By Jody Morgan – writer and CT Hort member
Connecting generations of farmers and educators, Sub Edge Farm straddles the Avon/Farmington line. Its legacy actually began some 20,000 years ago when the last glaciers retreated from Connecticut leaving behind some of the finest soils in the world. The land was tilled by Native Americans long before European settlers arrived.
Fast forward to 1636 when Reverend Thomas Hooker brought some 100 folks with him from Boston to Hartford prompted by displeasure with some of the Puritan prelates’ policies. The colonists retained rigid requirements concerning weekly attendance at Sunday services. Stressed by treacherous winter travel to Farmington from what is now Avon, John Tilloston was among the 31 signers of the petition that granted the Society of Northington permission to form their own congregation in 1750.
The current farm was patched together piece-by-piece through the 1800s by Ashbel Tilloston (John’s son) and his descendants. Deeds recorded early in the 19th century indicate the area where the property stands already was known as “Old Farms.” Tillostons continued to occupy homesteads in the vicinity of Lovely Street after Ashbel installed his progeny on the opposite side of the parish.
According to family lore, Ashbel built the 1820 farmhouse in anticipation of his son Hezekiah’s marriage. When Hezekiah drowned at the age of 25, his older brother Seth brought his own bride to the farm. As a schoolteacher in West Hartford, Seth was not considered an appropriate match for the youngest daughter of a prominent Farmington family. Frances (Fannie) Whitman went ahead with the marriage and her family disinherited her. A Tilloston family remembrance states: “The farm was paid for by raising corn, and was a long and discouraging task.”
When the Northington Society separated from Farmington to incorporate as Avon, the boundary was drawn through Fannie and Seth’s land. Miss Bessie Tilloston relates: “When Avon was set off as a town in 1830, Fannie Whitman Tilloston used her influence to keep the new town line to the north of her house so she could still live in Farmington.” Consequently, her household would attend church in Farmington. Fannie possibly wanted to distance her side of the family from the Lovely Street branch.
Ashbel’s nephews, Shubel and Romanta owned a sugar plantation in Louisiana. Every summer they brought 20-30 of their slaves in a parade of wagons to plant and harvest their crops. The West Avon Congregational Church didn’t officially denounce slavery as “a violation of the law of love” until 1853.
Seth bought “the Bodwin place” a bit farther south in Farmington, but died in 1859, a year after building a new house there. Fannie deeded the property to their son John Whitman Tilloston and resided there until her death in 1890 at the age of 96. Despite already having five children and a wife to care for, John enlisted in the Union Army, serving in Company A, 12th Regiment of Connecticut Volunteers from December 1861 until the fall of 1862 when he was discharged disabled.
Hezekiah (1824-1908), John’s older brother, lived with his family on the original property, adding to the farm until he held 309 acres by 1866. He was probably responsible for turning the enterprise into a dairy farm.
As a student at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Theodate Pope took long walks with a young teacher, Mary Hillard. They discovered the site where Theodate eventually created Hill-Stead on a ramble. Mary’s niece, Phyllis Fenn Cunningham writes in My Godmother Theodate Pope Riddle: “She envisioned a New England farm, complete with cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, and an ample vegetable garden. It would be completely self-sufficient, and for the first time … she felt perfectly at home.” Years later, as the first woman to be licensed as an architect in Connecticut and New York, Theodate dreamed of making the New England farm a central piece in a progressive school for boys.
When Theodate’s father died suddenly in 1913, she began seriously planning to build a school honoring his memory. She married John Riddle on May 6, 1916. Despite disruptions from World War I, she carried forward her intention to design and found the school in Avon, buying up land in the Old Farms area including Seth & Fannie Tilloston’s farm.
