00.

Detail of Inventory of Aaron Hall, Esq.

Detail of Inventory of Aaron Hall, Esq.

Here are a few items from the executors’ list:

  • 1 Loose Gown – 30¢
  • 1 Pair Pantaloons – 20¢
  • 1 Cow Bell – 6¢
  • 1 Spit Box – 8¢
  • ½ of 1 Dung Fork – 17¢, 1 Old Dung Fork – 4¢,
  • 1 Calico Comfortable – 37¢
  • ½ of 1 Cow – $14.00
  • 7 Tons of Hay – $67.65
  • 1 Porridge Pot – 34¢
  • 10 Fowls – $2.37 ½
  • Pair Great Steelyards – $1.50
  • 1 Sausage Filler – 8¢
  • 4 Night Caps – 12¢
  • Chaise and Harness – $10.00
  • 1 Beer Pot – 17¢
  • 90 Lbs Cheese – $7.20

Some of Aaron’s inventory may still exist today.

This could be one of the linen pillowcases. It’s hand-hemmed and hand-embroidered with the letter “h.”

Linen Pillowcase

Linen Pillowcase

My mother was very fond of the old pewter, and I’m sure this duo was part of what the inventory describes as: “Lot of Old Pewter – $3.27.” It used to sit on the dining room mantel at the farm, and is now in the living room of our house on Whirlwind Hill.

Pewter platter and pitcher

Pewter platter and pitcher

And the foot warmer I talked about in my post about electricity might be the one recorded as: “1 Foot Stove – 50¢.”

Foot Stove

Foot Stove

Cash on hand amounted to $56.43, and the sum total of all the personal property was $1400.26.

I try to picture how Salmon and Billious accomplished this task. Did they walk around carrying paper, ink, and quill pen to make their list? Did someone bring the items to them one by one? How did they decide on the value? Why was one pillowcase worth 17¢ when another was valued at only 12¢?

I’m trying hard these days to lighten my own load of unused and unnecessary detritus. But Aaron’s goal was probably to leave as much behind as possible. I’m certainly glad he left this list.

And just for the record – – he left 7 handkerchiefs.

On Wednesday:  House Divided


Ghosts – Part II

Finding Cornelia

At the end of my Monday post – “Ghosts Part I” – I still hadn’t seen Cornelia’s headstone. I had found the two generations that preceded her on Whirlwind Hill. Under a long line of stones lay Asahel and Sarah Hall, their son Aaron (whose stone is missing) and his three wives Elizabeth, Sarah, and Annis, and Aaron and Elizabeth’s daughter Mary Hall. On the left is a small stone that I was unable to read. The only clue to its owner is that he or she died in 1798.

"Headstones," Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2013

“Headstones,” Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2013

My brother and I went back to the cemetery the day before I was to leave Connecticut, and almost immediately we found Cornelia. She’s buried next to her husband, my great-great grandfather Salmon Hall. Next to them are their three children who died young – Henry Griswold at two, Emily at seven, and Edgar at eighteen. The impact of seeing these names and dates “written in stone” is so much greater than just reading them as part of a family tree or genealogy. Even the placement and order of the stones tells stories about those buried beneath.

And yet, Cornelia remains a mystery to me. How did a young girl from Sheffield, Massachusetts meet and marry my Connecticut great-great grandfather? How did she adjust to life so far away from her family? Why did she make so many visits back to Sheffield. How long did that journey take in the mid-nineteenth century? And how, I wonder, did she cope with losing three of her seven children? Maybe the ritual of visiting the cemetery helped. I hope that for her the putting of an offering on a grave and the standing in silence in the presence of her ghosts, eased what must have been great loss.

Cornelia's Headstone

Cornelia’s Headstone

On Friday:  Ghosts – Part III – Halloween

Barns – Part II

When I was fifteen my parents bought land from my grandparents’ neighbors, Delevan and May Ives. What I didn’t know then, but have found out recently, was that the land where my parents built our new home in 1960 had once belonged to my Hall ancestors. Part of this property included a barn, which my dad used for the next thirty years to shelter his horses. In 2008, when the barn needed major repairs, my father and brother decided to have it taken down, restored, and relocated closer to the house.

