Every time Arlene Foster Schmidt enters her home on Chestnut St. in Bethel, she feels a strong connection to generations past. Her 4,000-square-foot, three-family home was built in 1761, and was in her family for over 100 years. Her grandfather Frank Mead purchased the home
in the early 1900's.
According to Schmidt, the house was formerly the Barnum Tavern, owned by P.T. Barnum's Grandfather, Phineas Taylor, and then by P.T. Barnum's parents, Philo and Irena Barnum.
“It had a ballroom on the second floor. The maids lived in the attic,” said Schmidt, 75, who grew up in the home, which she now shares with
her husband Charles Schmidt, who is 77.
The Schmidt’s home will be one of the houses on the Bethel Historical Society’s walking tour, which will take place rain or shine June 15 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. The tour costs $30 per person.
The tour begins at Bethel’s Historical Society, 40 Main St., where participants will view the contents of the town’s 1912 time capsule. Items inside the capsule include letters from past ministries, the new release of a bible, a list of the town’s church groups, and a July 20, 1912 issue of the former “Danbury Evening News”.
The walking tour will take participants to private homes and businesses throughout town that previously held historic significance.
Highlights of the tour, which will be given by Bethel town historian Patrick Tierney Wild, will include the former Walter Ferry Shoe Store on Chestnut
St., which was built around 1850. Owned by the late Walker Ferry, it housed his shoe store, McDowell’s Meat Market, and a two-level residence.
Tour-goers will walk to the “Old Burying Ground” cemetery, which is adjacent to the First Congregational Church, 46 Main Street. This is Bethel’s oldest burial place and contains a headstone dating back to 1765.
Along the tour, Wild will share the story of “Four-fingered Jack” and “Peppermint Joe” in the Great Bethel Bank robbery of 1858 at the Hatters Bank of Bethel, formerly located on Chestnut Street.
Another stop will be the Nichols’ Opera House, 186 Greenwood Ave. Built in 1860, the opera house—which originally called Fisher’s Hall—has housed a hat manufacturing business, a social hall, a roller skating rink, and a high school gym. It also once served as a silent movie theater, the Barnum Theatre. Singing minstrels, vaudeville actors and the community chorus performed on stage of the opera house.
The tour will end at The Putnam House Restaurant, 12 Depot Pl., where tour-goers can enjoy hors d’oeuvres. Built in 1852, the restaurant
was formerly the Putnam House Hotel. The hotel was owned by Frank A. Judd, a partner of J.B. & F.A Judd Hatters Co. The land on which the Putnam House was built belonged to Seth Seelye, the town's first selectman.
Bethel Historical Society has conducted a walking tour about five times over the past 15 years, according to Pat Rist, president of the Bethel Historical Society.
Bethel resident Rebecca Chamberlain recently accompanied her son Ryan’s second grade class at Rockwell Elementary School on a walking tour of Bethel. She said she greatly liked hearing about her town’s rich history.
“I really enjoyed visiting Plumtrees Schoolhouse. Some of the writing from the last classes' lessons is still on the chalkboards!
“Our second graders were very impressed to know that the very last teacher at the schoolhouse was Anna H. Rockwell, for whom their school is named. They also enjoyed ringing the school bell,” Chamberlain said.
Rist said she feels the walking tour is significant to all Bethel residents. “There is a lot of history in Bethel, and people always like to know the history of the town they live in.
“It’s interesting to learn about all the people who came before you, what their life was like during the time period in which they lived, how the population of the town has grown, and how the businesses have changed,” said Rist, who has lived in Bethel for 27 years.
Rist said she loves Bethel because “even though development is healthy for a town and inevitable, we still maintain and protect our village character,” Rist said.
Please call The Bethel Historical Society at 203-743-5893 for more information and to make reservations. Reservations are on a first come, first serve basis. Wear comfortable shoes.