Coley Taylor, the author of “Our Neighbor, Mark Twain” (February/March 1985), was luckier than I by about eight years. My uncle and aunt, John and Mabel German, bought eighty acres of Connecticut rocks and a 1740 Dutch home on Diamond Hill Road in West Redding in 1917. The house belonged to Albert Bigelow Paine, who was then living in “The Lobster Pot,” a rambling house adjoining Samuel Clemens’s property.
Clemens was gone by the time I, as a twelve-year-old, had my first visit to Stormfield, his former residence. I recall it well. It was a gray, ominous, windy day in November. A group of us drove to the entrance of Stormfield and walked through the overgrown fields, filled—as Mr. Taylor recalls—with small cedar trees.
Being the smallest of the group, I was delegated to slip through an open window in the basement of the house, find my way through the eerie darkness, climb the main stairs to ground level, and unlock the front door. An illegal but reverent and respectful tour of the house took place with bated breath, so as not to disturb the ghosts.
Every weekend, every holiday, and every summer vacation was spent at Redvale (my uncle’s name for his farm) for many years until, late in World War II, the place was sold. I met Mr. Paine frequently, and, as a matter of fact, my cousin is named for him. He was a tall, stately man; so tall, in fact, that he repeatedly hit his head on the old New England ceiling beams in his home, until he had them hand-axed to half their thickness. This allowed him to proceed up and down a step or two from room to room usually without bodily harm.
One rainy summer night in 1923, the phone rang at 1:00 A.M. The operator spoke with a great sense of urgency. “All men, hurry! Stormfield is on fire!”
I was there at the end. Water was too far away for the hoses, so chemicals were used (for the first time that I can recall). No use, sadly. The blaze was almost controlled when the chemicals ran out. The fire picked up again, and we lay in the wet grass as rifle and shotgun ammunition exploded over our heads.
The house had been sold some months before to a family of four, and they had been more or less camping out as they did repairs, modernization, and painting. It was said that the fire was caused by paint rags. Be that as it may, the family never came back to rebuild. There was nothing left but the foundation.
Before the fire got out of control, some items were saved. 1 recall helping to get out the billiard table and a tremendous hand-carved mantelpiece that had surrounded the fireplace.
Mr. Taylor was luckier than I. He knew the great author face-to-face. I knew him only secondhand.