The Gaston Manse

Inspecting an old house is like putting bits and pieces of a puzzle together blindfolded. Every occupant apparently added or renovated or remodeled, according to his need. What was that for? Why is this here? Who did that? – It has a story of its own, if only we can decipher the language.

The “Gaston Manse” is one of those houses – a history that reaches back 200 years. It is located at the corner of Cook Hill Road and Hall’s Hill Road, in the center of the once-thriving “Tunk City.”

Captain Alex Gaston purchased the house from Stephen Draper of Attleborough, Mass. for $400 on December 15, 1802. Perhaps he had just returned from the Revolutionary War, and wanted to settle down. Perhaps he was a relative of John Gaston of Voluntown, who in his dissatisfaction with the Voluntown church, petitioned to join the Separatist (Congregational) Church in South Killingly. Or did he see the centrally located house as an ideal spot for his mercantile business?

No one knows. At any rate, he built up a prosperous transportation line, raised a family, donated to the church and attempted to have his name live in perpetuity. It has, in several ways.

His first act was to put the name, “Gaston Manse,” in the deed. The house was to be known by that name, in perpetuity. Unfortunately, it was not always known by that name. Rather, it was the Hovey house, or Coolidge, or Cooper, or whoever happened to live in it at the time. The present owners, however, have erected a sign, in perpetuity, with the name “Gaston Manse.” Alex Gaston should rest easy in his grave now.

From the outside, the house appears to be the typical two-storied, formal, two-chimneyed, rectangular wood-frame building. The inside presents a different picture. There is a confusing mass of rooms, double support beams, and different construction.

The original structure must have been a two-storied house, three rooms on each floor. The gunstock corner support posts and fieldstone chimney place the structure in the late 1600’s or early 1700’s. The chimney is constructed of rough fieldstone all the way to the top. There are three fireplaces on the first floor, one the typical huge cooking fireplace, five feet high and six feet wide. On the right side is the small beehive oven, made of brick, with a piece of iron for a door. There is one fireplace in the bedroom on the second floor.

An ell is attached to this section of the house, which could have served as a summer kitchen, cold storage or servant’s quarters. A steep flight of stairs reaches a second floor room, which was kept cold for storing grains, staples and smoked or dried meats.

A second addition, probably in the early part of 1700 doubles the size of the house. The corner posts on this side are straight. Two floors were built and a new Federal façade entrance doorway, and another chimney. This chimney was made of brick, a very neat job, in contrast to the first chimney. It has two fireplaces on the first floor, and one on the second. The fireplaces are joined together in the attic, each having a separate flue.

The front door is slightly off center, opening on the narrow short hall that separates the two sections.

The present hall leads to a small room snuggled behind the front stairs and in back of the second chimney. It has a Dutch door and shelves lining the room. Was it used as a bar of some sort? Did Capt. Gaston, with his business and military relationships, turn his large room into a taproom or was it used as storage and selling of the goods he brought home from the Orient trade ships?

Gaston would send his teamsters and wagons down to the Providence docks, where they would load with goods from the Orient. These he transported to inland destinations and conducted a mercantile business for himself. Did he conduct business thru the small Dutch door?

The attic contains another mystery. A small section has been cut in the roof to reach the crawl space over the ell. A perfect match and fit of boards covering the entrance would let us dream all kinds of possibilities. Was it used as a hiding place for the Underground Railroad? Or was it just extra storage space in the large attic?

The Separatist Church and meetinghouse were continually in a state of repair. A dispute arose with one faction of men wanting to move the church to a new site. Capt. Gaston stated he would donate a bell for the church if they voted to remain in the same location. They did and he did. A bell arrived from Massachusetts, weighing 700 pounds costing $216. (Remember, he paid $400 for his house!) When the bell was hoisted in place, it was discovered to be cracked. The hostile group, who had lost in their wish to move the church, delighted in calling the area “Tunk City” in memorial to the bell that only “tunked.”

A last method of keeping the Gaston name in perpetuity was to raise a son who became governor of Massachusetts in 1875-76.

As long as we have history books, a church bell and the Paul Haneys in South Killingly, Capt. Alex Gaston and his “Gaston Manse” will live on forever.