Read A DAY AND A NIGHT IN THE OLD PORTER HOUSE of The Only Woman in the Town And Other Tales of the American Revolution, free online book, by Sarah J. Prichard, on

Monday morning, July 5th, 1779, was oppressively warm and sultry in the Naugatuck Valley. Great Hill, that rises so grandly to the northward of Union City, and at whose base the red house still nestles that was built either by Daniel Porter or his son Thomas before or as early as 1735, was bathed in the full sunlight, for it was past eight of the clock. Up the hill had just passed a herd of cows owned by Mr. Thomas Porter and driven by his son Ethel, a lad of fourteen, and Ethel’s sister Polly, aged twelve years.

“It’s awful hot to-day!” said Ethel, as he threw himself on the grass at the hill-top the cows having been duly cared for.

“You’d better not lose time lying here,” said Polly. “There’s altogether too much going on uptown to-day, and there’s lots to do before we go up to celebrate.”

“One thing at a time,” replied Ethel, “and this is my time to rest. I never knew a hill to grow so much in one night before.”

“Well! you can rest, but I’m going to find out what that fellow is riding his poor horse so fast for this hot morning somebody must be dying! Just see that line of dust a mile away!” and Polly started down Great Hill to meet the rider.

The horseman stayed his horse at Fulling Mill Brook to give him a drink, and Polly reached the brook just at the instant the horse buried his nose in the cool stream.

“Do you live near here?” questioned the rider.

“My father, Mr. Thomas Porter, keeps the inn yonder,” said Polly.

“I can’t stop,” said the horseman, “though I’ve ridden from New Haven without breakfast, and I must get up to the Center; but you tell your father the British are landing at West Haven. They have more that forty vessels! The new president was on the tower of the College when I came by, watching with his spy-glass, and he shouted down that he could see them, landing.”

At that instant, Ethel reached the brook. “What’s going on?” he questioned.

“You’re a likely looking boy you’ll do!” said the horseman, with a glance at Ethel, cutting off at the same instant the draught his horse was enjoying, by a sudden pull at the bridle lines. “You go tell the news! Get out the militia! Don’t lose a minute.”

“What news? What for?” asked Ethel, but the rider was flying onward.

“A pretty time we’ll have celebrating to-day,” said Polly, to herself, dipping the corner of her apron into the brook and wiping her heated face with it, as she hurried to the house. Meanwhile, her brother was running and shouting after the man who had ridden off in such haste.

As Polly entered the house the big brick oven stood wide open, and it was filled to the door with a roaring fire. On the long table stood loaves of bread almost ready for the oven. Her sister Sybil was putting apple pies on the same table. Sybil was a beautiful girl of twenty years, much admired and greatly beloved in the region.

“What is Ethel about so long this morning, that I have his work to do, I wonder!” exclaimed Mr. Thomas Porter, as he lifted himself from the capacious fire-place in which he had been piling birch-wood under the crane from which hung in a row three big iron pots.

“It is a pretty hot morning, and the sun is powerful on the hill, father,” said Mrs. Mehitable Porter in reply not seeing Polly, who stood panting and glowing with all the importance of having great news to tell.

“Father,” cried Polly, “where is Truman and the men? Send ’em! send ’em everywhere!”

“What’s the matter? what’s the matter, child?” exclaimed Mr. Porter, while his wife and Sybil stood in alarm.

At that instant Ethel sprang in, crying out, “The militia! The militia! They want the militia.”

“What for, and who wants the men?” asked his father.

“I don’t know. He didn’t stop to tell. He said: ’Get out the militia! Don’t lose a minute!’ and then rode on.”

“Father, I know,” said Polly. “He told me. The British ships, more than forty of them, are landing soldiers at New Haven. President Stiles saw them at daybreak from the college tower with his spy-glass.”

Before Polly had ceased to speak, Ethel was off. Within the next ten minutes six horses had set forth from the Porter house each rider for a special destination.

“I’ll give the alarm to the Hopkinses,” cried back Polly from her pony, as she disappeared in the direction of Hopkins Hill.

“And I’ll stir up Deacon Gideon and all the Hotchkisses from the Captain over and down,” said ten-year-old Stephen, as he mounted.

