A Growing Suburb

Sewers, Water, and Streetlights

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, April 2006

Between 1870 and 1920, West Hartford was transforming from a farm town to a suburban town. As it did, its government reacted by regulating construction and by building an infrastructure of bridges, sewers, water mains and paved roads. The population grew from about 1,500 residents who lived on farms, to 9,000 strong as housing developed in the center and along Farmington Avenue. The new, suburban citizens pushed for services that Hartford dwellers already enjoyed.

The Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society archive holds many town records that describe these changes. One of them, Special Acts of the General Assembly, 1854-1913, provides a window into the infrastructure growth in town as well as the relationship between local and state governments. Annual Town Reports from 1870 also tell a story of how the town grew.

In 1888, when Hiram Hurlburt represented West Hartford, the General Assembly, established a Board of Health in each town. This Board of Health made rules that impacted the town budget and homeowners. It provided instructions for “privy, cesspools, drains and garbage.” This law lead to the town digging sewers. It also established rules for selling food. No carcasses of calf, pig or lamb could be sold here. It also required residents of town to report any cases of croup, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid, typhus, cholera, or yellow fever. The state was ahead of federal regulations as it was not until 1906 that the U.S. Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act.

The growing population and hence the growing amount of sewage seeping into Trout Brook, led the General Assembly in 1893 to authorize the town of West Hartford to construct sewers. The town decided where the sewers would go and the local property owners had to pay for the spur that went to their home. They made a deal with Hartford to hook up to their system as well, and to pay Hartford a fee for the hook up. Developer Frederick C. Rockwell was West Hartford’s Representative to the General Assembly when this law was passed. Rockwell had some interest in these sewers as he built the first housing development in town on the Boulevard between Trout Brook and Main Street. He owned the land and began to build houses in the 1890s. After the sewers were built, the next step was, in 1913 to build a sewage disposal plant. In the same year the town got the power to grant building permits.

In 1895, the General Assembly made it the duty of the Hartford Board of Water Commissioners to lay connecting pipes and furnish water to the residents in West Hartford who applied and paid for their water. Hartford’s water came from the reservoir in West Hartford, so by-passed the town itself. Adolph Sternberg was West Hartford’s representative to the General Assembly at this time. He was one of nine children of Charles Sternberg, a German immigrant lawyer who, in 1854, came to West Hartford to farm.

In 1897, the General Assembly allowed for the town to appoint a Water Commission and establish building lines. It gave the town the power to lay pipes and ask property owners to pay for the pipes that went across their property.

In 1903, when Representative G. F. Scarborough sat in the General Assembly, the West Hartford town government got the power to build sidewalks, but at the property owners’ expense.

In 1907, Democrat Charles Edward Beach served the town at the General Assembly. Charles Edward was the son of Charles M. Beach, a Hartford businessman who bought land in West Hartford in 1859 and built Vine Hill Farm on the corner of New Britain Avenue and South Main. By 1900, Charles Edward managed the farm. He also was the town surveyor and served as selectman. As a representative at the State House, he helped establish a Special Commission to “inquire into the management of affairs” in town. It seems as though the town had a difficult time collecting taxes. Between 1888 and 1894 the tax collector books were missing. Beach, the only Democrat to serve between 1857 and 1925, seemed to be checking up on Republican politicians who controlled the town. Six years later, in 1913, the town established a Board of Finance to exercise supervision of financial affairs in the town.

The following table, which shows the growth in population, budget, and the allocation of funds within that budget, is a window into building the infrastructure of the town.

Year Population Budget Highways Streetlights Budget per person
1870 1533 $27,000 10% 0% $18
1880 1828 $34,000 18% 0% $18
1890 1930 $37,000 17% 0% $19
1900 3186 $56,900 15% 0% $18
1910 4808 $150,000 8% 5% $31
1920 8854 $410,000 5% 2% $46

Over 50 years, the amount of money spent in town grew 15 times while the population grew 6 times. The percentage of budget money spent on highways and bridges peaked around 1890. The installation of streetlights occurred over a short period of time. Clearly by 1920, the town provided more services to its constituents.

One important piece of the infrastructure, education, became a larger percentage of the budget in the 1920s when seven schools were built: Beach Park, Morley, Smith, and Elmwood elementary schools, Plant and Talcott Junior Highs, and Hall High. After the town built up its infrastructure, it paved the way for more housing developments and attracted many new residents to enjoy the amenities of sewers, piped in water and street lights that had before, only existed in the city.

Biking in West Hartford

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, July 2012

In 2012, West Hartford’s Bicycle Advisory Committee meets the second Monday of every month to make West Hartford a more bike friendly town. Bike enthusiasts yearn for bike lanes and safe places to ride on the roads. Twentieth century plans for roads were all about cars; bicyclists are trying to change that.

West Hartford’s history as a bike town goes way back to the Charter Oak Race Track well before the “bike craze” of the 1890s. Back then, the bike craze led to athletic competitions, a new way to get to work, a new leisure time activity, and safer roads.

In September 1878, two Hartford physicians who purchased Columbia bikes proposed that the Charter Oak Race track add bicycle racing. In May 1879, the Hartford Courant reported that people were talking about a bicycle tournament at Charter Oak Park and that Hartford had some good bicycle riders ready to compete.

On June 13, 1879 George W. Pomroy of the Oakwood Hotel gave a purse of $100 [about $2,200 today] for a bicycle race at the Charter Oak Race Track. It was the best two out of three in mile heats. On the Fourth of July 1879, Charter Oak Park sponsored bicycle contests along with horse racing, and a sack race.

Mr. G.W. Pomroy at the Oakwood Hotel was particularly active in arranging the bicycle race. The crowd loved the race and pushed Pomroy to set up another race. According to the Courant, “The interest in bicycles is greatly on the increase in Hartford, since their manufacture has begun here at the Weed works, and many young men have become engaged in the use of the machine. A considerable number are very expert in its use, and with more entering a very entertaining race could be arranged.”

Albert A. Pope, who founded Boston’s Pope Manufacturing Company, became an enthusiast about bikes at the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition. He started to import bikes from England in 1878 and took out US patents on the European models. Col. Pope wanted bikes to be made in America and so he approached Hartford’s Weed Sewing Machine Company who used interchangeable parts and by the end of September 1878, they manufactured 50 bicycles with the large front wheel. To produce the Duplex Excelsior copies, Weed produced 77 unique parts and the only part that came from a supplier was the rubber tire.

Pope dubbed the new bicycle “Columbia.” His use of the hollow tube and ball bearings distinguished his bikes from others. According to an 1878 Hartford Courant article, “Mr. Pope… who resides ten miles from the city [Boston], rides to and from his place daily on one of these vehicles, unless the weather is stormy.” Further, the article stated that the bicycle craze in England had gone on for years and that an amateur rider had ridden a 3 minute 10 second mile.

By 1881, The Hartford Wheel Club organized monthly races at Charter Oak Park. On Saturday, June 25, 1881, at 3:00 pm, the amateur competitors biked from Capitol Avenue and Washington Street to the park. The 50 bicyclists, including five racers from New Britain were divided into three classes. It was the biggest gathering of bicyclists ever. The winning racer rode the mile in 3:25 from a standing start. The three judges included George B. Day, son of George Day the leader of the Weed Sewing Machine Company that was building the bicycles.

In the summer of 1882, Mr. Hyde of the Charter Oak Park Hotel and Mr. William B. Smith leased Charter Oak Park for the Fourth of July. They offered prizes worth $2,000 for trotting races, bicycle races and foot races. They offered a “shore dinner.”

This drawing, originally published in Harper’s Weekly (1885) by illustrator Albert Berghaus, shows the final heat of the one-mile open amateur bicycle race at Charter Oak Park in 1885. Note the crowds of spectators in the covered grandstands and the tall viewing platform to the right. The Connecticut Bicycle Club sponsored this series of races over a two-day tournament. At least 7,000 spectators attended. Source: The Connecticut Historical Society.

In September 1884, the Connecticut Bicycle Club mounted a race with prizes of $1,000. Hundreds of people lined the streets for a parade of over 100 bikers. They scheduled 12 races with riders from Hartford, Springfield and Boston. The top racer had a time of 3 minutes 3 seconds. Five thousand people came to the races in the first large-scale bike race West Hartford had seen. Colonel Pope was one of the officials of the races. The Courant reported:

Never before in this country has a more successful one day’s tournament been held, and never before in any race in the world has such good time been made as in the mile race… A comparison between such racing and horse racing must necessarily be to the advantage of the former sport, for there was no grumbling on the result of the contest and no boisterous language, and the auditors knew that the struggles they viewed between the race were honest and that the best man always won.

By the early 1890s, Pope developed a bicycle trust, which controlled all bicycle patents in the United States. For all bikes manufactured in the US he got $10 per bike. Pope changed the size of the front wheel to be equal in size to the back and had the rider sit between the wheels. This made the bicycles even easier to ride and democratized the athletic pursuit. The bicycle craze blossomed with this new invention in the 1890s. According to Ellsworth Grant in his article “The Miracle on Capital Avenue,” in the Hog River Journal in 2002, Weed employed 600 men making these “safety” bicycles. In the mid 1890s, Pope lorded over 18 acres of factory space on Capitol Avenue. He employed almost 4,000 people and produced 50,000 bicycles a year.

According to Pope, the main problem for bicyclists was that there were not safe, macadamized roads to ride. In 1880, he was one of the founders of the “League of American Wheelmen” to lobby local governments for improved roads. The late nineteenth century bicyclists long before the invention of the automobile spurred the “Good Roads Movement.” By the 1890s, much of West Hartford’s town budget was in building hard top roads.