"Crump Barn, around 1990," Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2014

“Crump Barn, around 1990,” Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2014

As George Senercia took down our barn, (see “Barns – Part I”) he realized that the same person who built my grandparents’ barn also built ours. The clues were in the way the timbers were hewn and the framing structured. George became convinced that my great-great-great grandfather Aaron Hall – who also built the barn on my grandparents’ farm – built our barn around 1810, some years before he constructed the barn farther up Whirlwind Hill.

By the time they started working on our barn in August 2008, George and his group, “Northford Timber Framers,” had restored over fifty barns in New England. The work is done by volunteer labor – men and women trained by George in his weekend workshops. George, who had a heart transplant in 2004, makes each barn raising a spiritual experience. For him the old timbers are the “Heart of the Barn,” and give life to the new structure in the same way his new heart gave life to him.

It took two years to clean, sort, and prepare the framing and build the new foundation. All the work was done slowly and thoughtfully, carving numbers into each timber to facilitate the putting-back-together. To put the barn back together, timber framers used tools and methods that would have been employed in 1810. Hand-carved pegs took the place of nails, and manpower the place of cranes and forklifts.

Hand-carved pegs

Hand-carved pegs

New and old parts were joined together simply and solidly.

Wooden peg joining new and old timber

Wooden peg joining new and old timber

Some of the timbers (each made from an individual tree) were long and very, very heavy. To lift them, the workers used pulleys, chains, and stone counterweights. Our counterweights were named “Fred” and “Barney.”





On a very hot weekend in July 2010, my brother and father and I held our barn raising.

Carol, Charlie, and Kirt - morning of barn raising

Carol, Charlie, and Kirt – morning of barn raising

Cousins and friends and workers came from all over New England and around the country. Among the hundred or so people there, sixty were volunteers who worked for two days in the intense heat. The rest of us watched, took pictures, served food, ran errands, brought water, and cheered the progress.

To big cheers, workers raised the first bent on Saturday morning.

Raising of the north bent

Raising of the north bent

Work progressed throughout the weekend. It took as many as twenty people to lift one beam.

Getting ready to lift the beam into place

Getting ready to lift the beam into place

On Sunday afternoon the Stony Creek Fife and Drum Corps marched down Whirlwind Hill and up our driveway to play for a short christening ceremony in the new barn.

Stony Creek Fife and Drum Corps marching down the driveway.

Stony Creek Fife and Drum Corps marching down the driveway.

George placed the American flag on the roof, and then we celebrated with food and drink and a huge cake covered with strawberries.

Crump barn on Sunday afternoon

Crump barn on Sunday afternoon

For two days we were immersed in an unforgettable experience. The past and the present met on this spot, and time seemed to slow down. Now the barn looks like this.

Crump Barn, 2013

Crump Barn, 2013

As a memorial to my ancestor, George carved Aaron Hall’s name into one of the restored timbers. Every part of this barn has meaning, but for me the barns are not the same barns they used to be.

George, with his new heart, may very well be the same person he was before surgery, but for me, these are not the barns I knew. It’s a question I really can’t answer – this mystery of place. It’s all well and good to say that you have restored a structure and it “lives again,” but for me, the heart has gone out of the barn.

Where I find this heart is in my memories and in the pictures that remind me of the life the barns once held. The most magical moments in the Hall barn came each year on Easter Sunday, when my brother and cousins and I were let loose in the haymow to search for the painted eggs that my Easter Bunny grandfather hid. I can smell the hay, see the shafts of light piercing the dust, hear the swallows swooping in and out of the high window to their nests in the rafters, and feel the excitement of finding a hidden egg. We were never able to find all the eggs our grandfather hid, but when George dismantled my grandparents’ barn, he found nestled in the hay brightly colored eggs left behind so many years before.

Cousin Sue and Carol, Easter Sunday, 1949

Cousin Sue and Carol, Easter Sunday, 1949

On Friday:  October Window

Barns – Part I

"Hall Barn around 1950," Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2013

“Hall Barn around 1950,” Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2013

My grandparents’ barn wasn’t really my territory. It was dark inside and filled with cobwebs. The cows, in their stanchions twice a day at milking time, were formidable creatures. They ate hay at one end and made smelly messes at the other while the milking machines attached to their swollen udders vibrated and pumped.

