From cowgirls to jealous husbands, a wild ride through East Lyme history
James Littlefield takes readers on winding paths with branches leading who knows where in his new book of local history, "Fireside Memories: Tales of East Lyme's Past," but it's the byways and crevices that often lead to intriguing discoveries.
For instance, in a story about a Revolutionary War captain from Lyme, we learn a bit about the history of powder horns and the fact that there are 26 others beside the lead character, James Huntley, who fought in the Revolution and are buried in East Lyme's 23 cemeteries. And in a story about ice houses, we read about the muscular men who delivered these necessary chunks of coolants and whose own forms became so chiseled that they had a reputation as being Casanovas and led families to create "Jealous Husband's Doors" so that ice could be delivered without the necessity of female contact.
"You gotta punch the thing up with ... something that will grab people," Littlefield said in an interview Oct. 2 in Waterford. "Love stories, mysteries."
Littlefield, a now-retired history teacher for nearly half a century in East Lyme schools who lives in a historic house in town, has been writing popular monthly stories for the Post Road Review during the past decade, and he self-published an anthology of his columns five years ago titled "History Matters: Tales of New England That Still Echo Today." He also has published two novels in the past, "The Slave Catcher's Woman" and "Slavetaker: The Promise," and has been involved in the East Lyme Historical Society and in history re-enactment groups, particularly revolving around the Civil War.
His latest book is another five-year compendium of columns, but Littlefield this time around has focused more on local characters than on the archaeological digs and artifacts that dominated his telling of local history in the previous nonfiction book.
"These stories are all personal stories," Littlefield said. "I'm interpreting what's going on, and each story almost always has a moral to it."
Littlefield likes telling local tales, saying in his introduction that "history lies at the very core of our being," and reminding us that what transpired in the past should not be labeled as "a meaningless wasteland of the long departed" or a "long list of dreaded dates and famous people to be memorized in the classroom." Instead, Littlefield approaches all his stories as if they could be contemporary, "just a whisper or a shadow behind where our senses now register."
And so we hear of the impassioned dispute that erupted between New London and Lyme in 1668 over which municipality owned a prime piece of land in the Black Point area of what is now East Lyme. Tensions became so inflamed that a "Haymaker's Frolic" ensued, with two or three dozen from each town converging on the disputed territory bearing scythes and pitchforks, ready to do battle. Cooler heads prevailed, but not before a few fights led to a brief melee and several arrests, according to Littlefield.
Later, it was decided to settle matters with two chosen men from each town engaging in fist fights apparently attended by a large crowd. The Lyme contestants each triumphed (Mr. Griswold and Mr. Ely, two familiar local names), and the town thereby acquired rights to the area between Bride Brook and Nehantic Bay, which in the 19th century became part of East Lyme.
Littlefield also tells personal tales throughout the book, including the story of the late Janet Speirs York Littlefield, the author's stepmother, who became the much-lauded superintendent of the women's prison in Niantic (and for whom the prison is now named). An Old Lyme native related to the Speirs Plumbing family, she spent time in danger zones during World War II as part of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps before working her way up from a parole officer to the head of the institution only nine years later.
Littlefield recounts his stepmother's story of running the offer of prison superintendent by her father, who responded, "If John Kennedy can run the whole country at his age, I figure our daughter can run the state farm."
In another story, Littlefield recounts his grandfather Norris Bull's discovery of the remains of a nearly 1,000-year-old Nehantic Indian at a site in the Rocky Neck-Giants Neck area of town, a large skeleton that could later be found at a small museum located in Bull's home at Hawks Nest Beach in Old Lyme. He then ties the discovery to the story of the giant Nehantic Indian Chief Mamarakagurgana (translated as "The Giant," for whom Giants Neck may have been named), whose sons sold the Black Point and Giants Neck properties to a settler in 1687.
"Was it possible that my grandfather had stumbled upon the remains of Mamarakagurgana, the 'Giant'?" he speculates, though the dating of Bull's original find, he noted, would have to be off by a few hundred years.
Another deathly tale revolves around the blacksmith Calvin Spencer, a man whose 1813 grave marker Littlefield discovered at the remains of East Lyme's former pestilence house on Upper Pattagansett Road, where people with communicable diseases were quarantined. Strangely, Littlefield had run into Spencer's name while reading through health records kept for 30 years by Dr. Vine Utley, who practiced in the area of Flanders Four Corners, and the recounting made it appear Spencer was acting in a deranged manner, perhaps affected by drink or drugs.
Yet when he looked at Spencer's story as told by descendants, another story emerged. According to their research, Spencer was something of a hero toward the end, agreeing to bury the victim of spotted fever when no one else would do so. And then he also came down with the disease, or so the story goes.
"I had Calvin Spencer pegged as a deranged madman right out of some Stephen King novel, only to later find out he may have died a local hero," Littlefield wrote.
But perhaps the spookiest story in Littlefield's book involves a home in 1895 that was being transported across the ice on Salem's Gardners Lake, a not-uncommon practice in those colder times. Unfortunately, the ice began cracking and even more than a dozen horses could not stop the disaster that was about to happen as the house eventually slipped into the lake, taking the LeCount family's grand piano down with it.
"As the ice thawed that spring, the whole house sank further into the lake. But instead of disappearing, the building seemed to float, mostly submerged, like an apparition," wrote a reporter for The Day.
What the reporter didn't say at the time, but what has become part of local legend, according to Littlefield, are reports from local fishermen who swear to have heard faint piano music coming from the bottom of Gardners Lake during their sorties at night.
Many of Littlefield's stories this time around involve the exploits of local women, perhaps none as interesting as those of Tillie Baldwin, a famed Wild West performer also known as Anna Winger. In the early 1900s, the Norwegian-born Baldwin started entering and winning trick-riding and cowgirl competitions, thereafter joining several Wild West shows and earning her way into the National Cowgirls and Cowboys Halls of Fame.
"She became a superstar, doing things that most men found extremely dangerous," Littlefield quoted a Baldwin relative telling him. "No other woman at the time jumped from the back of a speeding horse, grabbed the bull by the horns and wrestled the beast to the ground."
Baldwin eventually moved east to help manage Stone's Ranch (where the National Guard has its local headquarters in East Lyme). She married an Old Lyme man, William C. Slate, toward the end of her career, and though they later divorced, he had her interred in 1958 at the family plot in Union Cemetery in East Lyme.
About the book
What: "Fireside Memories: Tales of East Lyme's Past"
Author: James N. Littlefield
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