Today, bicyclists are back at it, trying to improve the roads for riding. The context has changed dramatically as the gas-powered automobile is the main impetus for improved roads. But bicyclists want car drivers to share the road and allow them to feel safe as physicians once again encourage their patients to bike to keep fit.

James Talcott, Merchant and Philanthropist

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, April 2003

As the town plans for a new middle school on the east side of town, I wonder what we’ll call it. How have we named other schools? What does it say about the historical context and about the town’s values? School names can be an interesting source of information about both.

Talcott Junior High, on the corner of Quaker Lane and New Britain Avenue opened in 1922. Its opening was part of a reorganization of the town schools as they moved away from both the one room schoolhouse and the kindergarten to grade 8 school. James Talcott (1835-1916), lived in town for 19 years, and was “a successful merchant and member of a family long active in town and school affairs.” He moved to New York City at 19 to become a merchant and lived there until his death at the age of 81. His contact with the town seemed minimal after he left, but his career and public life in New York made him a man to emulate.

William Hurd Hillyer, James Talcott’s 1937 biographer, described him as a man who prospered on individual initiative, responsibility, morality, ethics, integrity, honesty, being honorable, kindly and steadfast and having a spirit of cooperation. He tied these values to Talcott’s Puritan work ethic. These values are part of the civic education public schools try to teach.

Hillyer also claimed that Talcott’s “pure English lineage” was a cause of his success. James Talcott descended from a man who shared the same name and migrated to America with Thomas Hooker in 1632. John Talcott was one of the founders of Hartford with Thomas Hooker in 1636 and Talcott Street in Hartford is named after him. He served as a Court Magistrate, was a Deputy from 1637 to 1652, and was Treasurer of the colony from 1654 to his death in 1660. His son, John Talcott, Jr. succeeded his father as Treasurer of the colony. Another descendant, Joseph Talcott was Governor of Connecticut from 1725 to 1742.

Samuel Talcott of West Hartford built a mill near the pottery in 1828 where he and his sons carried on a thriving wool business for years. Talcott’s sheep provided wool for his woolen business. They had a fulling shop where the cloth was made ready for market and stored. The businesses were part of his 1000 acres of land which extended from New Britain Avenue as far as Flatbush Avenue, to the west side of Quaker Lane near where Trout Brook crosses the road.

Samuel Talcott’s son Seth took over the mill and he was the father to James. As a young man, James and his ox team had the task of bringing goods to market in Hartford. When his brother opened up a woolen knitting mill in New Britain, James got involved at the outset as a merchant. As a man of just 19, he set out for New York City in 1854, and set up shop. This was right when West Hartford became an independent town.

In the 1850s merchants were the pillars of capital and lived in the big cities. They were generally the wealthiest men and were civic leaders. As a merchant, James Talcott sold his brothers’ goods to stores like New York’s A.T. Stewart, the biggest retail merchant in the country, and Philadelphia’s Wanamakers, the country’s first department store. He was successful, according to Hillyer, because of his honesty and integrity, and because the knitted woolen goods from this brother’s factory in New Britain were so good.

Once established in New York City, James Talcott married Henrietta Francis in 1861. Her uncle had a farm in West Hartford. James probably met her on a Thanksgiving break where he spent a few days every year with his parents in West Hartford. James and Henrietta bought a house at 20 West 39th Street – a four-story brick house. He lived there for 12 years and his three sons J. Frederick, Arthur and Frank were born there. They later had two daughters.

Every Saturday afternoon, Mrs. Talcott drove in the family carriage downtown to bring Mr. Talcott home. She never drove to the front of his building on Franklin Street because both she and Mr. Talcott believed that it would have been “unnecessarily ostentatious” for him to step into a fine carriage with a coachman and footman in front of his business.

In 1876 they bought a five story brownstone for $90,000 cash at 7 West 57th Street. This was a new and fashionable part of the city which had become so because William H. Vanderbilt and other wealthy New Yorkers had built imposing homes there. But probably more important was the opening of Central Park where New Yorkers could skate, sleigh, ride, drive, and play outdoor games like archery, croquet, and lawn tennis. Talcott had enough money and social standing to be a part of this West Side life.

In this home, well staffed with servants, there was a routine. Mrs. Talcott served tea at five o’clock each day. Friends usually came by to visit at this time. Dinner was always served at 7:30 and Mr. Talcott always dressed “in full evening dress” for the occasion whether there were guests or not. He served no wine or liquor, but an imported sparkling mineral water.

Talcott showed a deep interest in religion and took an active part in church affairs. Talcott joined the Broadway Tabernacle Church (Congregational) and became a member of the Church Committee at age 30 when, traditionally, this group was made of the elders of the church. He found time for mission work in Bethany Parish at 34th and 10th, in one of the poorest sections of the city.

James Talcott was a Republican and he was mentioned as a candidate for Mayor of New York City in 1890, but never ran. He was a protectionist and one of the staunchest supporters of the American Protective Tariff League, a position that most merchants took. He spent time fighting Democratically controlled Tammany Hall.

As a philanthropist he gave away 10 percent of his wealth. He saw himself as a steward of his wealth. Some of his interests included a library built at the Northfield School, Massachusetts, a dormitory built at Oberlin College, the Grace Talcott Hospital at Shunteh-foo, China, planting an arboretum at Mt. Holyoke College, and endowing a professorship for religion at Barnard College. He was one of the founders of the Jerry McAuley Water Street Mission, the Cremorne Mission and the Home for Intemperate Men.

In 1897, Talcott gave books and money to help establish West Hartford’s free public library. Until then, the library was part of the First Congregational Church.

In his later years, Talcott devoted his life to peace. He went to Lake Mohonk, America’s peace center each fall. He supported peace in trade and in politics. Talcott was 80 when war broke out in Europe and he expressed his disapproval. He died peacefully in 1916 at Lake Mohonk, before the U.S. entered the war.

The 1920s, the post World War I era, was a time when “the business of America was business.” The town’s population grew to almost 9,000 by 1920, and middle class professionals started to move to West Hartford, the streetcar suburb. James Talcott’s career must have appealed to them because of his monetary success, his moral and ethical purity, and his charitable works. Many other members of the family were involved in West Hartford governmental affairs, but the town officials chose this self-made business leader and philanthropist, this champion of hard work, integrity, honesty and success, to be a role model for the town.

Elmwood Suburbs

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, June 2011. Thank you to Jeffrey Murray, Conard High School junior, whose research paper, “Elmwood: From Rural Community to Working Class Suburb,” won the 2011 Freeman and Mary Meyer Prize for Excellence in Local History.

In the early 20th century, the Elmwood section of West Hartford developed its suburban character on a parallel to West Hartford center’s development. The same ingredients nourished growth in both places: transportation in the form of the trolley, farmers ready to sell their land to developers, real estate developers, and people looking to move out of the city. It all added up to a growth in population and an eclectic mix of residential, industrial, commercial, religious and educational institutions. This mix of buildings and people gives Elmwood the separate identity it retains today.

In 1900, when the trolley company laid a track down New Britain Avenue ending at East Street (now Quaker Lane), suburban development picked up. Before the trolley, residents could jump on the steam train running through the southeast corner of town for $24 per year. But in 1899, the train raised the rates to $60 per year and passengers lobbied to bring the trolley to Elmwood. Within a year the line opened.

As people moved out of Hartford and New Britain and into West Hartford, government services expanded. In 1900 the town added onto the Elmwood School, built as a two-room schoolhouse in 1888.

In 1901, the West End Land Company bought land in Elmwood on the present site of Yale and Florence Streets. Their handbills to sell the properties advertised free trolley rides. Four years later, F.C. Rockwell, who developed the Boulevard in the Center between Main and Trout Brook, sold land on New Britain Avenue to developer Terry Chapin. This land was subdivided by 1909 into more than 60 lots.

Wallace B. Goodwin, grandson of Harvey Goodwin, the founder of Goodwin Pottery, a local industry since the early 1800s, began to develop Elmwood with small single-family homes. He wanted to sell lots to people of moderate means. Goodwin also wanted to retain the agricultural nature of the residential area. In an advertisement for “Bungalow Farms,” on Newington Road he wrote, “If you could own your own home with a real little farm, where you could raise your own vegetables and chickens and be in Hartford or New Britain within fifteen or twenty minutes’ ride, now wouldn’t that be ideal?” He sold “acre lots and bungalows” in a “beautiful restricted section.” He added that the lots were “close to Elmwood Trolley and Railroad Stations.” Goodwin appeared in the ad, holding a plot of land with a bungalow, set on a country road.

Wallace B. Goodwin, in the real estate and insurance business, was a direct descendant of the founder of Goodwin Pottery. In 1936 he bought land west of Ridgewood Road to create a development around Wood Pond and Woodridge Lake, once the ice business ended. Source: Display Ad 65, The Hartford Courant, May 24, 1914.

In 1913, Goodwin planned to develop an Elmwood that would be distinct from developments in the center of town. Mentioning New Britain in his ad and suggesting that residents could grow their own vegetables were attempts to market a suburban neighborhood with rural charm that differed from the developments in the center of town.

On April 25, 1915, the Hartford Courant reported that Goodwin bought land from F.W. Talcott on the east side of East Street for developing this “splendid tract” in a “restricted way.” Goodwin called the area “Burgoyne Gardens.” Houses built on this tract had a view of Talcott Mountain and Charter Oak Park, across Trout Brook from the development. Sewers and piped in water both served this neighborhood. Goodwin had room for about 40 homes on the plot and he planned to build both single and two-family homes.

