by Joshua Vollmar
Champney House on the corner of Hollis Street and Champney Street bears the name of the family that lived in it for the majority of the 19th century, although the house far predates them, and is, in fact, one of the oldest structures in town.
It was previously thought to have been built about 1730, but recent deed and probate research by the author has determined that it actually dates to about 1685.
In 1684 Captain James Parker, the most prominent of the town’s early settlers, granted his son, James Jr., for “the natural love and affection I bear” towards him, several parcels of land in town, including one lot of 16 acres near the town’s meeting house, or church, which at the time was on the site of Legion Hall.
James Jr. had the first section of Champney House, consisting of the front half of the central five-bay section, constructed on this lot. Champney House chimney with its distinctive double arch design on its front is unique in town as an example of first period or post medieval design.
The arch design derives from English Palladian architecture, which in turn comes from the work of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio and was common on more elaborate chimneys of the 1600s, but fell out of fashion after 1700.
The other features of the chimney that place it firmly in the 17th century are its shape, being about half as deep as it is wide, which fits the mold for a chimney of the 1600s, and its beehive oven, which is unvented, while beehive ovens of the 1700s were always vented.
In 1750 the house was sold out of the Parker family and another chapter in its history began. New owner Samuel Bowers Jr. opened up the house as one of Groton’s early inns. During this period, the only prerequisite to opening an inn (or tavern, as the terms were used interchangeably) was to acquire a license for retailing liqueurs, which Bowers did in 1752.
Because of the relative ease of acquiring this license, many Groton farmers would get one and open up a room in their house to overnight guests, who would be treated like members of the family. This would also provide the farmer with a market for his produce, as the guests would occasionally purchase some, providing an extra source of income, in addition to the rent for the room. The first license granted to a Groton resident was in 1699; however, Champney House, or Bowers Tavern as it was known at the time, was one of the first commercial inns in town and not just an extra source of income for a farmer.
It is easy to imagine weary travelers warming themselves by the heat of the fire in the large, first floor fireplace that vents through the chimney. Innkeepers during this period were known by the title of Landlord, and “Land’urd” Bowers, as he was called, became an important figure in the community up until his death in a malaria epidemic in 1768.
Chimneys were both literally and figuratively at the heart of early settlers’ homes and the most expensive part of early houses. With the fireplace serving as the only source of heat, and facilitating the only safe way to cook, a strong, massive chimney was of extreme importance to early Groton settlers.
But it wasn’t only the fireplace and chimney that contributed to early settlers’ comfort. The forests English settlers found
in New England delighted them, having been accustomed to scarcities of wood in old England. If anyone doubted what these woodlands meant to these early settlers, the Reverend Francis Higginson made it clear that these forests meant being warm in winter, warmer even than the nobility of England could possibly hope to be.
The Reverend Higginson's aphorism, "Here is good living for those that love good Fires," said much about English settlers appreciation for New England forests’ bounty.
In 1630 Higginson wrote, “Though it bee here somewhat cold in the winter, yet here we have plenty of Fire to warme us, and that a great deale cheaper then they sel Billets and Faggots in London: nay, all Europe is not able to afford so great Fires as New-England. A poor servant here that is to possesse but 50 Acres of land, may afford to give more wood for Timber and Fire as good as the world yeelds, then many Noble men in England can afford to do.”
The Champney House chimney has been used by generations of owners, but weather and time had taken their toll on it, especially above the roofline. Earlier this year, the current owners of the property, Bennett R. Black Jr. and his wife Susan, who have a deep appreciation for Champney House history, and have been restoring it piece by piece, decided it was time for the chimney to be repaired and stabilized.
The Blacks, whose family ties to the property go back almost a century to 1922, found a skilled mason, Rick Gallagher of Gallagher Brothers Masonry. Rick took on the daunting task of restoring the 335-year-old chimney.
This process involved grinding out weak mortar joints and repointing with new mortar between the bricks. In addition the rear part of the chimney, which was not original to 1685, was rebuilt from the ridge up with new restoration bricks.
Today, the chimney looks as good as the day it was built, and is ready to stand up to the next chapter of its history.