PASSING BY: The Murphy House


I thought I'd write about how chimneys were energy efficient in the olden days. This little cape which sits at the intersection of Austin Hill and Murphy Roads seemed a good example. It is old and it has a big chimney.

To put the house in context I'd do a little research and find the names of the owners.

The house is just a dot on the 1835 Hinsdill Map of Bennington. West on Murphy Road is another dot labeled "Breckenridge." But this house has no name. Whose house was it?

The current owners tell me the Murphys, for whom Murphy Road is named, lived here. The Registry of Deeds records agree: Murphys owned this land from 2008 back to the 1940s. But then in the 1945 deed the record stops. There is a note: the land was "conveyed to Michael Murphy in his lifetime by John Younglove Breckenridge, Henry Vander Speigel, and M.C. Huling."

No date is given. Maybe this is a dead end.

I am quite sure that this house was built about 1770. Its size and proportions, its simplicity and its central chimney tell me so. Still I want a paper trail.

Can I find out when Michael Murphy bought the land? I discount Vander Speigel and Huling. I don't know why they are cited in the note, but they didn't own land on Murphy Road.

John Younglove Breckenridge did. His farm is the one west on Murphy Road. He died in 1882. Soon after, his family moved to New York.

Michael Murphy must have bought the Murphy house and land from John Breckenridge sometime before 1882. The Murphy family owned this house for at least 126 years. The maps says the house was there in 1835. Who owned it then?

At the Bennington Museum Library I find in "The Breckenridge Papers." a family history written about 1910, that in 1788 John's father Daniel (1769-1847) build a "substantial and capacious house ... perhaps a quarter of a mile from the pioneer cabin in which he was born." That cabin is the Murphy House. Daniel's father, the man who built the cabin, was James Breckenridge, who came to Bennington in 1761.

The Murphy House is also the Breckenridge House.

So my intent to write about chimneys was hijacked by a fascinating discovery.

Here is the part about chimneys, now an afterthought.

The first settlers in Bennington had only one option for heating their homes -- burning wood in the fireplace. The fire burned day and night. Every morning the new day's fire was started from the previous night's coals.

This little house had 3 fireplaces, therefore 3 flues, a big chimney, and a lot of stone masonry.

The masonry of the fireplaces and the chimney were heated by the fire, and stayed warm for several hours after the fire died down. Since the chimney was in the middle of the house it was a big radiator. It radiated heat into the rooms and helped substantially to keep the family warm.

By 1840 we had cast iron stoves; by 1900, furnaces. Both provide much better even, controlled heat than fireplaces. Chimneys were for smoke. We ceased to notice, capture, or use the heat in that smoke, something that our ancestors did as a matter of course.

A copy of the 1835 Hinsdill Map is available for perusal in the Bennington Town Clerk's office.

Jane Griswold Radocchia is a Banner columnist.


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