Goodwin’s development was within walking distance of a post office, library, and school with easy access to the trolley and train, which could whisk commuters into Hartford. The post office built in 1873, was a sign that Elmwood had a separate identity from West Hartford, which became independent from Hartford in 1854, just 19 years earlier. Also in 1873 the Elmwood Community Church set up a Sunday school, which met at the Elmwood School. In 1876, this group of Congregationalists built the Elmwood Chapel at New Britain Avenue and Grove Street. In 1926 this church moved to its present location on Newington Road. By the mid 1920s, the population of Elmwood stood at about 2,000.

Meanwhile, Wallace B. Goodwin continued to expand his reach from real estate developer to purveyor of insurance on furniture and buildings, mortgages, and selling ready-built sheds to be used as garages.

In 1917, the Catholic Transcript reported that the Elmwood church, St. Brigid, was the first Catholic Church to be erected in West Hartford. According to the Transcript, “The Town is fast growing and the new church, which is at the southern end, promises one day to be a considerable Catholic center.” The Church started as a mission of St. Lawrence O’Toole Church, in Hartford just about a mile east of Cambridge Street and New Britain Avenue.

Elmwood continued to develop its own identity as a working class suburb with manufacturing and farms, and an active political life. The area residents saw themselves as outsiders from those who lived in the town center. In an attempt to get fire protection in Elmwood in 1919, the “Men’s Union” “turned out in full battalion strength” to a special fire district meeting at the Town Hall in the center of town. They hired cars to take them to the town hall and surprised the “unsuspecting townsmen of the north end.” Those running the meeting were met by “a storm of protest.”

The Elmwood men got their way when the Fire District voted to give fire hydrants to Elmwood by increasing the mill rate by one mill. The Men’s Union’s next step was to establish their own fire station in town which finally came to fruition in 1919. It was clear that the increased fire protection would add to the value of houses in Elmwood.

In 1922, Talcott Junior High opened on land contributed by the Talcott Estate. Talcott and Plant Junior Highs were among the first junior high schools built in Connecticut. Six years later in 1928, as the population in Elmwood grew, the town tore down the Elmwood School and replaced it with the Elmwood Grammar School fashioned after the Beach Park School on Steele Road and the Morley School on Fern Street.

The Hartford Courant claimed that this subdivision was “an excellent location for the suburban dweller.” By 1925, those who moved to Elmwood made a choice to live in a community proud of their factories and railroad tracks as well as the churches, schools, library and post office which helped to develop an identity that makes a uniquely Elmwood section of town.

The Prospect Casino

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, May 2009

An article in the Hartford Courant from February 25, 1901, “Casino to Close: Clubhouse on Farmington Avenue to be Leased or Sold,” caught my eye recently. The subtitle read “It has not been much patronized of late, Golf and the Country Club at Farmington Avenue proving stronger attractions—Pleasant Building, but Little Used this Winter.”

I had known the casino was on the southwest corner of Farmington Avenue and Prospect near where St. John’s Episcopal Church stands today. It struck me as not quite right that a “dry town” would have a casino, but I had never seen much more than a mention of the place in town.

The term casino did not always refer to a place for gambling and West Hartford’s casino was far from our present definition of a casino. Originally the term referred to a small Italian villa, summerhouse or pavilion built for pleasure, usually on the grounds of a larger Italian villa. Its meaning changed through the 19th century, but this original meaning seemed a better fit for the “casino” built in West Hartford in 1894.

On January 30, 1894, residents of the West End of Hartford and the east end of West Hartford met at Whiting Lane Schoolhouse to organize building “a clubhouse and casino” to act as a social club on Farmington Avenue. It was named: “The Neighborhood Club Company.” A group of 20 men paid subscriptions worth $5,000 on the way to the needed amount of $7,000. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about building the hall to be “suitable for such amusements as are desired.” H.C. Judd, F.G. Whitmore, Anson Brainerd, and John O. Enders were four of the founders.

The club chose among a dozen architectural plans. An 1894 Courant article described it:

a low pitched roof rises at the front to a height sufficient for two floors and is surmounted by a platform where a flag staff rises to a height of fifty feet from the ground. From the roof projects a pleasing dormer balcony. The style of architecture is semi-colonial.

Inside, the clubhouse had a reception hall, an office, a ladies’ parlor, reading room, billiard room, assembly hall (66 x 44 feet) with a capacity for seating 500 people for dinner. They built a stage in this room as well. On the second floor, there was an office for the secretary, and a lounging and smoking room. In the basement they built two bowling alleys, a kitchen, dressing rooms, and baths. The building was heated by hot water, and lit, “for the present,” by gas. A wide veranda surrounded the clubhouse on two sides. In the backyard, they planned to build three tennis courts.

By time the building was finished, its costs had more than tripled to $23,000. Of the 140 stockholders, about 60 percent of the members lived in West Hartford along Farmington Avenue and Prospect. The other 40 percent lived in the city. According to the rules of the club, “it is intended that the tone of the club life shall be at all times elevating and that nothing in the nature of gaming or carousal shall ever be allowed.” They planned for “ladies and young people” to be part of the club. Clearly built before the term casino evolved, the rules were clear: betting and gambling were prohibited by the by-laws as was selling or keeping liquor.

Members held lectures, listened to musicians, hosted theatrical performances, had fairs, and hosted balls. Members went to the casino to read, play games, and just talk. They allowed the Farmington Avenue Christian Association to hold services there until they found a permanent home.

The opening party for the club in February 1895 was a real gala! The members decorated the building in “Oriental Luxuriance” and “well-known society people (who) danced the hours away.” A Courant reporter wrote:

Society was out in full force and the company was brilliant in the costumes of the ladies, handsome gowns, beautiful bouquets and other accessories of charming toilets. There was a large number of well known people present, and while the chief attraction was the dancing in the ballroom there was a good deal of social chat in the spacious parlors and in the brilliant rooms.

Over time the members changed their club’s name from the Neighborhood to the Casino Club. The building was used often for theatrical performances, dances and receptions. When it was warm, the managers enclosed the verandah in cloth in the evening. Women and children came to the club frequently and it kept its reputation as a family club.

However, in 1896, the Hartford Golf Club opened. In the late 1890s, the Farmington Golf Club on Outlook Avenue opened. The Fern Street Golf Club was also a going concern at the same time. According to the Courant, interest in the Casino Club fell off when the golf clubs opened.

In February 1901, the members decided to close the Casino and they sold the building at a loss for $15,000 to Dr. Naylor. He planned to convert the casino into a home, but never moved in. He leased the building for various functions including entertainment, and Miss B.A. Hollister’s ladies’ gymnastic class.

On December 18, 1902 a spectacular fire burned the casino to the ground. The fire began in the rear of the building at about 9:30 at night. Neighbors made the call to the Hartford Fire Department and several companies arrived, but they were not allowed to start fighting the fire until Chief Eaton, who was two and a third miles away, arrived and gave special orders to fight the fire across the city line.

The fire companies took more than two hours to put the fire out. Hartford residents complained about having to pay their tax money for fire protection for West Hartford. In fact, many people moved to West Hartford because the tax rate was lower. However, Hartford seemed to supply both police and fire protection to the growing suburb of just over 3,000 residents. There had been talk of a new West Hartford fire district, but the West Hartford selectmen did not vote to fund one until 1909 and the fire company was finally completed in 1915, not far from the site of the fire.

As this new upper middle class moved to West Hartford, they organized, developed, and built new ways to spend their leisure time. The Prospect Casino had a short life, but it was an important symbol of the change in West Hartford from farm town to suburb. Those who worked in Hartford’s white-collar jobs organized and joined private clubs for their recreation. These clubs, as well as their new residences in the suburbs, helped define this new middle class.

Charter Oak School

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, May 2013

In March 2013, West Hartford’s Board of Education voted to build the first new elementary school since Norfeldt School was built in 1964. A new Charter Oak School, with a price tag of $40 million (with the town paying about $8 million), will open in 2016. The present school houses 270 students and the new school will have room for 560 students from the neighborhood and magnet students from all over town. Charter Oak’s scope and size has changed many times in its history. This investment in a state of the art building will help to do what Board of Education Chair Madeleine McKernan dreamed of over 40 years ago: to provide an equal opportunity for all students no matter where they live in West Hartford.

In 1884, the Common School district of West Hartford built the original elementary school in the neighborhood. The one room schoolhouse on the south side of Flatbush Avenue (near the present day Home Depot) at first housed all eight grades, but as the population grew, three more rooms were added, and only K-4 students could fit in Charter Oak. Older students went to Smith School, or the Elmwood School on New Britain Avenue. This little four room Charter Oak area school had a capacity of 100 students. The current Charter Oak School was built in 1930 to accommodate kindergarten to grade 6.

The architect, Russell Barker planned for a 15-room building for 560 students with a price tag of $290,000. Superintendent Lloyd Bugbee planned this school as one of the first “modern” schools in the “American perpendicular” style with silver and black colors on the front of the building. One innovation in the building was the inlaid linoleum floor in the kindergarten room with inlaid children’s stories. Architects planned a library in the middle of the school.

Miss Bernice Patterson took on the role of teaching principal of the 4-room schoolhouse in 1924. In 1930, when the new school opened, she became the first principal. She served as principal for 22 years when Miss Harriet Foley replaced her.

A 2 ½ inch piece of the trunk section of the famous Charter Oak tree was displayed in the main corridor. Walter Korder, a local artist, received New Deal money in the 1930s to paint several fairy tale paintings that still hang in the building.

In 1941, the town took the playground behind the school to make fields. The school then acquired play space in the front of the school on Oakwood Avenue. In 1954, the School Board, built a cafeteria in the remodeled basement, after parents advocated for it so children would not need to walk home for lunch. Charter Oak students ate a hot lunch just like those who attended the new schools like Webster Hill (1949), Bugbee (1952), Duffy (1954), and Whiting Lane (1954).