Cows being milked

Cows being milked

It was here that my sweet grandfather and my gruff uncle spent much of their time. When I walked into the barn, Uncle Francis teased me. “Why aren’t you in school? Don’t you have anything to do?” He believed in hard work and demanded it from those around him, so, without a job to do I often felt out of place in the barn. I wanted to be like Fern in “Charlotte’s Web” – a girl who understood animals and loved being with pigs and spiders and rats – but I was a reader and preferred to sit in the farmhouse and read about barn life.

And there was so much life in my grandparents’ barn. Downstairs, below the haymow, the cows filled the air with their steamy breath. Cats and kittens surrounded pie tins of warm milk. The bull demanded attention. And spiders – none of them “Charlotte” – inhabited every nook and cranny. Upstairs, swallows and bats swooped through the rafters, and horses stood to be brushed in their stalls. The farmers dropped hay down to the cows through a big hole in the floor – a dangerous spot for children – but when we were allowed to, we played in the haymow, and on Easter Sunday our grandfather hid painted eggs in and around the dusty bales and stacks.

"Haymow," Carol Crump Bryner, watercolor, 2014

“Haymow,” Carol Crump Bryner, watercolor, 2014

Unlike the house, the barn now seems totally gone. I can still see the house foundation, the well stone, the sidewalk, and the cellar door of the house, but there’s no trace of the barn on the Whirlwind Hill property. Any hole or stone it might have left behind is covered with dirt and grass. I have to guess at where it used to stand.

But, in truth, it isn’t totally gone, because in 1975 a young woodworker named George Senercia read a book that changed the course of his life and the fate of the Hall barn. The book was “Diary of an Early American Boy” by Eric Sloane, a New England artist who wrote and illustrated books about early American barns and tools. This book started George on a lifelong quest to learn and use and teach the process of building and restoring barns the way it was done in 18th and 19th century New England.

George Senercia (center) working on a timber

George Senercia (center) working on a timber

On Easter Sunday, 1977, while driving down Whirlwind Hill, George noticed the Hall barn, which by then was starting to deteriorate. My uncle stopped farming in the early 1970’s, and the barn was abandoned. George knocked on Francis’ door and offered to take the barn down and haul it away for free. When they came to an agreement, George dismantled, restored, and rebuilt the barn as his workshop in the nearby town of Northford, Connecticut.

In the course of the painstaking work of taking apart the barn, George found a beam into which my great-great-great grandfather Aaron Hall had carved his name and the date 1818. George became so interested in the history of the Hall family that he probably knows more about my relatives than I do.

So in 2008, when my parent’s barn was aging, my brother asked George if he would restore it. He agreed, and in August 2008, he began to take apart our barn. It took two years before the Crump barn was ready to be raised again. On Wednesday I’ll tell you about it.

"Crump Barn, around 1990," Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2014

“Crump Barn, around 1990,” Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2014

On Wednesday:  Barns – Part II

The Front Door

A front door is all about expectations. It’s the place where a house greets its visitors and lets them know what might be inside. I’m timid when I approach a front door. I’m never sure whether my knock or my doorbell ring will delight or disturb. I like clear instructions and am happy when I see a sign telling me what to do. Signs that advise, “Do not ring bell – sleeping baby,” or “Knock loudly,” are always helpful. My mother was even more timid than I, usually saying as we drove up to a house “Oh, I don’t think they’re home!”

When Aaron built the farmhouse on Whirlwind Hill he must have wanted people to know that the inhabitants were doing well. The front door was classical and elegant – the surrounding molding simple and substantial – the stone step ancient and enduring. It’s no wonder so many family portraits were taken in this south-facing spot. My parents posed here before they were married.

Janet and Charlie Crump, 1942

Janet and Charlie Crump, 1942

And three years later they posed me in a pair of overalls standing against the threshold.

Carol at the front door, 1946

Carol at the front door, 1946

But despite its welcoming beauty, I rarely used the front door. The kitchen door was always unlocked, and it was there I usually entered. When I walked into the kitchen I expected a hugging welcome from my grandmother and maybe a donut or a cookie. There was life and activity in the kitchen, and I wanted to be a part of it.

I do believe in the importance of a well-kept and impressive front door, and in having expectations to guide the day. I’m bothered by a mediocre entryway, and I’m unsatisfied by a day where I wonder aimlessly. A door is a focus and a way in, and this lovely door marking the entryway to the farmhouse beckoned generations of my family inside to gather together in warmth and comfort.

