Today, if you should visit the Congregational Church Parish House and home to the Gregory-Davis Family, you will see directly to the north of it, a well-preserved, brick and stone cellar hole. Over the years, countless parishioners have referred to it as “The Sunken Garden.” The garden has been used for church events, a secret playground for children, and as a place for reflection.
“The Sunken Garden” is all that is left of a building that began life sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century as a general store owned by Daniel Kimball and operated by his partner and his wife Hannah’s nephew, John Bryant. Although it is unclear exactly when it was built, it does appear on a map Dr. Frost drew from memory in 1853 of The Hilltop as it appeared to him when he arrived in Meriden in 1808. Dr. Frost boarded with the Kimballs for six years before purchasing what is now KUA’s Frost House. Kimball and Bryant operated a successful store both by trading local produce that they shipped to Boston and by returning with supplies that were needed, but not available in Meriden, for the villagers and Academy students. Bryant’s name appears in the Plainfield tax inventory of 1806 as having $1,000 stock in trade with Kimball being assessed for $1,600 in building and unimproved land.
John Bryant was executor of Daniel Kimball’s estate and after Kimball’s sudden death in 1817, a struggle began between Bryant and the KUA trustees to acquire what Kimball had willed to the Academy. Because Kimball and Bryant’s business affairs had become so entangled, it was not until 1822 that the balance of Kimball’s property and money, $34,193.47, could be paid to KUA. On August 5, 1823, the trustees resolved to call Union Academy, Kimball Union, as, without that money, it is unlikely KUA would have survived.
Ownership of the store went to Bryant’s brother Levi whose old home has been owned by the Academy since 1937 and is now known as Kilton House. In 1841, Levi’s store inventory, of which there were 309 entries, included everything from 1 1/2 gallons of castor oil to lace edge plates, German silver tableware, 1,230 pounds of tea, 30 pounds of cocoa, spices, raisins, rice, and sugar by the barrel load. “For the ladies, there were 80 vials of essence, Highland shawls, silk shawls, and handkerchiefs. For the gentlemen, shaving soap, two pairs of walking shoes and seventeen pairs of ‘Gentleman’s pumps.’ For Kimball Union Academy students, 460 bound books, 43 bound Greek and Latin books, sanding boxes and sand, ink, paper, candy, and English walnuts. There were 2,000 pounds of cheese and 100 bushels of potatoes taken in trade for shipment to Boston.” There were yards and yards of all kinds of cloth including silk, velvet, linen, gingham, calico and broad cloth sheeting. [Choice White Pines and Good Land. A History of Plainfield and Meriden, New Hampshire]
John D. Bryant, class of 1845, a son of John and Mary Bryant, attended Harvard and became a successful and wealthy Boston lawyer. He inherited the Kimball property and in 1858, sold the brick store to KUA to be used as a boarding house for its female students retaining the old Kimball house, his birthplace, for himself and his wife as a summer home. In 1910 the Academy deeded the building back to him; the number of female boarding students was declining and perhaps the trustees felt the building was not needed at that time. Tragically, the Bryant Block caught fire and burned to the ground in 1927.
John D. Bryant was a great benefactor in life and in death, to the Stone Church and to the Academy. He left his Meriden home to the church to be used as a parsonage for as long as the church remained in existence. He left KUA $15,000 and some property. It would have been more, but before he died in 1911, work had already begun on Bryant Hall, a gift from him that was dedicated in October 1910.
“The Sunken Garden” has formally been named in honor of Gardiner and Kathryn MacLeay for their many contributions over the years to the Stone Church.
Next time: The Old Playground