Promisek Foundation

In 1976, Bridgewater resident Dawn Douglas discovered that an abandoned estate at the end of the road she lived on was about to be sold and subdivided into 70 building lots. The 300-acre property, Three Rivers Farm, had a rich history and was environmentally unique in that it was located where the Housatonic, Shepaug, and Pook rivers converge. Dawn contacted her friend Phyllis Beauvais, and the two explored the property; they felt that it was unique and sacred, and that it should be preserved intact. Together with a small group of friends (Richard Beauvais, Irene Murray, Margaret Colliton and Mercer Mayer) they decided to purchase the property themselves and establish a charitable land preserve, which would have an educational and religious orientation, dedicated to preserving that land and learning from it.

The group formed a corporation, Promisek Incorporated, taking the name first given by the local Pootatuck Indians to that strip of land between the Shepaug and Housatonic rivers.  The word “Promisek” is loosely translated as “Land He Walks On Forever” or “Land that Goes on Forever.”

The individuals in the founding corporation negotiated with the owners of the property, raised what money they could, and purchased the property in 1977. The $1 million transaction was the highest price paid for land in Bridgewater to that date. Over the next two decades, the founding group labored to pay off the mortgage without seeking financial assistance or preservation grants, believing that the land would be more fully valued if it were paid for by the labor of those who had taken on a commitment to it.

Over the years, the founding group have been joined by others who have responded personally to the land and its preservation. Working together, the volunteers have restored the ruined buildings and gardens, and held seminars and retreats. For several years, the site was home to the Beatrice Ayer Patton School of Montessori.

Some of the original members have since died (Dawn Douglas, Margaret Colliton). As the remaining group has gotten older, and more and more people respond to Promisek and its goals, the project has become concerned with establishing a broader financial base to insure that the restoration can continue. We hope the land will forever remain a unique cultural and environmental preserve, to benefit future generations, the town of Bridgewater and its residents, and to succeed as a model for how we can all creatively assume responsibility for the integrity of the earth.

The Peterson Era

On October 4, 1926, an elegant wedding took place in what was known as “The Playhouse” at Three Rivers Farm. Married were Miss Virgilia Peterson, the daughter of prominent New York neurologist and poet Dr. Frederick Peterson, and Malcolm Ross, a novelist. “There is a sweet toned bell which rings the noon hour every day at Three Rivers,” wrote one reporter who covered the event. “Just before the bride left her room the bell rang joyously and again as the little Ford roadster with its gay red wheels dashed down the hill. The employees and servants on the estate were all present at the ceremony, and it is rumored that each one received a substantial gift from the bride.”

Also in attendance were the Russian actors Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, who were friends of Peterson’s and would ultimately live in what is called “The Red Mill” on Route 133 in Bridgewater. Boleslavsky and Ouspenskaya had recently left the Moscow Art Theatre where they had trained with Stanislavski, and had formed the American Laboratory Theater. Dr. Peterson was on the board of the theater, and had an old barn on his property converted to the theater for their use. The Laboratory Theater would be the wellspring out of which would come The Group Theater, and ultimately, The Actors Studio.

Dr. Frederick Peterson, a president of the American Neurological Association, was one of the most prominent physicians of his day, and is largely credited for the introduction of a more humane treatment of people suffering from mental illnesses. He introduced the practice of useful occupations (including gardening and music) as a means of therapy to hospitals like the Hudson River State Asylum. “Under Dr. Peterson’s influence the word ‘asylum’ dropped out of use and the word hospital has taken its place thus teaching that mental disorder is a sickness like any other—not a crime or a disgrace,” wrote a colleague, Victor G. Heiser, M.D., upon Peterson’s death in 1938.

Peterson, who was born in Minnesota and went to public schools, trained at the University of Buffalo and in Vienna and Munich, becoming a professor of pathology at the University of Buffalo in 1882. He would go on to become the first full professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Among his many activities was the chairmanship of the committee on religion and medicine, a group of physicians and clergymen who gathered to explore what medicine could do for religion, and vice versa.

