Haunted history at New Canaan’s oldest home
NEW CANAAN — Tom and Libby Butterworth’s Carter Road saltbox home, the oldest still standing in New Canaan, is haunted.
“If you had asked me 20 years ago if I believed in ghosts or spirits I would have said of course not. But we’ve all felt things and we’ve all seen things,” Libby said on a recent Friday, seated at her kitchen table. “The house has its quirks. We’re not the only ones here.”
Libby’s assertion is based on two stints, beginning in 1989, living in the Benedict-Eells-Thatcher House with her husband and five children, and the various “sightings” each of them has witnessed.
The home, considered a “mansion house” at the time, was built circa 1724 as a gift from Deacon John Benedick, of Norwalk, to his son John Benedick, Jr., before Canaan Parish existed. It wasn’t until 1731, when settlers from Norwalk and Stamford began making their way into the woods that would become New Canaan, that Canaan Parish was founded and, as a result, a pastor was needed for the Congregational Church.
In 1733, minister John Eels, perhaps the home’s most colorful resident, moved into the home to lead the parish. He presided over the parish for only eight years due to “eccentricities deemed improper in a minister of the gospel,” according to a 1951 book on New Canaan’s historical landmarks compiled by the Historical Society, but lived in the home until his death in 1785. The home passed to several other owners through the 19th and early 20th-centuries, though only small efforts to modernize the house were reportedly made.
Still, enough owners came, went, and passed away in the house to add credibility to the Butterworth’s claims.
The visitations include, according to the pair, a heavyset Civil War-era man, who joined Libby on the couch as she watched Ken Burns’ documentary on the conflict. On a separate occasion, Tom remembered looking toward the house while mowing the lawn and seeing Libby in the kitchen window downstairs. Above her, in a second story window, was a woman in a shawl pacing in a bedroom.
A third incident was reported by their daughter, who had been sleeping fitfully days before a stressful move to the West Coast. One night she woke to someone patting her on the shoulder comfortingly. Expecting to find her mother, she turned over to see the apparition of a white-haired woman disappearing into the hallway. The Butterworth’s suspect the woman was Mabel Thatcher, another former owner who lived in the home from the 1920s to the 1970s. Thatcher played an important role in maintaining the home’s preservation and visited frequently.
But, the Butterworths said, the spirits are not the stuff of horror movies. On contrary, they consider their presence one of the houses many charms.
“It’s a very protected house. There was a time in Tom’s career when he was traveling and I would be home by myself after the kids had gone off to college. I never feel nervous here, it’s the most comforting house,” Libby said.
And, at least in the case of Mabel, the Butterworths feel the appearance of the spirits is an attempt by former residents to ensure that the house was not razed, or otherwise drastically altered, as so many similar homes have been in New Canaan.
The home has survived, in part, the Butterworths believe, thanks to a string of owners who cared deeply about its historical significance.
“There’s a certain amount of luck, or maybe fate, about how a house like this survives intact. Because most houses of this age have had severe modifications through the years, where they pretty much lose the charm,” Tom said, seated nearby his wife on the living room couch across from where their Civil War-era visitor popped up years ago.
After their kids left home for college and careers and marriage, the Butterworths briefly downsized to a home in Rowayton, before following their children to Seattle. However, a perceived scarcity of history bothered the Butterworths and they returned to Rowayton after three years. In 2011, the Carter Street home was back on the market and, compelled by a desire to save the house from being torn down, Tom and Libby moved back in with an understanding that they’d need to undergo a series of improvements to ensure its preservation.
“Before we made the improvements, the property was more valuable without the house than with it. The land has a certain inherent value and if you have an old house that doesn’t have a wide appeal, economically there’s no way to save it because people are going to want to scrape it away. With the improvements, now the property is worth more with the house, so it’s safe now. We were happy to do that and Mabel was happy, too.” Tom said.
But saving the home was not his sole motivation. Tom also saw it as an opportunity for his wife to showcase her unique set of skills honed restoring multiple homes prior to Carter Street.
“I realized that this was a wonderful opportunity for Libby, because she’s so creative and is just a genius at interior decorating and design. To save this house was a chance for her to create her masterpiece.” he said.
With Libby taking the lead, the Butterworths sought out architects that were willing to add an addition to the house that maintained its historical character.
The pair took pains to collect antique beams from old houses and barns that had been demolished in order to build an authentic looking wood floor for the addition. They visited five different sellers and ultimately bought out all the antique oak flooring in the state. For the remaining floor they used antique pine.
Libby furnished the house by shopping at tag sales and estate sales, picking out hand-crafted antique designs that matched the home’s aesthetic.
The utilitarian low-ceilings — which trapped heat during cold colonial winters, Libby said — the wide beams of the wooden walls, the windows and the fireplace of the original saltbox were left as the Butterworths bought it.
“We were adamant that they maintain the old part of the house.” Libby said. “It’s the oldest house in New Canaan, so I feel a big responsibility to maintain it.”
And, since the work was completed, their ghostly housemates have been less present.
“I have a theory that once we got the addition done, the house was safe. We haven’t had many appearances from Mabel since.” Tom said.