Look back: From historic house to Saybrook Country Barn

The Saybrook Country Barn in the 1970s when it was the Marlborough Country Barn. Photo courtesy Tedd Levy

One of the oldest, largest and most visited historic sites along the shoreline is a country barn… actually, the Saybrook Country Barn or as the National Register of Historic Places identifies it, the Ambrose Whittlesey House.

Some remember when it began in 1977 as the Marlboro Country Barn in Saybrook but none remember when the area was farmland and forest when the original building, a one-story, rear-wing, was constructed in 1765. A separate two-story, gambrel-roofed structure was added in 1799. Both sections are post and beam framed, sheathed with planking and clapboards and remain in use today.

The main part of the house was built by Ambrose Whittlesey, a descendant of John Whittlesey who was one of the early settlers in the area and who, with his brother-in-law William Dudley, operated the ferry across the Connecticut River from 1662 until 1839 when they conveyed it to the town.

Ambrose was born in 1761 in the family home where the ferry departed from Tilley’s Point, today known as Ferry Road. Many of the Whittleseys were prosperous farmers and were also merchant traders and shipbuilders.

When he turned 21, Ambrose went to sea and eventually became ship owner and a master of schooners and sloops owned by Gen. William Hart and the Griswold’s of Old Lyme. He sailed to the West Indies, South America, Spain and Portugal, and Northern Africa.

He married Ann Waterhouse in 1783; they they had five sons and three daughters.

He sailed on at least two long voyages. Leaving New London on the brigantine “Sygnet” in 1803 bound for Surinam off the northeast coast of South America, he ran into a nor’easter off the coast of New Jersey that caused his ship to leak and eventually sink.

Captain Whittlesey was reportedly washed overboard but rescued. He and his crew jammed a small boat and were later rescued by the ship “Polly” out of Kennebunk, Maine.

On another voyage he commanded the ship “China” owned by the Griswold family of Old Lyme. Leaving New York harbor in May 1822, he was bound for Lima, Peru by sailing around Cape Horn and then up the west coast of South America.

He reached Valparaiso, Chile in October; Lima, Peru in November; and from there sailed to Ecuador. His cargo included flour, wine, brandy, whiskey, chairs, tobacco and butter and he returned with a cargo of copper, hemp and cocoa.

Voyages were very profitable but dangerous and required long periods of time away from home. The voyage to the west coast of South America took nearly five months.

In between his life at sea Captain Whittlesey served six terms between 1806 and 1818 as a state representative. Between 1820 and 1824 he returned to making long voyages, mostly to Spain and Portugal.

He died in 1827 and willed the house to his youngest son, also named Ambrose, although his widow continued to live there until she died in 1838. To obtain additional land Ambrose, Jr. (1803-1889) purchased two acres to enlarge his property. Upon his death, the property and building passed to his daughter Elizabeth and remained in the family until 1967.

It was last used as a private residence by Margaret (“Peggy”) and R. Linsley (“Shep”) Shepherd. He was friends with First Selectman and historian Ros Whidden and they researched old homes. Then “Shep” would go to his workshop in the old shed and make wooden identification signs to place on houses built before 1850.

“Shep” died in 1974 and Peg sold the house and property two years later to Clara and Carl Zirkenbach, mother and step-father of current owner Keith Bolles. Carl was the owner of Marlboro Country Barn and Clara had opened a shop at Mystic Village that proved to be too small.

Clara bought the property and opened Marlboro Country Barn of Old Saybrook, a name that was changed in 1997 to Saybrook Country Barn. Soon thereafter she doubled the shops original 3,000 square feet. When the neighboring Saybrook Bank & Trust closed she purchased a section of land behind her store from the bank and in 1987 added a second and third barn to the rear of the original building.

Just north of the Country Barn was a building owned by Earl Endrich. He ran his insurance agency in part of the building and rented part to Cartier Optical. Whenever Keith Bolles, who by now was running the growing Country Barn, would see Earl he would ask: “Earl, are you ready to sell the building?” The answer was always, ”No.”

Driving by on a snowy day in December 1997, Keith saw Earl, who had lost one arm, shoveling snow. He pulled alongside and again asked Earl if he was ready to sell. Earl paused, looked up, and replied: “Damn right I am!”

Keith parked right then and there and they went inside Earl’s agency, wrote out an agreement, and officially closed on the sale in about a week. The building could not be renovated and was replaced with structures that were reproductions that kept the colonial flavor of the area.

The house next to Earl Endrich belonged to Bill Dawes and he sold it to Country Barn in 1999. An additional house belonged to Jim and Jan Crozier was bought after Jim passed away. In 2007, additional barns were added, and an apparel shop and restaurant opened.

The original 3,000 square feet has now grown to 42,000 square feet holding some 80 sofas, 25 bedroom sets, and 35 dining sets. It attracts customers from throughout Connecticut including the children of the first customers. Owner Keith Bolles maintains the original historic features and has used the architectural style to grow his business. Can’t help but think that knowing and appreciating history is good for business… and good for the community.