When old becomes new again
When Melanie Marks says her husband Eugene “bought the farm,” she means it. In 2007, the couple purchased their home, an 18th-century farmhouse on Redding Road that sits on 18 acres in Greenfield Hill and Easton. Stepping into their house is like being transported back in time. But getting there was no easy task.
Marks, a historic research consultant and professional genealogist, learned of the house after a friend asked her to document the property for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. It was for sale and being marketed as a teardown. They wanted to get it listed as an endangered property to rescue it from demolition. Marks says that she took her husband with her when she went to photograph the property. At the time, they were living in an antique salt box on Bronson Road with their children Jenn and Joe. Soon after, her husband came home and told her he’d purchased the dilapidated farmhouse. “If I didn’t have a heart attack then, I’m never going to,” Marks says.
Marks, who researches other people’s homes through her business Connecticut House Histories, was determined to preserve the character of her own. She and her husband set about returning it to its roots with the help of Danbury-based contractor Jim Basli of Basli Construction and John Rountree of Rountree Architects in Westport. While they took care of physically bringing the house back to its former glory, Marks says she got a unique look into the home’s past thanks to 98-year-old Easton resident Winifred “Winnie” Steckles Kent. As a girl, Kent worked for the previous owners, Henry and Augusta “Minnie” Witzke, and she told Marks all about them and the home. In 1909, the Witzkes bought the property and turned the home into a boarding house. Marks says they added partitions upstairs to make extra rooms for guests. Their son Jacob, who lived in the house until his death in 2006, later moved to the first floor and the second floor was converted into an apartment for his daughter and son-in-law.
The Markses did make some 21st-century changes of their own, but mainly, they just put things back to the way they would have been when the home was built, allegedly in 1785. They returned a staircase to its rightful place, restored the three-sided chimney, exposed beams, and basically fixed things from top to bottom. “Practically every inch of this house was touched in some way, but we tried to keep as much as possible original,” Marks says. “Where we could keep the floors, we did. Where we couldn’t keep the floors, we took, there was a whole stash of barn wood in the barn and my contractor ripped things down and made new floors out of old barn wood.” Some of their flooring was also made out of reclaimed lumber from a mill in Wilton. “That’s why there’s lots of you know, knots and things in it. I didn’t want new.”
She also didn’t want new when it came to the other buildings on the property; a carriage house the Witzkes converted into an apartment and a barn that she especially wanted to preserve. The Markses put siding on their barn to stabilize it and put on a new roof, but they kept the inside the same. “I know some people, when they get old barns, they take them down to just the framing,” Marks says. “I just couldn’t do that because these boards were just absolutely amazing.” The scribe ruling on the wood used to make their barn is one reason the historic researcher believes her house is older than its listing age. She says it was used to determine the English barn was built around 1769, and it’s unlikely the barn would have been built nearly 20 years before the house. Marks, tapping into what she does best, did some digging and traced the house back to Eleazer “Eli” Sherwood. However, she says Sherwood wasn’t born until 1801, so she thinks the home actually belonged to his in-laws Jonathan and Abigail Banks. One unburied clue pointing her in that direction? The Markses found Abigail’s head stone in their cellar. “I’m beginning to believe that this was their house and when Jonathan died, Mom was still living and daughter Anna Caroline was the baby and she married Eli, and I think they moved in here,” says Marks. She hopes one day to get to the bottom of her home’s history in between her many other projects.
The frenetic pace of her schedule is how she got the name for one of her latest endeavors, beekeeping. She started making honey under the name Busy Bee Farm because a friend nicknamed her Mrs. Busy Bee. “He said, ‘Your house is like a bee skep. People are always flying in and flying out.’ And it just stuck.” You can purchase her honey at the Greenfield Hill Farmers Market, where she says the man who tended her back garden for the last two years, David Hacker, also sold her produce. There’s a garden in the front of the home as well, which Marks says you would have seen during the 1700s. “My front garden is what they would have called a kitchen garden, and that’s where they would have had all their herbs. So I have an herb garden out front, and mostly heirloom plants, flowers out there that are all bee-friendly. Have to keep them happy too.”
Between the bees, preservation work, historic research and connecting people to their families’ pasts, Marks is constantly on the go, but she says she and her husband feel like they can truly relax when they’re home. “It’s just such a different feel up here. I’m still in Fairfield, but I feel like I’m in the country.”