Within a few minutes after turning off Connecticut’s Route 9, which follows along the Connecticut River south of Hartford, we knew we’d taken the wrong exit. With the sun rising directly in our eyes, we couldn’t read the signs properly. Our destination was a horse farm in East Haddam. We’d been corresponding with the owners, learning that they intended to put the place on the market this April for only $549,000.
Considering that the property included five secluded acres in southern Connecticut (near Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, and so on), we’d decided it might be a bargain and we’d best mosey on down for a look.
After a few miles along an ever-narrowing, woodsy road (yes, we should have turned back), we finally stopped for directions and eventually found ourselves crossing the drawbridge next to one of New England’s great and historic buildings: the famous six-story Goodspeed Opera House, built in 1876 there on the east bank of the Connecticut and beautifully restored back in the early 1960s. At long last, we were in East Haddam.
Ten minutes later, we pulled into the driveway of the horse farm and parked in front of the two-car garage (with attached four-stall barn). For a few minutes, we simply sat there, surveying those five acres of open fields, stone walls, old trees, and split-rail fencing. We saw the pond shimmering in the early-morning sunlight, across the way next to a forest … gorgeous. The only thing missing? Well, horses. Maybe they were in the barn.
Owners Jim and Heather McGroarty met us at the front door of the “new” wing, added in 1970. The main house was built by a sea captain, Samuel E. Emmons, in 1740, the year George Washington turned 8. Jim, originally from Scotland, is now retired from his currency management business, which, we may assume, was pretty successful. (We spotted a framed photo of Jim with President Ronald Reagan.) Heather, who’s originally from Virginia, and Jim have been married almost 40 years. They have no children, but they’ve entertained nephews, nieces, and friends’ children here over the years since they purchased this lovely farm back in 1986.
And, as we soon learned, they have no horses, either. The stalls had been built and used by previous owners. Jim and Heather have been more interested in taking friends boating on the Connecticut, enjoying those famous “hunt breakfasts” on Sundays at the Griswold Inn in nearby Essex, attending performances at the Goodspeed Opera House, picnicking in Devil’s Hopyard State Park, and taking guests to visit the little school where Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale once taught. There’s so much to do here … including, of course, just reading in the quiet of their terrace.
So why sell? Seems the McGroartys want to travel more, spend more time at their place in New York and their lake house in Naples, Maine, and, well, you know how it is when one grows older. One tends to simplify a bit.
After visiting awhile in the comfortable family room, Jim toured us through the original house, starting with the “keeping room,” with its original old ceiling beams and huge fireplace (one of three working fireplaces plus another that could work), complete with beehive oven and, in the upper left-hand corner over the mantle, a “parson’s cupboard.” We’d occasionally seen those in other Colonial homes. It was where the liquor was stored when the minister came to visit … hidden away from his (perhaps) disapproving eyes.
The fairly small but modern kitchen is at one end of this room, and a door next to it opens to the dining room, also with original ceiling beams. The living room, past the original entrance hallway, features another fireplace and, over it, a three-foot patch where Jim and Heather recently — and very carefully — peeled back the contemporary wallpaper to reveal a section of a beautiful, hand-painted mural, depicting weeping willows, large leaves, and even what appears to be a pheasant. It could be the work of the famous itinerant painter Moses Eaton Jr. (1796 — 1886), Jim said, and if so, would have considerable value. He and Heather stopped peeling at the point they did for fear of causing damage. New owners, we’d guess, might hire a professional to reveal the rest.
After climbing the wooden stairs off the entry hall to the second floor, we understood why Jim and Heather said this was a house particularly suited for having guests. Not only do the three bedrooms up there have individual electric thermostats, but, more important, each also has its own bathroom (plus there’s a powder room on the main level, too). It seems that a previous owner, industrialist Vivien Kellems (1896 — 1975), who became famous for fighting the IRS all her life, raised the second-floor roof, installed the bathrooms, and divided what had been known as the “panic room” — the place where people hid from Indians — into the current three bedrooms. (She also added the 1970 wing.) “Perhaps she was thinking of making the house into a B&B,” Jim speculated.
At that point we decided not to inspect the attic — or the cellar, for that matter — but instead to go outside and walk along the edge of the fields to the woods at the far end and then over to the water. We wanted to see that pond up close, so that’s exactly what we did, and we were surprised at the size. It’s bigger than it seemed when viewed from the house, and might be a great source of drinking water for horses (that is, if you had horses).
Meandering back across the fields to say our goodbyes to Jim, who was raking leaves off the terrace, and Heather, relaxing in a comfortable chair nearby, we thought to ourselves that, yes, at that price this Connecticut horse farm was a pretty fair bargain — and, you know, well worth getting lost for.
Even without horses.
For details: Contact Jim McGroarty at: 860-873-8557 or 914-715-0899 (cell); firstname.lastname@example.org
The GOODSPEED OPERA HOUSE opened April 11 this year with the musical “Happy Days,” which runs through June 29. Ticket prices: $26 — $68. 6 Main St. (Rte. 82), East Haddam, CT. For schedules and information, contact: 860-873-8668; goodspeed.org