In 1957, Building and Grounds added a fence around the entire play area. In 1958 a gym was added, again to keep up with the new schools being built. In 1963, enrollment declined as eminent domain forced families out of homes along the I-84 corridor. Charter Oak lost 60 students in that one year.

In September 1972, school administrators hoped to build a new large elementary school for 1,000 students for $4 million to replace Smith and Charter Oak. In 1972, the Hartford Courant reported that the Board of Education wanted “to replace the aging Smith, Charter Oak and Elmwood Schools.” The Board scaled down its plans to a 700 student school to replace just Smith and Charter Oak. But a lack of parental support led the Board to drop the proposal.

According to Board Chair Madeline McKernan, the main impetus for the new school was to provide an equal education to students in all areas of town. The Board felt that Charter Oak and Smith’s buildings did not provide an equal education for students in the poorest areas of town.

Instead, in November, the Board decided to renovate the existing Charter Oak and expand it so that Smith School could be closed. Parents at Smith promptly organized a group called Save our Schools (SOS) to make sure that Smith did not get shut down. The Board of Education backed off and allowed both schools to remain open and in 1974 voted for funds to rehab each school. In 1975, the Board of Education decided to close the Elmwood School due to declining enrollment. In the early 1980s, Smith closed as well.

Since the early 1990s, West Hartford’s Board of Education has been under pressure to racially integrate its elementary schools. The 1968 Racial Balance Act requires towns to integrate within their district by making sure that no school has a racial balance that is 25% above or below the town’s percentage for students of color. The 1994-5 K-2, 3-5 plan attempted to ameliorate this racial imbalance, but public outcry led to the Board of Education rescinding the program which led to three magnet elementary schools instead, hoping for voluntary integration. Charter Oak became one of those magnets.

In March 2013, a 20-member committee decided to build a new Charter Oak School rather than revamp the old. New diversity school legislation, designed by Senator Beth Bye and Representative Andrew Fleischmann, passed in 2012, allows for the town to receive up to 80 percent construction cost for reimbursement if the school is being built with a plan to reach racial balance goals. Regular construction reimbursement for West Hartford is 40%.

The story of Charter Oak School, a school named after a rebellious Connecticut event to protect democracy in the 1600s, represents much about our town. It was the third elementary school, after Beach Park and Morley, to be built in town. Its original architectural plan broke new ground and its changing demographics point to the change in West Hartford’s population in the past 40 years. Though the housing stock in its neighborhood has changed little, the skin color and languages of those who live in these houses has changed. The parents’ desire for a state of the art school to provide the best environment for their children, on the drawing board for the second time in 40 years, will soon become a reality.

West Hartford in 1896

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, January 2009. Thanks to Dick Kreitner for the atlas.

This fall a friend passed along a real treasure to me in my role as the Town Historian: a 112-year-old atlas of Hartford and West Hartford. The atlas provides unique information. It opens up a world to me that newspaper articles and even photographs cannot engender. The Atlas of the City of Hartford Connecticut, including also the Town of West Hartford tells me much about the economic world of West Hartford over a century ago. It defines the town of West Hartford as a town that supported agriculture and industry, as it became a suburb of Hartford, on which it depended for its economic well-being.

In 1896, West Hartford had about 2,500 residents and was just starting to move from farm town to suburb. L.J. Richards & Co. of Springfield, Massachusetts published the atlas based on records from Hartford and West Hartford municipal engineers and some of the publisher’s own engineers. There are 30 Plates in the book, 26 from Hartford, and four from West Hartford. You can browse through this atlas in the Local History Room in West Hartford’s Noah Webster Public Library, or their historical maps online page.

Plate 27 is a map of the entire town, showing every dwelling in town. The mapmakers delineated whether buildings were brick, wood, brick and wood, stone, iron, whether it was a barn stable or shed, or a greenhouse. The atlas includes the owners’ names for each dwelling and piece of land.

The map marks sewers under Park Street from Prospect past South Main, and on Fern, Quaker Lane, and the south end of Steele Road, a sure sign of the infrastructure built for residential neighborhoods. The street railway that traversed Farmington Avenue spanned the town from east to west. The Hartford and West Hartford Horse Railroad Company, incorporated in 1863 sent the line out to West Hartford in 1889.

Wallace Thomson founded the W.W. Thomson Company at 146 South Main Street in 1899. Originally they grew vegetables and produce that they sold to farmer’s markets in the region. His son, W. Pomeroy Thomson, produced over 30 new varieties of carnations between 1958 and 1988 in West Hartford, Florida, and Bogota, Colombia. Source: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.

By the 1890s, West Hartford’s farmers specialized in dairy. The two creameries in town, Highland Creamery on the southwest corner of Albany Avenue and Mountain Road and the Elmwood Creamery owned by C.M. Beach, now part of Beachland Park, were important parts of this agricultural base. According to William H. Hall in his West Hartford (1930), the creamery was supplied by the farms that surrounded each dairy.

On Plate 27, the publishers named two farms in town: Boswell Farm on the west side of South Main where Rockledge is today, and Maplewood owned by F.A. Thomson across the street. These farms were just to the north of the Vine Hill Farm and Grist Mill which included land on three corners of New Britain Avenue and South Main Street.

Gristmills in town at the time are a reflection of the continued agricultural base. There were the Trout Brook Grist Mill on North Main where Trout Brook crosses near American School for the Deaf, and the grist mill next to the Elmwood Creamery in today’s Beachland Park. Daniels Mill Company owned a gristmill on the corner of Simsbury Road and Bloomfield Avenue.  Daniels Mill Co. was established in 1835, according to the directory at the back of the atlas.  Here, the publishers listed “well-known citizens, representing the business, professional and educational interest of the city, through whose hearty support alone the completion of this volume has been made possible.” Daniels Mill sold wholesale and retail flour, feed, grain, hay and straw. “Grain by the carload” was their specialty.  Their headquarters at 40 Elm Street in Hartford represented the close connection between the economies of Hartford and West Hartford.

Farmers specialized in greenhouse grown plants as well. There were greenhouses on Whiting Lane owned by Alfred Whiting. Next to the Hartford Brick Company on New Park Avenue stood the greenhouses of Charles K. Swenson, one of the many Swedish immigrants who worked with plants. W.E. Wallace sold nursery goods on the corner of Farmington Avenue and Quaker Lane from his greenhouse. According to Hall’s book, Wales Andrews had four greenhouses on the corner of New Britain Avenue and Grove Street where he specialized in growing cucumbers.

Many successful businessmen who worked in Hartford, lived in West Hartford and supported the making of the Atlas are listed in the directory in the back of the book. Charles M. Beach of the Beach Dye Works, J.J. Enders of State Savings Bank, J.L. English, secretary of Aetna Life who lived on Fern Street, and Bernard Caya, contractor lived on Prospect Avenue. F.C. Rockwell, who was the head of the Bonsilate Box Co. lived on Prospect Avenue.  He subdivided the land along the Boulevard as he looked forward to one of the first suburban developments in town.

E.H. Arnold & Sons used the pond from the dammed up Trout Brook at Farmington Avenue to harvest ice. His Trout Brook Ice and Feed Company needed five buildings to take care of its business. Headquarters for Arnold’s building were on Asylum Avenue downtown.  His company was both wholesale and retail selling ice and grain.

By 1896, West Hartford also had its share of industry. The clay soil led to brick making as a lucrative business. There were three brick companies in town. On New Park Avenue, with railroad spurs right into their yards were the Hartford Brick Company and across the tracks, the Charter Oak Brick Company. On the corner of Prospect and Caya Avenue was the Dennis & Co. Brick Manufacturers.

Brickmakers used the clay soil in the southeast section of town to build several lucrative businesses. The Phoenix Brick Company, Park Brick Company, and the brickyards of Michael Kane lined the railroad line in the industrial section of town. Source: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.

Along the railroad tracks in the southeast section of town industry grew. The Whitlock Coil and Pipe Company was across the tracks from the Goodwin Brothers Pottery. Whitlock Coil and Pipe opened its doors in 1892 and manufactured coiled pipe for use with steam boilers. The Goodwin Brothers began the pottery business to take advantage of the clay, just as the brickmakers did. They sold their jugs and jars across the continent.

For entertainment, on the corner of Prospect and Farmington where St. John’s Episcopal Church stands today, was the Prospect Casino. On Prospect and New Park, race enthusiasts could go to the Charter Oak Driving Park. There was a bandstand, a grandstand, and a half-mile track. Both of these establishments depended on Hartford residents for their success.

The center was beginning to be a retail center. Where the present day library sits was Burr’s Carriage Repository and Hardware Store. Buckland’s Store and Post Office stood at the corner of Main and Farmington. But, these are the only two retail establishments in the center.  The real growth came in the 1930s.

Economically, West Hartford continued to depend on Hartford. Farmers sold their produce to Hartford residents, the railroad that passed through the southeast corner of town connected goods to the city center, and Hartford businessmen brought value as they began to settle in the residential suburb. L.J. Richards’ Atlas confirms that West Hartford’s prosperity depended on Hartford’s economy. In 1896, residents and businesses knew that their prosperity depended on the city. Today, many West Hartford residents continue to understand how West Hartford’s economy is tied to that of Hartford and the region that surrounds it.

A Day in This Town’s History: August 10, 1899

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, July 2009

An August 10, 1899 news brief from the Hartford Courant opens a window into West Hartford at the turn of the 20th century. This seven-paragraph article has 272 words and provides a sense of the fabric of a town changing from a farm town into a suburb.