"Front Door," Carol Crump Bryner, gouache and pencil, 2013

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

On Wednesday:  Three Notches

Rooms and Doors

Almost fifteen years ago our adult son moved back in with us while he went back to school. He stayed for seven years.

Living in a multi-generational household wasn’t easy, but we managed. It took humor, patience, and love. But when the humor ran dry, the patience wore thin, and the love felt tempered by irritation, it helped to have a room to go to and a door to slam.

I thought often about my ancestors during that time and fortified myself with the knowledge that if they could do it, so could I. There were almost always several generations living under the roof of the Hall farmhouse. Aaron built with this kind of living in mind. There were enough rooms to go around, and definitely enough doors to slam. The living room alone had nine doors, although until the 1930’s the one big room of my childhood had been divided into three smaller chambers.

Over the next few months I’ll take you on a tour of the house – a room here and a room there. I’ll begin with the room where my parents started their life together – the upstairs front bedroom.

My mother, Janet Hall, and my father, Charles Grantham Crump married in 1943. It made sense for them to move into the farmhouse with my grandparents while my father did his Coast Guard service during the war. It would be over two years before they had the time or the money to build their own house. In the photo below, my mother sits at her vanity table in the light-filled bedroom at the upstairs front of the farmhouse.

Janet Hall Crump, around 1942

Janet Hall Crump, around 1942

After my birth in the middle of the winter of 1945, my parents brought me home from the hospital to this room. Surely it was cold there even with the clanking and hissing radiators doing their best work. There were no bathrooms on the second floor, just chamber pots under the beds for nighttime use. The switch for the upstairs hall light was at the bottom of the stairs, so an upstairs sleeper needed candles, or flashlights, or someone to turn the switch for them when they reached the top. Later, when I was older and spent occasional nights at the farm, it was my grandmother who did this for me, waiting until I got to the bedroom door and told her goodnight before she pushed the round black button that started the darkness.

It was in this same room in October 1969 that my husband and I, on an overnight visit to my grandmother, stayed awake long into the night in the big lumpy bed with the chamber pot underneath, trying to decide whether or not to go to Alaska. In a way, this was the start of our life together, because we decided to go north to build our own rooms and doors.

"Studio Door," Carol Crump Bryner, oil on panel, 2001

“Studio Door,” Carol Crump Bryner, oil on panel, 2001

On Wednesday:  Ginger Cookies

The House that Aaron Built

First, a disclaimer: I don’t know for sure that Aaron built the farmhouse, but it is most likely that he did. So I will proceed on that assumption and on a few other speculations in this post that I state as facts.

Aaron Hall was born in 1760 in the original Hall homestead. This small house, which eventually became the kitchen and dining room of the large house had a dirt-floored cellar, a ground floor kitchen and living space, and an upstairs attic sleeping room. Aaron was the last child born to Asahel and Sarah Hall, and one of six of their twelve children who lived to adulthood. Since Aaron’s own eleven children seem to have fared better, I wonder if their long and productive lives were due in part to the house that Aaron built.

In 1781 Aaron married Elizabeth Cook, and not long after built his new house on the upward slope of Whirlwind Hill. The Federal style addition to the original home was graceful and dignified. He was a patriot, and built in a manner that would befit his stature as a veteran of the American Revolution. I have one early picture of the house the way it must have looked in the decades after it was built.

Hall Farmhouse around 1870

Hall Farmhouse around 1870

My mother, who had strong opinions about aesthetic beauty, said that the stately house was spoiled when Aaron’s heirs and their wives made practical changes to the exterior over the years. Until the early 1900’s the home had classical moldings around the doors and windows, an iconic fanlight window in the attic pediment, twelve-over-twelve paned windows on the front, and white-painted clapboards. All these details were made for show and not for comfort or easy maintenance.

Aaron’s new house had more room, but bigger rooms and more windows brought the need for more heat and more furniture. The new house would have been cold enough in winter to have an upstairs bedroom called Siberia. There was more privacy, certainly, but with a front parlor and a sitting room and multiple bedrooms there would have been enough added housework to require hired help.