“You’d better make sure that Sergeant Calkins and Roswell hear the news. Tell Captain Terrell to get out his Ring-bone company, and don’t forget Captain John and Abraham Lewis, Lieutenant Beebe, and all the rest. It isn’t much use to go over the river not much help we’d get, however much the British might, on that side,” advised Mr. Porter, as the fourth messenger departed.

When the last courier had set forth, leaving only Mr. and Mrs. Porter, Sybil and two servants in the house, Mr. Porter said to his wife: “I believe, mother, that I’ll go up town and see what I can do for Colonel Baldwin and Phineas.” Major Phineas Porter was his brother, who six months earlier had married Melicent, daughter of Colonel Baldwin and widow of Isaac Booth Lewis (the lady whose name has been chosen for the Waterbury, Connecticut, Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution).

After Mr. Porter’s departure Mrs. Porter said to Sybil, “You remember how it was two years ago at the Danbury alarm, how we were left without a crumb in the house and fairly went hungry to bed. I think I’d better stir up a few extra loaves of rye bread and make some more cake. You’d better call up Phyllis and Nancy and tell them to let the washing go and help me.”

Phyllis and Nancy were filled with astonishment and awe at the command to leave the washing and bake, for, during their twenty years’ service in the house, nothing had ever been allowed to stay the progress of Monday’s washing.

Before mid-day another messenger came tearing up the New Haven road and demanded a fresh horse in order to continue the journey to arouse help and demand haste. He brought the half-past nine news from New Haven that fifteen hundred men were marching from West Haven Green to the bridge, that women and children were escaping to the northward and westward with all the treasure that they could carry, or bury on the way, because every horse in the town had been taken for the defence.

He had not finished his story, when from the northward the hastily equipped militia came hurrying down the road. It was reported that messengers had been posted from Waterbury Centre to Westbury and to Northbury; to West Farms and to Farmingbury all parts of ancient Waterbury and soon The City, as it was called in 1779, now Union City, would be filled with militiamen.

The messenger from New Haven grew impatient for the fresh horse he had asked for. While he waited on the porch, Cato, son of Phyllis, whose duty it was to make ready his steed, sought Mrs. Porter in the kitchen.

“Where that New Haven fellow,” he asked, “get Massa’s horse. He say he come from New Haven, and he got the horse Ethel went away on.”

“Are you sure, Cato?”

“Sure’s I know Cato,” said the boy, “and the horse he knew me be a fool if he didn’t.”

Mrs. Porter immediately summoned the rider to her presence and learned from him that about four miles down the road his pony had given out under haste and heat; that he had met a boy who, pitying its condition, had offered an exchange of animals, provided the courier would promise to leave his pony at the Porter Inn and get a fresh horse there.

“Just like Ethel!” said Polly. “He’ll dally all day now, while that horse gets rested and fed, or else he’ll go on foot. I wonder if I couldn’t catch him!”

“Polly,” said Mrs. Porter, “don’t you leave this house to-day without my permission.”

Poor Mrs. Porter! Truman, her eldest son, had gone. He was sixteen and had been a “trained” soldier for more than six months; that, the mother expected; but Ethel, only fourteen, and full of daring and boyish zeal! Stephen also, the youngest, and the baby, being but ten years old he had not yet returned from “stirring up the Hotchkisses.” Had he followed Captain Gideon?

“Ethel is too far ahead,” sighed Polly. “I couldn’t catch him now, even if mother would let me; but here comes Uncle Phineas in his regimentals, and Aunt Melicent and Polly and little Melicent, and O! what a crowd! I can’t see for the dust! It’s better than the celebration. It’s so real, so ’strue as you live and breathe and everything.”

Polly ran to the front door. At that day it opened upon a porch that extended across the house front. This porch was supported by a line of white pillars, and a rail along its front had rings inserted in it to which a horseman could, after dismounting beneath its shelter, secure his steed. Long ago, this porch was removed and the house itself was taken from the roadside on the plain below, because of a great freshet, and removed to its present location. The history of that porch, of the men and women who dismounted beneath its shelter, or who, footsore and weary, mounted its steps, would be the history of the country for more than a century, for the men of Waterbury were in every enterprise in which the colonies were engaged; but this is the record of a single day in its eventful life, and we must return to the porch, where Polly is welcoming Mrs. Melicent Porter with the words: “Mother will be so glad you have come, Aunt Melicent, for Ethel has gone off to New Haven and he’s miles ahead of catching, and Stephen hasn’t got back yet from ’rousing the Alarm company. Mother wouldn’t say a word, but she has got her mouth fixed and I know she’s afraid he’s gone, too. I don’t know what father will do when he finds it out.”

