About the Harrison House

About the Harrison House

124 Main Street
Branford, CT 06405
(203) 488-4828
info@branfordhistoricalsociety.org

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THE HOUSE

The Harrison House is typical of Connecticut homes built during this period. The house has a massive stone central chimney with a two over two room configuration and a stairway leading upstairs as you enter. A rear lean-to was added about 1780 for the Harrisons and their eight children. Note the construction of the porch. It has two layers of white pine boards, the outside ones are vertical and the boards inside are horizontal. They are fastened together by hand-wrought rosehead nails in a diamond pattern. The front door, though very early, is not original to the house and was added by Kelly.

The railing on the U shaped stair is made of oak. The width of the stairway and its triple run form are indicative of the 1724 date. The newels, with their turned finials and the crops are also all oak as are the balusters with their heavily moulded closed string. The stairway is similar to that of the Hyland House in Guilford. Edward Parmelee built the stairway in Guilford and perhaps built the one here, also.

THE PARLOR – left or west side, first floor

The name Parlor came from a monastery and was the room where the monks were allowed to converse. When not in use as a sleeping room; it was used for a dining room or for notable gatherings like wedding or funerals.

During the colonial period, the parlor was the fancy room where visitors were received. Note the large hand carved beams in the corners and ceilings. The wood on the walls is tulip, once prevalent in Connecticut. The plaster on the walls is a mix of oyster shell and marsh hay, sometimes horse hair was used. The floors though very old are not original; the original floors are still underneath. The plastered ceilings were probably added by Kelly.

In 1800 a big change took place. Martha Harrison Baldwin, the only child of Nathaniel the 3rd inherited the house and sold it to the Joseph Linsley family. Martha moved down the street to another family home at the corner of Blatchley’s Cartway (now Cherry Hill Road). This house was torn down in 1904. However, Martha’s mother, the widow Mary Tyler Harrison had dower rights to remain in the Harrison House for the rest of her life as long as she did not re-marry. Mary had the use of this parlor, had access to the cellar and the back door. The widow Mary Harrison lived with the Linsley family (to whom she was not related) for another twenty-two years. We believe the Parlor was remodeled at this time. The original large stone fireplace was made into a smaller brick one. The beehive oven was installed and the white pine mantel added. The original fireplace can be seen behind the wall.

In the southwest corner of the Parlor is a handsomely proportioned corner cupboard that is an exceptionally fine example and is original to the house. It is treated with slender, fluted pilasters that have carved rosettes in the necking. The rosettes are a Connecticut design. The cupboard is made of pine and in this cupboard the best china was kept. On display are examples of pink luster ware, transfer ware and two flip glasses which were used to mix beverages. Colonists drank beer and various fruit beverages; they did not drink plain water. A miniature copy of this cupboard is in the Chicago Art Museum.

THE HALL – right or east side, first floor

The Hall was the all-purpose room, for working, eating, and gathering. The hall has been restored to its original condition. Its huge stone fireplace has a width of 8 feet and the lintel is of hewn oak. The tulip paneling beside the fireplace was probably added in the early 1800’s. The plaster in this room is extremely hard due to its high content of oyster shell lime and also contains marsh hay. The original corner posts and ceiling or summer beam are of hewn and chamfered oak. The distance between these joists is 23 inches typical of a 1724 colonial house. A second indication of that date is the slight flared sides of the fireplace.

In the Hall the woman of the house made candles, soap, did the cooking, spun yard and flax and did her weaving and sewing. Her daughters would help and learn those skills. Candles made of melted wax or tallow (fat from animals) was poured into the molds which contained the wick. Repeated pourings made the candles thicker and more durable.

A large iron kettle with three short feet was used to make soap. Wood ash lye and animal fat were boiled in the kettle over the fire to make the soap once or twice a year. The colonist did not bathe very often.

The spinning of wool and making of clothing took multiple steps. A carder was used to brush or “Card” the woolen fiber. The carder is a thin board which contains many slightly bent wire teeth. Flax grows in a cooler climate and grew well in Branford (Flax Mill Road) and was used to make linen. Slightly wet flax was drawn through a hetchel to refine the flax before spinning. Men and boys helped with spinning in the winter.

The large center table is a reproduction of a Pilgrim table. On it are pewter plates made in London and early bone handled utensils. Most families owned very few plates and utensils. Early Branford families had no silver, clocks, and very book books except a bible among their possessions. The children ate their meals separately from the adults.

On the north wall is an oil portrait by Uriah Brown of Orin D. Squire at the age of 20. Alongside is a silhouette of him and his first wife with a list of their children. Squire started a factory at the east end of Main Street which was later the Branford Lock Works. It was where Lock Works Square is today. Squire held many town offices including postmaster and selectman.

The rooms upstairs are chambers (what we now call bedrooms) and named for the room below.

THE PARLOR CHAMBER – west side, second floor

The Parlor Chamber is the bedroom or chamber above the Parlor and is restored to its original appearance. Notice the original wide, whitewood floor boards. The vertical wainscoting beside the fireplace is also whitewood or tulip wood. It is beaded and feathered. The unusual fireplace is higher than it is wide and has a small warming hob projecting from the right side. The corner posts in this room are all different. They are of hewn and chamfered oak, but two are “gun stock” and two are straight. The gun stock design could bear a heavier load.

Note the very large “summer” beam in the ceiling. The term summer may be from the Norman-French “Sommier” perhaps or it is a corruption of the word “sumpter” meaning burden bearer. A later ceiling was removed and showed that the original wood construction of the ceiling was entirely whitewashed.

There are many sleeping berths and the entire family slept in the same room. The canopied four poster bed might hold two adults and two children; the trundle bed below it could hold two and the single bed one adult. The original Nathaniel Harrison had eight children and the Linsley family nine; so many sleeping berths were needed. Cradles were used for the infants. The cradle to the left is a fine example of a circa 1790 Queen Anne piece of furniture.

The white embroidery bedspread and canopy in the “Great Chain of Being” design were made of cotton and linen grown and spun in Branford. A rope turner was used to tightened the rope on the bed which held up the mattress.

THE HALL CHAMBER – east side, second floor

This room would have been used for sleeping quarters in the summer and no evidence of a fireplace has been found. Original corner posts and beams can be found in this room. We use this space for rotating exhibits. On display are examples of Branford’s industrial, military and maritime activities. In one corner are children’s toys. The model of the Harrison House is an exact measured miniature of the house showing its construction.

THE LEAN-TO

The lean-to was built by Nathaniel Harrison about 1780 with a fireplace. A 19th century term for the lean-to is the “Keeping Room”. It refers to the fact that a fire was always “kept” going. The Delft tiles (Dutch) were probably added by J. Frederick Kelly. The smaller western room was added later and was the buttery or pantry. The eastern room was a small bedroom sometimes referred to as the birthing room during the 19th century.