Lou Sorrentino


-THE NEW YORK TIMES- "Uncovering a Millstone Who-Done-It"

-THE NEW YORK TIMES- "Uncovering a Millstone Who-Done-It" *By ADAM BOWLES (NYT) 1440 words Published: January 25, 2004 SINCE he was a child, Louis Sorrentino has visited Devil's Hopyard State Park in East Haddam to go for a walk, take pictures of the scenery or enjoy a picnic. His love for the outdoors merged with his interest in history one day in the spring of 2002 when he spotted a large piece of a millstone in Chapman Falls in the park. Curious about its origins, he called the municipal historian and checked out an historical marker near the stone. Both sources led him to the story of the Sons of Liberty toppling a stone into the falls to intimidate a loyalist mill owner. More than a year and some 30 hours of research later, Mr. Sorrentino, founder and vice president of the Friends of Devil's Hopyard, became convinced that the stone he found in a restricted area of the park just 200 feet from the marker that referred to it was indeed a Revolutionary War artifact. ''Apparently from 1881 on it got forgotten,'' said Mr. Sorrentino... His rediscovery recently caught the attention of top state officials who are fascinated with the story behind the 229-year-old millstone and say it could be used as a valuable teaching tool. The state archaeologist, Nicholas Bellantoni, who visited the park in the summer to see the stone, said while archaeological investigations would not be able to verify the story, it is significant that the millstone is down a slope from gristmill ruins, specifically the foundation. Either the stone, which is about 50 inches in diameter, dropped into the falls due to natural erosion at the site or it was thrown down, he said, adding the latter appears to be the logical conclusion based on circumstantial evidence. ''We have the mill, we have the stone and we have a wonderful story to go with it,'' Mr. Bellantoni said. ''It talks about people's attitudes toward each other at the beginning of the Revolutionary War and to tie it to an artifact is pretty cool.'' Mr. Sorrentino researched records at the Connecticut State Library in Hartford and at other libraries, reading newspaper articles, historic commission reports and colonial period documents. The story that unfolded from his studies goes like this: The Sons of Liberty, a group of colonists organized to protest the Stamp Act, were angry with Abner Beebe, a wealthy Tory mill owner who also practiced as a physician. Mr. Beebe's brother, Asa, was a lay leader in the Church of England who pledged allegiance to the English monarchy at the start of his church services, a common act for Loyalists but forbidden by the Revolutionists. Both Beebes had another terrible shortfall, as far as the Sons of Liberty were concerned. They drank tea, an English import boycotted by the Colonists. Ebenezer Punderson, a traveling minister of the Church of England who preached in East Haddam and Norwich and who was an acquaintance of the Beebes, also indulged in drinking tea. ''They were notorious tea drinkers, the crack smokers of their day,'' Mr. Sorrentino said. Mr. Punderson recanted his statements supporting England's right to tax the colonies before the Committee of Norwich, Mr. Sorrentino said. But Abner Beebe initially refused to recant, irking the Sons of Liberty who tarred and feathered him, according to a 1774 letter about civil unrest from Col. Joseph Spencer to Connecticut Gov. Jonathan Trumbull. His brother, Asa, was also tarred and feathered, according to Dexter's Yale Biographies of 1898. They also destroyed Abner Beebe's personal property, according to his complaint that was published in the Connecticut Gazette in 1775, Mr. Sorrentino said. That same newspaper 106 years later referred to the incident in which Revolutionists broke into a mill and rolled a millstone down a hill. It was the last time public records indicated that people knew of the millstone's whereabouts. Asa Beebe and his family took off for a British colony in Canada, or what is now Nova Scotia. They got as far as New Hampshire, where they settled. ''He more than Abner decided he didn't want to change his loyalties,'' Dr. Karl Stofko, East Haddam municipal historian, said. Apparently, the Sons of Liberty visited Abner Beebe several times. He eventually sold the gristmill and nearby sawmill to John Chapman and left the Church of England to join the Millington Congregational Church. After the war, he bought back the mill. Still, he stayed in the area throughout his ordeal because he wanted to be with his family, including his three children, Mr. Stofko said. Mr. Punderson went bankrupt and also left for England, returning after the war when the state legislature granted him safe passage home after he explained that the reason he left was he feared for his safety. Mr. Stofko said just three people in town were loyalists. Mr. Stofko said when Abner Beebe complained of his treatment to the town and the state he did not name names. The Sons of Liberty also raised a liberty pole and flag at the site of the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse. The pole, one of the tallest in Connecticut in more than 140 feet high, was designed to alert visitors that the town was pro-independence. ''Today we would call them renegades,'' Mr. Stofko said of the Sons of Liberty. ''They were a group of young men who decided to take the law into their own hands. They more or less disappeared after the Revolutionary War got started. It was an important time in history. Outside of the liberty pole, it's one of the few stories we have of the Sons of Liberty. They probably existed in every town.'' Mr. Bellantoni said he would be opposed to moving the stone because its location is part of the story. His office, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and the Friends of Devil's Hopyard are discussing how to promote the millstone as a minor attraction. Mr. Bellantoni said a new trail that would allow visitors to see the stone and pamphlets that tells its story are two possibilities. Mr. Sorrentino has permission...to redo several kiosks at the park that inaccurately credited a certain Captain Aaron Fox with overthrowing the stone. David K. Leff, deputy commissioner of the D.E.P., said the stone underscored the history found in many of the state's parks, including Gillette Castle State Park, also in East Haddam, and Fort Trumbull in New London. ''You can't go very far in the New England woods without running into a cellar hole or stone wall with historical significance,'' he said. ''In these days of renewed patriotism that millstone, while it is a very ordinary object, carries with it a very powerful symbol of the struggle for freedom.'' John Ostrout, director of Cultural Heritage Tourism in Connecticut, has also visited the millstone. Mr. Ostrout is working on creating a Revolutionary War Trail in the state that would feature historic sites and artifacts for tourists to visit in a systematic way. He said the millstone would be ideal for such a trail. ''We know there is a rich history of the American Revolutionary War period in our state,'' said Mr. Ostrout, who created the Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail several years ago. ''It's time to dust off these existing treasures.'' Mr. Sorrentino admires the Sons of Liberty but not for what they did to the Beebes. He said it is important for young people today to realize the atrocities Americans have done in the name of freedom. The Beebes' freedom of speech was denied amid the flurry of zealous colonists at war, he said. ''I think we need to keep the story alive,'' Mr. Sorrentino said. ''We have the seeds of squelching liberty even before 1776.'' Copyright 2005