Anita Gelston Ballek (1930-2023)
A Life and Family Rooted in Local History
She was a great storyteller and champion of smart land use
By DAVID HOLAHAN
This story was first published in 2019 in East Haddam News. We've added photos and video. During her interview for the article, Anita freely confessed, “I have too many stories.” She did indeed have many, and they are eminently worth preserving. Be sure to scroll to videos and pictures following this article.
Anita Gelston Ballek couldn't wait to get into the cow barn. The year was 1934 and she was four years old. Her mother had finally relented, her mother who had been in the barn herself but once. Anita, alone among her sisters, was allowed to venture in.
“My father went to Ely's General Store, which was in the basement of the Goodspeed Opera House back then, and bought me little boots, overalls, and a jacket so I could go into the barn with him;' she recalled. “I would hold the cows tails, I would hold the lantern, I would sweep, I would do anything:”
LEARNING HOW TO GROW THINGS
That year she would begin to grow things, too. Parsley was her first crop and it went well, for a spell — her seeds sprouted earlier than her father's. But when George Gelston suggested to his daughter that it was time to thin out her row, she thought he was daft and shook her head. And before long, during a hot day in July, her crowded plants died, every one.
Anita and her brother Mort in 1932.
Anita Ballek has freely donated her time and largess to other causes, such as the Grange and the 4H Club chapter that she began and ran out of the farmhouse when her children were young. In 2017, she and her children donated the development rights to 55 acres of the farm on Maple Avenue to the Connecticut Farmland Trust. Another 10 acres will be added in the future, she said. The farm will always be a farm.
She does bookwork, trims plants, gives advice, and greets customers and old friends from her chair right by the entrance. As she has for her entire adult life, she continues to be involved in civic affairs, such as the East Haddam Land Trust and its scholarship fund, which bears her name. She was a founding board member of the Trust 40 years ago. Her granddaughter Alison Ballek was voted onto the board last month.
Anita was involved in the family-owned garden center she founded until shortly before her death at 93.
“That was my introduction to farming,” she said with a laugh. “My father let me make my own mistakes.”
If Anita Ballek made more, they haven't amounted to a hill of beans. At 89, she continues to work alongside three of her five children and four of her grandchildren, owners in common of Ballek's Garden Center, a thriving horticultural enterprise whose roots reach back to 1662. Yes, 357 years ago.
Anita at about five years old, around the time when she planted her first crop, parsley. It didn't go so well.
After her parsley fiasco, Anita got better at growing things, whether vegetables or flowers or eventually a business. By the time she was 11 years old, her truck patch had grown from one short row to nearly an acre, and she peddled (and pedaled) her crops to customers around town on her bicycle.
When she was the principal owner of the farm in the 1960s, she transformed it from a dairy operation to what it is today, an expansive garden center and landscaping operation. Goodbye cows, hello flowers. Her children were skeptical of the switch at first, but they came around.
Of the many things Anita Ballek has nurtured over the years, her bounteous harvest of stories is as impressive as the rest. Her tales go back to the very beginning of East Haddam (and before), back 11 generations on this side of the Atlantic, through precarious and prosperous times that shaped not only her family's life, but also the life of a community she has been devoted to.
There are so many good stories that only the cream of the crop made the cut. No room for the three times she almost drowned, the burst appendix and the three weeks she spent in a coma, her bout with scarlet fever, or the car crash that nearly killed her and her mother on their way to church.
Here's a good one. She is four years old and has been invited by none other than William Gillette to take a ride on his Seven Sisters Railroad, which meandered from his fabled faux castle all around his hilly hundred-acre realm. He is the engineer and she's sitting on the grand thespian’s lap. It doesn't go well. In one spot, the track cantilevers out from a cliff high above the Connecticut River.
A 3-ring binder containing her family stories.
“He held me so tight and I didn't like his beard, it smelled like pipe tobacco,” she recalled. “I was squirming about and my father looked at me with hard eyes. Gillette never asked me to go for another ride.”
FROM MUCH HADHAM TO EAST HADDAM
This 85-year-old tale is modern, in the scheme of things. Others date to the dawn of East Haddam, when her ancestor Nicholas Ackley left Much Hadham in England for the New World. He was 19 years old in 1658 and poling his ship loaded with seed and men and farm animals up the Connecticut River near Hartford, when he spied a pretty blonde and blue-eyed maiden running along the shore and waving at the newcomers. He was smitten.
