A Historian Comes Home


By Walter W. Woodward, Winter 2013 Volume 12 Number 4


***LAYOUT LAYOUT FINAL 7/25This is a story about a house. Not just any house, but a house with long, deep roots—roots that wind through time, cross through space, and wrap themselves around my consciousness. It is a house that affects in the most primary way my sense of who I am and where I belong.

I first encountered this house as a child visiting Columbia, Connecticut—the town where my father was born—from Europe, where I was born, and where my father was fighting the Cold War as a military attaché to the Department of State.

I loved Columbia—its colonial green, crystal lake, and white-steepled church and the three cottages where my grandfather supported his later years by renting summer to tourists. Columbia was my America, and my love for this state and country was born on my grandfather’s screened porch and beside the evening campfires. There I became a historian, listening to tales of my family’s long-time connection to Columbia, stories that reached all the way to the early 1700s when it was called Lebanon Crank. Many of those stories centered around “the house on Woodward Hill,” a three-story colonial built by my many-times-great-grandfather Eleazar during the American Revolution. Succeeding generations of my family lived in this house until 1875, when the accidental death of my great-great grandfather Madison led to a distress sale outside the family. The place was still called the Woodward Hill Farm, though, and whenever we drove by it on those childhood visits, I looked with longing and wonder at this house that bore witness to so much of my family’s past.

In my 30s, as a successful songwriter and music producer, I heard that the Woodward Hill house was for sale and flew in from Ohio to offer the then-owners their asking price. Seeing the name Woodward on the offer, they instantly boosted the price by $20,000. Angered, I flew home. I didn’t buy the house then, but I never stopped longing for it.

Last May, 30 years after the sale-that-wasn’t, I indulged myself and took the long route through Columbia on my way to give a Sunday talk in Groton. As always, I slowed when I came to the top of Woodward Hill to look with regret at the house I had so wanted. When I saw the “For Sale” sign, I literally slammed on the brakes, pulled to the side of the road, and just stared. I could not believe that the dream deferred so long ago might yet be realized.

Woodward Hill Farm as it looked in the eighties, when the dream was deferred.

Woodward Hill Farm as it looked in the eighties, when the dream was deferred.

My immediate reaction was that this was truly providential. That’s the old Puritan idea that there are no coincidences in life but rather that God (or fate) intervenes in our affairs to make things happen when and how they do. Here I was, at a time of great change in my own life (including a just-sold house) presented with an opportunity to reclaim my own history, and a childhood dream, by literally coming home.

I am a history professor these days. The glory days and income of my music career are long behind me. And without the cooperation of sellers who also loved this house and appreciated the importance of history and family, my dream deferred might have ended finally and forever this year. Today, though, thanks in no small part to those good people the Woodward Hill Farm in Columbia, Connecticut is once again back in the family, and I am its steward. What to do with the five fireplaces, the barn, and the land is yet to be determined. But my sense that I am where I was always meant to be has never been stronger.

As Robert Frost said in his 1947 poem “Directive,”
 Here are your waters and your watering place.
         Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.


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