Home » The great elm is gone, but the Buckleys' Great Elm is still growing

The great elm is gone, but the Buckleys' Great Elm is still growing

SHARON —Priscilla Buckley’s casual hospitality would put the most skittish at ease. She is lively and in good spirits and in good shape despite her 85 years, and when she smiles her eyes brighten. Her vocabulary is peppered with phrases like "grand" and she often says enthusiastically, "Isn’t that something?"

Buckley’s sister, Jane (Buckley) Smith, died this month of age-related illness (she was 82), leaving only three Buckleys on the family’s Great Elm estate in Sharon. In the days after the memorial service and visits from the extended family, she reminisced about the place Sharon played in her family’s life, and speculated on what the future might look like here.

William F. Buckley Sr. (whom Buckley still refers to as "Father") bought the property, which is at the intersection of routes 41 and 343, in 1923. He named it Great Elm, after the majestic elm tree on the property, which was then the biggest in Connecticut (the tree was one of many in the area that succumbed to Dutch Elm disease in the 1940s).

Buckley, who raised his family at Great Elm and a variety of towns large and small around the world, was born and brought up in Texas and made his fortune from oil. He was among the first to discover deposits in Venezuela. He also traveled to Canada, Australia, Mexico and Ecuador in search of new oil deposits.

While in Mexico he was expelled by the Zapatista government and accused of being a "pernicious foreigner"(once the Zapatista government fell, his ban from the country was lifted).

Buckley eventfully settled in Sharon with his wife, Aloise (Steiner) Buckley, and here they raised their 10 children. The boys, John, Jim, William Jr. and Reid, all went to Yale. Five of the girls, Aloise, Priscilla, Jane, Maurine and Carol, all went to Smith. The sixth sister, Patricia, went to Vassar. Her roommate, also named Patricia, later married brother William.

After World War II, Priscilla Buckley got a job at the United Press International news agency, working eventually at both the Paris and New York bureaus.

"A lot of jobs were open to women at that time because there weren’t a lot of men around after the war," she recalled.

In recent years, Buckley has written two books, "String of Pearls," about her years at UPI, and most recently, "Living It up With National Review: A Memoir," an informal history of the magazine founded by brother William (she was its managing editor for 36 years), and of her travels around the world.

Of the 10 children, eight have published books. Arguably, the most famous of the siblings are William Junior, who has written 54 books in addition to writing syndicated newspaper columns, editing the National Review and appearing on his Firing Line television programs; his son, Christopher, who is the editor of Forbes FYI and has written several satires including "Thank you for smoking," which was recently made into a feature film; and James, who was a United States senator and is a retired district court of appeals judge.

All that fame seems to have had little impact on Priscilla Buckley, who lives quietly in Sharon and attends St. Bernard’s Church every Sunday.

Sharon really hasn’t changed much since she was a girl, she insists.

"I mean there are small differences. Every road was a dirt road back then and children had ponies instead of bicycles. And the train service was a lot better too," she laughed.

Times were, of course, simpler and children had to tap their inner resources to find ways to amuse themselves. Withouth computer games and television, they mostly played outside.

"We didn’t even have radio in those days," she recalls. "The reception was too poor."

The young Buckleys would play tag, darting from tree to tree at dusk. She remembers going fishing and canoeing and riding on her Shetland pony, named Eeelaw. The family kept cows and chickens, as did most of their neighbors. They had an icehouse; in winter they would haul massive blocks of ice up from the pond and store them so they could drink cool lemonade in the summer.

Buckley now has 50 nieces and nephews and 78 great-nieces and nephews and admits she stopped counting all the "great-greats."

Some members of the younger generation come up to Sharon for holidays but Priscilla and James are the last of their generation who are more or less full-time residents of Great Elm. It’s not because of arguments over who gets which bedroom, though.

Back in the 1970s, the family converted the 45-acre Great Elm estate into individual condominium units.

"The thinking was, we couldn’t afford to keep it up after mother and father died," Buckley recounts with her apparently unflappable good spirits. "It was the late 1970s, when the oil prices went up so high. We first thought we would turn it into a retirement community but there was terrible local opposition to that. And then we got an efficiency study done and those people came up and said, ‘If you have a white elephant on your hands, the only way to preserve it is to divide the ownership in it.’"

Family members had the option of buying one of the new units. The main house was turned into five condos, and "the old stable-carriage house-cow barn was made into three more condos."

Since then, five more homes have been added to the property. The owners are members of the condo association and pay a monthly maintenance fee, to cover the cost of upkeep of the buildings, the extensive lawns, shrubs and gardens and the pool, tennis court and paddle tennis court.

"Yes, it’s quite nice here," Buckley said happily.

Brother James has one of the houses. Brother John used to have an office in one of the new buildings on the estate, which he left to his two children. Nephew Christopher owns one of the units in the old carriage house, and he loans it to his cousins and their families.

Priscilla Buckley lives in the main house, next to the condo owned by her late sister, Jane. Her sister bequeathed her a life interest in the condo, which will eventually go to her own children.

Buckley could rent out the condo if she chose, but she says she has no plans to do so. She and her sister shared a large patio and "it wouldn’t be convenient to have someone else own half. Her children will come and use the rooms they’ve always used."

Whatever the next generation chooses to do with those apartments, they have most certainly increased in value, and Buckley says the condo conversion was an excellent idea and one she would recommend to other owners of over-large and costly estates.

"It’s worked out very nicely, particularly because we’ve had such nice people buy in," she said. The Great Elm Association members do not have the power to blackball potential buyers but they do have the right of first refusal when a unit comes up for sale.

Most of the condo owners, she said, are older couples who either use Great Elm as a

pied-à-terre or who live there full time but travel a great deal.


"There are six or eight of us here all the time," she said. As for her future plans now that her sister and neighbor is no longer there, Buckley said she will continue to live at Great Elm "for as long as I’m ambulatory."

Buckley has a large framed family picture in the entrance of her condo.This reporter stood looking in awe at the extensive family and commented, "That’s not even a baseball team, it’s a...." Words failed. More than a hundred Buckleys were smiling at the camera.

She grinned in her easy way and said, "It’s not a baseball team, it’s a league."

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