Item one: Mrs. F.H. Stadtmuller as a ’Ceres" presided at the meeting of the Grange Tuesday evening. The hall was prettily decorated with stalks of corn and golden rod. Papers upon grains were read by Mrs. S.P. Griswold, D.G. Francis, Dr. Ganunack, Mrs. P.R. Day and Mrs. Paullson. It has been decided to postpone the matter of an excursion for the present.

Imagine Mrs. Stadtmuller dressed like the Roman goddess of agriculture, wearing a garland of ears of corn. Ceres was an elected position in the Grange, which started as a secret organization in town in 1887 with 32 charter members. The purpose of the Grange was to improve social connections and fight the economic backwardness of farmers.

The interests of West Hartford Grange 58 included education, improvement in public highways, rural mail delivery and town affairs. Yearly, they prepared exhibits for the annual state fairs at Charter Oak Park. According to Hall’s West Hartford, even in 1930, the Grange continued “its organization and its interest in the town.”

Stadtmuller presided over the meeting, introducing the five speakers, three of whom were women. In 1900, as this town’s population topped 3,000, some suburban developments like Buena Vista and West Hartford Heights were beginning as the trolley made transportation to Hartford easier.

While “grains” were being celebrated, however, the production of grain acreage in New England dwindled. Between 1880 and 1930, almost 19 million acres in New England were taken out of farming, and the number of farms declined by 31 percent.

The surviving farms in town specialized in dairy and market gardens providing plantings for suburban homes. Mrs. Stadtmuller was the wife of Frank E. Stadtmuller, who from 1885 to 1907 managed the Beach’s Vine Hill Farm, which occupied acreage from New Britain Avenue to South Main Street to South Quaker Lane. This dairy farm was a model for the state in producing “baby’s milk.” While Vine Hill continued to prosper for another two decades, farmland was becoming more valuable for residential housing than for farming. Perhaps the Grange was glorifying an agricultural life that they saw slipping away.

Item two: The Rev. John Freeborg held a meeting for the Swedish people at the Baptist Church. A considerable number of Swedes are employed in town and they are interested to hear preaching in their own language and attend the meetings as well.

By 1900, Swedes were one of the largest immigrant groups in town. Between 1851 and 1930 as much as 25 percent of the Swedish population emigrated to the United States. A second wave of immigration in the 1880s and 1890s found young Swedes settling in Connecticut near urban areas.

In 1970, this town had the highest percentage of people of Swedish background in the state. Swedes settled in the Park Road area, building two- and three-family houses and starting businesses.

At one time, the building owned by Bazilians was a Swedish grocery story. Still remaining on Park Road are Hall’s Market, where you can still buy Swedish sausage called korv, and A.C. Petersen’s.

According to Butterworth, Grant and Woodworth in Celebrate! West Hartford (2003), 20 Swedish immigrants from West Hartford, New Britain and Hartford formed a Methodist church in 1895. They built their first church on the corner of Lockwood Terrace and the Boulevard in 1921. Today that church is the Boulevard Baptist Church. The Swedish Methodist Church finally moved to Berkshire Road and New Britain Avenue and today is known as the West Hartford United Methodist Church.

The ability of a Swede who was probably a Methodist to speak at a Baptist Church speaks to the interdenominational sharing in our town. The town’s many denominations have shared pulpits in times of disaster and overcrowding.

Item three: Millie Fulton, youngest daughter of C.W. Fulton, received a bad cut just below the knee from a piece of glass while playing about the mill pond the other day. Dr. Alcott, who was called, was obliged to sew up the wound.

The mill pond on Trout Brook was on the north side of Farmington Avenue. This pond was used in the winters to harvest ice, but in the summer must have been a great place, except for the glass, to go for a swim.

Dr. Ralph W.E. Alcott was one of the doctors in town at the turn of the century. In the birth records, his name appears as attending to the delivery of babies in people’s homes before the advent of having babies in hospitals. He was involved in promoting the development of a sewer system here at the turn of the century as an important development to protect against the spread of disease.

Item four: Misses Helen and Elizabeth Hubbard are at Branford for a week. Mrs. E.M. Peck is visiting relatives in West Haven. A daughter was born recently to Mr. and Mrs. John Hoye.

These three tidbits of information reflect on the small town that this was in 1899. Vacations and visits were noted weekly. A trip to Branford was not so difficult for residents because of the train lines that ran to the shore. By the 1880s, with the rise of factories, taking a week-long vacation became popular. Many residents owned or rented cottages on the Connecticut shore.

Item five: A resident of Charter Oak was before Justice A.C. Sternberg last night charged with stealing corn from the garden of Mrs. E.A. Talcott near East Street, Elmwood. The accused was found in the corn after dark by Herbert Talcott, but claimed that he was there for other purposes and was an honest man. Bags found on the ground he disclaimed owning. The accused was supported in his testimony by Mrs. Teresa Buck of Charter Oak. As the theft was not proved, the case was nolled. There has been considerable complaint of the theft of garden truck from the region bordering on Charter Oak.

In the alleged burglary in the 1899 paper, a frustrated farmer, Mrs. E.A. Talcott, tried to find who was stealing her corn. A character witness, vouching for the innocence of the accused, helped to get the case nolled. There was no lack of tension in turn of the century West Hartford.

Judge Adolph C. Sternberg served in the state legislature from 1895-96. He was a German immigrant and the son of a highly educated man who moved here in 1854. He grew up with seven brothers and one sister on the southern end of Mountain Road where it meets Sedgwick Road.

Sternberg, as well as being a judge, helped move this town from the town meeting to the town council manager system of government. In 1916, there was so much controversy over the valuation of agricultural and residential land between farmers and suburbanites that residents rejected the assessment list and the town could collect no taxes for that year, having to borrow to pay its expenses. This controversy moved the town to adopt a new town charter in 1919 that made it the first town in the state to adopt this progressive form of government.

This news from the summer of 1899 describes a farm town with community organizations, immigrants, people wealthy enough to go on week-long vacations and law breaking. The Hartford Courant kept people apprised of not only the political and organizational news, but also of the social fabric of the town that helped to stitch us into a community.

Abraham Janes, Blacksmith

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, February 2012

My article this month started by researching what was happening in Town 100 years ago. That search took me to the Historical Hartford Courant, just a click away through the West Hartford Public Library online service. There, I found that a January 14, 1912 fire raged for five hours at Abraham Janes’ Blacksmith and Carriage Shop, 921 Farmington Avenue. The fire displaced two families, and destroyed over $12,000 worth of property. Janes would later rebuild his carriage and blacksmith shop and run it well into the 1920s.

That sounded like a story to me: perseverance and grit with community support. So, I’d write about the fire and how the Janes business was rebuilt. Initially, I found two articles on the fire and thought I was set.

At the time of the fire, Mr. Janes, his wife, their six children and an apprentice lived over the repository of his blacksmith shop. Walter Payne, an employee of the Hartford Water Board and his wife and three children lived over the blacksmith shop. The first floor of the building was a paint shop, blacksmith shop, the repository and an office. The basement had two forges, wood working machinery and storage booths.

When the fire broke out, Mr. Janes and two others rescued the eight sleeping children just before they were consumed by fire. West Hartford’s volunteer Fountain Hose Company rushed to put out the fire. The nearby Congregational Church’s bell called the volunteer firemen who rushed to the scene. The row of houses on Nichols Court that ran parallel to Raymond Road, (then School Street), did not catch fire because the night was so still. Reports claimed the temperature was 16 below zero.

Janes had insured the property for $11,000. The loss was close to $12,000. The Payne family was only able to save a small trunk of clothing and a few bedclothes. Several wagons and sleighs and three cars were saved, but another car burned. A month later, the insurance company had still not paid Janes. This stopped Janes’ attempts to build a temporary shed to continue jobbing and horseshoeing. Janes, according to the Courant, had not been idle, attending to his customers at their homes or elsewhere as soon as he got the materials needed to shoe. His plans were to rebuild a one-story shop on the foundation of the burned building. Still, he took a loss and had to borrow money to keep his son in college.

Part of the story about fires is not just about how the victims reacted, but how the community kicked in. According to the Courant, the response was “generous.” The women of the First Church met in the parlor the next Monday morning to work on articles of clothing for the Janes children. The pastor of the Paynes South Park Methodist Church asked for help for their 6, 4, and 2 year old children. Congregants donated $75 to the Paynes.

But who was this man, Janes? Like most life stories, his was complicated. There were articles about him running afoul of the law – passing a standing trolley, trying to collect money from customers who stiffed him, and in 1931, having his house on Quaker Lane go into foreclosure.

A continued search led me to more features on Janes. As cars became the mode of transportation, and as the role of a blacksmith changed from shoeing horses to specialty work, the Courant memorialized him in one article “Childhood Trade Brings Him Fame: Abraham Janes of West Hartford Follows Art of Smithy His Father Taught Him As A Boy in Newfoundland,” (1927) and a year later, “Abraham Janes, Artist in Wrought Iron Work: Sparks Fly From the Anvil Where, Under an Expert’s Hands, Modern Iron Becomes Latches, Grills, and Lanterns in the Style of Other Days” (1928).

In these articles I found out that Abraham Janes was born in 1872 in Brigus, Newfoundland, and grew up there where he apprenticed to his blacksmith father for 10 years. At age 17 Janes went to the Arctic on Peary’s first polar expedition. He set up a forge on Turnavik Island, mending the dog sleds and iron needed for exploration over the northern ice and for the ship. In 1898, at age 26, he emigrated to Hartford and opened his shop on Farmington Avenue. For the 27 years of his traditional blacksmith shop, he claimed, he made 53 vehicles per year and shoed hundreds of horses. One day he shod a pair of horses in 34 minutes without assistance. On another day, in 18 hours, he shod 53 horses. When there was a strike and riot in Ansonia in 1901, the cavalry was called out to stop the strike. Janes and an assistant went to the stables and, working under pressure, shod 43 horses between 2 A.M and 7 A.M.

