The first question was answered unequivocally in the affirmative. “Hampton was a great place to raise children,” Pat Donahue said without hesitation. The country was a better setting than the suburbs for a variety of reasons, none the least of which was that there were not a lot of opportunities for “mischief”. In fact, she was a little surprised to hear of a springtime ritual a member of the audience relayed that was, allegedly, the Donahue kids’ idea: to throw your shoes to the opposite shore of the Little River and cross the slippery rocks of the frigid rapids in order to retrieve them. Pat hadn’t heard of that one.
She was fully aware of the importance of the Little River, which courses through their property, to the family’s life, and calls it “her favorite place in Hampton”. The Donahue’s kids learned to swim there before they were in first grade. Her husband Jack later dug a pond in the yard. Summers, the neighborhood children would spend afternoons swimming in the Donahue’s pond while their mothers sat and socialized. Pat calls this her favorite memory of Hampton – time at the pond.
Hampton provided an idyllic life for their four children, with its abundance of fresh air and freedom. To the question — were there lots of chores? – Pat recalls, “not very many”. But that didn’t mean they weren’t busy. They played outside all of the time. For a while, Pat’s mother-in-law lived with them and would instruct errant youngsters who dawdled indoors to, “Get outside! You’re not house plants!”
Pat grew up on a large farm – the Dino farm in Scotland, where she had a horse. It was her responsibility to bring the cows in for milking from a pasture on the Little River, which would beckon her to stop and swim in the summer. Blueberries grew across the street, and once when Pat picked the crop, her brother convinced her of the opportunity to partner in a sales enterprise — and wanted half the proceeds in return for the idea.
After Pat and Jack married, they bought the Donahue family farm. Jack realized four years into their marriage that he didn’t really like farming. He purchased a dump truck, sold the cows, and started a very successful construction business. “Jack was a hard worker,” Pat says, “and provided his family with a good life.” Pat was the bookkeeper for the business. Their property encompassed such an enormous share of Howard Valley, an audience member noted it was often referred to as “Donahue Valley”. They built their home across from the original farmhouse. Jack was the youngest of six sisters, and a couple of them built homes on the property, then nephews and nieces, eventually children and grandchildren, and a log cabin for Pat’s mother, Mrs. Dino. The Town rents a portion of their acreage for the community social center, also known as “the Transfer Station”.
Howard Valley is the oldest section of town, and old foundations, old stone walls, and old mills are still there, Pat relayed. It is home to the Cowhantic Cliffs, the ABC schoolhouse, and the Howard Valley Church where, according to legend, the pews face the doors so the parishioners could guard against “Indian attacks”, Pat said. Once when someone was clearing fields, Jack was asked to use his bulldozer to remove an enormous rock from South Bigelow Road. It still stands there, and some people think it’s a monument. Native Americans refer to it as a “Mother Earth” rock for its form.
There weren’t a lot of houses in Howard Valley in those early years, and there was less diversity of wildlife. Pat can’t recall coyotes, fisher cats or bears in the area back then. Family life was different, too, simpler. Electronics, and the world of instant news, has changed the way we live, she said.
As a young couple, Pat and Jack frequently went square dancing, from place to place, at the Little River Grange, the upstairs of Rucki’s General Store, and the Echo Grange. Square dances were social occasions, and there were several in surrounding towns, Pat remembers, with live bands, fluffy skirts, and an auctioneer who served as a caller.
Dot Holt “kept everyone organized with everything, especially the Grange”, Pat said. “She would visit with a list of things for you to do, and you would do it.”
The Post Office also housed the General Store, which was very convenient. Pat remembers once when she used her son John’s dime when she was nine cents short, and he embarrassed her by crying, “She took my money!” Hampton Springs was a “very different” establishment – with cats walking on the counter and calves in the store where it was warmer in winter. The owner, Pat recalls, was “very different”, too. He would bounce checks frequently and say, “I bet that bank would pay me $1000 if I took my money out of there!” Eventually, he always caught up. McDermott’s Hampton Hill Garage was another place to “hang out”, for the guys only, not the girls.
The Catholic Church also enjoyed an active social life. There were lots of families, everyone sat in their own pews, there was a children’s choir. A lot of the churches are closing, Pat said, including St. Margaret’s in Scotland, whose parishioners are now in Hampton, but at a recent breakfast, the Bishop assured that Our Lady of Lourdes would “never close – you support yourself”. Communicants at the Church have been very proactive in their endeavors to keep its doors open, Pat said.
One institution that has remained the same is the Memorial Day Parade. For several years, members of the Donahue family have ridden in Jack’s 1936 Chevy Coupe. Years ago, the children decorated a flat-bed for a 4-H float. Walt and Phyllis Stone kept the 4-H very much alive in town, Pat said, and the kids went to the 4-H camp in Abington. Pat’s daughter Gerry returned from horse camp lamenting that she “didn’t know we were poor”, because of all the campers with fancy outfits and equipment. Pat explained that there were people who were richer and poorer than them. “You’re in the middle,” she told her.
Years ago, Pat took classes in early American tray decorating with Mrs. Roure, followed by a class in Canterbury, then art lessons at UConn. She has been painting ever since, and has taught adult art classes, though, she clarifies, instructors can’t really “teach” art, they can only impart a love for it, and help aspiring artists learn “how to see”. Her favorite thing to paint is landscapes and Hampton is her favorite subject. She has depicted the Natchaug and the Little River, the reservoir, Brown’s Hill Swamp, Hall’s Pond, and Diana’s Pool, where a ranger once ordered a group of artists to leave because “only fishing” was allowed. They argued, to no avail, that they were painting, not swimming, and Pat suggested, “Let’s go get rods!”
She prefers large paintings to small, oil to water colors, looks for lights and shadows and prefers plein air painting, though it is increasingly difficult to drag her easel to places she wants to paint. Once she was depicting the beautiful fields beyond the pond when someone came to cut hay. He left his equipment, and she left them in the painting. “Certain things attract you,” she said. She remembers one of the owners of the old Bennet property who purchased her painting of the Donahue’s trucks because it reminded him of Hampton.
Her art is displayed at the Burnham Hibbard House, Town Hall, on two of the window cornices at the Community Center – one of the Little River and the other of the Pearl farm, and in the pastoral scene on the Bicentennial Banner that helped us celebrate our town’s 200th anniversary. One of her paintings is now proudly displayed in her grandson’s home. At 3’ X 5’ it proved too cumbersome and was “thrown in a corner” until it interested Kyle and his wife. So Pat worked on it all winter long and now this picture of the operations of a gravel pit “is one of the neatest paintings – very angled,” she says, “but what a job it was.” Art also lives on in her granddaughter, Kristin, who was intrigued with Pat’s studio as a child. Kristin won awards at Norwich Free Academy and a scholarship to the University of Arts in Philadelphia, and is now a commercial artist.
Besides painting, in her spare time Pat participates in senior activities in area centers, yoga in Willimantic and mahjong in Chaplin. Mostly women play, Pat says, and recently someone was overheard saying – “Oh, a man? Everyone perked up!”
Her family, too, keeps her active. Several children and grandchildren still live in “Donahue Valley”, not to mention those who visit once or twice a week, she says. And so Pat’s random recollections conclude with where they began: family.