From Frontier Log Cabin to Country Comfort

FIRST BUILT in 1806, Samuel Slade Benton constructed this frame house for his wife and children, replacing their original log cabin. From Josiah Henry Benton Jr., “Samuel Slade Benton and His Ancestors and Descendants” (1901, Merrymount Press). Courtesy photo.

In the northwest corner of Waterford, where the Daniels Farm and Simpson Brook Roads meet, stands a picturesque white house with black shutters and wrap-around porch. Its flower gardens and scattered outbuildings speak of settled comfort and deep roots. But few driving past the“Benton-Simpson-Fleming-Turek” farm, as it’s listed in the Vermont Barn Census, would guess how far back the stories of this house actually reach.

Almost 200 years before the house was built, according to a family memoir written by his grandson Josiah Henry Benton Jr., Puritan Robert Hinsdale left England and in 1637 became a“proprietor,” or first European owner, in the town that would become Dedham, Mass. His first wife Ann was“sensitive and timid,” so when it came time for her to join the church in their new home– a grueling process that involved publicly announcing your faith and confessing your sins in front of the entire congregation— she fainted away in her effort. In spite of this, she lived for another 30 years. Soon after her death, Robert Hinsdale married a tougher woman, widow Elizabeth Hawks, but found himself unable to handle this new wife and they began living separately. Their church frowned on“living asunder contrary to law,” apparently assuming the new Mrs. Hinsdale must be“lascivious and wanton.” She escaped punishment, but her husband was ordered to be“whipped ten stripes on the naked body” and to pay a fine.

Robert Hinsdale died before he could pay his fine. With three of his six sons, he joined the militia during King Philip’s War, a series of battles between the Native Americans and the settlers who dispossessed them (1675-1676). Father and sons died in the same fight, at Muddy (later called Bloody) Brook, near Deerfield, Mass.

One of those deceased sons, Barnabas, left behind a pregnant widow and four small children at a homestead on the Deerfield frontier. One of these children, Barnabas Jr. deserted the wild frontier, moving south a bit, to western Connecticut, where he helped found the town of Harwinton. Barnabas Jr.’s daughter, Elizabeth, married (as his second wife) a prosperous Hartford man named Jacob Benton (1698-1761).

Now the story begins to approach Waterford at last, for Elizabeth and Jacob’s son Jacob Jr. and his brother failed to keep their father’s store business above water in Connecticut. After the colony became a state and Jacob Jr. took an oath against King George (required for local citizenship), he sought a new beginning around age 50. This took him north to Alstead, N.H.; his son Samuel Slade Benton, who had been born nine months after the Declaration of Independence, dropped out of school at age 12 to work with his brother in Walpole, N.H. Then in 1801, according to Benton Jr.’s memoir, Samuel and his brother Jacob“went up the River about 90 miles and bought each of them farms ... my grandfather [Samuel] first went to Waterford as early as the spring of 1801. November 10, 1801, he bought fifty acres of land (being one half of Lot 8, Third Range) in the town of Waterford, Vermont, for two hundred dollars ... in the back part of the town. It was high, wooded land requiring much labor to clear and subdue for cultivation. On this lot he built a log house, to which in the winter of 1802, when he was twenty-four years old, he brought his young wife, Esther Prouty, then nineteen years old.”

If you know the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, this bride’s maiden name, Prouty, may have you scratching your head and recalling that Newport has a beach and other features named for a 20th-century governor, Winston Prouty. Sure enough, a bit of genealogical digging confirms that Winston’s five-greats-grandfather was also Esther Prouty’s great-great grandfather. Although that’s a bit of a sidetrack, it confirms what town historians in the Kingdom know well: family connections from the 1800s drew many settlers to this region.

Samuel Slade Benton and his young wife Esther thus became early settlers of the north-western corner of Waterford. Esther was immediately pregnant, and Samuel barely had time to erect a log cabin for their home before the baby arrived.

Their grandson Josiah Jr. recalled what his grandfather said about that time,“The log house which he built in 1801 had but one room, and when his first child was born, in November, 1802, he said he smoothed off the rough logs with his axe in one corner, and hung up blankets about that corner to shield his wife and baby from the cold.” Both the new mother and the babe prospered, and Esther would go on to have eleven more children with Samuel in Waterford.