Janes got involved in the community as well. After the shop burned, he moved to Quaker Lane between Farmington and Park. In 1912, he joined on with Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party, attending a local convention. In 1913 he was elected gatekeeper of the Grange. He served as a member of the Fountain Hose Company No. 1 apparatus committee, being part of rebuilding the combination truck to equip it for fire fighting. He was the head of the committee to build a new firehouse shed a few years after the fire burned his place of work.

And, the Courant reported, that Janes’ work changed with the times. By the late 1920s, Janes, at age 56, still worked at the shop, but made thumb latches, butterfly hinges, grills, and balcony railings for bars and clubs as far away as New York and New Jersey. Janes fashioned all the hand-wrought iron at the Hartford Theological Seminary (now the University of Connecticut Law School), the window grills on the Fire Department in Hartford, the balconies and stair rail at the Fuller Brush building, the Spanish Balconies at the Hartford Club dining rooms, and iron work on West Hartford homes on Sycamore, Albany Avenue, and Whiting Lane.

As I searched for Janes’ obituary, to round out his story, it was not in the Courant. One of his 10 siblings died in 1940 and Abraham Janes was listed as living in Memphis, Tennessee. His wife, Lillian Janes died in 1957 at age 84, while living on Lancaster Road and her obituary claimed she died a widow. She left four sons and three daughters, three of whom lived in West Hartford.

Janes’ story was more of a puzzle than I thought. Where he was between 1931 and 1957 is not clear. In a Google search I found a family genealogy website produced by one of his 37 grandchildren. Several comments under his photograph helped to put flesh on his bones. One grandchild said:

Grandpa Janes (Abraham) was a good looking man, my Dad once said he didn’t smoke, drink or swear and had only one weakness: women. My Dad was attending Norwich University when the separation occurred between our grandparents. He left school and went home to help support the family.

I’m left to speculate that Abraham left Lillian sometime during the Depression, perhaps as the house went into foreclosure. Perhaps his trips to New York City to sell his specialized wares opened up new horizons. Losing his house to foreclosure might have been too much for his pride to stay in West Hartford. Or maybe, like his grandson suggested, there was another woman that drew him away from his adopted town. I think there are some readers who may remember his shop on Farmington Avenue or knew his family. Can you help me fill in the story? Research that started with a fire 100 years ago led to a master craftsman who changed with the times but whose full story is still not complete.

Henry Selden: A Man Who Changed with the Times

Originally appeared in Hartford Life, December 2001. Thank you to Bob Strickland, a long time resident of Selden Hill, who wants to keep the memory of the Seldens alive, and lent me several articles.

The life of West Hartford resident Henry Hezekiah Selden (1854-1932), symbolizes the sweeping changes in the United States as the economy and technology modernized our nation. Historians have described how the Second Industrial Revolution in the post Civil War period revolutionized the lives of average Americans. How did a man like Selden adapt to these changes while he retained his life as a traditional dairy farmer?

In 1776, the Selden family moved to Great Hill in what was then Farmington. When Henry Selden was five, in 1859, West Hartford annexed about 330 acres known as Selden Hill and now known as Buena Vista, in response to a petition by Henry’s uncle, Hezekiah Selden. This section of land is bounded by the reservoir on the north, Farmington on the west, West Farms Mall on the south, and Cornerstone Pool and the skating rink on the east.

By the mid-1800s, most New England farms had become dairy farms. With the new Erie Canal and railroad transportation, the opening of fertile land in Ohio, and the move westward, it was no longer profitable to grow wheat here. In the 1850s, some farmers in West Hartford grazed sheep, but the Selden’s chose to keep cows.

Henry attended the West School, a one-room schoolhouse that still stands on Mountain Road and now houses the West Hartford Art League. In the early 1870s, he spent a semester or two at Williston Academy in central Massachusetts to complete his education. He returned to the farm at Selden Hill to work for his father.

Henry Selden ran his ice cream parlor in West Hartford Center between 1898 and 1902 where LaSalle Road intersects with Farmington Avenue. Source: Selden Family.

As a dairy farmer, Henry cut and delivered hay in the summer, cut ice on Wood Pond in the winter, mended fences, and cared for livestock. The farm had 25 to 30 head of cattle, four horses and 150 acres of farmland. Their property had eight outbuildings and a 12-room farmhouse. A farmer who held 50 acres of land could live a good life.

Henry’s interest in new inventions started early. In the mid-1860s, when Henry was still a child, he watched men build the reservoir across Farmington Avenue from his parents’ dairy farm. Some of the workmen stayed at the Selden Farm while on the project. One of these workman’s jobs was to feed the horses and young Henry was fascinated by the small Seth Thomas alarm clock, which awakened him every morning. According to his granddaughter Dorothy Selden, the young worker was willing to trade the clock to Henry for some useless trinkets.

Henry’s fascination with things mechanical must have been piqued by the new pump organ at the First Congregational Church in the center of town. This church, the third building, was on the northwest corner of Farmington and Main and stood until 1957. Henry got a job in the church as the first boy to pump the new organ.

Henry’s interest in things technological continued into early adulthood. In 1876, when he was 22, he and his mother, father, aunt and uncle made the journey, by rail to Philadelphia, to celebrate the centennial of the United States. On August 21, the group of five set off for this city on the train from Hartford to New Haven. They boarded a boat in New Haven for New York City where they again boarded the train to Germantown Junction, Pennsylvania where they checked in at a hotel opposite the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. They stayed in Philadelphia for five days and Henry kept a diary of his visit. The exhibits from China, the Sandwich Islands, Belgium, and England intrigued him.

But he was most interested in Machinery Hall, the Saw Mill, the railroad exhibit and a printing shop. When his parents and aunt and uncle returned to the hotel, Henry stayed and rode the cars around the Centennial Exhibition. The next day they toured again, and Henry returned to Machinery Hall. He was so intrigued by the building, that in later years he named one of the buildings on his farm Machinery Hall. After a five-day visit, the Seldens took the 7:10 train out of Philadelphia, arrived in New York City at 10:30, hired a carriage, drove through the botanical gardens there, and arrived in Hartford by train by 9:30 p.m. The technology in Philadelphia intrigued the young farmer from West Hartford.

Henry, according to his granddaughter, preferred to work with machines rather than the soil. His interest in machines led him to build a mill on his property where he cut lumber for himself and his neighbors. He built a lathe powered by horses on a treadmill and he had his own repair shop and blacksmith shop.

Henry married Sarah Whiting in 1888 when he was an established bachelor at the age of 34. They went on to have eight children, and Henry taught them how to work on the farm. At the age of five, they started to do jobs on what was a prosperous farm. Most of Henry’s income came from milk, butter, and hay. There were times when he allowed his six and seven year olds to take his hay by themselves with their wagon to Hartford. His daughter, Rilla Selden (1898-1987) remembers wrapping pounds of butter in parchment and sitting high on the horse-drawn wagon with her father as he traveled his delivery route and getting down at each house to deliver the fresh butter at 25 cents per pound.

Henry was always looking for something new. Between 1898 and 1902, he and his sister-in-law opened the Selden Ice Cream Parlor in West Hartford Center at the present location of the Treva Restaurant. It was at the end of the trolley line that made it from Hartford to the center by 1889. According to Selden’s granddaughter Dorothy, the ice cream parlor was the first to use fresh fruit in their ice cream. The store closed when a nearby drug store began to serve ice cream.

Henry Selden bought his first car in 1918 when he was 64. He enjoyed riding in it, but decided not to drive it because he was so hard of hearing by that time that he couldn’t tell whether the motor was running. Once, when he did decide to drive it on the farm, he was heard yelling “Whoa! Whoa!” to stop it.

In 1926, 50 years after his trip to Philadelphia to celebrate the U.S. Centennial, Henry and two of his sons, Irving and Roland, took their Model T to Philadelphia for the U.S. Sesquicentennial. The fact that Henry enjoyed this celebration as much as he did as a young man is a testament to his willingness to use and learn about modern technology. He learned how to integrate it into the workings of his already established farm.

Elmwood’s Frank Stadtmuller

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, May 2006

Frank Stadtmuller came to public prominence as West Hartford was changing from a rural town to a suburb. He was a progressive farmer who advocated a role for farming in 20th century Connecticut and West Hartford.

As a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican town, Stadtmuller held positions as Justice of the Peace, a member of the school committee, head of the West Hartford Democratic Caucus, Town Selectman, Vestryman at St. John’s Episcopal Church, West Hartford’s Building Inspector, and West Hartford’s Health Officer. In the state, he served as the President of the Sheepbreeder’s Association, President of the Connecticut Dairymen’s Association, and the State Agricultural Commissioner. Stadtmuller always listed his place of residence as Elmwood.

Stadtmuller was born in 1861 on the Vine Hill Farm owned by Charles Mason Beach. His father Louis Stadtmuller was a German immigrant who worked for the Beaches. At age 6, the family moved to New Haven and Stadtmuller grew up there and graduated from Yale. He returned to Vine Hill in 1885 and, at age 24, took over the management of the farm for the next 30 years. He worked hand in hand with Beach’s son, Charles Edward who was one year younger than Stadtmuller.

