Historic homestead museum holds annual harvest celebration
Mystic ― As Roger Ryley, a former Stonington High School history teacher, led a group of about 10 people Sunday over the site of the former Denison Homestead, two copper dowsing rods, traditionally used to find water, were crossed in his hands.
The group had watched Ryley slowly walk over a patch of grass that was in the shadow of the current Denison Homestead Museum, the third historic homestead to have graced the property since 1654.
He stopped and turned to the crowd, telling them that in the spot where he now stood, there had been a wall of the original home. It was one of several stops he made as he led the group around the property of the museum as part of its annual harvest celebration.
The property was covered with red or white flags denoting spots where there was a piece of native American or white history.
“This is two cultures, two histories, superimposed on each other,” Ryley had said after the tour concluded. “And they’re living together comfortably.”
The people involved weren’t always so comfortable with each other, however.
Marking a tenuous relationship between the Denisons and former native inhabitants of the land, was a spot Ryley showed the tour takers ― a rock the natives would use to grind a mixture of corn and nuts to use in cooking.
Showing disregard for the rocks’ original purpose, George Denison had used it as steps, walking up it on the way to the site of the original Denison home, Ryley said.
On that stone, and similar areas of note, Ryley continued to pull out his dowsing rods and show the group that electromagnetic energy still lingered.
“My joy is being outside and talking to the spirits with my rods,“ said Ryley.
Meanwhile, in a mid-18th century colonial kitchen, historical interpreter Aidan Evenski, dressed in period dress and bonnet, leaned over the table with a knife, cutting up three quarters of a pound of butter and scraping it onto the sides of a ceramic mixing bowl of flour.
“In the 18th century, they tended to have more butter than we would put in modern pie crust,” she said, smiling.
The crust was for a pumpkin pie from Amelia Simmons’ 1796 cookbook, “American Cookery.” Simmons was the originator of the pumpkin pie as it is known today, Evenski said.
Prior to her 1796 recipe for “pompkin pudding,” which incorporated a flaky crust like puff pastry, pumpkin pies would have been made with sliced pumpkin pieces, similar to how apples are cut for apple pie, Evenski said.
Most nearby families had at least a couple of cows, Evenski said, and butter was a way to preserve their cows’ milk. It shows in their recipes, she said.
“There’s a joke that if you want to make a recipe seem more 18th century, you add butter and nutmeg,” Evenski said, with her back to one of the home’s six fireplaces.
In front of the roaring hearth was a tin kitchen, a shield-like tool with a spit that reflected the heat of the fire back toward a rotating chicken, and a pot of boiling water Evenski would use for potatoes. A whole late-18th century meal.
The Denison Society LLC, acquired the current homestead in 1941 and turned into a museum to commemorate the home’s lengthy history.
“We open it so we can share that this is one of the only homesteads in the country that is still owned by the original family,” said Janet Tripp, treasurer of the society’s board of trustees, relaying information she had been told by former Denison Society president Bill Denison.
Brief history of the Denison Homestead
The current structure, known as Pequotsepos Manor or the Denison Homestead Museum, was built in 1717 by Capt. George Denison and wife Lucy Gallup Denison, originally of New London. It is the third iteration of the homestead, according to the society’s website.
Denison’s grandfather, also named George and, like his grandson, a military captain, had built the original homestead next door in 1654, Ryley said. Its remains can still be seen in the form of large, square stones that mark where a doorway used to be.
The grandfather had been given the 200 acres of land as payment for his military service in the Great Narragansett War, Ryley said.
In 1663, the older Denison made substantial upgrades to the original 1654 home, the website says. In that second home, he and wife Ann Borodell Denison raised their children before dying in 1694 and 1712, respectively.
Two years after Ann Denison’s death, the second house was destroyed in a fire that occurred the night before her grandson’s wedding to Lucy Gallup, which led him to build the existing home.
Pequotsepos Manor was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and serves as a museum.
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