Brothers‘ Keepers

Brothers‘ Keepers

If you asked me to name the most eccentric Connecticuters in history, the Boothe brothers of Stratford—David (1867-1949) and Stephen (1869-1948)—would get my nod. One story of many recounted in the 2015 history Red, White and Boothe is that these wealthy, philanthropic bon vivants would follow their frequent community fundraising dinners with a rousing game of “Burp the Baby.” Male guests would assemble on one side of the room, women on the other; at the sound of a bell, each woman would dash across and claim a man, who she then “diapered” with a cloth and pins, placed on her lap, fed a bottle of milk and burped over her shoulder. The first “mom” to achieve all this was the winner.

By far, the brothers’ most outlandish and enduring act was turning their 32-acre former working farm into what’s now known as the Boothe Memorial Park and Museum (map), an architectural wonderland of buildings and other structures they ultimately bequeathed to the town of Stratford. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and managed by the nonprofit Friends of Boothe Park Inc., the estate features more than 20 attractions, many conceived and designed by the brothers themselves.

These include a miniature lighthouse (ca. 1918) and windmill, a trolley station, a brick-and-brownstone garage (built for the brothers’ twin Packards), the Putney Chapel (built by the Boothe family in 1844 and moved to this site in 1968), the “Coliseum” (a former barn used for dinners and fundraisers, which is still used for events), an aviary (now populated in the warmer months by 25 parakeets) and a basilica made of stones purchased in Alabama, with a sunken garden, 10-foot-high pulpit and space for a choir. This feature became the location for annual Easter sunrise services, which became so popular that by their 10th year in 1938, 4,000 worshippers attended. It’s a tradition local churches continue today.

Visiting Boothe Park can feel both awe-inspiring and frustrating. While the grounds are open daily sunup to sundown, many of the buildings only open two mornings a week and Sunday afternoons from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and on special occasions. One exception is the Boothes’ gambrel-roofed summer guest cottage (ca. 1904), which now houses the Stratford Veterans Museum. Established in 2020, this ambitious collection of local memorabilia—along with a flight simulator and re-created World War I combat trench—is open year-round. Luckily, I arrived at the park when the Friends were hosting a school program for 2nd graders from Stratford’s Eli Whitney Elementary, which made it possible to fully investigate some other key landmarks.

To me, the most fascinating is the one-of-a-kind Technocratic Cathedral (also known as the Redwood Building because it’s made entirely of the first redwood shipped east of the Mississippi River). Created in the early 1930s as a tribute to the Depression’s Technocracy Movement—founded on the belief that scientists and engineers who also had economic savvy would make better national leaders than partisan politicians and businessmen—the cathedral is built with timbers that are all laid horizontally and held together with galvanized dowels instead of nails.

I also love the clock tower, built on top of a hay barn in 1913 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Boothe family’s arrival in Stratford from England. Designed by David, it originally featured five cast-iron bells inscribed with family genealogies as well as a Howard clock equipped with Westminster chimes that sound every quarter hour. (Hearing those from inside the building is a thunderous experience.) A previously acquired clock, handmade in 1815 of cherry wood and found at a church in Massachusetts—the brothers traded a Eureka carpet sweeper for it—never worked until the 1980s, when a volunteer restored it. It was later borrowed by Steven Spielberg for his film Amistad. The clocktower has been renovated twice by the Friends, in part to make room for more of the Boothes’ collectibles.

After Henry Ford built a blacksmith shop in Michigan in the 1930s, the Boothe brothers decided to outdo him. Unlike Ford, who settled for a four-sided smithy, the Boothes created a structure with 44 sides (and three spires). The Friends of Boothe Park have created a working forge inside the building, where volunteers gave me a quick primer on horse- and ox-shoeing. Another major contribution by the Friends is an extensive wedding and rose garden developed on the property in 1990 to honor David and Stephen’s passion for nature. Though the plantings peak in June—and are the centerpiece of the park’s annual “Hats Off to Roses” fundraiser—I still saw some hardy October blooms.

A structure called The Homestead is the seat of the park’s museum. Built in 1820 and modernized in 1913, it’s a riot of sophisticated, artsy flourishes and homespun details: ornate stained-glass windows by the Bridgeport Art and Glass Company, furniture and other decorations acquired on trips to Syria and Japan, a music room with a still-operational Victrola and a Swedish piano, a front doorbell that could wake the dead and a pair of “puzzle carpets” that are actually specially patterned tiled flooring created by the New York Belting and Packing Co. The master bedroom is dominated by a display of hundreds of wooden baskets collected from around the world, allegedly just a fraction of the thousands the brothers originally acquired.

Fortunately, Boothe Memorial Park and Museum will put on its best finery for one more annual public fundraiser this year: “Christmas at The Homestead”, scheduled for December 1 through 4, offering tours, a silent auction of tabletop Christmas trees and plenty of spirited Victorian decor—not to mention pictures with Santa, who, I’m confident, won’t try to burp you.

Boothe Memorial Park and Museum
5800 Main St, Stratford (map)
(203) 381-2046

Written and photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

More Stories