Each month, The Cheshire Herald will feature an article courtesy of the Cheshire Land Trust. They will cover everything from current activities sponsored by the CLT to open space issues facing communities as a whole.
Most Cheshire residents have heard of the Ives Farm and have at least driven by or visited the farm stand on Cheshire Street. But few people know how it came to be and the people who spent their lives toiling on its soil before passing it on to others.
Cheshire was part of the New Haven Colony founded by English settlers in 1638. Connecticut was just a series of settlements (called plantations) where groups came and settled for a variety of reasons including religious beliefs, trade with the indigenous people, or simply a need to find livable space.
The area was occupied by the Quinnipiac tribe, who migrated up and down the Quinnipiac River from the shoreline to the interior as the seasons changed. The land that became the Ives Farm was a favorite camp site due to its proximity to water, abundant game, and flat land. Even today, the Ives fields often give up their historic treasures like arrow heads and a recent find of a spearhead believed to be 2,000 years old.
New Haven Colony allowed settlers in its northern section to create a separate settlement called Wallingford while Cheshire was still only known as “Ye Fresh Meddoes” on early maps. People kept coming to the area and out of necessity had farm operations of some kind. In 1780, Wallingford allowed the residents of the area to their west to incorporate as a separate town called Cheshire.
Merriman Hotchkiss appears on town records as perhaps the first settler to occupy the land that became Ives Farm. He was a young man from a family that was already well known in the Cheshire settlement. He was a tinsmith, a valuable skill in an age where metal objects of any sort were prized. He built a house and a tin shop, located just to the south of the farm on Cheshire Street. In 1794, he sold the property to Seth de Wolf, another tinsmith. After 26 years the property was again sold, this time in 1820 to Lyman Bradley, a peddler who sold some of de Wolf’s tin products.
In addition to tin smithing, all of these owners had to be farmers as well. Cows for milk, butter and cheese, chickens for meat and eggs, horses for plowing and transportation, sheep for clothing, and tons of hay to feed the animals during the winter with tons of firewood to keep families warm. The work was hard and never ending but the soil and topography of the area were ideal for successful farming.
Bradley was quite prosperous while running the tin shop and farm. However, in 1862 he died broke, and his widow had to sell the property for $4,025 to settle the family debts. Records show that she retained the value of half of that year’s rye crop, hardly a secure retirement.
Enter the Ives, a family well established in the colonies for over 100 years. Brothers Amos and Edward Ives purchased the farm. Amos eventually sold his portion to his brother, who, upon his demise, left the property to a son, Howard. A wedding photo of Howard and Cornelia Ives can be found at the Cheshire Historical Society along with other Ives documents. When widowed at age 62 in 1941, Cornelia continued to live on the farm with her son Edward until she died in 1969 at 90.
In addition to running the farm, Edward made two consequential decisions: he started a successful hobby of investing in the stock market and he married Elizabeth Porter, a woman of strong will and generous heart. They had no children. Edward died suddenly at age 67 leaving the farm to his 55-year-old wife. At an age when many are considering retirement, Edward’s widow resolved to keep the farm in operation becoming the now legendary “Betty” of Ives Farm.
The history of the farm followed a common path of New England agriculture from owner to owner most often within families at the death of the patriarch. But the most recent succession of the farm was as sudden as it was astonishing. After running the farm for four decades, Betty died on May 28, 2006 just before her 94th birthday. News of her death rippled through Cheshire as residents wondered if houses would be the farm’s last crop. But less than a week later, on June 2, the Cheshire Land Trust received a handwritten fax from Betty’s lawyer asking whether the Trust would accept the gift of the 164 acre farm. While the Trust had made many inquiries about her plans for the farm, Betty took the secret of her amazing gift to her grave. The Ives era ended but the next chapter of history for the farm had begun.