Life at Stillmeadow—Land&People

Long before Martha Stewart made the world safe for country chic, Gladys Taber ruled the rural roost in Connecticut. Her home base was Stillmeadow, an agricultural enclave in the southwest corner of Connecticut. Gladys Taber’s 40-acre farm, her 17th-century farmhouse, the village of Southbury, and the surrounding countryside became her writerly muses, beginning in 1931, when she moved up from Manhattan, and continuing until her death at age 81 in 1980. She is buried here, too, in the graveyard of Southbury Congregational Church.

Stillmeadow was the “main character” in Taber’s popular monthly columns in Ladies Home Journal and Everywoman’s Family Circle magazines and later in more than 50 books set and written in Southbury. These writings not only established her as America’s arbiter of all things authentically country, but her gentle musings on the simple life and her wholly ungentrified approach to the seasons, gardening, cooking, raising livestock, and breeding cocker spaniels helped the country get through the Great Depression–partly by following Taber’s pragmatic example. In those years she answered between 7,000 and 8,000 fan letters annually.

According to her granddaughter, Anne Colby, Stillmeadow became a beacon of New England’s timelessness and solidity. “Stillmeadow came to symbolize caring about one’s community and its landscape,” says Colby, who now lives in her grandmother’s farmhouse. “This message struck a chord across generations and all over the world.”

But in 2001 Stillmeadow was threatened by the specter of sprawling “countrified” suburbs. The roughly 100-acre Phillips Farm next door to Taber’s farm had been put up for sale.

George Phillips, Taber’s neighbor and the family patriarch, died in 1996 without a will, and his descendants were interested in selling the land. A developer from out of town had even drawn up a feasibility study that would have plopped 32 houses, new roads, and a subdivision on Stillmeadow’s doorstep, essentially ending its tenure as an inviolable rural haven.

When word got out that Stillmeadow was threatened, a torrent of concern and support poured in from Taber fans all over the world. A typical e-mail message might read like the one from Drew Beckel in Pennsylvania: “Stillmeadow is not just a place. It is an idea. It is a remembrance of the good in past times.”

“Gram found her voice at Stillmeadow,” Colby says. “She didn’t hit her stride until she came here. Her best writing was done here, about the people of Southbury and the countryside. Gram found simple beauty in the everyday, and she showed how to suffer loss and find solace.

“She did not have an easy life, and when she moved here in 1931, it was the start of the Depression. She was a professional, though, supporting her family at a time when women writers simply did not have careers.”

Colby has led the effort to preserve the spirit and surroundings of Stillmeadow by organizing a group of neighbors to save Phillips Farm. Roughly two years ago, she heard about the Trust for Public Land and contacted Elisabeth Moore in TPL’s New Haven office.

Rallying Around the Farm

“It started as neighbors meeting in the street, then in living rooms, and then by e-mail,” Colby says. “We wondered, Is there something we can do before the land is subdivided? Because by then it’s too late.”

This part of Southbury has no public access to open space, and Phillips Farm is just one of many contiguous parcels that compose a unique agricultural community, a sort of oasis in suburbia. Saving Phillips Farm also would be key to saving the other farms. At Colby’s request, TPL began negotiating with the Phillips family to purchase the property. Local supporters formed the Committee to Save Phillips Farm.

Tom Crider, president of the Southbury Land Trust, soon became interested in joining the fight. “Phillips Farm definitely was a major character in her books,” says Crider, who also has been inspired to write about Southbury’s natural gifts. “If the farm wasn’t there, or if it were all woodlands instead, Mrs. Taber’s books would have been completely different. The Phillips family was integral in offering her a window onto country life she wouldn’t otherwise have had.”

Crider invited Anne Colby and TPL’s Moore to make a presentation to Southbury’s selectmen. They were impressed enough to commit $250,000 toward the purchase of Phillips Farm if TPL could make a deal.

“This commitment was integral to protecting an amazing piece of land, really a gem,” says Moore. “So many things are appealing about the land, not just its connection to a famous author. The property meets seven of the town’s eight criteria for conservation. We wanted to make something happen sooner rather than later.”

Then, like everything else in America, the Stillmeadow story gained drama and perspective through the events of September 11.

The Need for Sanctuaries

“I was in New York City and saw the World Trade Center towers collapse,” Colby says. “After that horrible day, our group questioned what possible meaning a land preservation effort could have in such dark times. But a surprising and very moving thing happened. In direct response to the tragedy, Taber readers began contacting the Trust for Public Land. One person stated she felt a need to do something ‘creative’ in such a destructive time.”

Thanks to this sentiment, TPL was able to reach a tentative deal with the Phillips family in late 2001. TPL will purchase 97 acres of the farm for just under $1 million.

Now TPL and the Committee to Save Phillips Farm are working to raise the funds for the purchase, as well as money to maintain the property in the future. The project got a major boost when the state approved a grant of $440,000 through the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

Ultimately the Phillips land will be owned by the Southbury Land Trust and preserved as open space that will include active farmland, a nature preserve, and public hiking trails. In addition, both the town of Southbury and the state will hold conservation easements over the property. “Not only is Phillips Farm one of the last remaining farms in Southbury, it is an honored emblem of our rural heritage,” says Tom Crider.

Anne Colby wanted to see the land saved as a literary tribute to her grandmother, of course, but there were other compelling reasons. The Phillips parcel has unusually diverse resources–wetlands, meadows, an apple orchard, old-growth forest, and a historic house. “It’s a real living museum of rural landscapes with more than 20 identified biological communities, including several documented rare species,” Colby says.

She thinks that saving the farm would be a tribute to the original owner too. “George Phillips loved his land and his animals. He used the old tools and methods. His farm was self-sufficient, a real working farm up until his death, and it’s still being farmed by a neighbor. George was a good steward of the land. He did not use pesticides and he kept the wetlands intact.” Constance Taber Colby, who is a writer and a professor of English in New York, says of her mother: “Gladys was one of the first to write about the dangers of uncontrolled development in Connecticut. If she were alive today, she would undoubtedly be finishing a book on land conservation.

“Her books clearly depict Stillmeadow and its world as symbolic of something larger than one family, one town: a way of life very precious and inevitably endangered.”

Somewhat prophetically, in Stillmeadow Sampler, a book of essays first published in 1950, Gladys Taber wrote about a zoning meeting she attended in Southbury: “It was a grim picture. Business was bound to come; light industries were already shopping for land. The quiet country farms were already going and developments would take over. . . . Eventually, of course, we will have to have some sort of plan to guide future development. Somehow we must protect the wooded hills, the greening meadows, the clean, sweet-running brooks, and the historic white houses–they are a precious heritage.”

Anne Colby recalls, “I was very lucky to have this place to come to when I was a kid. We hope saving this farm will be an incentive for other landowners to look for creative options for saving their land. Tools are available now that weren’t there five years ago. Ten years ago, we could not have competed with the developers.

“Connecticut’s remaining wild places are our sanctuaries, and we need sanctuaries now more then ever.”

Alan Bisbort is a regular contributor to The New York Times, the Advocate newspapers, and American Politics Journal. His most recent books include Famous Last Words, Florida Beaches, and Rhino’s Psychedelic Trip. This article has been adapted by the author from a story he wrote for The New York Times. Copyright (c) 2001 by the New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission.