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History Corner: What Was it Like in 1822?

History Corner: What Was it Like in 1822?

In a few short months, Orange will be celebrating its 200th anniversary, the bicentennial.  Although the Orange Historical Society’s research center holds the key to the past, information about 1822 appears to be lost to us except in the form of The Old Red House written by Henry Woodruff, the great grandson of its builder, Mathew Woodruff.  In his manuscript, he spins tales of the life in the house as memories and oral history ran through his mind.

Members of the Woodruff family were among the first settlers of Salem, Massachusetts and Farmington, Connecticut before some came to the Milford colony in 1650.  As with other stories I have written, you may remember that that colony was established in 1639 so by 1650, folks were moving north and by 1822 the Woodruff clan acquired a sizeable amount of land in the newly formed Town of Orange.

The house stood on the hill at the corner of Lambert Road and Old Tavern Road, facing west, a most imposing of homes, larger than life until its demise, by fire, in 1883.  From Henry’s description in his written history, the farm excelled more than any other in the town with a barn that was described as “gigantic with associated necessaries around it, including a massive, two-story cider mill.

An oil painting of the home is on display at the Academy, having been acquired by me at an auction from the home of West Haven’s town historian, Harriet North.  She had shown it to me on several occasions and by happenstance, I was at her auction and it came up for bid about 11:30 at night.  Having been at the auction from its opening, I was about to “nod” off when I heard, “Lambert Road.”  I immediately raised my bid card and we now have what might be the only view of the barn from the artist’s memory.  From the description in the story, the home was built for comfort but also for entertainment as two large rooms, saw plenty of laughter and enjoyment.  Below is an excerpt of that time.

“Those were comparatively primitive days.  Railroads, and telegraphs and telephones and the thousand and one modern inventions and appliances were then unknown.  The country was in its youth.  Great cities had not yet arisen.  The “Great West” was an undeveloped factor.  The lands were carefully cultivated and highly productive and a market for surplus produce was near at hand.  Fruit in great variety was abundant.  Fine stock was everywhere seen.  Houses and barns were filled with all manner of good things.  The country was settled with a prolific, happy and prosperous people – social, frank, hospitable.

“The mania for travel had not then become a disintegrating power.  Contentment was the rule and social enjoyment a cardinal principle of life.  During the winter months, the social gatherings, to which we have referred*, attained the zenith of their popularity.  The great size of the “apartment” in the “Old Red House” and the social standings of the occupants, continued to render it a grand rallying place.  Their circle of friends and acquaintances was very extensive.  From New Haven and Milford, from Derby and Woodbridge, from Bethany and Oxford, from far and near, the belles and beauxs assembled and in social converse in dancing, feasting, spend the swift winged hours.  The wintry air is keen and crisp and the moonlight dances o’er the fields of glittering snow.  The sleighing is fine and the fleet of trotters gliding over the well beaten road and prancing to the inspiring music of the tinkling bells, fills the night air with sweet melody.  On these festive occasions, by special favor, the children’s time for retiring was set at a later hour than usual, that they may enjoy some of the festivities of the evening.”

Thus, we now know that in 1822, our citizens were not the conservative stereotypes of the later colonials but up and coming, thriving to step into the next decade.  Henry continues, “To the ladies is assigned the North Chamber as a retiring and dressing room and to the gentlemen, the South Chamber.  What an august personage** to us youngsters, was the fiddler on such occasions.  Never shall we forget that wonderful instrument or that thrilling music.”

Unlike the greater number of the houses of that early period which had a long rear roof*** sloping nearly to the ground, it was an equal height both front and rear, thus securing greater internal space giving it that upright, commanding appearance.  It must have been a beautiful home.

Daily chores were performed as we have read, in our youth and Henry refers to the amount of labor as marvelous.  Not only did three meals have to be made each day for her 6 children, but the hired help as well.  John Woodruff, the father whose family we see here, died at the age of 38 in 1835 while his wife Betsy carried on until her death in 1881.  There was washing and the scrubbing of floors and then the ironing.  No polyester in those days, folks.  What’s amazing is that Betsy used her hands in all of these chores giving evidence of her strength and ability to keep a household, the magnitude of which was quite rare at that time.

Lest I leave you to ponder these chores, let’s look into her kitchen window and see what else she has gotten into.  Oh, I see over at the work table a large wooden bucket, long and sleek with a stick in the middle…that’s the butter churn and at the sink is a large, cloth bag, draining…that’s the cheese!  The kitchen or keeping room is filled with the smell of baking bread but where is the oven?  On the back of the large fireplace is the oven and hanging in the main portion of the fireplace are large kettles, simmering with what appears to be stew and soup.

The pantry on the north side of the house was the “ice box.”  No, not really but being the coldest part of the house, perishables could be stored there for a short period of time while cooking other items.  The cellar was the best place to keep things cold.  Pans and kettles were washed, scoured, scalded and sunned.  Yes sunned.  No E.coli here.  Butter was made in great quantities as milk and the resulting cream were available daily.  The butter for the table was adorned with a design using a wooden stamp which John had made for decoration.  The excess butter was brought to market and if other women were to do the same, theirs was marked as well with the stamp.  We have two butter stamps at the Bryan-Andrew House on display.

Betsy’s butter was un-matched and readily purchased by the first families of New Haven.  The process of making cheese was much more complicated and that takes up one page of the Old Red House book so I will avoid repeating it here.  Autumn brought the Festival of all festivals, Thanksgiving and it was then that the family, far and wide gathered at the homestead.

Betsy’s fare for this feast was nothing less than extravagant with roast beef, roast turkey, roast goose, roast pig, mashed potatoes, mashed turnips, stuffing, gravy, cranberry, bread, pickles and to top it all off, the puddings and pie, pumpkin, mince and custard, rice, and Indian pudding.  Fruit and nuts polished off the feast…I would say a Tums or two would work here, don’t you think?  The Old Red House is available for sale at the Academy, Saturdays from 10-3.

*Henry wrote earlier about the festivities

**dignified

***The Bryan- Andrew house had at one time a sloping roof mentioned here which being on the north side would have been the coldest part of the house and thus the pantry.  It was, at some time in its history removed.

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