When Anita's father took her at the age of four to meet William Gillette and ride on his railroad, she was not impressed and hated the way he smelled.
Ackley and Hanna Ford Mitchell would marry and spend a few years in Hartford, living where the Old Statehouse now sits, before venturing downriver in a canoe looking for a place to cultivate. Hartford had been prone to flooding and they were looking for a high place to settle beyond the reach of the spring freshet.
“She was pregnant and she had already had four children, including twins, and they found a high place along the river and stopped there; she gave birth in the wilderness while her husband was out surveying,” Anita said.
Ackley was a surveyor and King Charles II of England was giving out royal grants to enterprising citizens who could map out, acquire, keep, and clear land for farming. “Hanna was born in Connecticut and I think she must have known something about how to negotiate [with Native Americans],” Anita said. Ackley did successfully make arrangements with Machimoodus, leader of the local Wangunk tribe, and he surveyed 104 square miles of land that stretched from what is now East Haddam into Haddam and part of Durham. The boundaries of East Haddam are based on his survey.
If the Wangunks were accommodating, other New England tribes were not happy with the growing colonial population. In 1675, King Philip's War convulsed much of the region outside of Connecticut, with heavy casualties on both sides. King Philip was the son of Massasoit, who had greeted the Pilgrims in 1620.
But before that, Ackley and his wife (and their newborn) canoed back to Hartford to get supplies and enlist fellow colonists to join them in settling the wonderful place they had found. Seven families would take and clear land on the east side of the river, and so East Haddam began.
A souvenir balloon from Much Hadham in England, which Anita displayed during a 2021 recording session with Ken Simon. In 1658, her ancestor Nicholas Ackley left that village to seek a new life in the New World. He ended up in Connecticut, later founding East Haddam with seven families from Hartford.
A KEEPER OF TOWN AND FAMILY HISTORY
Sitting in a chair in her post-and-beam home, which is open and high-ceilinged like a barn, Anita Ballek can name the people in the reams of photographs spread out across her long farm table. She knows the name of the hired man, Jerome Jones, in the 1929 photo with her father, George Gelston, and some of his relatives who are posing in front of the red barn — the barn that still stands and still is supported by a beam of American chestnut that was part of the first barn built in East Haddam, in 1662.
Anita has done her research on the family history, including traveling with her children to Much Hadham in England, where the locals know all about Nicholas Ackley. They talk about her ancestor, who founded East Haddam 357 years ago, as if they knew him and he had only just left.
She draws as well on oral history, explaining, “Before there was radio and television, there was supper, and my father would tell stories.”
Anita has traced the Gelston side of her family all the way back to eleventh-century England. They followed William the Conqueror over from Normandy.
They were jewelers by trade and doing quite well until they ran afoul of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, she said. One branch migrated to Northern Ireland and from there hopscotched across the Atlantic to America in the early 1700s, making their way to East Haddam just prior to the Revolutionary War. The Ballek line immigrated later, journeying from Bohemia in the 1850s to New Jersey, where they established a button factory (being button-makers by trade). Before long some of them journeyed north to East Haddam.
Like virtually all of Anita Ballek's ancestors, Nicholas Ackley was a hard-working individual. In addition to having 12 children to support, he frequently had to row across the Connecticut River from Haddam, where he had set up housekeeping, to take care of his eastern holdings atop a high flat plain in what would eventually become East Haddam. Life was not easy. His first wife died in childbirth and he had to find another quickly, which he did. Anita is descended from Miriam Moore, his second wife.
TRIUMPHS OVER CHALLENGING TIMES
But if the 1660s were challenging times down on the farm, the 1900s weren't far behind. In 1925, the farmhouse burned down and while George Gelston, his wife Marie, and their children spent the night at a friend's house in the village, someone stole their chickens, all 500 of them. Hard upon that came the tuberculosis scare and the farm's cows tested positive and were destroyed (without compensation). It turned out to be a false positive, Anita said.
Undaunted, her father traveled to England and brought back breeds of cattle and pigs that became the basis of his new herds, and also were let out to stud.
