At Old Saybrook’s Hart House, Gardens are a Portal to Colonial Times
The General William Hart House Garden, at 350 Main Street, is Old Saybrook’s only public garden. (Photo by Linda Kinsella)
The garden shed at the foot of the Hart House gardens was built pro bono by Ronald and Ross Goodhue of materials donated by William Childress. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News)
The General William Hart House at 350 Main Street Old Saybrook has a façade that’s familiar to most in town, but the gardens out back also have quite a bit of history to offer. (Photo courtesy of the Old Saybrook Historical Society)
When the Old Saybrook Historical Society acquired the Hart House on Main Street in 1974, 12 women—members of the historical society and the Old Saybrook Garden Club—saw opportunity in the overgrown vines, brush, and brambles behind the 207-year-old house.
The women consulted with Rudy Favretti, then professor of landscape architecture at the University of Connecticut and an authority on Colonial period gardens. Then they got to work.
“There was no formal architect for the garden,” says Linda Kinsella, the current keeper of the gardens.
The General William Hart House Garden officially opened for bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Today, it’s hard to imagine the pristine, orderly gardens sweeping behind and around the house as anything other than lovely.
The central area, referred to as “the dingle,” is a recessed green that was recently the setting for a wedding ceremony and will transform in August into a concert venue for the United States Coast Guard Dixieland Jazz Band. Twelve garden beds surround it and, as Kinsella walks among them, she talks about the plants’ significance in Colonial times, particularly for women.
Plants like Solomon’s seal were used for menstrual pain and to increase fertility. The roses, which haven’t yet bloomed, are old garden roses, which “haven’t had the scent bred out of them” and are “mostly” from the Elizabeth Park Rose Garden in Hartford, she says. Lambs ears “are an herb that were used in Colonial times as bandages.”
“Lilacs were planted at the corners of houses to keep away evil spirits,” she says. “Especially witches.”
The 12 beds are now tended by just five volunteer gardeners, including Carin Roaldset, an artist and avid gardener who began working on two garden beds on the north side of the house. She tends to the garden at her own home nearby, then pushes her wheelbarrow over to the Hart House for more hours of weeding, aerating soil, and planting.
The other gardeners soon will begin their spring work, but the soil is “still a little cold,” Kinsella says. In order to avoid damaging the tender perennials, it’s important to wait “until you know that all the hard frost is over.”
The volunteers’ dedication to the gardens, and the research and thought put into them, is perhaps most aptly demonstrated by the efforts of Bonnie Penders, a volunteer, avid herbalist, and University of Connecticut certified advanced master gardener.
In spring 2016, Penders developed a teaching garden, known officially as Herbs with a Purpose and informally as the Children’s Garden, with the intention of demonstrating to elementary school groups and general visitors the importance of medicinal, household, and cosmetic perennial herbs in 18th-century gardens.
Filling a Significant Role
The Hart House would have been an important and distinguished home in the 18th century, explains Kinsella. General Hart was a military leader in the Revolutionary War, a merchant involved in the West Indies trade, and an investor in land during the sale of Connecticut’s Western Reserve. His wife, Esther Buckingham Hart, would have used the herbs in her garden “to care for her family’s health needs and domestic management,” Penders says.
The following spring, in 2017, “having just studied for two winters about early American gardens and herbs and the women who tended them, I wanted to develop another garden” with herbs that would have been used by women of Colonial times, specifically for women’s needs, says Penders.
She considered which herbs would have been important enough to be summoned from England for the six- to seven-week journey across the Atlantic.
“I began to think critically about medicinal herbs,” she says. “While they could be ornamental plants, they were also a matter of life or death...to Colonial families, not only aboard ship but the moment the settlers landed in North America.
“Responsibilities for the health and welfare of the family fell solely on the wife and mother,” she adds.
She studied the work of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Rebecca J. Tannenbaum, Anne Dudley Bradstreet, Joy Day Buel and other writers, who have written “extensively about 17th- and 18th-century women’s household duties, the hardships [they] endured just to survive, and the related themes of family dynamics,” says Penders.
Penders found herself especially enamored with Lady Alice Boteler Fenwick (1614c–1645), the wife of Puritan George Fenwick, who became the second governor of the Saybrook Colony. Lady Fenwick was born in England and made the arduous trip to the New World with her husband in 1639. She died giving birth to her third child, a daughter, who also died, in 1645.
Penders began wondering what Lady Fenwick’s life must have been like, and whether her designation as the first woman gardener in the 13 colonies was accurate and deserved. The book Early English Gardens in America by Ann Leighton calmed her doubts. The book quotes a letter from George Fenwick to John Winthrop, Sr. in Massachusetts, in which he writes about his wife and her gardening at Fort Saybrook, a mention that “was unique in its day” and indicated that her work was noteworthy.
“I knew then that devoting a garden to this brave, endearing, and devoted woman would be the focus of my next garden at the historical society’s campus,” Penders says.
“The herbs selected for this garden consist of those both native to America and those transported by roots and seeds from England by the colonists during their long journeys across the Atlantic,” says Penders. “These particular herbs represent 17th-century plants that would have been used most likely by midwives and Native Americans to care for women’s unique health issues related to menstruation, fertility, pregnancy, morning sickness, childbirth, post-partum recovery, lactation, infection, contraception, and menopause.”
“Herbs were used for everything from bronchial problems to personal problems,” says Kinsella. “There were no physicians.”
Learning to use herbs for medicinal purposes was “an essential part of girls’ education, like needlepoint,” she said.
Each week in the summer, historical society gardeners donate cooking herbs for use in meals provided by the Shoreline Soup Kitchen & Pantries. Bundles of fresh herbs are given to families in need, also through the pantry.
All visitors are welcome to the garden, 350 Main Street, which is the only public garden in Old Saybrook, and admission is free. Tours may be scheduled by calling 860-388-2622. It’s the same number for those interested in volunteering; the historical society is in need of more gardeners.