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The Pest House (1790s)

Welcome back, Monroe history lovers. This week’s history takes us up north to Stevenson on a hillside ridge overlooking the Housatonic River. Back in the fall of 2019 I received an unexpected text from Monroe native and resident George Lattanzi. George is a truly gifted metal detector and has made many significant historical finds hidden beneath the surface of Monroe’s soil. Don’t let anyone tell you metal detecting is easy. I can tell you from personal experience it is not. It takes a great deal of historic research, planning, and time, not to mention far more patience than I’ll ever have. George is simply the best at what he does. Our shared love and respect for Monroe history and our unique skillsets complement each other nicely. Simply put, we’re a team.

That unexpected text from George contained a number of photos from his most recent site of interest. I immediately followed up with a phone call to assess and discuss the photos. Was I seeing what he was seeing? What I saw appeared to be at least a half dozen gravestones. They were simple slabs of fieldstone with each top corner deliberately broken away to form a crude faceted arch. None of them had any apparent markings, just a consistent familiar shape. This confirmed George’s suspicions and he and I made a plan to visit the site together so I could get a firsthand look. It was quite a labored hike up the unforgiving hillside, but it was well worth the effort.

All the stones appeared to be deliberately aligned and set back an equal distance from the face of a granite ridge. There was evidence of a natural shallow recess along the ridge where bodies could have easily been laid in and buried in shallow graves. If our theory was correct, we wondered what could have been the cause of these multiple deaths. Were they the result of an early bloody battle with Native Americans, deadly disease or was it simply a forgotten family graveyard lost to time on the wooded hillside. At this point George and I knew it was time to escalate his find and share it with an expert on the subject.

Monroe is extremely fortunate to have a friend in Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni, our retired Connecticut State Archaeologist. Nick and his team have assisted the Monroe Historical Society on numerous occasions over the years and he has consulted with archaeologists around the globe. Even in his well-earned retirement he’s highly sought after for his skills. He’s as humble a man as you’re ever likely to meet but don’t be fooled by his casual uniform of blue jeans and a t-shirt. He’s the real deal. His energy and lust for life are infectious. Look him up on the Internet when you have the time. His resume is impressive, and that’s an understatement.

With a couple of detailed emails exchanged, we locked in a date for a hike to the site. George and Nick ascended the hillside and were back in under an hour. The official conclusion? George had discovered the burial ground of an early pest house. Wow! This was certainly not the first pest house Nick had seen in his career and all the familiar characteristics were present. There were the sparse remains of a small hospital building in the immediate area, and the bodies were apparently buried in haste in shallow graves with only the crude headstones marking their locations. There was no time or priority for even the simplest memorial engraving. Each grave was metal detected and there were no indications of any metal at all, not even an iron nail, a clear indication that no coffins were used during interment.

In 1899, Emily Twist, a student at the East Village School, wrote an essay on the early history of Monroe. She stated that there was an early pest house built on Bagburn Hill to inoculate our residents for various diseases, most especially smallpox. In Ed Coffey’s book, A Glimpse of Old Monroe, which is 50 years old this year, he included a brief history of pestilence and the need for a pest house in New Stratford. So, just where exactly is this site? We’ll, we’ve decided not to share the precise location out of respect for the important history that took place there. This was not an easy decision, but we wanted to share the details of the history in the event that you might happen upon the site one day while out for a walk in the woods.

I hope you appreciate this week’s history spotlight on Monroe’s pest house from the 1790s. The secluded location and the evidence at the scene represent an important concerted effort taken by our early settlers to contain the spread of deadly disease and protect our citizens. We thank George Lattanzi for his tireless ongoing search for Monroe history and Dr. Bellantoni for his time and expertise in helping us expand our knowledge. He is always welcome here as family. Please share this post with your family and friends to keep them up to date on Monroe’s rich early history and thank you for your continued interest. Until next time. Stay healthy!


Kevin Daly
Historian, Monroe Historical Society
Our Past is Always Present 

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