Moving Forward, Looking Back / The windmills of my mind
Published 6:33 am, Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Not long after we moved to Fairfield in 1977, I read an article in the paper that mentioned the existence of a windmill on Greenfield Hill.
A windmill? Not knowing anything about windmills beyond what they looked like in Dutch paintings or on a miniature golf course, I wondered what one of these things -- that familiar squat tower with outsized propeller-like sails -- was doing in Connecticut.
But despite the novelty of having one fairly nearby, I did not immediately jump in the car to find it. I will now confess that my curiosity was dampened by my tendency to get good and lost in Greenfield Hill. For our first few years in Fairfield, driving up there was a nightmare: Winding country roads overtaken by trees, with names (if you could find a street sign) that all seemed to have "Mill," "Hill," or "Farm" in them. There were houses spread around over the area, but where were the people? They seemed to prefer to stay inside. New York City natives like me rely on numbered streets laid out in a nice, neat grid. And Greenfield Hill after dark? Fuh-GED-aboudit. If there ever was a reason for GPS to be invented, Greenfield Hill was it.
After years of dedicated study, I developed enough savvy to enter Greenfield Hill and re-emerge on the same day, but for some reason I never managed to come across the windmill. Sympathetic townspeople would try to help by giving explicit directions, which always went something like this: "OK, you go up Duck Farm, bear left past White's Hill to Hill Farm, make a left on Verna Hill ... take it past Farm Hill and Mine Hill, you know, where it crosses Hillside ... if you pass Cobbler's Hill you're going the wrong way, but then you can go back down to Hill Farm back over to Duck Farm and come up on Greenfield Hill..." by which time I was only pretending to listen. I started thinking that the windmill might be a hoax, or even worse, a mass Fairfield delusion.
And so, for all these years, the windmill on Greenfield Hill remained an elusive apparition, a lingering personal mystery, until recently. I can now confirm that there is, in fact, a windmill on Greenfield Hill, that it's not at all hard to find, and that it doesn't look at all like the Dutch painting/miniature golf course variety. I have probably driven right past it a few times. How could I have missed it? It's huge, and it's right on the road. A neuroscientist might suggest that the synapses in my visual neural pathway for "windmill" were so frozen on the Dutch image that I was prevented from "seeing" it. I like to think of myself as open-minded, but apparently I'm not when it comes to windmills.
Here's how you get there: Don't ask anyone for directions. In broad daylight, get onto Bronson Road and drive uphill, ignoring all street signs that contain the words "Mill," Hill," or "Farm." Do not turn off Bronson Road under any circumstances. When you get to Fairfield Country Day School, look across the road. If you don't see it, pull off the road, call 911, and tell them that your neural windmill pathway is frozen, and you need immediate help.
It turns out, of course, that windmills have been hardworking fixtures of the New England landscape since the 18th century. Many styles of windmills were erected in New England, but in their day they either pumped water or ground grain.
Fairfield's last remaining windmill was built in 1894 by Frederic Bronson, a wealthy financier and scion of the historic Fairfield family. Verna Farm, where the well was constructed, came to the Bronson family in 1796; Frederick's grandfather, Isaac Bronson, purchased it from Timothy Dwight when he became the president of Yale. A century later, after the Bronsons added over 100 acres of property, Frederick demolished the original Dwight home and put a 42-room brick mansion in its place. Mr. Bronson, who needed plenty of water for his new house and his prize Jersey cows, engaged the A.J. Corcoran Co. to construct the windmill.
The 100-foot-tall wooden structure pumped water by wind power from an underground well to large storage tanks, which fed water to the estate by gravity. Corcoran designs were prized for their aesthetics, and the graceful cedar-shingled structure with a multi-blade wheel on top cuts an imposing silhouette against the sky.
In 1939, the Bronson mansion and the windmill became the property of the Fairfield Country Day School. The windmill fell into disuse, and in the early '70s was on the verge of demolition when a few visionary Fairfield women organized a successful effort to save and restore it. Way to go, ladies! Now owned by the town and managed by the Fairfield Historical Society, this truly imposing and beautiful structure stands as a proud reminder of an old technology -- garnering the power of wind -- that appears to be making a 21st-century comeback.
It's right up Bronson Road You can't miss it.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.