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    Friday, January 27, 2023

    History Matters: The amazing floating house and 'the rest of the story'

    A postcard of the 1895 floating house in Gardner Lake.(Photo submitted)

    There was an old-time radio announcer by the name of Paul Harvey who used to end many of his news broadcasts with the catchphrase ... “and now you know the rest of the story.” He would frequently toss in human anecdotes from behind the regular news scene, much to the delight of his large listening audience.

    I am often reminded of that phrase when people who have read “History Matters” make the effort to contact me and add their personal information to a particular story. There were certainly many tales that needed to be told after our almost two decades of archaeological investigation in the local area.

    In 1997, the East Lyme Board of Education approved a request for my senior anthropology high school class to be allowed to travel off-campus during the school day to take part in professionally managed archaeological digs. So much local history was discovered, confirmed and some even debunked, during that time as a direct result of those six-week semester sessions. What those students learned about history from those experiences would not have been possible in the tradition classroom setting.

    On one dig, we found a WWII “sweetheart bracelet” with an American soldier’s name and service number inscribed on it. It was quite a mystery until the daughter of that soldier happened to read the article written about it and contacted us to complete the story.

    A nice touch was added to an article about witch hazel when a local woman phoned me to offer her remembrances of working at Dickinson’s witch hazel factory in Essex as a teenager.

    A dig at the original site of the Little Boston School House in Niantic produced a treasure trove of educational artifacts, but it sure was nice when we were able to add the personal testimony of a former student who came forward. She had attended that one-room schoolhouse in 1922.

    In 2008, while looking to find the original site of the Savilion Chapman blacksmith shop, which was believed to have been located at the east end of Roxbury Road in East Lyme, a local gentleman read about our quest and produced an old lease for the shop which just happened to include its exact location.

    On a dig in Waterford in 2009, we stumbled upon the skeletal remains of a Native American. I mentioned in a later article written about it, the daily visits of a friendly turkey that had adopted our class and had taken great interest in the archaeological proceedings. A woman who lived near the site read about that discovery and contacted me to offer her piece of the story and how she had rescued that young bird from coyote depredation and had given it the nickname “Penny.”

    Recently a regular reader of the “History Matters” column, Mary Ellen Gladue, sent a note my way about the amazing 1895 floating house on Gardner Lake. That is certainly a great story and one I never get tired of telling. A picture postcard of that event had been included along with the original 2016 article which featured several men standing on the porch of that slowly sinking home.

    That house would eventually come to settle on the bottom of the lake in an upright position.

    “Both of my grandmother’s brothers are in that picture,” Mrs. Gladue told me. “My grandmother, Florence (Dolly) Winchester Eccleston, had kept that old picture which the family had earlier cut out of the Norwich Bulletin at the time it happened. Her brothers, Bob and Harry Winchester, are standing right there on the porch surveying that most unusual occurrence.”

    And so ... armed with one more piece of information about the amazing sinking house, let’s revisit that story one more time.

    That event actually had its beginning on Niantic’s Main Street during the cold winter months of 1895. A prosperous Niantic grocer by the name of Thomas LaCount had made a decision to move his Salem summer home from the south side of Gardner Lake to a more desirable location the family had recently acquired on the eastern shore. Numerous options on how that might be done were explored and a notable Norwich contractor by the name of Woodmansee was hired to provide expertise. It was finally decided to move the house across the winter ice, a practice not uncommon at the time. (I have heard stories about houses being slid across the ice of the Niantic River between Waterford and East Lyme but, so far, no specifics have emerged to complete the rest of that story.)

    On Feb. 13, 1895, the ice on the lake was a whopping 16 inches thick and there seemed to be little doubt that it would support the weight of the 28-ton LaCount home during its almost one-half mile journey across the ice. Men were hired and over a dozen draft horses were assembled along with all the necessary cable and tackle. The house was jacked up and runners (skids) were placed beneath it. All was in readiness.

    Everything had been carefully taken into consideration, or so it was thought.

    Unbeknownst to the LaCount Party there was one small detail that would stand in the way of success.

    The Fall Mills Co. of Norwich (which owned the water rights to the lake) had drained off a substantial amount of water at the dam the night before, creating a dangerous gap between the water level and the existing ice. As a result, about three-quarters of the way across the lake, the ice under the house began to crack and buckle, halting all progress.

    Another dozen or so horses were brought in, all shod with special shoes to help them get a proper grip or “purchase” on the ice, but even with the added horsepower, the home could not be moved a single inch. As the structure began to settle deeper into the ice, eyewitnesses agreed this Niantic businessman’s plan to move his home across the Gardner Lake ice was no longer feasible.

    Next morning that assessment was confirmed. The house had begun to pitch over in the direction of the heavy kitchen chimney. Water had begun to creep up the walls but surprisingly, other parts of the structure remained high and dry.

    The family rushed in to save what they could, but much had to be abandoned either due to weight or inaccessibility. One object left behind was the heavy and well-loved family piano.

    Many people from the area came to view and take pictures of the home that was now trapped in the ice. A New London Day reporter at the time described the scene: “The skating in the halls and sitting room was fine, but in the dining room the water reached nearly to the ceiling. A handsome sideboard is frozen solid in the room, which has now been turned into an icehouse.

    “Upstairs the water has frozen in the west ends of the chambers. The plaster is all cracked and broken, never having been papered or painted ... 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.”

    And float it did for some time, several years in fact, with people skating around inside the structure during the winter months or rowing out to it in warmer weather to fish from the windows or dive off the roof into the lake for a summer swim.

    But sink to its watery grave it did, finally coming to rest upright on the lake’s muddy bottom. And there the summer home of Thomas LaCount remains to this day.

    It has been said that piano music can be heard at the lake on a very still summer night. Author Ray Bendici on his website blog under “Connecticut Curiosities, Legends and Weird Places,” posted the following: “How many lakes have entire houses in them? The really weird part comes later as, over the years, many people who have fished the lake have claimed to have heard odd, faint piano music. No one is really sure where it comes from, although most seem to agree the mysterious melodies come from below. And if it’s coming from below, then who’s tickling those ivories?” Mr. Bendici wonders.

    Afterword

    A friend and former golf partner of mine, Ray Rita, supplied yet another addition to the rest of that story. Ray had been a longtime Norwich native and growing up was very familiar with Gardner Lake. After retiring as a Navy diver in the late 1950s, Ray did something he always wanted to do. He and two friends dove on the house in full diving gear.

    “That house is located between Minnie Island (Connecticut’s smallest state park) and the public area of the lake in about 35 feet of water. The water in the lake is very clear. When we reached the house, we could see the roof had collapsed over the entire structure with only the chimney remaining standing,” Rita reported.

    “We looked for keepsakes but found it had been picked pretty clean over the years. Still, it was a great dive and certainly an eerie sight. Definitely worth the effort.”

    “Did you happen to see a piano?” I had to ask, as I began to offer up a few of the legendary details.

    “No, but who knows what could be under that collapsed roof,” he answered.

    I felt the need to ask one last question: “Did you hear any music while you were down there?”

    The wry smile on his face told me all I needed to know. No one could be heard tickling any ivories at the underwater site of Thomas LaCount’s ill-fated home. Everything down below was still as a statue and as quiet as the grave.

    Jim Littlefield is a retired history teacher in East Lyme who has written two local history books and two historical novels. His columns can also be found in the Post Road Review.

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