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Family Trees

Our nostalgic summer tour of the Bartlett Arboretum & Gardens, led by Robert Bartlett to commemorate the 100 years since his grandparents purchased the North Stamford property that would soon be part of a world-renowned natural preserve

The front door is swollen shut like a new widow’s eyes, so Robert Bartlett lets himself in the back way. It has been many years since he’s visited his family’s homestead for any length of time. The years have painted everything with the patina of a familiar, yet unfamiliar look.

But when he sits down at the dining room table, he remembers what it was like when his grandparents, Francis A. and Myrtle Bartlett, lived in the little farmhouse that is now home to the Bartlett Arboretum & Gardens. His grandmother sat at the head of the table, just as he does now.

“The dinners were very formal,” Robert says. “It was sort of like the Downton Abbey experience; there were always fresh-cut flowers, and my grandmother would ring a little bell for each new course to be served.”

The blushing blooms came from her cutting garden, and the fresh eggs were gathered from the chicken coop at the end of the field. Fruit—apples, pears, plums and apricots—was plucked from the branches of the orchard’s trees. And the vegetables were grown on the property. “Across the street, where the conifer garden is, they had a wildflower garden, which was just absolutely beautiful,” he says. “All around the house, there were well-maintained gardens. It was like you lived in a fairyland.”

Robert’s memories, the tree rings of his life, take on added meaning as the arboretum celebrates the centennial of the Bartlett family homestead. It was in 1913 that Dr. Francis A. Bartlett, who founded The F.A. Bartlett Tree Expert Company in 1907, bought the first parcel of the 200-acre property that would eventually feature his world-renowned arboretum. He used the estate to study trees, including the seeds of exotic specimens sent him by the U.S. government, and he set up the arboretum in 1920.

Through the decades, the Stamford-based business that brought the world the disease-resistant Bartlett Chestnut grew in size and reputation. Today it has 1,800 employees who work in 100 offices in four countries. Robert’s father, R. A., joined the company in 1937, and in 1961 Robert took the helm. Dr. Bartlett died in 1963.

Robert will never forget the date—the grandfather he loved passed away the day before President Kennedy was assassinated. “I used to work at the arboretum in the summers, and when I got older, toward the end of my grandfather’s life, I used to come here,” he says. “We would sit outside and have long chats about things. Most of the time, he talked about his life and hoped the company would go on.

Dr. Bartlett need not have worried. Robert did, indeed, continue the family tradition, becoming president of Bartlett in 1974. But by that time, the home and property that made his childhood so magical had slipped from his grasp forever. In 1965, the state had bought the estate, preserving the original sixty-two-acre farm. The following year, the arboretum made its public debut. Nearly three decades later it was transferred to the University of Connecticut at Stamford, and in 2001, the City of Stamford assumed control, expanding the arboretum grounds to ninety-one acres.

But as Robert walks around the house, he can’t help but see it as it used to be. There’s a vase of silk roses on the dining room sideboard. They remind him again of the bouquets his grandmother made. In those days, a gardener and groundskeeper lived on the property. Two to three other people helped take care of the grounds in the winter, and high school and college students rounded out the garden staff in the summer. A butler/chauffeur and maid/cook completed the household staff. “It was always immaculately maintained,” Robert says. “It looked like some English lord’s estate.”

And Robert remembers every leaf. There used to be a sugar maple by the front door. Robert can still visualize it, and to him the space looks rather bare without it. When he looks out the picture window of the living room, he can practically smell the roses and see the weeping willow and the green melon-like fruit of the pawpaw tree. Back then, there was so much greenery that it hid the caretaker’s cottage. Actually, he’d rather not see it now; a pine tree downed by Hurricane Sandy clipped its end, and he doesn’t know when or whether there will be enough money to repair it.

“My grandparents’ house is not grand,” he says, “but the grounds make it so.”

Robert shakes off the tug of the past and heads for the back door. When he gets to the kitchen, he stops again. There used to be a table in the corner. Remember the fresh eggs? Well, what really made them good was the Thomas whole-wheat toast. “I can still taste them,” he says. “My grandmother was a fabulous cook. She used to make frozen raspberry mousse from berries picked from the property. And she made mincemeat and apple and pumpkin pies.”

