Harboring Hendersons’ Farm—Land&People

To Skitch and Ruth Henderson, life is a work in progress.

Skitch, 85, founded the New York Pops orchestra, but may be best known for his years as musical director for the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Ruth, 72, is a writer, chef, and entrepreneur. Married for 45 years, the couple is now collaborating on what they believe may be their most lasting achievement—protecting Hunt Hill Farm, a rural oasis in western Connecticut to which they have repaired since 1968. That effort, too, is a work in progress.

Hunt Hill Farm, near New Milford, is only an 80-mile drive from Manhattan, but the city seems worlds away—for now. The farms along Route 202 in southern Litchfield County are under intense development pressure. In the past twenty years, the town's population has grown by half to more than 27,000, challenging local planners and zoning laws, which haven't much changed since first being instituted in 1972.

The Henderson homestead comprises 132 acres of fields and woodlands, stables, guesthouses, and a pair of converted barns built in 1836. The couple lives in these barns, which also house their museum-quality collection of antiques—clocks, books, folk art, and musical instruments. A scattering of restored outbuildings includes a former heifer barn that serves as Skitch's studio. The Silo Store—a gallery, cooking school, and country store—draws crowds most weekends in summer and celebrated its thirtieth anniversary last year.

For decades, Skitch and Ruth have welcomed leading artists, writers, and musicians to Hunt Hill. More recently they have hosted neighbors, activists, and elected officials at the farm in hopes of finding a way to permanently protect it.

A Country Refuge

"I fell in love with the barnyard the first time I saw it," Ruth recalls. "It felt just like Europe to me."

Born and raised in Plauen, Germany, Ruth had an idyllic childhood until World War II arrived at her doorstep. Nearly all of Plauen was destroyed. The family immigrated to America, arriving on Thanksgiving Day in 1951.

"I lost everything as a little girl; I just want to make what I have here last," says Ruth.

A native of England, Skitch honed his chops playing piano during the 1930s in roadhouses of the American Midwest. He got his big break when he became accompanist to singers Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. It was Bing Crosby who gave Skitch his nickname. "I was called the 'sketch kid' because of the way I could quickly sketch out a new score in a new key," Skitch recounts. "And Bing said, 'If you're going to compete, get your name straightened out. People always remember nicknames.'

"It was sage advice," he concedes. So Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson became Skitch, and went on to become musical director of Frank Sinatra's Lucky Strike Show on NBC radio. With the advent of television, he was hired at NBC TV, where he rose to celebrity on the Tonight Show.

While living in Manhattan in 1968, Skitch and Ruth joined a friend for a country drive in Connecticut. It was he, not they, who was looking for land that day. But the Hendersons loved the farm at first sight and bought their first eight acres along with the farm buildings. They started coming on weekends to fix the place up and befriended the neighbors, who later sold them more land and an 1836 barn—big enough to hold Skitch's Steinway grand and an antique pipe organ—that became the Hendersons' year-round home in 1972.

"At the time, this area was an enclave for artists and Columbia University faculty," Skitch recalls. "The actor Frederic March, pianist Vladimir Horowitz, playwright Arthur Miller and his wife, the photographer Inge Morath, all lived down the road."

Joining Forces for the Land

When the Hendersons began thinking about what would happen to the farm after they were gone, they realized the need to recruit allies to stave off development. New Milford's mayor, Bob Gambino, is a former vocational agriculture teacher. He knows in his bones the need for saving land. Gambino calls this part of the town "prime land for developers."

The pressure for development started in the 1950s and has never let up, he says. "We're trying to get some control through landuse regulations. Protecting the Hendersons' farm is part of that process."

"Development interests are in control to a large degree in New Milford, so it is always a battle here," acknowledges Thomas McGowan, executive director of Weantinoge Heritage, Inc., Connecticut's largest regional land trust. Weantinoge holds some 5,500 acres—much of it in rural Litchfield County, where the Hendersons live and where a 500-acre greenway is taking shape along Route 202.

The land trust surveyed the attributes of the Hendersons' property, an important step toward winning support for preserving the land. The survey detailed a mix of woodlands and gently rolling fields crossed by brooks and old stone walls. It found hawks, falcons, and grass-nesting birds such as bobolinks and meadowlarks, whose numbers are dwindling in the state.

The land trust had hoped to buy Hunt Hill Farm in partnership with the town. "With the budget crunch, the idea didn't go over very well," says McGowan. But although the deal fell through, local officials agreed that protecting the land was paramount.

TPL Orchestrates a Plan

Ruth Henderson has filled a scrapbook with the cordial responses from government officials to her appeals for help. She learned about the Trust for Public Land through our work at Weir Farm National Historic Site located in nearby Ridgefield and Wilton, once the home of nineteenth-century impressionist painter J. Alden Weir. Since the 1980s, TPL has been painstakingly reassembling the farm, which had been subdivided and sold off over the years. It became a national park in 1990.

TPL held a series of meetings with the Hendersons, Weantinoge, and New Milford town officials in early 2002. "We wanted to keep up the momentum for protecting the farm," says TPL project manager Elisabeth Moore. TPL soon negotiated a purchase agreement, and began working with the town and Weantinoge to identify funding sources. The town made a lead commitment of $250,000 from its Land Acquisition Reserve Fund and, at press time, had applied to the state for a matching grant. TPL and Weantinoge, meanwhile, are planning a private fundraising campaign this spring to close the funding gap.

For their part, the Hendersons have placed 82 acres of the farm into a charitable remainder trust (see sidebar). Once the land is purchased for conservation, the trust will invest the proceeds and make annual payments to the Hendersons for the rest of their lives. Upon their deaths, the trust's remaining assets will benefit the town, Weantinoge, and TPL.

Meanwhile, Skitch and Ruth hope to realize their dream of creating the Henderson Center for Culture and Creative Arts to be housed at the farm's historic buildings. They are in discussions with Western Connecticut State University on such a project. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., also has expressed interest in the Hendersons' collection.

The Hendersons hope that their efforts will attract new voices to the land-saving chorus and that neighboring landowners will follow their lead. "Actions really do speak louder than words," says Ruth. "Once we got the momentum going on any of our projects on the farm, others hopped aboard because they could see we were serious."

And to Ruth and Skitch Henderson, saving their legacy at Hunt Hill Farm is as serious as it gets. "There is nothing like land. Unless we act, we will be passing on to future generations a world without a foundation."

Alan Bisbort is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the New York Times, Connecticut magazine, and the Hartford Advocate. His most recent book is California Beaches (Avalon/Foghorn Outdoors), coauthored with Parke Puterbaugh.