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Thursday, March 22 News

'Burning of Fairfield' echoes resoundingly in voices from history

The beautiful weather absent on the Fourth of July blossomed Sunday, bringing almost 200 people to the historic heart of town for the annual "Burning of Fairfield" walking tours.

The event, organized by the Fairfield Museum and History Center, featured the actual settings and the words of people who lived through the fiery attack on Fairfield forces by British troops on July 7, 1779.

Sold-out groups of 27 people on seven separate tours -- their interest piqued by the town's 375th anniversary -- peered into the past with help from docents dressed in Colonial garb who read from historic documents, including journal entries and letters from those who experienced the assault to heighten the experience.

Participants began their adventure into the town's past at the museum and paused at a handful of historically significant places nearby, including the Sun Tavern, Burr Homestead and Old Burial Ground.

"It's just a gorgeous day and it was very educational. It's a glorious day for a walking tour. You couldn't get better weather," said Joyce Hergenhan, a longtime Fairfield resident for whom Sunday's tour was a first. Hearing the words of Fairfield residents who lived through the British invasion and conflagration that destroyed more than 100 houses, barns and shops, especially so close to the anniversary of the invasion on July 7 and 8, 1779, and on the weekend when we celebrate our Independence Day was "very effective," Hergenhan said.

"This is a great way to learn history. It's the true accounts," said Francis Ohe, 13, of Fairfield, who was stationed at the cemetery, where he portrayed Jonathan Wheeler, a Fairfield patriot of the same age.

Ohe said Sunday's program was not the sanitized accounts of elementary school history books. "This was awful. These were guns for hire that came and completely decimated these areas. It was much darker and depressing. There was blood in the (local) streets," he said.

Almost a dozen locals were murdered and only six houses remained when the smoke cleared after the British troops withdrew -- five on Beach Road and one on Old Post Road.

The beginning of each tour was "interrupted" by the appearance of British Major-General William Tryon, played by Russell Jennings of Fairfield, who read from a document that warned locals of the consequences of their "ungenerous and wanton insurrection against the Sovereignty of Great-Britain."

"My ancestors are rolling over in their graves," said Jennings of the British uniform he wore. He had 18 male relatives who fought in the Revolutionary War "on the patriot side, of course."

At the Sun Tavern, Katie White, 17, of Fairfield, read a letter written Aug. 10, 1779, by Priscilla (Lothrop) Burr of Fairfield to her sister-in-law Helen (Hobart) Lothrop of Plymouth, Mass. In which she referred to British troops murdering "old Mr. S. Sturgis and old Mr. J. Gold "in a most inhumane way ... Poor Fairfield, how does she sit solitary with heaps of naked chimneys seemingly left as monuments to bewail the loss of those pleasant habitations which once were their support."

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Walkers encountered three patriots in the cemetery -- the first was Ohe, who read from an account in Wheeler's dairy.

"The first building that appeared on fire was the guard-house at Kenzy's Point; next at Barlow's plain ... the town burnt all night -- a cloud seemed to remain fixed in the west, from which issued frequent flashes of lightening; this, joined to many a column from the flaming buildings and frequent discharges of cannon & musketry of the British guard placed around the town."

During one tour, Richard Cunningham wandered through the cemetery looking for the grave of Elizabeth Fitch. Cunningham, a dual British and American citizen who owns and lives in the Andrew Rowland House on Old Post Road, which was spared the flames of 1779, said Fitch stayed in that house during the burning of Fairfield.

Cunningham said the tour offered a chance to understand the real history rather than interpreted versions. It wasn't all black and white, he said. "It was much more gray," at the time of the British invasion. Cunningham said there were mixed loyalties even inside the same family. There could be patriots and loyalists living under the same roof, he said.

"These tours can make people think differently about our country and what we went through and what we achieved," Ohe said.