Meanwhile, Peterson wrote and published four volumes of poetry, as well as Chinese lyrics under the name Pai Ta Shun, as well as a handful of songs with titles like “The Sweetest Flower that Blows” and “If You Were in My Garden Maiden.” He was also among the first, and certainly the most dedicated, collectors of Chinese art. His sizeable collection has since been disbanded and distributed to museums across the country.

There are many anecdotes about Peterson that reflect his prominence, but his association with Carl Gustav Jung and the founders of psychoanalysis is particularly illuminating. In 1907, Peterson spent two months with Jung at the Burgholzli Mental Hospital. Jung, Peterson, and their wives went on a tour of Normandy together. “Dr. Peterson proved a charming comrade,” wrote Jung’s secretary later. Also present during those days was A.A. Brill, who would become the first American translator of Sigmund Freud, and would be the cornerstone of the foundation of psychoanalysis in the United States.

Peterson had his reservations about such treatment. Nevertheless, wrote Dr. Ernest Jones, “he encouraged Brill … in New York and used to send him patients.” Peterson would later write to a colleague: “It is possible that I may be accused of having introduced psychoanalysis to this country. If I did, I apologize.”

Under Dr. Peterson’s appreciative eye, the abandoned farm at Three Rivers was restored, and indeed became a fashionable estate in keeping with the period. While the farm and orchards were restored to fruitful order, Peterson also introduced extensive gardens, the reclamation of which is a principal focus of Promisek today.

Peterson introduced many rare and exotic species of trees to the farm, some of which continue to thrive. Indeed, an expansive and aggressive stand of Chinese bamboo requires almost constant supervision.

The walled garden at the back of the main house was designed in 1921 for Dr. Peterson by Beatrix Farrand, the garden designer responsible for the New York Botanical Society Rose Garden, as well as Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Using Farrand’s original plans, Promisek has almost completed restoring this elegant garden to its former glory.

His wife, Antoinette Rotan Peterson, would describe her family’s embrace of the land this way: “In 1916, an intrepid explorer found his way to the top of the hill and like ‘a stout Cortez’ on the peak ‘stared silent’ on the beauty of the scene. The houses at this time were reduced to mere hovels. No one occupied them but occasional hunters and fishermen careless of broken windows, leaking roofs and ancient rubbish…. So Peterson, the explorer, fetched his family. They all turned in to clear away the rubbish—it took months of hard work and filled a ravine. By degrees the houses became human again, The Beatrix Farrand garden sprang up, and the possibilities of the place were revealed. It is not finished. It never will be in our time.

“Many things pleasant to hear have been heard about the changes at Three Rivers. None ever gratified us more than when on one Sunday afternoon, a very old man climbed the hill in a rattling buggy drawn by a lean old horse and stopped at the hitching post of bygone days. He said, ‘Dr. Peterson, I’ve knowed this place ever since I was a boy. I heard you’ve been improving things here and I’d like to see what you’ve done. Mebbe you know it and mebbe you don’t but we always called it the prettiest farm in Connecticut.’”

Bridgewater historian Mary Allen, who once worked for the Petersons, reports that Dr. Peterson often brought his patients to Three Rivers Farm for retreats. She remembers that the Petersons belonged to a local book club that reviewed current books, and that Dr. Peterson belonged to a local men’s social club; both clubs often met in the big house.

After Peterson’s death, the farm passed to his family. But it was soon impossible to keep up, and it passed into other hands, including the Korpers who also kept the farm as long as they were able. Eventually it was purchased by a New York real estate development company and was being prepared for subdivision when Dawn Douglas came across it, in much the same state that Peterson must have found it in 1916.

The word “Promisek” is loosely translated as “Land He Walks On Forever” or “Land that Goes on Forever.”

