Silvermine: Author celebrates historic location

by Pamela Brown

The Silvermine Center Historic District is a notable artistic location in Fairfield County, earning a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, yet many people remain unaware of its rich, illustrious past. In his new book, Images of America: Silvermine, author Samuel Schmitt hopes to change that.

“I wanted people to connect with the history of Silvermine. It’s known for its natural beauty and cultural heritage, particularly the Silvermine Guild of Artists, but people really want to know the stories of the artists who lived in these historic houses, and who made Silvermine what it is today,” said Schmitt, Executive Director of the Carl Schmitt Foundation in Wilton that honors his grandfather, painter Carl Schmitt, a founding member of the Silvermine Guild.

The Silvermine Center Historic District comprises neighboring parts of three towns: New Canaan, Norwalk and Wilton. In the 20th century, Silvermine was a well-known creative haven for world-renowned artists, writers and musicians. The studio of noted sculptor Solon Borglum, one of the first artists to live in Silvermine, became a gathering hub in the first two decades of the 20th century.

“It was the vigorous year-round colony of artists, and the sheer quality and variety of their work that set it apart and for which it deserves to be celebrated,” said Schmitt, whose book focuses on Silvermine’s recent history – the 1930’s and 1940’s. “My own aunts and uncles who grew up here then were a particularly rich mine of information.”

The book is part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series featuring the regional history of small towns, cities and neighborhoods throughout America. “The artists’ colony is an important part of Fairfield County’s past – a vibrant time in local history that still resonates with current residents, and the beatific scenery and picturesque homes, many of which are restored historic structures, make it a perfect fit for our photographic history collection,” said Megan Petrie, Marketing Specialist. “At Arcadia Publishing, American history and regional culture are living, breathing concepts that deserve to be studied and appreciated. The vintage images, local memories and personal stories that make up the Images of America Series allow readers to connect with local history on a personal level, bringing them closer to their community, their neighbors, and their past.”

A resident of Orange, Schmitt lived in Silvermine for a time. “My grandfather settled in Silvermine over 100 years ago, his wife’s family before that. My father grew up there, so you could say it’s my hometown,” said Schmitt whose grandfather inspires him. “He loved Silvermine. Even after traveling and living all over Europe, Silvermine was his home. He meant this on a deep level, a place where, as he put it, ‘body and soul become one.’ My grandfather also saw the history of the place – the ‘myth’ – as a real part of this home. My history of Silvermine, a place of which he is an integral part, is really a tribute to him.”

After Borglum’s death in 1922, Carl Schmitt helped establish the Silvermine Guild. “My grandfather saw the Guild as a community of artists who would support each other in their lonely quest for excellence and beauty. They held exhibits, criticized each other’s work, and lived, not just for a season and alone, but as a community, with their families. My father and his brothers built homes for each other here. Some still live here, with my grandfather’s paintings hanging on the walls they built together. To this day I feel connected to the place.”

Silvermine features many vintage photographs. “I wanted the images to tell the story. One striking thing the old photos reveal is how open the landscape was 100 years ago. If you drive around Silvermine today, it’s wooded – the stone walls and boulders are hidden in the undergrowth. But the founding artists walked for miles, sketching the open vistas up and down the river valley,” he said, explaining how the natural beauty of Silvermine appealed to early painters. “At the turn of the last century, American artists (and the public) couldn’t get enough of old farms and babbling brooks. Silvermine had all that and more. And just when the farmers of the valley were abandoning their farms for the city, the artists found the old barns perfect for their studios.”

It’s a privilege for Schmitt to advance his grandfather’s legacy and preserve the beauty of Silvermine. “Discovering the living memory of the place – the shared knowledge of the people that shaped Silvermine – is the key that opens the treasures of this place for future generations,” said Schmitt. “There’s a wonderful sense of community pride, knowing you’re living with a unique but as yet largely undiscovered treasury of great American art and culture. People who learn about the Guild, about my grandfather’s work, his century of life painting the land and his beloved family in Silvermine – they always want to know more. I hope this book answers some of their questions and inspires them to learn about this wonderful place.”

Silvermine will always be special to Schmitt. “For those who already know Silvermine, my hope is that this book deepens their love of their home and their appreciation of its history,” said Schmitt. “For those discovering Silvermine, I’d invite them to learn more and support the efforts to preserve its artistic heritage and the beauty of the place.”

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