Once upon a time, there was a charming house, set back from the main path of the village. Fruit trees and
farmland surrounded it. From the early 18th century, busy families lived there, and over the years
added on to the house, doubling its size. One of its owners made the house into a more formal dwelling, with
paneled walls, parquet floors, and elegant décor. It was a showpiece!
In the 1940s, the large mansion began to fall upon hard times. It was too big and costly for the elderly owners, who couldn't maintain it. The yard was overgrown, and the outbuildings were in disrepair.
Their bank foreclosed on the house, and looked for a buyer. But who would buy a huge house needing lots of work? A brave young family looked into buying the house – they needed enough room for themselves, an elderly parent, and a small business.
The husband was about to be drafted and wanted his family and business settled in one place, before he left. In 1943 they decided to buy the mansion, with its three acres of wild grounds. The couple worked on the house and three-acres of yard, to bring them back to life. Their three children were born and grew up there, while the house stepped into the 20th century, with modern fixtures and amenities.
By the 1960s, the family had had enough of maintaining such a large place. They wanted a simpler residence, and looked into selling the house to the town for use as a library, college, or other public building.
Sadly, this did not happen, and the next owner tore down the house, which had stood in its glory for over two and a quarter centuries. Many local residents were outraged at the demolition of such a beautiful place. A public-spirited group, incensed by the destruction, organized the Manchester Historical Society in September 1965 to advocate for the preservation of historic resources.
The house at 175 East Center Street is gone except in memory and photographs. Today, the Ivy Manor apartments stand where Benjamin Cheney built his farmhouse.
Benjamin deeded the house to his son, Timothy Cheney, in 1757. Timothy (1731-1795), and his older brother were clockmakers, and had a clock factory in the area of today's Center Springs Park. Timothy was also a farmer, gristmill operator, soldier in the local militia, and a captain of the militia during the Revolutionary War. Timothy built and moved to the "Cheney Homestead," on today's Hartford Road, about 1785. But other Cheneys lived in the house near the center of what would become the town of Manchester in 1823.
John P. Cheney (1868-1959), known as Jack, was the last family member to live in this house. He and his wife had four children, and oversaw several changes to the house. Early in the 19th century, Jack worked with noted architect Charles Adams Platt, also a Cheney family member, to renovate and expand the house, transforming it from a farmhouse into an elegant residence.
Jack was famous for his nine-hole golf course, located on the site of today's high school grounds. According to the late writer and historian John Johnson, Jack served liquor in the shingled Orford Golf Clubhouse during Prohibition. Other sources say that Jack had his cellar fitted out for a thriving alcohol business. Trucks could drive to the back of the house without being seen from the street.
By 1942, the house was in disrepair, inside and outside. Only three acres remained with the house from the original acreage of Orford Farm. Potential buyers, Edgar and Evelyn Clarke, married only two and a half years, looked at the house long and hard. They were concerned about all the work they would need to do, but they were in an unusual situation, and needed a place. Edgar Clarke had taken over the Clarke insurance business from his father, and needed an office. Edgar's mother lived with the young couple, and they wanted private quarters for her. Since Edgar had been drafted, the couple took the plunge, bought the house, and then spent years fixing and furnishing it.
Their three children were born between 1946 and 1951, and played on what remained of the "golf lots." They attended the "new" high school, which was built during the years that the Clarkes lived at East Center Street.
The house was featured in a 1962 Manchester Herald "Heralding Homes" column, with pictures showing elegant woodwork and moldings, typical of architect C.A. Platt's attention to detail.
Evelyn Clarke, who still lives in Manchester, says, "The house was beautiful. It was really a lovely lovely home on a lovely spot." Although Evelyn was busy with her children, she was also involved in many community cause , and was instrumental in setting up the Penny Saver Thrift Shop, a fundraiser for the Manchester hospital auxiliary. She and Edgar used their home to host hospital open houses, receptions, and bridge parties.
"C. Elmore Watkins, who was President of the Board of the hospital, used to call us and ask if we'd host an event at our house. We were young, and we had plenty of time and energy, and we'd say OK. When we hosted bridge parties, they were always sell-outs. It was all very nicely done, right down to the ‘white gloves and hats.'"
The house was a lot of work, even for someone with time and energy.
"Each spring, my mother-in-law and I would iron the organdy curtains – 47 pairs for the windows in the main house. And there were more windows in the back ell, but we didn't put organdy curtains there."
Those who remember the house, including Town Historian Vivian Ferguson, say that the house was just beautiful, inside and out. Those who founded the Historical Society agree that it was a great loss to the town when the Timothy Cheney house was torn down.
[Webmaster’s note: Evelyn (Peterson) Clarke died October 30, 2006. She was predeceased by her husband of 45 years, Edgar Clarke (1916-1985), president of Clarke Insurance Agency.]
Susan Barlow is director emerita of the Manchester Historical Society. This article was written for the former "Manchester Life" magazine in 2005.