Early History

In the 28th of May, 1706, the inhabitants of the town of Woodbury made the sixth purchase of land in the area from the Pootatuck Indians. This purchase included most of what today includes Roxbury, Washington and Bridgewater. This area included what had been the Pootatuck “reservation” up until that time; a specific section of this reservation, west of the Shepaug River below the falls and including the current Promisek property was purchased separately by Dr. Ebenezer Warner in March of 1728.

The signatories to that deed included Manquash, Cockshure and Conkararum, in the presence of three other Pootatucks and three English witnesses.

CotsureMauquash

According to William Cochran’s The History of Ancient Woodbury (1854), based on “the known character” of the Woodbury residents involved, “it is to be presumed that these bargains were fairly conducted, and it does not appear that any disputes or of any account ever arose in regard to them between parties. In the order of Providence,” the author of that book continued, “one race had arisen and another had passed away” though “none should wonder that the poor native left this enchanting spot with sad, lingering steps.” Indeed, within three generations, the Pootatucks all but disappeared in this section of Connecticut, some of their number moving up toward Kent and joining what is now known as the Schaghticoke tribe.

In recent years, several archeological explorations have been conducted at Promisek in an attempt to discover the scale and significance of the Indian presence here. It is believed that because the land is at a place where three rivers meet, it was in all likelihood a vital meeting ground for the natives as they traveled. Some preliminary  archeological digs have been attempted. In 1993, University of Massachusetts graduate student in archeology Chester Mitchell made a preliminary exploration and wrote in a letter to Phyllis Beauvais: “I am convinced that Promisek, particularly the high summit area as well as the shore line at the rivers confluence falls into the category of a Sacred Place,” and suggested that further investigation was warranted

Dr. Ebenezer Warner

The original settler of the Promisek area,Dr. Ebenezer Warner, as the first of four generations of Warners who would live here, all with the first name Ebenezer, and all practicing their profession in the area. They were men, wrote the author of The History of Ancient Woodbury, “who are said ‘to take up their profession in their own head’ which The Shepaug in winter A photograph of the pool, circa 1930 meant that they were not regularly bred physicians. They used principally, combinations of roots, herbs and other domestic medicines in their practice, and several of them became distinguished for their success in treating disease. They are also said to have used freely the ‘gall of rattlesnakes.’”

Also prominent from this family was Seth Warner, grandson of the first Ebenezer, who would become one of the celebrated Green Mountain Boys, a group of Connecticut youths who went up to the area that is now Vermont and fought to keep it from becoming part of New York. The Green Mountain Boys fought prominently in the revolutionary War. In 1775, they captured Ticonderoga. In 1777, Colonel Seth Warner led the successful action against British forces at Bennington.

The property would pass to several owners over the next generations. In 1906, it was sold by the Ford family to the Conney family, and from that time on the farm and its buildings ran down until it was almost in ruins.

In 1916, while walking, the property was once again discovered—this time by New York physician Dr. Frederick Peterson.

The Future

The history of Promisek reveals that no one person can ever maintain the land over time as a personal domain.The land goes on forever, and we are merely stewards of it, given a time to come into relationship with a particular part of creation, and to learn from and be nourished by it.

The members of Promisek have gathered to listen to this small portion of the earth, and to honor those who have gone before us on this land. Based on a Benedictine monastic understanding, we believe that God—however God is understood or envisioned—speaks to us through creation, and that if we live honestly with this land, it will tell us what it wants from us, and what it can give us.

And because we believe in the sacredness of each human being, and are passionately committed to the development and revelation of every person, we are also engaged in a deep and penetrating dialogue with all faiths, with the knowledge that at the root of our experience there are common truths that we are obliged to discover.

Although we are interested in bringing back the farm to production at some point, and in the principles of community life, Promisek is not envisioned as a back-to-the-land movement, or as a romanticization of the past. Instead, we believe the land and the farm can help all of us respond to the contemporary struggles against isolation, fragmentation, and exploitive living.

Land gives us a concrete context for these struggles, because the problems are not abstract but focused instead—in this time, and in this place, with these people.