“You go, now,” said Mrs. Porter, “and tell your mother that your father staid to go to the mill. He will not be here for some time.”

While Polly went to the kitchen with the message, Mrs. Melicent alighted from her horse and, assisting her little daughter Melicent from the saddle, said: “You are heavier to-day, Milly, than you were when I threw you to the bank from my horse when it was floating down the river. I couldn’t do it now.”

The instant Major Porter had set little Polly Lewis on the porch Mrs. Porter was beside him, begging that he would look for Ethel and care for the boy if he found him. The promise was given, and looking well despite the uncommon heat, the Major, in all the glory of his military equipment, set forth.

From that moment all was noise and call and confusion without. Men went by singly, in groups, in squads, in companies, mounted and on foot. It is a matter of public record that twelve militia companies, with their respective captains, went from Waterbury alone to assist New Haven in the day of its peril. It is no marvel that they set off with speed, for the horrors of the Danbury burning was yet fresh in memory.

In the long kitchen, as the heated hours went by, the brick oven was fired again and again until the very stones of the chimney expanded with glowing heat, and the last swallow forsook its ancient nest in despair. The sun was in the west when Mr. Porter, with a bag of wheat on one side of the saddle and a bag of rye on the other, appeared at the kitchen entrance and summoned help to unload, but his accustomed helpers were gone. Even Cato, the reliable, was missing. Phyllis and Nancy received the wheat and the rye.

“Mother,” said Mr. Porter, “I had to do the grinding myself couldn’t find a man to do it, and I knew it couldn’t be done here to-day, water’s too low. Where are the boys?” he questioned, as he entered and looked around. When informed, his sole ejaculation was, “I ought to have known that boys always have gone and always will go after soldiers.”

“Don’t worry, mother,” he added to his wife, as she stood looking wistfully down the road.

There were tears in her eyes as she said: “Not a boy left.”

“Why yes, mother, here comes Stephen and Stiles Hotchkiss up the road. My! how tired and hot the boys and the horses do look!” exclaimed Polly.

Stephen waited for no reprimand. He forestalled it by saying: “Captain Hotchkiss let Stiles and me go far enough to see the British troops way off, ever so far but we saw ’em, we did, didn’t we, Stiles?”

“Come! come!” said Mr. Porter, while the lad’s mother stood with her hand on his head. “Stephen, tell us all about it!”

“Captain Hotchkiss said he was a boy once, and if we’d promise him to go home the minute he told us to, he’d take us along. Well! we kept meeting folks running away from New Haven, with everything on ’em but their heads. One woman was lugging a lot of salt pork, ’because she couldn’t bear to have the Britishers eat it all up;’ and another woman was carrying away a lot of candles hanging by a string, and the sun had melted the last drop of tallow, leaving the wicks dangling against the tallow on her dress, but she didn’t know it; and mother, would you believe it Mr. Timothy Atwater told Captain Hotchkiss that he met a woman whom he knew hurrying out of town with a cat in her arms. When he asked her where her children were, she said, ’Why, at home I suppose.’ ‘Well,’ said Mr. Atwater, ’hadn’t you better leave the cat and go back and get them?’ And she said, ‘Perhaps she had,’ and went back for ’em.”

“What became of the cat?” asked Mrs. Melicent Porter.

“Why, Aunt Melicent, how nice!” cried Stephen, running back to the porch and returning with a cat in his arms.

“I’ve fetched her to you. I knew you loved cats so! Here she is, black as ink, and she stuck to the saddle every step of the way like a true soldier’s cat. I was afraid she’d run away when I took her off the saddle, and I hid her. You know mother don’t like cats around under her feet.”

In a minute pussy was on the floor, and the last drop of milk in the house was set before her by little Polly Lewis. Little Melicent cooed softly to her, while Stephen and Stiles went on with their story, from which it was learned that the boys had gone within a mile of Hotchkisstown (now Westville), where, from a height, they had a view of the British troops. The lads were filled with admiration of the marching, “as though it was all one motion,” of the “mingling colors of the uniforms worn, as the bright red of the English Foot Guards blended with the graver hues of the dress worn by the German mercenaries,” and of “the waving line of glittering bayonets.”

