Opened House

T hree years ago came a tornado. Two years after that, a pandemic. But those are just the most recent trials for Hamden’s 1792 Jonathan Dickerman House. Now it’s open to the public for the first time since the summer of 2017, with a newly repaired roof and a painstakingly rebuilt cider mill, both of which had been heavily damaged by trees that fell in the May 2018 storm.

Originally constructed on what is now Sleeping Giant State Park property, the Dickerman House is an example of the vernacular architecture of the day, says Ken Minkema, president of the board of directors of the Hamden Historical Society, as he gives me a tour. The Dickermans were a farming family, Minkema says, and they built a “fairly modest, traditional” home to match their means. Visitors, who can tour the house on Sundays in August from 1 to 4 p.m., will see two formal front rooms and a great room in the back that spans the width of the house, as well as several smaller anterooms. Period furniture and household items—a candle mold, woodworking tools, a school slate, imported china—give a sense of daily life at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the next.

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Known for generations as “the old, red house,” the Dickerman House remained in the family until 1875, when ownership passed to the Grogans, immigrants from Ireland. Its final private owner, J. Edward Heaton, donated the house to Sleeping Giant State Park in 1924, and it has been open for tours since the 1930s. After the Hamden Historical Society took ownership in 1961, the house was relocated from the park to its current lot on the south side of Mount Carmel Avenue. Also on the property is a cider mill originally built on the Talmadge Farm on West Woods Road in 1810. Volunteers in 1992 dismantled and relocated the mill, an example of the types of structures built in the town’s early industrial period. A two-seater outhouse from one of Hamden’s schools also stands at the back of the property, and the Spring Glen Garden Club maintains a small herb garden off the kitchen.

The Dickerman House isn’t Hamden’s oldest intact house—that honor might go to the Simeon Bristol House a little farther north on Route 10, Minkema says—but it does represent the story of the town’s first immigrant settlers and its development in the early days of the new republic. “Let’s face it,” Minkema says. “It’s one of the very few public areas where Hamden can still get a sense of its history.” The town, he adds, has done “a really lousy job of recognizing and preserving its history” in comparison with surrounding towns, a shortcoming he hopes will improve in the future. Among the research and work still to be done is a concurrent history of the town’s native people, the Quinnipiac, who left traces of their lives along the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers, and the enslaved people whose labor was exploited to build some of the farms and industrial sites of the period. Bristol, for one, is known to have been a slave owner.

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At the time of the Dickerman House’s construction, Hamden was part of New Haven, and its settlements were scattered along the waterways, where English immigrants like the original Dickermans built gristmills, sawmills, cider mills and distilleries as well as farms. One later venture, the foundations of which can still be seen nearby in the woods along the Mill River, was a factory manufacturing parts for New Haven’s carriage-building industry.

Minkema points out fresh new shingles on the roof and repaired beams throughout both the house and the cider mill, which are largely the work of volunteer and restoration contractor Bob Zoni, who will be honored at a reception during the last open house of the summer. But the property isn’t finished yet. Before the tornado and the pandemic derailed its progress, the historical society had secured grants from the state Department of Economic & Community Development for architectural plans, which are finally underway, to be followed by a renovation that will outfit the home’s 20th-century basement for public meetings and displays and make the house more accessible to visitors. Museum pieces like an early 18th-century loom and a printing press that belonged to the English political reformer William James Linton, who spent the last years of his life in Hamden, are not yet on view and also await restoration.

Lest the Dickerman House should seem disconnected from the present, Minkema pauses in front of a grandfather clock in one of the front rooms. Its dark wooden case is simple but finely crafted, its face decorated with a floral design. The clock, he says, “points to the transition from a traditional way of keeping time to an industrial way of keeping time.” Clocks were a disruption “every bit as significant as what’s happening in the last 20 years for us with computerization,” Minkema says. Recognizing this, we may be able to understand how it felt, in 1792, to be part of a nation and a world whose ways were shifting.

Jonathan Dickerman House Museum
105 Mount Carmel Ave, Hamden (map)
Open Sundays in August, 1-4pm; reception 8/29 at 3pm
[email protected]

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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