Even before the Revolution, it was the river and the timber growing tall around it that attracted settlers to Silver Mine. Colonial mining gave the area its name. The first Buttery Sawmill dated from 1688, burned and was replaced by a second, one hundred yards further north (1741). In 1762, Jacob St. John deeded a site to Samuel Hayden “for ye consideration of Samuel Hayden’s building himself a good and sufficient corn mill and dam on ye river running to my saw mill…”. In those days, all of Silver Mine lay in Norwalk. New Canaan and Wilton were parishes instead of towns.
In colonial times, a miller usually built a tiny dam and canal on a small stream and erected a wooden undershot waterwheel. Manufacturing took place wherever there was waterpower, not because there was a city. Old documents record that communal shares in the mills were sold, bought, and bequeathed. Mills soon became the foundation of New England industry and formed an important part of riparian law. Dams not only stored surplus water but also stabilized stream flow and kept the mills turning day and night. In winter, residents would occupy themselves with millwork because the soil was frozen and agrarian toil impossible. In spring and summer, each farmer cleared his own timber; ashed, manured, limed with seashells, ploughed, sowed and cultivated his own land; and earmarked his cattle for pasture in the common pasturelands. In late summer and fall, the crops were harvested and the biggest celebration of the year was Thanksgiving.
The move from waterpower to steam began the demise of the mills. Changes in immigration patterns and property ownership, lack of access to railroads, and the silting in of the river from two hundred years of farming did the rest. By the turn of the twentieth century, Silvermine was declining, most of the mills were slowing or stilled, and its nineteenth century landscape lay dormant—like a butterfly in amber. It was the beauty of that landscape, and its affordability, which attracted the artists. And it was the artists who preserved the houses and mills, built an artist’s colony in the undulating hills and river valley, and celebrated in their work the nostalgic beauty of Silvermine.
In 1923, Sammy Rider, one of the last remaining millers, passed away leaving seventeen cans of corned beef, piles of mill parts, and broken furniture. Sammy’s plight was indicative of the passing of the mill industry. The last working mill in Silvermine, and the oldest, the Buttery Sawmill, had seen renewed prosperity with the building of the Merritt Parkway but in 1955, the “hundred-year-flood” undermined it.
The original nucleus of the Silvermine Group of Artists was formed around sculptor Solon Borglum, and included Richard B. Gruelle, landscape artist; his son, Johnny Gruelle; George Avison, a writer, illustrator, and landscape painter; and Addison Millar and Carl Schmitt, both of whom were painters from Warren, Ohio. An older generation of artists, Hamilton Hamilton and Augustus Daggy, joined them.
The cartoonist, Clifton Meek, bought an anvil for fifty cents at auction and went on to found the Old Forge and establish a parallel profession as a metal crafter. His observations mirror those of the other Silvermine artists and artisans. He believed that the landscape reflected an almost forgotten, deeply New England way of life: “I shall always be grateful for a kind destiny that directed us to this peaceful haven with its rolling, haze-shrouded hills, its ever murmuring stream and silent millponds…”
Austin’s Mill on Mill Road, closed in 1912 and his home was sold to illustrator and cartoonist, John Cassell. Upstream, the former Blanchard Fur Factory was used as a studio by Richard Gruelle and his son, Justin, and also as temporary living quarters for Johnny Gruelle (who wrote Raggedy Ann). He later built a home at the upper end of the millpond. The painter, Bernard Gutmann built a large white house on the hill by the Borglum Bridge (which crosses Blanchard Millpond). The house later became the home of the writer Vance Packard. Carl Schmitt lived on the opposite bank of the river and Solon Borglum, a little farther down the road.
In 1912, another artist, Frank Hutchens, converted an old mill below the Perry Avenue Bridge into a house. He went on to save other buildings including the Red Mill—still standing above the Guthrie millpond waterfall. More artists arrived: Charles Shackleton, Tony Balcom, George Picknell, Dorothy Byard, Henry Salem Hubbell. Helen Hamilton and Richard Daggy followed in their fathers’ footsteps. The White Mill, formerly beside the Red Mill, was moved across the bridge in 1923 and converted into a home. Before that happened however, it was used for several years as the Village Room, the scene of parties, dances, plays, and social gatherings of one kind or another. Across from the Tavern was a store and a blacksmith’s. The store became a dance hall on Saturday nights and an Episcopal “church” on Sundays.
There were stores along Silvermine Avenue: Frank Buttery’s Country Department Store, the Hyatt-Gregory Store (which sold meats, groceries, homemade root beer, and stronger stuff in the cellar) a barber shop, and Mrs. Loudon’s combined Post Office and grocery (which was blown up on the 4th of July by a keg of powder kept for shooting off the celebratory cannon).
Only Guthrie’s meat business still remains a shop. It is now the Silvermine Market. The rest became houses or were carted away. As the century progressed, the original art colony went on to found the Silvermine Guild and the fine artists became different kinds of artists: John Vassos (graphic designer), Armstrong Sperry (illustrator), Lily Pons (opera singer), Helen Hokinson (cartoonist), and Faith Baldwin and Evan Hunter (writers).
Today there is less open land and more houses, but the character of Silvermine is still strong. Yet the threat of “teardown” and “maxing out” lies at our door, more malevolent than all the floods and storms that history has offered. The Silvermine community has come together to preserve and celebrate its heritage through the installation of national historic districts. Silvermine Avenue, Perry Avenue and North Seir Hill are presently in various stages of eligibility for study for the nomination process. Silvermine Center has passed the state nomination process and gone to the National Park Service. The Silvermine Tavern properties have an additional overlay as a Village District that, by state statute, makes them conforming and “preserves the character of the place”. As patrons of our house tour, we are deeply grateful to you for your support of our efforts.