Stadtmuller championed progressive farming. He and Charles Beach were the “inventors” of “baby’s milk” or what was known as “sanitary milk” in Connecticut. To produce baby’s milk, they kept the cows clean and the milkers free from disease. Each day, they tested the milk in the lab. Before the 1890s, infants only drank mother’s milk. Beach and Stadtmuller marketed cow’s milk to children.

Stadtmuller is most well known for being the originator of the certified milk business in Connecticut, between 1890 and 1920. His work force at Vine Hill farm is dressed in whites wearing caps and carrying covered buckets of milk. Their attempt to improve the sanitation milking cows led to advertising this milk for babies as “Clinical Nursery Milk.” Source: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.

Stadtmuller was a businessman and an advocate as well as a farmer. He believed that milk had to be marketed and he believed the state had a role to play in doing this by inspecting milk, certifying its cleanliness, and providing price supports. In 1907, at a meeting of the Connecticut Dairymen’s Association, Stadtmuller gave a talk on problems with the low market price of milk.

However, having regulations and enforcement were two different things. At the state dairymen’s convention in 1913, the president of the group, Warren Davis, said that municipal milk inspection was “a joke.” He argued that the legislature would not appropriate enough money for inspection and that the inspection should be done by the State Health Department, rather than local health officers.

Stadtmuller believed that when each municipality inspected milk, the standards varied a great deal. The producer who lived closest to the point of distribution was inspected much more than the one further away and he believed that a state standard would help the situation. In 1917, as the State Dairy and Food Commissioner, he arrested the First Selectman of Southbury and four others for selling “watered milk.” These men felt the pressure of the cost of producing milk. Stadtmuller could use these men both as an example of the need for standards and the hard time that milk producers had producing a profit of any kind.

In 1914, in a speech before a meeting of the Men’s Union of the First Congregational Church, Stadtmuller decried the plight of the farmer in Connecticut, claiming that many of their problems were based on poor distribution of goods and the lack of cooperation between farmers. He also believed that the price of milk had to go up two cents per quart or even more men would give up dairy farming.

In that same year, as President of the Hartford County Rural Improvement Association, Stadtmuller encouraged those in attendance to value agriculture. Hartford County in 1909 produced $6 million worth of agricultural goods. He knew of large areas of “wasteland” that had gone to brush that could double Hartford County’s agricultural production. He urged “the children to stay on the farm instead of flocking to the city.” Cooperation among producers, he said, would lead to success.

Stadtmuller’s idea of an organization came to fruition in 1915 when his Hartford Country Rural Improvement Association (of which he was President) and the Board of Trade came together to discuss how they could help each other to save agriculture for the county. The amount of farmland decreased every decade, farmers moved west, and the many no longer thought of New England as an agricultural region. Stadtmuller seemed at his best when he used his position in various agencies to bring people together.

Stadtmuller also helped found and lead the West Hartford Business Men’s Association. In November 1910, they held a meeting on the subject of a public utilities commission. Stadtmuller’s Association called in two speakers from Hartford, Normand Allen and Ralph O. Wells, who explained the reasons that a commission was needed to control the “great public service corporations.” Allen, the owner of the Sage Allen Department Store explained that there “was no opposition to the great corporations.” He believed that there needed to be a way to secure the safety of employees on railways, to be sure that electric and gas meters measured use fairly, and that rates for electric and gas be controlled because they were unfair.

Allen proposed a public utilities commission of three to five men being paid $7,500 a piece to regulate the industry. The other speaker, Ralph O. Wells was concerned with the “baleful influence of the lobby in Connecticut legislation.” He believed that the Legislature was not controlled by reason but by corporations trading votes and “log rolling” to get what they needed. He believed that the electric and gas corporations had much too much power.

Stadtmuller believed that government regulation and associational cooperation could improve life for farmers and consumers. During the 1930s, with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government, for the first time introduced price supports for agricultural products and established a “cost yardstick” for the cost of electrical power. In the 1910s, Elmwood’s Frank Stadtmuller (1861-1918) already brought these issues to the public’s eyes. Where many historians argue that the push for more government intervention in the economy came from the federal level, in fact the ideas were brewing on the local level right here in West Hartford a quarter of a century earlier, during the Progressive Era.

Historic Homes: Developing a Sense of Community

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, September 2005

In our fast-moving world, the permanence of our architecture inspires us to discover our sense of place. By observing houses in town, we can gain a better sense of our cultural roots, the history of the town and our human-made environment.

Homes are prized by the families who live in them; visiting them can provide us a direct connection to the past.

The Noah Webster House’s first historic house tour on September 17, 2005 will give us that chance. Five homes in the south end of town will be open to the public, three built in the colonial period, one in 1847 and one in 1900. Each provides a glimpse into the history of the town, the craftsmanship of architectural detail, and daily life in another time and place.

The first two houses on the tour are owned by the town: the Sarah Whitman Hooker House at 1237 New Britain Avenue, built in 1735, and the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society at 227 South Main Street, built in 1747.

The Sarah Whitman Hooker House was originally built in the 1720s and served both as a tavern and residence in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The house has been renovated several times and its restoration in the last 30 years reflects the lives of those who lived inside.

Recently the house has been in the news with the naming of the new middle school after an enslaved man Bristow who bought his freedom in 1775 from the owners of the house, Thomas Hart and Sarah Whitman Hooker. Hooker’s house was also used as a prison for Tories during the American Revolution.

In 1807 Sarah Whitman Hooker added on to the house and the changes were made in the Georgian style of architecture. The central chimney was taken out and two chimneys were put in, producing a central hallway with two rooms on each side. The roof was rebuilt to add a full second floor. This house has been restored to a time period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. On the house tour, you will be invited into the first floor.

The Noah Webster House is restored to the year 1774 and represents a classic two-over-two colonial saltbox. In the 18th century the Websters owned 80 acres of land stretching west down the hill from Main Street.

Though only a few of the present furnishings actually belonged to Noah, the house has period furniture which shows the difference in lifestyle 230 years ago. In this house, compare the “new” lean-to kitchen and fireplace from the late 18th century, which was built to save on wood and heat, to the original. Notice how the furniture is moveable and how rooms served more and different purposes than they do today. The new reproduction kitchen allows the museum to continue to be a hands-on museum without further endangering the original house.

The third house, and one of the three private homes to be opened, is the Benjamin Colton House at 25 Sedgwick Road, built in 1769. This was built by the son of the second minister of the West Division. Reverend Colton was the minister of the first church in the West Division from 1713-1759. His first son George and grandsons Chester and George became ministers in other Connecticut towns.

In the early 20th century, the Scarboroughs lived in the house. Clarence Scarborough served in World War I and kept the salutation “colonel” throughout his life. Note the setting of the house and imagine how the number of houses and farmland changed, particularly in the early 20th century.

Residents of this home led the opposition to the building of the proposed Frank Lloyd Wright Theater on the corner of South Main Street and Sedgwick Road in the early 1950s.

The fourth house is the Buckley-Coffing House, 272 South Main Street, built in 1847. It has 11 rooms, six fireplaces and an eclectic architectural style. This house is one of the few remaining mid-19th century farmhouses in town.

The town’s population of about 1,000 in 1774 grew to only about 1,200 in 1854; not that many houses were built in those 75 years. This is a vernacular farmhouse with elements of Greek Revival and Italianate style.

George Buckley sold the house to Charles Coffing in 1863. Coffing’s son inherited the house two years later. The property was still run as a farm until it was subdivided in the 1930s and then Webster HIll School was built behind it in the late 1940s.

The newest house on the tour is the Charles E. Beach House at 18 Brightwood Lane, built from 1901 to 1902. In 1859 his father, Charles M. Beach, the owner of a chemical and dye company in Hartford, bought a piece of land on the northeast corner of New Britain Avenue and South Main Street. He added to the property and became a gentleman farmer, developing a herd of high-grade cows on his Vine Hill Farm.

These cows produced some of the first sterilized baby’s milk. One of his sons, Charles E. Beach, managed the farm. Beach was a civil engineer who did all the surveying and engineering work for the town.

Beach was elected to the board of selectmen and was elected as a Democratic representative to the General Assembly, possibly the first Democrat ever from the town.

Charles M. Beach built a shingle style 20-room house with three stories, multiple dormers, balconies and seven fireplaces. The first floor of the home, which will be open in the house tour, includes seven ornamental woods and remarkable wood craftsmanship.

There are at most 20 shingle-style homes in town and this home has not been altered much from when it was built more than 100 years ago. You will notice two other Beach-built homes as you drive on Brightwood Lane.

Look at the view into Hartford and imagine owning all four corners of New Britain Avenue and South Main, and the property down to South Quaker Lane, including Beachland Park.

Sir Winston Churchill said “we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.” This local house tour is a chance to take a look not only at the physical structures and styles of the human-made environment, but it can also help us wonder how people more than 200 years ago lived their daily lives and developed their sense of community.

The tour will run from noon to 4 p.m. and the cost is $20. Stop at all five houses or choose the ones you want to see. Refreshments will be served at the Noah Webster House.

The Site that Became Blue Back Square

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, December 2007

Noah Webster’s statue, complete with a new finger, is repositioned in the town’s center and the three square blocks that are Blue Back Square have come to life in a mix of retail, restaurants, office space and housing. It is already difficult to remember what used to be in these lots. A look back 100 years gives a window into how much and how often land use changes.

Blue Back Square occupies twenty acres with 200,000 square feet of retail space, 200,000 square feet of office space, two parking garages with about 1,000 spaces, apartments, condominiums, a renovated public library, and a passive public park on the southeast corner of Raymond and Memorial Drives. Just two years ago, it included the Grody car dealership, which was a toxic site, three 3-family houses, the Hayes-Velhage American Legion post, a town parking lot, the Board of Education building, and green space.