By the time my grandfather Ellsworth was a teenager in 1900, the family had filled the house with comfort. My great-grandmother Lydia records in her journals the family gatherings, the evenings when neighbors came to play cards and eat cake, and the celebrations to welcome a new generation. In this photo, which is one of the last that shows the house with its white clapboards, my great-grandparents pose at the front door (a place of many family portraits) with their youngest children, my grandfather Ellsworth and his older sister Ellen. To me they look both proud and happy. Life was good for them.

Ellen, Ellsworth, Lydia Jane, and William E. Hall, around 1905

I’ve always loved this ancestral portrait showing my grandfather as a young man, but it wasn’t until recently when I came across the photo below that I realized the extent of its influence. In the fall of 1968, just two months after our wedding, my husband and I asked a friend to take our first Christmas card photo. We were living in an old Victorian house in the middle of downtown Menlo Park, California. We had a small barn in the back yard, a little duck pond, six ducks, two chickens, and one cat. We felt like urban farmers and decided to dress the part. I don’t remember consciously posing in the style of my ancestors, but here we are, doing just that as we stand in our sunny doorway looking toward the future.

Alex and Carol Bryner, 1968

Alex and Carol Bryner, 1968

On Friday:  Dark Purple Lilacs

The Letter

More often than not, paperwork overwhelms my desk and makes me grumpy. Organizing financial records, bills, checks, insurance forms, airline receipts, etc., gets more complicated every year. My computer, which is supposed to make things easier, just seems to add to my confusion. Some days I long for simpler times, even though I know they were neither simple nor easy. They just left a smaller paper trail.

In 1825 my great-great-great-grandfather Aaron Hall, Esq. wrote a letter summing up his life. The document hung in the farmhouse parlor next to his portrait, and although it was always referred to as his “letter,” it’s really more of a statement left for posterity. In it he sets down the facts of his time on this earth.

It’s easier for me and fairer to Aaron if I quote the letter instead of printing a photograph of the document, as it’s very hard to read. The misspellings and the missing punctuation are his, and I’ve added hyphens to clarify his sentence breaks.

Aaron Hall's Letter - Detail

Aaron Hall’s Letter – Detail

Wallingford, January 5th, 1825 – “I Aaron Hall son of Asahel & Sarah Hall was born November 11th 1760 and lived with my father and worked on his farm until the 25th of May 1777 which was the 17th year of my age – having a thirst for liberty with the consent of my father I inlisted a soldier for three years in the Amarican revolution during which time I indured many hardships and was in sundry battles at Germantown & Monmouth and being troubled with the rhumatis at times but not so as to prevent me from doing my duty – but since I have bin very much troubled and am at this time – after my term of service expired I returned and when I have bin abel have worked on my farm ever since – in 1781 May the 24th I was married to Elizabeth Cook by whome I had Eleven children and I believe are all alive at this time –   my wife Elizabeth died July 16th 1820 in the 58th year of her age – in December the 11th 1820 I was married to Sarah Hall with whome I have lived until this time September 12th 1826 when my wife Sarah died in the 70th year of her age – June 11th 1827 I was married to Annis Brooks

Because of this letter I could, if I wanted, become a Daughter of the American Revolution. I think several of my cousins have done this. But it wasn’t his participation in the revolution or the fact that he had eleven children that impressed me when I was young. Instead, I was amazed that he had THREE WIVES. The statements about these three women are so short, and so matter of fact, that I always pictured the three wives married to him at the same time. But in truth he was first married to Elizabeth, then to Sarah, and finally to Annis.

I’d like to know what these wives looked like and how they lived their lives – how Elizabeth managed to raise eleven children, how Sarah was courted when she was 64 years old, and how Annis met and agreed to marry 67-year-old Aaron. The paper trail for these four people is practically non-existent.

But in my photo collection, I found a tintype from the 1850’s with a label on the back written by my grandmother. The woman in the photo is the fifth of Aaron’s children, Mary Hall. She was born in 1790 and died in 1871. She never married, and, in fact, may have lived her entire life on the farm. In her portrait she looks like a precious and beloved aunt. Her cheerful expression makes me smile. She’s taken great care to dress in her finest clothing with what looks like the parlor rug wrapped around her shoulders and an oversized bow tied under her chin. It seems like this may have been her one chance to look good for the camera, and she was determined to make the best of it.

Mary Hall, 1790 - 1871

Mary Hall, 1790 – 1871

On Wednesday:  Muddy River