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    Thursday, August 18, 2022

    Nathan Lester House caretaker and family forced out by town

    Caretaker Rebecca Lindner, of the Nathan Lester House in Ledyard, walks along a path and picnic space, Thursday, June 30, 2022, that she and her husband, Corey Watford, created by clearing overgrown vegetation in the field. The field had been completely overgrown like the area on the left and the far right in background. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

    Ledyard — At the Nathan Lester House on May 25, Rebecca Lindner was planting vegetables so she wouldn't have to utilize the food pantry this year while her husband, Corey Watford, was taking out the trash. A state marshal showed up.

    Lindner has been caretaker of the town-owned 1793 historic house museum at 153 Vinegar Hill Road since 2017, and she lives in the caretakers' quarters with her husband and three kids. She has been paying $916.67 a month in rent and receiving quarterly payments of $2,925 for her work.

    But that is soon changing.

    The marshal served them a legal notice that they have to move out by July 23. Two letters from Mayor Fred Allyn III said that "due to a change in the Town's needs," the town would be terminating her month-to-month tenancy and terminating her service agreement.

    "My kids heard that, and we had to actually call 2-1-1 mobile crisis that night because they're horrified," Lindner said. Her boys — ages 10, 8 and 3 — have autism so "they don't know how to process this stuff anyways," and she said they're already traumatized from living in a hotel last year while the quarters underwent lead remediation.

    The family hasn't yet found a new place to live, a process made difficult by both high rents and Lindner not having another job.

    She said she wasn't given a reason for the termination but suspected that her husband calling the police May 6 on Vin Godino, chairman of the Ledyard Historic District Commission, had something to do with it. The commission supervises the museum.

    Allyn made the decision with three of the five members of the commission: Godino and Lester House Committee co-chairs Missy Dyson and Doug Kelley. A fourth member, Jay Pealer, has resigned, saying he was left in the dark.

    "Ultimately, the opinion was to move in a different direction on the caretaker's residence and duties, which will be rolled out this fall," Allyn said in an email Thursday. He said the commission will update the caretakers' responsibilities, and Scout Troops and trail users can continue enjoying the property.

    The grounds and trails are open to the public, and Lindner said she was planning the Fourth of July celebration, which ended up being canceled, right up until the marshal walked up the driveway. She said she was "very hurt and offended by the Historic District Commission's decision to do this so underhandedly."

    Godino said in an email Saturday regular scheduled tours will be suspended until there are new caretakers. He said qualified volunteers can give house and barn tours at the Gallup family reunion in August, and the interim might be used to make needed repairs using American Rescue Plan Act funds.

    Meanwhile, Lindner is packing and making calls to try to obtain housing, such as to 2-1-1 and Thames Valley Council for Community Action.

    "I just don't know what direction to go in, because I want to keep my kids exposed to agriculture," Lindner said, calling her goats "like my autism service goats, because they have taught my kids so much, and they are so calming to my kids."

    She has already sold her chickens and rabbits, and the goats will be clearing brush at a farm, so she joked the goats "found a job faster than me."

    Elsewhere on the property is the Great Oak Garden, which the Ledyard Garden Club maintains.

    Godino said garden club members told him they felt unwelcome, citing issues with Lindner over where they parked and where they dumped clippings. He called these "made-up rules" that make volunteers feel unappreciated, whereas Lindner said people would complain about brush being dumped at the trailhead. The garden club didn't respond to an email Friday seeking comment. Lindner also said she wouldn't let the garden club or public works spray Roundup, out of concern for her goats and the food she was growing.

    Then came the police call.

    Godino, who is 82, was at the house to do some repairs and parked on the grass in front, to make it easier to get his tools and supplies. Godino said the ground was firm but Lindner was concerned about tire marks on the lawn and asked him to move his car to the driveway. An argument ensued, Godino refused to move his car and Watford called police.

    Ledyard Police Capt. Kenneth Creutz said the rookie officer and training officer who responded talked to both sides and smoothed things out, and Godino agreed to move his car to the parking area.

    After about eight years on the commission, Pealer sent his resignation letter to Allyn the night the state marshal came to the house, having concluded "that for Chairman Godino the Lester House is a one-man show."

    "I don't know how justified Rebecca's firing was, if there were any warnings given to her, because I was kept in the dark," Pealer told The Day. He said everybody he knew liked Rebecca and "loved what she was doing with the house, which was very difficult because of the fact you had the pandemic happening."

    He credited Lindner with organizing the barn and said that while her animals were not part of the exhibits, they "made people more excited to come, because it was more than just a stodgy old house."

    A lot of Nathan Lester House events were documented on the Facebook page Lindner ran. Once she and others publicized the notice to quit, she started getting messages on the page from people asking about the future direction, what's going to happen with the animals, and permits for events, apparently thinking it was a town-run page.

    Allyn emailed Lindner last month asking for confirmation that someone from the commission has administrative rights on the page, and Lindner's response was to delete the page. She said her attitude was, "It was mine; they can go find the 800 followers on their own."

