Presentation teaches that history was not so long ago

By Lauri Voter - Staff Writer
Ashford - posted Fri., Jun. 17, 2011
During a June 14 presentation at the Ashford Historical Society, Carolyn Stearns points to a relative in an old photograph, demonstrating that history is not far away when you reach out to a previous generation or two. Photos by Lauri Voter.
During a June 14 presentation at the Ashford Historical Society, Carolyn Stearns points to a relative in an old photograph, demonstrating that history is not far away when you reach out to a previous generation or two. Photos by Lauri Voter.

“How long ago was the Civil War?” asked Mansfield resident Carolyn Stearns, as she addressed an audience during an evening of presentations sponsored by the Ashford Historical Society.

On June 14, in the year that marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Stearns taught guests that history is only as far away as a previous generation. Along that vein, she presented the story of her family's ancestor, Ashford resident Edward W. Whitaker, a Civil War soldier who acquired the rank of Brevet Brigadier General.

As Stearns explained, Whitaker's career was noteworthy. He served as Chief of Staff to Major Gen. George Custer during the Civil War. Whitaker was wounded during the war, resulting in life-long injury. He was at Appomattox Courthouse to learn about Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender. After the Civil War, Whitaker became the Superintendent of the United States Capitol Building, and then returned to Connecticut to serve as postmaster in Hartford. Eventually, Whitaker earned a law degree and returned to Washington, D.C., where he lived out the rest of his life. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. In 2007, he was inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame.

Holding an old family portrait, Stearns pointed to an infant in the picture and said, “Just to point out how short a time ago the Civil War actually was, the infant in the left corner is my father-in-law, who is still milking cows over at our farm in Mansfield.”

The portrait also includes Adeline Whitaker, the sister of Gen. Edward Whitaker.

“Can it be all that long ago that we fought the Civil War, if I can go talk to people in this picture, and they're with the same people that lived through the Civil War?”

Stearns said that she teaches her son and other young people to learn history through people and time, just by reaching out to a previous generation.

“It is all just a generation's reach away,” said Stearns.

In fact, at the conclusion of the evening's events, audience member Warren Church, the great-grandson of Civil War soldier William Whitaker (Edward Whitaker's brother), reached out for the portrait of William Whitaker that was on display. He held the portrait up next to his own face, revealing a remarkable resemblance.

Learning about history is not always just about people. The town of Ashford has recently been surveying its properties and documenting the barns and outbuildings that dot its landscape. Ashford Historical Society Treasurer Barbara Metsack has been involved in the process, which is being conducted in conjunction with the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. The survey, “Searching out Ashford's Barns,” began in 2009 and is now complete. Each structure has been photo-documented and recorded. According to Metsack, the survey is important because barns and outbuildings are disappearing from the landscape.

“I was amazed at the number of barns still standing in town - and chicken coops! I did not realize there were so many,” said Metsack, who said that her husband recalled working at some of those coops.

The Ashford Historical Society is reaching out to folks as well, seeking additional members. For more information, contact Ashford Historical Society President Joan E. Bowley at 860-429-4568.


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