“We didn’t see,” said Stephen, “but just one flash of musketry, because Stiles’s father said we must start that instant for home, and he told Stiles to stay here until morning, and we haven’t had a mouthful to eat since breakfast, and its been the hottest day that ever was, and I’m tired to death.”

“And the cows are on the hill and nobody here to fetch them down,” sighed Mr. Porter.

“Such a lot of captains waiting to see you, father!” announced Polly. “There’s Captain Woodruff and Captain Castle and Captain Richards and a Fenn captain and a Garnsey captain. I forget the rest.” The captains invaded the kitchen itself, declaring that it being Monday in the week, every householder had been short of provisions for the emergency that every inn on the way and many a private house had been unable to provide enough for so many men, and what could they have at the Porter Inn?

Polly disappeared. Before her father had considered the matter she had, assisted by her Aunt Melicent and Polly Lewis, seized from the pantry shelves all that they could carry, and going by a rear way, had hidden on the garret stairs a big roast of veal, one of lamb, and enough bread and pies for family requirements, and still the pantry shelves seemed amply filled. “I’m not going to have Ethel come home in the night and find nothing left for him I know, and the hungry boys fast asleep and tired out on the kitchen settle will come to life ravenous. Wonder if I hadn’t better be missing just now and go fetch the cows down. Father would have asthma all night if he tried it,” said Polly to her aunt; and up the hill Polly went accompanied by little Polly while Mrs. Porter stood by and saw the fruits of her hard day’s work vanish out of sight.

“Pray leave something for your own household,” she ventured to intercede at last. “Don’t forget that we have four guests of our own for the night;” but Mr. Porter, rather proud to show that, however remiss others had been, the Porter Inn was prepared for emergencies, had already bidden Nancy and Phyllis fetch forth the last loaf.

“Like one for supper,” ventured Nancy, as her master carefully examined the empty larder, hoping to find something more. As the last captain from Northbury started on the night journey for New Haven, Mr. Porter faced his wife. “Now Thomas Porter,” she said, “you can go hungry to bed, but what can I do for my guests and the children and the rest of the household?”

Mr. Porter scratched his head a habit when profoundly in doubt and said: “I must fetch the cows! It’s most dark now,” and set forth, to find that Polly had them all safely in the cattle yard.

“I suppose, father,” said Polly, “that we’ve got to live on milk to-night. I thought so when I heard you parleying with the captains. So I thought I’d get the cows down.” As Polly entered the house, she saw a lady and two girls of about her own age, to whom her mother was saying: “We will give you shelter, gladly, but my husband has just let the militia you met just below have the last morsel of cooked food in our house, and we’ve nothing left for ourselves but milk for supper.”

“Mother,” said Polly, stepping to the front; “we have plenty! I looked out for you before father got to the pantry. I made journeys to the garret stairs, several of them, and Aunt Melicent and Polly Lewis helped me. It is all right for the lady to stay.”

The lady in question was Mrs. Thankful Punderson and her twin daughters, girls of twelve years, who had escaped from New Haven just as the British troops reached Broadway, and the riot and plunder and killing began. “I hoped,” she said, “to reach the house of my husband’s sister, Mrs. Zachariah Thompson, in Westbury, but Anna and Thankful are too tired to walk further to-night, and the horse can carry but two. It is getting late, and I am so thankful to stay.”

As Mr. Porter stood on the porch looking down the road for the next arrival, hoping to learn some later news and perhaps to hear Ethel’s cheery call in the distance, Polly said: “Father, will you let me be innkeeper to-night?”

“Gladly, Polly, with nothing to keep and not a room to spare,” was his reply.

“Then I’ll invite you to supper, and mind, if the ministers themselves come, they can’t have a bite to-night, for I’m the keeper.”

“I suppose you’ve made us some hasty pudding while the milking was going on,” he said, as Polly, preceding her father for once, went before, and opened the door upon a table abundantly supplied, and laid for twelve.

At the table Mr. Porter told, for the benefit of Mrs. Melicent Porter and Mrs. Punderson, some of the events, both pathetic and tragic, that had occurred in the old house during his boyhood and youth, and Mrs. Melicent Porter told again the events of the day in June only a year before wherein the battle of Monmouth had been fought near her New Jersey home, and she had spent the day in doing what she could to relieve the sufferings of men so spent with battle and heat and wounds that they panted to her door with tongues hanging from their mouths; also of her perilous journey from New Jersey to Connecticut on horseback, accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel Baldwin, her father during which journey it was, that she had thrown her daughter Melicent in safety from her horse to the bank of the river they were fording, while the animal, having lost its footing, was going down the current.

