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December 12, 2003

An Oral History

New London Day (subscription), CT - Dec 12, 2003

Ledyard Home, Early School For Deaf, Has A Rich Past Dating To The 1700s


The rich history of the Mystic Oral School began long before its move in the early 1870s to the conveniently named Oral School Road in Mystic. The school, renowned for its methods of educating hearing-impaired children, actually opened at the Ledyard home of Jonathan Whipple in 1869, but the roots were planted there years before, in 1826, when his son Enoch was born deaf.

Jonathan was a member of the Rogerene Quakers, a deeply religious sect whose agrarian nature led them to settle in Ledyard. A man of limited education, he nonetheless devoted himself to helping his son and others with similar impairments learn to communicate. Jonathan, who would also go on to become a peace advocate and abolitionist, eventually gained national recognition for his "oral method" of teaching, which encouraged students to learn to speak by reading lips and studying the motions of speech.

His grandson, and Enoch's nephew, Zerah C. Whipple, was so inspired by the accomplishments of his two relatives that, at age 19, he decided to become a teacher of the deaf. He and Jonathan started a school in 1869 at his grandfather's house: The Whipple Home School for Deaf Mutes. Space constraints prompted the move to the Mystic location three or four years later, and the name was changed to Mystic Oral School in 1895. (The school closed in 1980 after the graduation of its last three students.)

The Ledyard home that was the school's original site is still standing. Initially located on 240 acres, the house was built as a gambrel in 1775, and a Colonial addition was built in 1850. It now sits on a half acre at 397 Colonel Ledyard Highway ... and it still evokes a feeling of amity that bears out its origins.

Some of that is no doubt attributable to its current owner, Abby Cramer, a psychiatric nurse whose loving care for the house she has owned for nine years is evident in its carefully tended grounds and impeccably maintained interior and exterior. She has made many improvements, both inside and out, but never at the expense of the house's history.

"I tried to keep a lot of the original features," Cramer says. "The windows, the wide pine board floors and the beams."

The rough-hewn wood beams appear throughout the house, and some have been reinforced with steel rods that add to the rustic charm. Cramer added a full bath on the second floor and kept the exposed beams, although that forced a not-so-easy search for a shower unit that would fit between them. In the same room, she had no choice but to keep the angled posts – they're structurally necessary – but she used them to create a handy recessed storage area with open shelves.

She used historically appropriate Sturbridge Village paint colors throughout the interior and in some areas added attractive stenciling in keeping with what one would see in an 18th century farmhouse. The same can be said for the eat-in kitchen: Although newly remodeled, the warm and cozy feel is not forced. It is truly a country kitchen.

Even when Cramer had to make a change that wasn't necessarily in keeping with the house's historical period, she ensured that it wasn't unalterable.

"My dog was getting older, and her feet would just slide out from under her," she explains, "so I carpeted the stairs and the second floor. But the original wood flooring is still underneath."

Her dedication to the house's history has required a few good-natured concessions on her part. For example, even though she doesn't play the piano, she has one in the house.

"It's from the 1800s, and it's been passed down with the house because the living room door was altered at one point and now the piano won't fit through it," she laughs. "It's been nice that all the owners have chosen to keep it."

And she's entertained more than a few strangers.

"As you can imagine, there were so many different families that lived here. People will stop by and ask if they can take a photo of the outside of the house. Of course, I end up inviting them in for a glass of wine and we spend two hours talking!"

Inside the kitchen pantry door are the signatures of two such visitors, who were among the many children born in the home's birthing room (which now holds that piano). The inscriptions read "Evelyn Crandall Boyce 5-20-25" and "Phil Crandall 3-6-23."

Cramer has also had groups of former Oral School students stop by to visit the home of its founder.

"And one day I came home and there was a group of people standing in my yard. One of them explained that they were having a school reunion and asked if I minded if they walked around and took photos.

"Really, people stop and comment all the time. People who know the history of the house, people who know someone who went to the school, people who knew someone who lived here or was born here ... And people who watched the transformation as I worked on the house. They were like cheerleaders on the roadside: 'Wow, it looks great!'"

It's obvious that Cramer loves this house, but the long hours she spends at work have necessitated a move closer to her job. So the house is on the market, listed with David and Stephanie Abraham of Landmarks Antique & Country Properties for $275,000. (Call 860-423-7484 for more information.)

"I hope that the next owners will be people who will continue to care for it, keep its originality and appreciate its history. It's more than just the house – there's a real story behind it."

And to help the new owners tell that story, she'll pass on more than the piano.

"I have all the original paperwork from around the mid 1800s, the deeds from the past owners," she says. "When I sell it, I'll hand them over to the next owners."

© The Day Publishing Co., 2003