Perhaps hard work kept the family healthy. Josiah Jr. wrote of Samuel,“At first he had no horse or oxen, but hired the use of an ox-team by laboring for a neighbor, and when he and one of his neighbors had each raised a young ox they put them together and did their work. My grandmother [Esther] told me they even had no cow, and she hired the use of one from a neighbor and paid by spinning yarn. She, herself, used to go to the pasture and milk the cow, climbing the log fences of the clearings for that purpose.”

By 1806 or so, Samuel and Esther were ready for a larger home for their growing family, and Samuel built“a story-and-a-half frame house.” We have arrived at the house mentioned at the beginning of this article, although in much smaller and simpler form, as shown in the illustration from Josiah Jr.’s family memoir.

Samuel Slade Benton proceeded to buy and sell portions of other lots, until he built a“home farm” of 200 acres. He also began a trading tradition from Waterford to Portland, Me., and Boston, driving a four-horse team, carrying local goods to these cities and returning with supplies. Neither his goods trading nor his farming was very profitable, but another farm that he purchased in St. Johnsbury, where he lived for a while, he sold at“a very large price” of $5,000 to“the Messrs. Fairbanks [probably Fairbanks brothers Thaddeus, Erastus, and Joseph], and they afterwards erected upon it their scale factory.”

Samuel and Esther were happy together and very compatible, which might not have been expected from their strong religious backgrounds, for Samuel was a dedicated Congregationalist and member of the First Congregational Church of St. Johnsbury (later belonging to North Congregational Church), and Esther was a Baptist. But after attending the Baptist church for a while, Esther opted to join her husband and children in the Congregational worship instead. This caused quite a furor at her original church, where it was important to baptize people fully immersing them in water. For Esther to go to a church where a sprinkle of water did the job instead– well, that was just plain wrong.

The Baptists sent several rounds of church officials to scold Esther, threaten her with being expelled, and try to win her back. Then the church held a trial of Esther Benton, accusing her of“breaking covenant with her brethren in communing with the unbaptized Congregational brethren.” Esther replied that she had done nothing wrong, and“that if any-one was baptized by sprinkling and thought such a method right, it made it right.” For declaring this independent theory, she lost her membership with the Baptists– although oddly, they restored her as a member in 1831, perhaps after changing their views about the sinfulness of hobnobbing with Congregationalists after all (her grandson suggested this).

It’s clear that Samuel and Esther didn’t spoil their children financially, for their oldest son, Reuben, actually had to pay them $1,400 for the farm when Samuel moved to St. Johnsbury in 1833. Reuben must not have liked farming as much as his dad– he remodeled the home in 1834, but in 1841 he sold it, to move to Lunenburg and then Guildhall, with a new career that took him into the Vermont legislature.

So it was then the Benton family left the farm, and in 1856 Stephen Richardson bought it. A decade later he moved the farmhouse to a more convenient location a short distance away on the same land, and did his own remodeling. Stephen’s great-grandson Clarence Richardson Simpson, born in 1907 in Hardwick, would move to the farm as a small child and grow up there. The farm’s 20th-century life, recorded by Tanya Powers as part of the Vermont Barn Census, mentions that Clarence“later with wife Ruth ran the farm, bottling milk and farming 700 acres; the Flemings farmed there during 1943-1974 (known as the Fleming Dairy); and the Simpson family again in the 1970s, during which the large high-rise barn was taken down (foundation still visible, along with marks probably from the silo foundation); and then the farm was split into smaller parcels.”

In the 1980s, Dotti Jackson Turek and her chiropractor husband Tom, a young couple who did not yet have children lived close to the (Benton-Richardson-Simpson) farmhouse on the Simpson Brook Road. Dotti remembers falling in love with the house and saying often,“I don’t know what we’re going to do if that house ever goes on the market!” Sure enough, the 1985 owners Ted and Claudette Christopher opted to sell the house and the remainder of the farm– including four nice old farm structures. Dotti marvels today,“Next thing you know, there we were, childless and living in a four-bedroom home!”

The Tureks raised their two daughters on the property, along with various livestock like chicken and horses. They furnished the home with period pieces and savored its history. No ghosts, according to Dotti, although one of her daughters disagrees. But the girls have grown now, and the house is yet again on the market, ready for a new name to be added to its pedigree: the Benton-Richardson-Simpson-Fleming-Turek house, so to speak.

The Tureks have their own library of documents on the house and its owners over the centuries, and even a glass milk bottle from the Fleming Dairy years. They are eager to share their knowledge with the next owners of the house.

Life is easier now: No need to smooth the logs or bear a dozen children, although who knows– we might again have reached the days when a resident would rather rent a cow than own one, much as Esther Prouty Benton did in 1803.