Whether legend or fact, an incident described by Gordon Ramsey in Aspiration and Perseverance: The History of Avon Old Farms School concerning vetting a candidate to serve as gardener at Hill- Stead aptly illustrates Theodate’s ability to judge character and impose her will. “Mrs. Riddle sent for the gardener, and instructed him to plant six bushes in a flower bed, with the leaves of the bushes exactly eighteen inches in the ground, and the roots straight up in the air. He willingly assented, though doubtless with thoughts that can be better imagined than described. His task completed, he returned to Mrs. Riddle to report that the bushes were ready for her inspection. The inspection completed, Mrs. Riddle turned to the gardener and said, ‘Good. You did exactly as I asked you to do, and you are hired. Now plant them right. “
In Dearest of Geniuses, Sandra L. Katz summarizes the brochure inviting students to apply to Avon Old Farms when the campus opened in 1927. “Most unconventional in the curriculum were the activities on the farm, in the forest, and in the workshops, which Theo declared ‘will stress equally the development of mind and body.’ The boys would plant gardens, raise poultry, and work in the school’s dairy. In addition, they would be required to study the surrounding forest…”
Brooks Emeny, son of Theodate’s favorite cousin Betty, recalls in Theodate Pope Riddle and the Founding of Avon Old Farms: “Always interested in education, she determined to focus her attention on that branch of training which stresses character development. She saw the sons of her friends returning home from school for the Holidays, ‘Pleasant little gentlemen,’ as she called them, ‘lacking initiative and willpower.’ “
The Avon Old Farms Deed of Trust drafted in 1930 notes: “The Founder believes that a boy who has never known the hardship of work on a farm, in a forest or in shops and has never experienced the joy of completing a task, even though it meant enduring physical discomfort, has been deprived of one of the most valuable experiences that life can offer for the development of character.”
The Farm Manager needed expertise in practical farming as well as educating boys. “He shall be responsible for planning and overseeing the work of the students on the farm, in the stables and in the poultry run.” He was tasked with teaching “the elementary principles of animal husbandry” while also giving “special attention to keeping up the quality of the herd, the sheep, poultry and other farm stock.”
The Forest Manager needed to be “a practical working woodsman, who shall be qualified to instruct the boys in woodcraft and in the elements of Natural History.” The care of the forest included cutting trees for cordwood and responsibility “for any destruction or waste of the flowering plants and desirable animal life.”
A number of issues caused the school to close during World War II. Theodate offered the campus to the US Army for the rent of $1 per year. From 1944-1947, Avon Old Farms served as a convalescent home for blind veterans… A booklet produced by the Southern New England Telephone Company describes activities preparing veterans for careers. Once again the farm was a major resource. “Gardening is perhaps a new field of endeavor for the blind, but, with the aid of specially- equipped tools, it is a practical occupation that permits the boy from back on the farm to continue agricultural work and can give the non-farmer trainee an interesting hobby.”
Avon Old Farms offered land for sale to overcome financial problems when the school reopened. In 1954, Stanley Fisher bought 400-plus acres that included the original Tilloston farm straddling the Avon/Farmington line. The old farmhouse was lost in the 1955 flood. Not a farmer, Fisher employed Richard Merritt, who had leased the farm since Theodate’s death in 1946, to manage the dairy operation. Upon Merritt’s retirement in 1988, Stanley’s daughter Diane Fisher Bell ran the farm long-distance from London. In “Bittersweet End to Family Legacy” (Hartford Courant, 5/6/2002) Stephanie Reitz notes: “Diane Fisher Bell speculates that her father, a businessman and developer, may have been entranced by the beauty of the open land and snagged it on impulse. Diane added, “There’s a magical feeling on the farm.” But hiring reliable help to keep the farm going became almost impossible.
In 2002, Farmington voters voted to purchase the land lying within their borders and Avon voters agreed to buy the remaining 318 Fisher Farm acres on their side of the town line. Fisher Farm open land offers hiking trails accessible to the public described on the Town of Avon’s website.
Ronald Simmons leased the farm for the next decade. But the cyclical nature of the dairy market put him into financial difficulties. Isabelle and Rodger Phillips were selected from the dozen proposals received by Avon and Farmington to take over the lease. Honoring a name used during Theodate’s ownership, they decided to call their new enterprise Sub-Edge Farm. Organic produce grown at Sub Edge Farm is sold by subscription shares and in the farm shop. In non-pandemic times, visitors are invited to learn about farming and see the selection of heritage farm animals.