Then came the Depression and the 1938 hurricane. “The hurricane blew all the shingles off the barn and the house, and you couldn't get to town for three days and by that time, there were no shingles left on the East Coast,” Anita recalled. “The hay was getting wet and wet hay will combust — there was no plastic then — so they had to take the hay out of the barn and put it in stacks. We were out of power for six weeks and my father had just installed [electric] milking machines and expanded his herd and now he had to milk them all by hand. My father had a terrible time. And Brock Hall [Dairy] wouldn't take milk that wasn't cooled. So we fed the milk to the animals and then had to dump most of it onto the fields.”
She added that they had to place pots all over the house to catch leaks and that she did her homework by candlelight. The shingles didn't arrive until spring.
Then came the war. The domestic labor force was depleted and Anita was enlisted to be a scullery maid at her uncle’s restaurant in Centerbrook, while keeping up with her farm chores as well. She was 12 and not happy working away from the farm, but the money she earned over the next three years helped to pay the mortgage. They almost lost the farm during the war, she said.
She also remembers, what with gas being rationed, it was possible to get in the family car, a Durant, give it a shove from atop Maple Avenue and coast all the way down to the Swing Bridge, free as a bird.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
Growing up, Anita Ballek went places other girls didn't venture, like inside the cow barn. She also was the first girl to enter the local Future Farmers of America program, which still exists at Nathan Hale-Ray High School. In 1946, she got to go to the big FFA convention in Kansas City, although the three girls among the thousands of boys in attendance were not allowed in the main meeting. Today the FFA gender balance is about even, according to Anita.
There were other handicaps for females back then: banks wouldn't lend to a women without a man's signature. But Anita got by. She loved life on the farm even when money was scarce. “There is something about the lifestyle; farmers don't care if they're not getting big bucks. It's such a great place to raise kids and the kids get this work ethic and they go on to be successful because they don't think they can just put their feet up on a desk and get a big salary. It's hard work and they all know that and they expect to do it.”
It should be noted that Anita Ballek wasn't always toiling down on the farm. In addition to England, she has traveled all over, often with her children in tow. The only continents she hasn't visited are Antarctica and South America.
Her interest in the greater world extended to opening up her home and farm to exchange students, 16 all told, from Mexico and France and Japan and all over. She sponsored Jorge Sanchez's application to become a United States Citizen. She also visited some of them on her travels over the years.
But for all the wonderful places she has been, Anita Ballek's greatest love is for the place where she was born — in the farmhouse right across from the garden center.
She loves the place where she nurtured a life for herself and for so many others. In addition to her children and grandchildren, generations of East Haddam teenagers have learned the value of hard work during the summers spent down on the farm.
And if one is going to work hard, a farm isn't a bad place to do it. Anita Ballek remembers when she was a child, before all the trees grew back, how she could look out her window and see for miles in every direction, all the way to Meriden, to Castle Craig nearly 20 miles away. She could see “river cotton,” the ribbon of mist that rises like a holy veil above the Connecticut River on cold clear spring mornings. It seemed like she was living on top of the world.
She remembers, too, walking along the beam of the old north barn, looking down, spreading her arms, and jumping into the piles of hay below. What better place is there to land?
The Ballek farmland was named a Connecticut Century Farm in 1990 by the CT Agricultural Information Council to recognize its founding in 1662 and its present-day success.
Clean Soil, Fresh Air, and Pure Water Were Her Passions
Anita shared her favorite stories in this 2019 interview, along with her observations on farming, family, the ecosystem, town history, and community connections.
A Life Well Lived on the Land She Loved
Anita Ballek's life was inextricably linked with the history and practice of agriculture in East Haddam. She was brought up on the farm property that her ancestors had acquired in the 1660s, thanks to a land grant from England's King Charles II. A 1947 graduate of Hale-Ray, she planned to become a dairy farmer, earning a 1951 BS from UConn in Dairy Husbandry with a minor in Chemistry and Genetics. After graduation, she married Bob Ballek and set out to rebuild the family ailing dairy business. Over 10 years, she developed the herd to provide high-butterfat milk, which was then in great demand and sold at a premium. When industry consolidation and changing tastes devastated family dairy farms, she sold the herd of 150 cows and started Ballek's Garden Center in 1969. Over the next 50 years, she built the garden center with her family into a prosperous business, while advocating for agriculture and the environment.