Historic desk has story to tell
At first, it would be easy to dismiss it as being just a desk. It sits in a corner at the Wilton Historical Society and, though a touch out of place at the top of a short flight of stairs, it could be a staff member’s work station.
The desk, a walnut roll top model, dates to the 19th Century. It belonged to Charles Whitlock, who built the Wilton Educational Institute in the late 1800s. It was a gift of Thomas T. Adams, a Wilton resident and the co-founder of Gregory and Adams, P.C. Attorneys at Law.
“Adelina B.W. Gorham (Mr. Whitlock’s granddaughter), for some reason, took a shine to me when I first to came to Wilton and became town attorney,” Mr. Adams wrote to his son, Douglas, in a 2005 letter that he shared with The Bulletin.
Ms. Gorham and her husband, Earl, lived in town. Mr. Gorham worked for the Town of Wilton Highway Department.
“I liked Adelina,” Mr. Adams wrote. “She knew I had been a high school teacher before I was a lawyer.” Originally from Orchard Park, N.Y., Mr. Adams was a teacher in that area.
Known as “The Nutmeggers,” the Gorhams would retire to Maine but return to visit Wilton frequently, including bringing a few jars of “fiddle head greens” to Mr. Adams and his wife.
Eventually Mr. Gorham delivered a gift to Mr. Adams’s house on Nod Hill Road.
“Earl showed up at Nod Hill one day in a town highway truck with this roll top desk, and they left it at the front door with a note from Adelina, saying she wanted me to have it, that it was her grandfather’s desk and that he, Professor Whitlock, taught from it as the headmaster of Whitlock School for Boys,” said Mr. Adams.
“They lived on Station Road in the Dana House, now the site of Trackside,” Mr. Adams said over lunch at the Silver Spring Country Club in Ridgefield. “I was a teacher, but that wasn’t the only reason she gave me the desk. I’d also come to their rescue. The advantages of being a Wilton lawyer, if you live long enough.”
In assisting the historical society and Mr. Adams to understand the background of the desk, as well as Charles Whitlock, all parties consulted former First Selectman Bob Russell’s book, Wilton, Connecticut.
“The Whitlocks were a family of teachers,” Mr. Russell writes. Indeed, Abel and Augustus Whitlock opened Wilton Boarding Academy for Boys in 1847. Charles Whitlock was born in 1862 to Augustus and his wife, Emily. Charles Whitlock helped his father but, following a dispute, opened the Wilton Educational Institute.
Mr. Russell continues: “Charles eventually drove his father out of business by picking up all of the mail addressed to ‘Whitlock School’ as it came in at the post office.”
Interestingly, the Wilton Educational Institute was destroyed in a fire on Oct. 29, 1894. A second school was built across the street before it, too, burned down in 1898. A third version of the school burned in 1903.
Not long after that, some of the items that were salvaged in the 1903 fire were stolen.
“Furthermore, the insurance company declined to write any more insurance for Mr. Whitlock,” Mr. Russell writes. “At his point, Whitlock gave up.”
Mr. Whitlock taught English lessons from his home at 131 Danbury Road, where he and his wife, Anna, lived. Mr. Whitlock died in 1941, while his wife passed away in 1961.
The desk now at the Wilton Historical Society is the one Mr. Whitlock taught from in the house on Danbury Road. The desk had a writing surface at one time, but is now unfinished. Mr. Adams said it once held a leather insert. Its many features include three drawers on the right, a deep bottom file drawer, nine cubbyholes and shelves, and two drawers inside the roll top.
According to the society’s file on the desk provided by Director Leslie Nolan and Archivist Scotty Taylor, the desk is in good condition, although worn with “scratches and dings.” There are ink stains on the desk table where the leather insert once was in place.
“The desk is an important part of the history of Wilton, and one which will resonate with a wide range of age groups visiting the museum,” Ms. Nolan said in a letter of appreciation to Mr. Adams.
“It’s an interesting piece with a very interesting background,” she added.
The desk was donated by Mr. Adams earlier this year as a valuable addition to the historical society’s collection of antique furniture. Believed to be made around 1850, it measures 46 inches high and 42 inches wide.
“The academy had a checkered career,” Ms. Taylor said. “The Gorhams’ house supposedly — reportedly — was disassembled and went to California.”
Mr. Adams laughed at how he originally intended give the desk to his son, but ultimately decided its history was a good fit for the museum.
“They went far more bananas than I expected them to at the historical society,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to become a cause célèbre.”
Mr. Adams was the Wilton town attorney for six years. Still active, he said he goes to the office every day, advising clients in property transactions and matters involving regulated land use.
He received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Buffalo, choosing to stay close to home. Even his law degree came fairly close to his western New York roots, at Cornell Law School.
He taught as an adjunct associate professor at Fordham University’s School of Law and was a visiting lecturer at Cornell Law School.
He has lived in Wilton since the early 1960s. He and his wife raised four children.