One story leads to another
I’m grateful for, but no longer surprised by, the number of historians, curators, and local residents who bend over backwards answering my questions and suggesting new lines of inquiry. In fact, here’s my advice to anyone who wants to meet nice people: write a history column!
For example, last August, I described my mother’s early childhood at her grandfather’s livery business in a converted church on Church Street (now Eugene O’Neill Drive) in New London. After that column appeared, the director of New London Landmarks told me about a school for black children run many decades earlier in a house located “in the shadow of the church.”
The schoolmaster, 81-year-old Ichabod Pease, was a former slave who’d endured great hardships but who still wanted to help others. His funeral eulogy, printed in a booklet entitled “The dignity of goodness,” is held by the Library of Congress. NLL led a successful fundraising effort to restore the headstones of Ichabod and his wife, both of whom are buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery.
Tom Schuch, a local history enthusiast who alerted NLL to Ichabod’s story, contacted me with more information about the history of slavery in New London. His extensive research will add new chapters to the city’s history.
Yet another thoughtful reader, inspired by my mom’s story, sent me an email about her own mother, Joanna Dimock Norris, who also lived on Church Street as a child. Joanna’s extended family enjoyed success in business and the arts, and counted A-list celebrities among their friends. My correspondent’s information gave me a new appreciation for the vibrancy of 19th and early 20th century Connecticut society. Many of the details she shared could easily become standalone narratives in their own right.
Joanna and her parents, Edwin and Ruth Bunner Dimock, lived on Church Street during the winter and spent their summers out on Pequot Avenue. Joanna’s paternal grandfather, Ira Dimock, was a wealthy inventor and silk manufacturer from Hartford. He owned the late Cornelius Vanderbilt’s mansion on Farmington Avenue; Mark Twain was a friend and neighbor. Ira’s daughter, Edith, married William Glackens, a well-known painter of the Ashcan School of art. (The movement specialized in scenes of daily life in New York City.) Both Twain and Glackens often visited the Dimocks in New London.
On Joanna’s maternal grandparents’ side, Henry Cuyler Bunner was a novelist, journalist, and poet. He was the editor of “Puck,” a ground-breaking satirical magazine that skewered politicians. Grandmother Alice Learned Bunner was a published poet; the playwright Eugene O’Neill was one of her friends.
In 1928, Alice purchased the lighthouse keeper’s home on Pequot Avenue after the Lighthouse Service put it on the market. Her family had been in New London for generations. Learned Street bears the family name, and the home on Church Street, where this saga began, was known as the Learned House.
According to New London historian Frances Caulkins, in the late 18th or early 19th century, Amasa and Ebenezer Learned were teachers at the Union Grammar School on the corner of State and Union streets. This is the very same beloved schoolhouse (moved many times but now located on Atlantic Street) where Nathan Hale taught from 1774 to 1775 before resigning to join the Revolution.
Another relative, Billings Peck Learned, apparently agreed with his ancestors that the education and well-being of young people was important. When Billings died in 1916, he left his estate to the Bradley Street Mission, which was then renamed the B.P. Learned Mission in his honor. Today, the mission is situated on Shaw Street and continues to offer a wide range of educational and support services to city children.
I think it’s amazing that one essay involving a livery business brought out an array of topics as diverse as slavery, educators, artists, poets, novelists, industrialists, patriots, and philanthropists! It shows that New London County’s stories are numerous, just like the kind readers who help me tell them.