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Farmland, Historic Homes Hint at City's Agricultural Past

Millbrook Road, the main artery in the wooded corner district of Middletown, has undergone significant residential development in the past few decades.

Editor's note: This is the second of two columns detailing the history of the Caleb and Obadiah Brainerd House, one of the oldest in the city. The first was "285-Year-Old Home, One of City's Oldest, is Rich in Local History."

Nestled away in a wooded corner of Middletown is a gem of a Colonial-period house. The Caleb and Obadiah Brainerd House at 1070 Millbrook Road, at the intersection of Mount Road, is a small Cape-style house in remarkably well-preserved condition, inside and out.

Built about 1725 by Obadiah Brainerd, the house is in an area once known as Johnson Lane, which was home to many of Middletown’s farmers well into the 20th century. Today, Daniels Farm is the best-known agricultural venture in the neighborhood’s past, but the Harris and Lee families still maintain farms in the Johnson Lane district, mostly raising cattle for beef stock. Both families settled there in the early eighteenth century. 

Although Millbrook Road, the main artery in the district, has undergone significant residential development in the past few decades, links to its past can be seen in the bucolic farmland and the surviving historic houses.

The Brainerd House is probably the one least known. The one-and-one-half story house faces north, perpendicular to Millbrook Road. The land slopes to the east, revealing an exposed basement foundation of brownstone. Characteristic of its time, it has a slight overhang on the side elevations. It has retained its old multi-paned windows and small little windows in the gable ends that brought light into the attic bedrooms.

The use of the overhand and small gable windows was very popular in Haddam and Higganum, which is just a few miles up the road. Houses quite similar to the Obadiah Brainerd House can be found throughout Haddam, and many of them were built by members of the Brainerd family, who were dominant in that town.

Caleb Brainerd, the first owner of the Millbrook Road House, was born in Middletown in 1675 to Daniel and Hannah (Spencer) Brainerd. He married Elizabeth Bidwell in 1701. Their son Obadiah, born in 1708, was identified as the possible builder of the house.

Before Obadiah died in 1790, the housed was sold to Seth Paddock and his wife Phebe Johnson. When they moved in, they had five children, and they subsequently had five more.

The Brainerds and the Paddocks were farmers. This was not just subsistence farming, if they could help it, but commercial farming. They grew grains — wheat, barley, oats and rye. The nearby grist mill that ground their grains, on Millbrook Road not far from the Higganum line, operated until almost the twentieth century. Farming could be profitable because of their proximity to thriving port at Middletown, particularly after 1750.

From their Millbrook Road farm, which included significant acreage, they packed their grain in barrels to be shipped, and harvested as much lumber as they could manage. As one can imagine, this served a dual purpose … it clear cut more land for farming and provided significant income by selling the lumber badly needed in the West Indies and in Europe. Also in demand were the horses and hogs.

It is not surprising that the house didn’t stay in the Brainerd or Paddock families indefinitely. As land became scarcer, their sons left the area in droves, heading out to the Genosee Valley in New York and later the Western Reserve in Ohio. These new farms to the west took over grain production. Farmers here had to look to new products. Tobacco became a major crop after 1810, and for a while, even as late as the 1920s, everyone in Middletown with an acre to spare, grew tobacco for cigar wrappers. Sheep farming became popular with the introduction of “Merino” sheep from Spain in 1810. Others raised beef cattle.

Thomas Jehospophat Spencer purchased the house before 1855. He would have turned to even more creative ways to make his farm commercially successful.  He may have considered converting the farm to an orchard. This was when the Lyman family in Middlefield made the switch. However, with the growth of urban areas and the advent of the railroad and trolley, Spencer most likely was a “general farmer,” raising vegetables to sell in Middletown and New York City. He also continued to diversify, selling lumber after milling it nearby at his family’s saw mill.

But by 1874, Spencer had moved on. He sold the house to Warren S. Williams (1834–1894) and his wife Sarah Hubbard. Williams derived his livelihood from being a machinist at a local foundry while his elderly father lived with him and maintained the farm. Williams dabbled in raising horses on the property but could not make it profitable.

Williams sold the farm in 1894 to Patrick and Catherine Flanagan. Patrick was an Irish immigrant, and Catherine's parents had been born in Ireland. Many immigrant families at the turn of the century were able to buy local farms as the sons of old Yankee farmers sought other opportunities. Many Poles, Italians, Russians and Irish bought up the old farms and revived them through pure grit, hard work, and determination.

Patrick and his wife appear in the U.S. Census in this house as late as 1920, still making a living on the farm, but their children all work in factories. The property stayed with the extended Flanagan family until 1963.

By that time, the house had seen better days. It hadn’t been modernized and was in disrepair. Joseph and Elsie Salonia bought the house and restored it to its Colonial-period charm. Elsie sold it on to Vinnie and MaryAnn Senatore in 2001, and they currently own the property. Today, the house is lovingly restored, with molded paneling in the old kitchen, a remaining outbuilding on a stone foundation, and some modern additions. It is as beautiful as it must have looked when it was built in 1725.

Take a drive by and see this glorious old home and imagine the landscape of rural Middletown back in the day.

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Mr. Fixit December 02, 2011 at 01:19 AM
Welcome back Liz! Your articles have been missed.
Mr. Fixit December 05, 2011 at 04:01 AM
Oh jeeze! Your articles will be missed. They were one of the main reasons I followed the Patch.
Lynn Herlihy December 05, 2011 at 12:56 PM
Oh Liz, Your articles gave me so much pleasure. I am so sorry. You were the reason I read the Middletown Patch.
Elizabeth Warner December 05, 2011 at 05:39 PM
I hope to do a monthly column.
Elizabeth Warner December 05, 2011 at 05:39 PM
And stick with Patch... it has tons to offer.

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