That big empty field right outside the kitchen, that’s where his grandfather used to grow the test trees. When Robert's father and his aunt were born, Dr. Bartlett planted a tree for each of them. The people—and the trees—are no longer alive, and that makes Robert somewhat sad.

The rain has been pounding the ground like a tom-tom, so Robert tours the arboretum in his forest-green Range Rover, something he does occasionally. He begins by passing the Frank B. Heisinger tree, planted as a memorial to his cousin, and heads toward the Mehlquist Rhododendron Collection, just starting to burst into color. Among the rhododendrons are gaps where trees once stood. Sandy broke them like chopsticks.

Robert doesn’t know precisely when he first fell head over leaf for horticulture, but farming is rooted in the Bartlett family’s DNA, going all the way back to the 1600s, when his ancestors arrived in America from Europe and took to the soil in Massachusetts. “When I was growing up, every kid had a garden,” he says. “We had to be dragged inside. Torrential rain, three feet of snow, nothing could keep us in.

“We have vegetable and flower gardens at my own house, where I live now, and I would come up here to do projects. I planted a Bartlett Chestnut in the yard of my house; it’s still there. And I planted roses in the shade of the woods—I’ve never known any better.”                                                              

We drive past the towering Metasequoia Dawn redwood, a rarity that his grandfather got from China, and Bartlett notes that where the greenhouse stands, there used to be a walled-in area for his grandfather’s tent for company meetings. He points out the hardy rubber tree. Its leaves, you know, contain latex. You can feel their sticky bounciness when you pull them.

At the pond, there’s a gurgling waterfall, but Robert thinks out loud of past winters, when he used to skate on its silver surface.

The purple garden and the golden garden are gone. So is the poor man’s hedge Dr. Bartlett made of saplings of several species, trimming them into shape. And there used to be lady slippers, hundreds of them turning their cheery faces to the sky. If only they were all still here. For Robert, coming back is bittersweet because the people aren’t the only ones who have vanished into the mist of time. “Through the years, they have removed so many of the trees that really were treasures because people didn’t understand their provenance or how they were obtained, and because they didn’t look the best, they decided to take them out and let a common tree that looked good survive,” he says. “More than half the trees that were here when my grandfather passed away are no longer here. Some of them died naturally, but there’s never been a program of replanting or expanding the collection.”

It pains Robert to think about this. “I don’t want this to become just another park or public garden; Stamford has enough of them,” he says. “Few cities have an arboretum, and the Bartlett is larger than the one Dallas has.”

As the arboretum enters its second century, it will remain true to its roots, says Paul Travaglino, board president of the Bartlett Arboretum Association, which manages the property. “It will always be an arboretum first and foremost and we want to turn it back into an educational and research facility just as it was when the Bartletts were here. During the centennial, our quest is to bring 100 trees to the arboretum. They will include notable specimens that build on the Bartlett collection and legacy. Some will be exotic; some will complement the specimens that are here.” There will be room for flowers, too. “The Bartletts also had gardens when they lived here,” he adds. “But ours are more compartmentalized. I personally love to see trees, but we’re trying to balance things out by adding flowers to attract as many people as possible.”

Robert prefers to see the leaves for this, his very personal forest. He points to the Charter Oak, a treasure that few arboretums possess. The white oak, a symbol of American independence and Connecticut’s state tree, stands sentinel at the exit, waving good-bye to visitors. Robert is proud to note that it’s one of three grandchildren of the original, which dates to the twelfth century.

Before Robert leaves, he stops by a stump. This is all that is left of the original disease-resistant Bartlett Chestnut, which was planted from a seedling by his grandfather in 1916. The killer blight of 1904 nearly obliterated the species, and when the U.S. government got twenty-four seedlings from Asia in 1916, it sent two to the Bartlett Company. This, the only survivor, was struck down by a tree felled by Hurricane Sandy. Still, when Robert studies the strident sprouts, he sees hope, “We’ll take cuttings and see what happens,” he says.                                         

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