Completed Lee House barn expansion to showcase more of East Lyme’s history

East Lyme — After more than a year of fundraising and construction, the East Lyme Historical Society will celebrate the opening of its newly expanded exhibition space at the Thomas Lee House barn on West Main Street as part of Connecticut’s annual Open House Day this weekend.

Town Historian Elizabeth Kuchta said visitors will, for the first time, be able to see and learn about Niantic's first fire wagon and one of its earliest mail wagons, vehicles that helped shape the lives of residents at the turn of the century.

“It’s just a great thing for people, especially kids, to learn about and to see that life was not easy back then,” Kuchta said recently while showing off the wagons in their new home. “Plus, it’s just great to see things that have been a part of East Lyme history.”

Kuchta said Niantic's first fire wagon, or water pumper, also known as "Our Pride," has been held in storage under ownership of the Niantic Fire Department since 1923 and has been rarely displayed to the public. Last refurbished in 1958, it has been well preserved.

“This was the only water pumper used for all of Niantic and East Lyme in the late 1800s,” Kuchta said. “And now it will be displayed here, instead of gathering dust.”

Likely constructed in Niantic around 1890 by George Dixon, the owner of Dixon Carriage Co., with its metal work forged by Blacksmith Fred James, the wagon consists of an open tank that can hold up to 100 gallons of water as well as a large hand pump.

Kuchta said firefighters would manually pull the cart along Niantic’s roads to fires before quickly filling its holding tank with water.

“This was not a horse drawn carriage, so it was very difficult getting around,” Kuchta said, adding that other firemen would rush to the scene of a fire before the carts arrival to locate a water source.

After “praying for and hopefully finding" that water source, Kuchta said firemen would form a line from the cart to a pond, or a well, “or what have you,” to pass buckets of water from one to the next to fill it. Meanwhile, “a minimum of at least four men” would have to vigorously pump water from the wagon's tank through a narrow hose attached to it.

“They would have to pump quick, too,” Kuchta said, “Or else there wouldn’t be enough pressure to create a constant stream to put out a fire.”

“All of this was not easy,” Kuchta added. “And in today’s world, we tend to forget that. It's a great reminder, and a great thing for kids to see to realize, how hard it was to put out fires."

Also on display and now standing next to the fire cart is one of Niantic’s first horse-drawn mail wagons. With the words "U.S. Mail RFD No. 2" painted in light blue letters along its side, the wagon delivered mail as part of the Rural Free Delivery mail service and likely dates back to 1909, Kuchta said.

Still featuring its original red paint, so that “people could recognize the wagon coming from a distance,” the wagon also showcases original spoke wheels, a linoleum floor lining detailing intricate patterns, and “pigeonhole” mail slots on the inside.

The wagon was donated to the Historical Society by the Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution in April. Kuchta said that neither she nor anyone else knows how the DAR obtained the wagon. Up until now, the carriage has been on display at the DAR’s Wadsworth Stable in Lebanon.

Kuchta said Saturday’s Open House also will mark the completion of the group's mission to raise funds to expand the Lee House barn by an additional 30 feet.

Originally built in 1995 as a space to showcase local history displays on the Nehantic indigenous people and "Lyme in the Revolution," as well as the Lee family history and its genealogy, among other displays, the barn has since acted as the Historical Society’s only space to house displays detailing East Lyme history.

“We’ve been wanting to expand the space,” Kuchta said. So when the Niantic Fire Department expressed interest in permanently loaning "Our Pride" to the Historical Society, Kuchta said she and the group knew they needed a place to house it, thus coming up with the idea to build the Lee House barn addition.

After $35,000 was raised for the project, which took less than a year, the extension was completed this spring. Rob Anger of Robert Anger Building and Remodeling built it by himself “with his dog” over the winter, Kuchta said. As part of its newly expanded space, the Historical Society is planning other permanent and rotating displays detailing East Lyme’s granite quarries, as well as the town’s former ice harvesting industry, among other ideas.

A plaque memorializing Peter and Mary Prokop of East Lyme will also be installed near the barn after John Bialowans and his mother Martha Prokop Bialowans donated a significant contribution toward its addition.

Saturday’s event, taking place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., is free and open to the public. The Lee House and its barn will then be open to the public throughout the summer from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday beginning in July.

m.biekert@theday.com

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