Imagine living in a one room house with several small children, over your general store in the basement. Oh, and it’s 1795. Yes, the Revolutionary War is over, and Connecticut is building its way to new prosperity.
You are certainly not poor. Your house has a fireplace and wide wood planked floors. You have a decent herb garden for medicinals and grow apples for cider, hang them to dry and have plenty left over for cold storage where they’ll last six months or more. Apples are an important part of your diet. But you can also afford to buy produce from neighbor-farmers. Life’s pretty nice. Just a bit crowded.
That’s where Thankful Arnold found herself early in her marriage, living right across the street from the busy Haddam courthouse and just a few steps from the Connecticut River, the source of economic vitality for the region.
Thankful had 12 children, with all seven sons making it to adulthood, a real rarity. Two daughters, Nancy and Sarah Elizabeth, did, too. She and her husband could afford to expand the house, and all was going well, until her husband died.
Even though he was a businessman, he didn’t leave a will. In Connecticut, an estate left intestate had major implications for the widow. Thankful was entitled to live by law in 1/3 of the house. She had to sell 2/3 to afford to stay there. Think about it. She had six small children and faced the prospect of living in 1/3 of her house while strangers moved into the rest. Best case, the children would be sent to live with other relatives. Many widows faced this fate.
Fortunately for Thankful, her grown son Isaac bought the other 2/3, and the family home stayed intact. Thankful took in boarders to help pay the bills and was aided by her daughters who never married. Thankful lived to age 73, longer as a widow than wife, so the house was known as the Widow Arnold House and now as the Thankful Arnold House, on the historic trail of the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.
A note on her name. Thankful was not a Quaker, as I guessed, but instead was a Congregationalist. A hot baby naming trend for your average Colonial was to name your child for a virtue. A man might happily be named Wealthy, Prosper, Consider, and certainly Freelove! But oh, to be a woman and be named Submit, Obedience, Relief, Mindwell, or Silence. I didn’t know these as names, maybe because these women fell into obscurity. Not hard to wonder why.
Mercy did not, famously as Mercy Otis Warren, Revolutionary War heroine, and Prudence of Prudence Crandall fame, written about in this blog, made her mark, too. Puritans indeed would name their daughters Patience, Increase, but Desire? How in the world did that young lady stand a chance of preserving her reputation?
Thankful’s daughters were good girls. Sarah Elizabeth acted as the family nursemaid, going to live with various relatives to care for the sick and elderly. Nancy helped in the boardinghouse and educated her nieces on how to run a household, through their ‘apprenticeship’ at the family home with its boarders. Miss Nancy lived in the house until age 84 in 1884. One of her niece’s Sabra came to live in the house as a widow until the 1920s. Her son Charlie Ingersoll lived here until 1962.
Charlie was a house painter, and he and his wife supplemented their income with a local hot spot–The Red House Tea Room. Being right across the street from the courthouse insured street and foot traffic, and New England roads were quickly becoming tourist havens for road trippers in newly affordable automobiles. Who doesn’t like a scenic drive with a refresh stop at a tea room? I covet that Cheese Dream, which LIsa, the Director, told me was likely an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich. I could dream of more…
When the house was vacated in 1962, the timing coincided with Haddam’s tercentenary. A cousin bought the house and donated it to the Historic Society. Not, unfortunately, until all the goods and furnishings were already sold. Happily, an inventory from 1823, conducted when Thankful became a widow, led to furnishing and interpreting it to her period.
We can see the 1823 kitchen, with its hanging, drying herbs and cod. The original fireplace was revealed when a wall was opened up. The old bake oven is there, too. The hearth was used as a stove top. Pull coals out of the fire to the hearth, then place your spider (frying pan with legs) on top. No more leaning over dangerous open fires. This hearth also comes complete with a ‘reflected over’ or ‘tin kitchen’ which works like a rotisserie for your meat.
I climbed carefully up steep, narrow steps to the dark attic. Yes, there are two finished bedrooms each with a tiny fireplace off the central chimney, where boarders likely lived. But the children–they slept under the eaves, catch what space they could around the typical attic storage stuff. Pretty cold in the winter, too.
So Thankful had a lot to be grateful for, as all worked out for her family and her house in the long run. Me? I’m thankful for central heat and a gas stove cooktop!