So who exactly was Donald Grant Mitchell?
Born April 12, 1822 in Norwich, Connecticut, Donald Grant Mitchell first arrived in New Haven in 1837 to attend Yale College, from where he graduated Valedictorian of his class of 1841. His education was steeped in the iconic writers, politicians and philosophers of old. He was truly a Renaissance man, learning Greek and Latin, absorbing all the great historical teachings, receiving the best of classical educations. He began his writings long before his scholarship at Yale began, but once there, literary pursuits became his chief interest, particularly oratory and composition. As a student, he contributed no less than 160 printed pages to the Yale Literary Magazine, which he preserved for himself in a little green leather-bound volume he labeled “A Memorial of College Follies”.
Always shy and retiring, Mitchell was also in poor health during much of his youth and early adulthood. Left an orphan at an early age with the death of first his father and not long after, his mother, Mitchell withdrew for two years following his Yale graduation, to his mother’s ancestral farm soaking up nature, hunting, fishing, living a life of essential solitude in the rural beauty of Salem, Connecticut. During this time, he kept current with all the literary studies of the practical and aesthetic aspects of agriculture as well as contributed to published journals of the same – even winning a silver medal for plans he submitted to the New York Agricultural Society in 1843. Recognizing that his charge was becoming increasingly comfortable in his remote existence, his guardian, Gen. William Williams, suddenly secured a secretariat position for him with the American Consulate in Liverpool – and within 24 hours he was on his way to Europe.
While abroad, Mitchell began contributing recurrent installments to literary periodicals back in the US about his extensive travels in Europe’s great cities, its charming rural environs and its untouched natural destinations. His travel writings earned him a fair bit of recompense as well as notoriety and upon his return to the US, the publication of a volume of these collected works became his first book, “Fresh Gleanings” in the summer of 1847. It was met with favorable reviews and was a great and satisfying success, launching a long and gratifying writing career. He adopted the pen name “Ik Marvel”, drawn from two of his favorite authors.
After marriage and more time abroad, Mitchell located his ideal farmstead back in NH in 1855. Upon purchase, he created one of the most beautiful spaces in the city at his “Edgewood” farm on Forest Road. His farm fulfilled all his worthiest dreams of the ideal home, laid out in the picturesque fashion that he had been planning in his mind for years. Upon its purchase he immediately set about refining the structure and layout of the farm, building stone walls and rustic gateways. He added numerous out-buildings for livestock and paths and roadways across his sloping uplands. He was particularly delighted to share some of these spaces with the public two days a week, opening his private roadways to visitors at a time when there were no public parks.
“His interests were many. He was author, editor, practical farmer, landscape gardener, art critic; and in all these activities he attained distinction. He is known chiefly perhaps as a man of letters; yet he always hesitated to call himself a professional author, and stoutly maintained that his contributions to the practical and aesthetic phases of rural life was his finest achievement.”Waldo Dunn, The Life of Donald Grant Mitchell – Ik Marvel 1922
Mitchell’s fortunes waivered throughout much of his middle years. He had assumed debt with the initial purchase of the farm and added to it with each additional acreage that he acquired, eventually owning 360 acres in all. At one point, Mrs. Mitchell sold some of the diamonds which had comprised her dowry to help pay for the expansion. Mitchell assumed new editorial work, which necessitated him traveling to NYC three days each week, leaving NH at 5:30 am, not returning til late in the evening. And eventually was forced to expand his lecture circuit to address the debt problem, spending extended winter months on the road touring the Midwest and beyond. It was taxing for a man of his diminished physical state but he had little choice to keep his beloved Edgewood. With the onslaught of the Civil War the country experienced such fluctuating economies and it impacted him as well. In 1865 Mitchell drew up plans to sell off northwestern parts of the farmland, proposing “Villa Sites” for large luxurious homes. But fortunately, he never had to resort to these measures. And he continued to expand the farm, adding acreage when he could. In 1872 he had constructed the fine half-timbered and stone and brick homestead that still exists today.
“He was greatest as a man. He lived a life of singular simplicity and purity, a life free from ostentation and affectation, a life dedicated to the highest ideals. He sought the realities of life and never strained after the possession of its shams and vain shows. He had great courage and an invincible spirit. Although never physically strong, he wrought more than the work of a strong man. Never obtrusive, always modest, free from the false standards which have always blighted life, he was a type of the best that is possible in the way of living. Without seeking a following, he gained one, and has left a deep and abiding impression upon the world. He lives in the hearts of the people whose lives he touched to nobler living; in the beauty which his words and deeds have incited others to create.”Waldo Dunn, The Life of Donald Grant Mitchell – Ik Marvel 1922
Mitchell honed his landscape architectural and farming skills at Edgewood and went on to work with the New Haven Parks Commission to lay out, plan and design much of the NH Parks system (including Edgewood Park, East Rock Park, Fort Hale Park, Bayview Park and others). It should be noted that his skills were many. Not only did Mitchell lay out these parks but he designed private gardens and parks in other cities as well. He was an inveterate map-maker creating spectacular hand-drawn, hand-colored masterpieces of both existing and proposed public spaces in New Haven. Many of his maps show parts of New Haven at a time when it was much more rural than we know it now.
Today, the Westville branch of the NH Free Public Library, bears the name Donald Grant Mitchell. It was founded following his death in 1908. Multiple original maps, letters and other memorabilia are now housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library as well as the New Haven Museum’s Whitney Library and other documents are contained in the Connecticut Room of the main Ives building of the New Haven Free Public Library. Four buildings from the Edgewood farm — including the Mitchell family’s main homestead residence, the primary barn and the farmer’s cottage, still exist in Westville. All are presently used as private residences, the main house being broken up into ten apartment units.
“Wherever he happened to be, in cities at home or abroad, or tossing on the ocean, always the voices of the country were calling to him; he was ever dreaming of a cozy home surrounded by trees and flowers, and made beautiful by the simplicities of life. Edgewood was an embodiment of his ideal of beauty in process of accomplishment.”
“His authorized publishers sold well over a million copies of his books. It is estimated that sales of unauthorized editions far exceeded that.”Waldo Dunn, The Life of Donald Grant Mitchell – Ik Marvel 1922