    A unique opportunity

    The Nathan Lester House has long had a live-in caretaker, but the agreement used to be different: Tenants would pay $1 a year in rent in exchange for performing certain tasks on the property.

    Andrea Buka served as caretaker from 2003 to 2012. She said the position was perfect for her family. She was a member of the Ledyard Historical Society board and interested in history, and her husband was getting ready to retire from the Navy and go back to school.

    "We loved it," she said. "You learn a lot about local history and about American history obviously, and we learned a lot about living in an old house and all the fun that comes with that, like critters in the house that you don't expect. Overall it was a good experience."

    Buka said Godino was "wonderful" and the reason she and her husband stayed on as long as they did.

    Buka said there was a lot of overlap between members of the commission and historical society, Godino included, and the society owns the contents of the museum.

    After Buka and her husband decided to leave and buy their own home, Lee Moore and his husband took over as caretakers for the next 4 and a half years.

    Moore, who was secretary of the historical society for many years, said Godino was "just marvelous." Moore fondly recalled putting on Fourth of July events and other programs, and portraying Nathan Lester.

    After the couple left, Mayor Allyn said at this point, legal counsel suggested making the relationship between caretaker duties and tenancy more defined.

    Five years ago, Lindner was scrolling through Facebook while making yogurt when she saw a post from the late Linda Davis, then chairwoman of the Ledyard Town Council, about the town seeking tenants for the quarters.

    Lindner, who was living in Pheasant Run Condominiums at the time, commented, "That would be awesome. definitely something to look in to for our family." She recalled that Davis contacted her the next day and said this would be a great opportunity for her to stay home with her boys and still work. Lindner homeschools her kids, who get in-home services related to their autism

    She and Watford signed a lease with the town for Nov. 1, 2017, to Oct. 31, 2018, which was extended another year but has been month-to-month since November 2019. Allyn said there "were several incidents on-site that led the Town to not renew the lease and transition to a month-to-month tenancy" but declined to elaborate on the incidents.

    Both Lindner and Godino cited an incident in which town officials took issue with something Watford posted on Facebook. After a meeting, which Godino said included discussion of how some volunteers and visitors found the environment at the house "unwelcoming," Lindner agreed to be the sole face of the property and contact point with visitors.

    Watford, who volunteers as an admin of the breaking news Facebook group Homebrewtvnews, works in security, and Lindner gets child support from the father of her two older sons.

    But she has also gotten into homesteading to provide for the family. She's an avid canner, with jars full of preserved carrots and potatoes and meats and more lining shelves in the basement. She has gotten eggs from the chickens and milk from the goats, also using the milk to make soap.

    Lead and other issues

    Lindner rattled off reasons why there is value in having a live-in caretaker: She sees people breaking the rules, she quickly notices new cracks in the building, she quickly notices when pipes break, she checks the mouse traps daily, she starts the generator when the power goes out.

    But she said "everything pretty much was OK" until her youngest son had his 15-month checkup. He tested high for lead.

    Her lease included a disclosure: "Lessee hereby acknowledge that the Nathan Lester House was built before 1978 and therefore, it may contain lead-based paint." Lindner said she knew the risk but was led to believe the house had been repainted.

    The Ledge Light Health District took an initial sample in September 2020 and a follow-up that November after cleaning, which found that the levels were lower but still too high. Katie Baldwin of Ledge Light said the real issue was the windows and loose paint.

    The town hired a contractor to do lead remediation last June, but levels from another lab report came back even higher than the one in November. Allyn said the anticipated cost was $15,000, but the town ultimately paid $8,000. This doesn't include the costs to the town of temporary housing, cleaning, and finally adding carpeting.

    Lindner spent a weekend in June vacuuming multiple times in each room, cleaning, and putting lead barrier compound and then paint on the walls. Godino coordinated with a lab in Rhode Island and wrote in an email that the next results were "incredibly low thanks to Rebecca's persistent and professional cleaning efforts."

    Despite the challenges of living in an old house, there was more Lindner wanted to do.

    "I wanted to have events, and I wanted to have the big Fourth of July, and I wanted to have kids come back," Lindner said, having noted that before the pandemic, elementary school kids visited on a school trip for the first time in at least a decade. She wanted it to be a place where kids with special needs could come.

    Lindner is not a member of the historic district, historical society or garden club, and said she felt she was caught between the groups and "attacked from every corner at every turn for everything I do." She hopes the town can do something productive with the house.

    Godino said more groups interact with the Lester House than in the past, such as Avalonia Land Conservancy, the Conservation Commission, and the Agriculture Committee. He said future caretakers will have more responsibility for coordinating with these groups in addition to the garden club, historical society and public works.

    e.moser@theday.com

    Corey Watford, husband of Rebecca Linder the caretaker of the Nathan Lester House in Ledyard, takes a load of boxes to a storage unit on the property Thursday, June 30, 2022, while they prepare to move out of the house after Linder received notice that the town is terminating their tenancy. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
    The Nathan Lester House and Tool Museum Thursday, June 30, 2022, in Ledyard. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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