While these things had been in the telling, Polly had slipped from the table unnoticed, and had lighted every lamp that could brighten the house front and serve to guide to its porch. The last lamp was just alight when Polly’s guests began to arrive. She half expected soldiers, and refugees came. It seemed to her that every family in New Haven must be related to every family in Waterbury so many women and children came in to rest themselves before continuing the journey and “to wait until the moon should rise,” for the evening was very dark, and oh! the stories that each fresh arrival brought! They filled the group that came in to listen with fear and agony. New Haven was very near to Waterbury in that day. The inhabitants there were closely connected with the inhabitants here, and their peril and distress was a common woe. Little Stiles Hotchkiss cried himself to sleep that night, fearing that one of the three Hotchkisses, reported killed, might be his father.

Polly acted well her part. To the children she gave fresh milk; to their elders she explained that the militia had taken their supplies, while she made place to receive two or three invalids who could go no further, by giving up her own room.

“You’ll let me lie on the floor in your room, Aunt Melicent, I know,” she said, “for the poor lady is so old and so feeble; I’m most sure she is a hundred. She came in a chaise and wanted to get up to Parson Leavenworth’s, but she just can’t. She can’t hold up her head.”

It was near midnight when the refugees set forth for the Center, Mr. Porter himself acting as guide. After that time, the sleepy boys and the entire household having taken themselves to bed, the old house was left to the night, with its silence and its chill dampness that always comes up from the river, that goes on “singing to us the same bonny nonsense,” despite our cheer or our sorrow. Again, and yet again through the night, doors opened and two mothers stepped out in the moonlight to listen, hoping hoping to hear sound of the coming of the boys, but only the lone cry of the whippoorwill was borne on the air.

“’Pears like,” said Phyllis to Mrs. Porter in the morning, “the whippoorwills had lots to say last night; talked all night so’s you couldn’t hear nothing ’tall.”

“Phyllis,” said Mrs. Porter, “there was nothing else to hear, but we shall know soon.”

Polly came down, bringing her checked linen apron full of eggs for breakfast. “I thought, mother,” she said, “that you’d leave yourself without an egg yesterday, so I looked out. Isn’t it handy to have them in the house? Haven’t heard a single cackle this morning yet, but yesterday was a remarkable day everyway. I believe the hens knew the British were coming. Did you ever see such eggs? Wonder if my old lady is awake yet! Guess I’ll carry up some hot water for her and find out.”

Polly poured the water deftly from the big iron tea-kettle hanging from the crane and hurried away with it, only to return with such haste that she tripped on the threshold, broke the pitcher and sent the water over everything it could reach. “Mother,” she said, recovering herself, “Parson Leavenworth will be here to breakfast. He’s coming down the road with father. My old lady will feel honored, won’t she? I know he’s come for her. Phyllis, any more hot water to spare? It’s so good to take out wrinkles; she’ll miss it, I know.”

The sun had not climbed over Great Hill when breakfast was over, and the last guest of the night had gone. Mrs. Punderson’s daughter Anna rode behind the Rev. Mark Leavenworth on his horse, Thankful with Mrs. Punderson, the old lady in the chaise, and even Stiles had galloped away toward the east, and yet not a traveler on the road had brought tidings from New Haven. The group on the porch watching the departure had not dispersed when Polly’s ears caught a strain floating up the river valley. She listened. She ran. She clasped her mother in her arms. She kissed her. She whispered in her ear, “I hear him! He’s coming! Ethel is; and Cato is with him!” she cried out, embracing Phyllis in her joy. The two mothers the one white, the other black; the one free, the other in bonds went to listen. They stood side by side on the porch; tears fell from their eyes, tears that through all the years science has failed to distinguish, the one from the other. Ethel’s cheery call rang clear and clearer. Cato’s wild cadence grew near and nearer, but when the boys rode up beside the porch, Mrs. Porter was on her knees in the little bed-room off the parlor, and Phyllis was in the kitchen. New England mothers, both of them! Their sorrows they could bear; their joys they hid from sight.

WATERBURY, CONN., September, 1898.