Hayes-Velage American Legion Hall sat at the corner of Raymond Road and Memorial Drive. It was one of the casualties of Blue Back Square when it was taken down in 2005 for the new development. Both Hayes and Velhage died in World War I. Grody Chevrolet car dealership appears behind on Raymond Road. Source: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.

When the developers and the Town of West Hartford first put together their development plans, Blue Back’s 20 acres were taxed at a value of $3.5 million. Completed, the developers believed the market value would reach $110 million. Already by 2006, Blue Back became the single largest taxpayer in town.

How else has this site changed in a century? A look at the Atlas of the City of Hartford, Connecticut, including, also, the town of West Hartford, 1896 and 1909 shows the plot of land which is now Blue Back Square. You can go online to the West Hartford Public Library site, click on Local History, then West Hartford Historical Maps.

On the edge of Goodman Green, on the land which is now the public library, was the Masonic Hall. The Masonic Hall is now on the west side of Goodman Green. South of the Masonic Hall was W.A. Burr’s Carriage Repository & Hardware Store. What is now Memorial Drive was a road with no name. On the site of the present Hartford Hospital and New York Sports Club building stood the town’s second Center School, built in 1896. Until this school was built, high school students attended the first Center School at 14 North Main Street

In 1896, at the site of the present Town Hall, there were four residences: Mrs. Margaret W. Seyms, Mrs. Charles Cain, and J. P. Oviatt all who had houses made of wood. Mrs. Seyms had four out buildings on her property. Asher Rogers owned a very small plot and small house, carved out of the lot of the Oviatt’s. W.A. Burr owned the land on the southside of the block bounded on the south by what is now Burr Street. In 1896, the land was subdivided, with no houses yet built.

Not too much changed on this block in the next 13 years even though West Hartford’s population nearly tripled from around 1,800 to about 4,800 by 1909. The buildings and owners showed continuity. On the southeast edge of Goodman Green stood the Masonic Hall and W.A. Burr’s Carriage and Hardware Store remained. The town added another brick building to the schoolyard at the corner of Raymond Road and School Street (now Memorial Drive). High and elementary school students shared the new school building until 1910 when the high school took over the whole Center School building and the elementary school children went into the new Whitman School built right next door. This building appeared on the 1909 map. This site now includes the parking garage, the condominiums and the Hartford Hospital building.

In 1924, the new high school, named after William H. Hall opened on the west side of the block right along South Main Street. The Center School became known as the Rutherford Building and was kept as a town building and in the 1940s and 1950s served as an annex for Hall High. Take a look at the name of the Hartford Hospital building in Blue Back Square – over the main entrance appears the name “Rutherford Building.”

W.A. Burr continued to own the south side of the block. The Seyms property had been transferred from Margaret to G. H. Seyms. Three of the outbuildings were subdivided into two separate lots. C.F. Scarborough owned the Cain property. There were three buildings on his property. John Gridley purchased the Asher Rogers house and lot. Along Burr Street, three houses were built and there were owners for six of the 11 subdivided lots.

In 1936, the town used federal funds provided through the PWA to build both the Noah Webster Library and the Town Hall. The library, built in 1918 on the corner of North Main and Brace Road, lasted only 18 years. The new Town Hall building replaced the third building of First Congregational Church which stood at the site of the Veteran’s Memorial. The Town Hall, with its grand gold cupola, served that purpose from 1936 until 1987 when the former Hall High was renovated and the town offices moved there. At the same time, the town sold its education building on Steele Road and the education offices moved into the former Town Hall. As the town tried to consolidate its services, and with the push of the Blue Back Square developers, the education offices moved into the Town Hall in 2006. The old Town Hall serves as Fleming’s Steak House and the Bow Tie Cinemas.

Those who have visited Blue Back Square, will recognize the familiar Noah Webster statue and the cupola and front entrance on a new building at the site of the old Town Hall. The four and five story buildings down the hill give the new three-block area a very different feel. The streets are alive with shoppers and workers and a new Rutherford Building replaces one on the same site named over 80 years ago. The change seems drastic when you stand at the corner of Memorial and Isham Roads. Do you think the sense of loss and gain match what people thought 70 years ago when the library and town hall replaced Burr’s Carriage and Hardware Store?

Alfred Plant

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, May 2012

On April 20, 1921, businessman and community leader Alfred E. Plant died at age 48. Within three weeks, the Board of Education, of which he had been a part for at least 11 years, decided to name the new junior high school after him.

When the school board voted to name the new Junior High Building after him, they cited his “faithful service as a member of the board…” and that “his interest in the welfare of the schools was unfailing and the action by the school board will meet with general favor by the residents of the town.” Plant Junior High opened in 1922 as one of the first junior high schools in the state.

Alfred E. Plant was born in 1873 in the northwestern part of England. His hometown Macclesfield, was most known for manufacturing silk. At age 23, Plant married Hannah Grimshaw and six years later in 1902, they emigrated from England to Hartford.

Plant got a job at Aetna in that year. He joined the Accident and Liability Department when it was formed and at his early death, was one of its oldest members. He served as secretary to two successive vice presidents of the company. Plant was an insurance man on the ground floor of Hartford’s growth as the insurance capital. Plant moved to the United States during the Progressive Era when reformers began to question the power of industrial capitalists. This new Aetna department handled the new business of employers’ liability and workmen’s compensation insurance.

As Plant settled into town, he got involved in community activities. By 1909, Plant was elected secretary of the West Hartford Republican Party. Republicans controlled the politics of the town in the Progressive Era. Republicans were the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and a party that had begun to regulate business to protect consumers.

He joined the First Congregational Church in the town’s center and by 1911 was a leader in the Men and Religion Forward Movement, an attempt by men across the country to increase the number of male churchgoers. Plant ran monthly meetings that attracted more than 60 men from around town. The minister of the First Congregational Church Rev. T. M. Hodgdon spoke and the West Hartford Glee Club sang to attract men back to the fold.

Plant also served as a master of Wyllys Lodge, No. 99 and was a charter member of the Syria Grotto. Masons founded West Hartford’s Wyllys Lodge in 1866. The Masons were a fraternal organization with their roots in 18th century England. Before the Masonic Temple was built on South Main Street just South of Farmington Avenue, they met in the old high school building on North Main Street near the Old Burial Ground. When Plant died, plans were in the works to build the new Temple that opened in 1923.

Plant served his community as an appointed member of the Town School Committee. He quickly became the clerk/secretary and served until his death. In the 1910s when the population grew from 5,000 to 9,000 over the decade, the school population grew just as fast. From 1915 with a school population of 1,350 to 1925 with a school population of 3,250, the school committee was busy. Superintendent William Hall oversaw the building of eight new buildings over this period of time. School committee members sat on committees, which dealt with the nuts and bolts of supplies and the library, as only a few people worked for pay in the central office.

In 1911, Plant and his wife bought a lot and built a home on the outskirts of the center on Pleasant Street, off Farmington Avenue halfway between Main Street and Mountain Road. They raised their son and two daughters there. In 1918 during World War I, their son Alfred G. Plant enlisted in the Army. The son continued to live in West Hartford after his father died and had a long career at the Aetna.

Plant’s death at age 48 left his widow Hannah and three children just coming to adulthood. His commitment to his community clear, the school committee named the new school after him.

Fifty-seven years later, when Plant Junior High closed in 1979, the PTO moved to re-name King Philip Junior High after Alfred Plant, but those efforts did not come to fruition.

It took over three years for the town to decide what to do with the school after it closed. But, in October 1982 after a 41-month discussion, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a grant of $6 million for the West Hartford Housing Authority to develop 100 low-income units for the poor.

The West Hartford Housing Authority formed as a non-profit in 1942 when the town, funded by the federal government, built 300 housing units for defense workers during World War II. The housing authority manages and rehabilitates affordable housing and develops and operates programs for low-income residents.

In 1982, the average family income in town stood at $30,000, giving West Hartford a reputation of being wealthy. Average home prices were about $80,000. But almost 30 percent of the 61,000 residents were older than 60. In 1982, second to Hartford, West Hartford had the most elderly poor in the region. Almost 800 West Hartford residents lived on less than $6,000 a year.

In 1982, there were three places in West Hartford where the poor elderly could live: privately owned Federation Square with 85 units, and the publicly owned Fellowship Housing with 170 units and Elm Grove housing with 40 units.

Over the next six years, builders reconfigured the junior high into housing for the elderly and those with disabilities. Federal, state, and local dignitaries dedicated the new facility in January 1986.

In April 2012, officials re-christened the Alfred E. Plant Building with 42 new housing units added to the original 95. The Plant project began in the fall of 2010 with a price tag of $21 million. Alfred E. Plant would be proud.

West Hartford governments have long named their public places after local people. Kennedy and Eisenhower Parks aside, local names adorn the schools, parks and public buildings of the town. Knowing the history behind the names reinforces the civic engagement of West Hartford residents; our citizens argue it is this engagement that makes our town so vibrant.

William H. Hall and West Hartford in 1902

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, April 2009

When the Rutherford Building opened in West Hartford Center in 1902, William Hall presented an “Historical Sketch of West Hartford” at the dedication of the building. Hall served as Superintendent and was the unofficial Town Historian. His 28-page speech describes a town based on democracy and cooperation, a town beholden to its forefathers with education as its highest calling.

His dedication began with the story of the arrival of the first English settlers to Hartford in 1636. He said that these settlers not only found a beautiful location, but also established a true republic with its Fundamental Orders written in 1638, established by “the people themselves.” Hall knew why Connecticut was called the Constitution State.

Hall used Lincoln’s words “of the people, by the people, and for the people” to describe the use of the Town Meeting which worked so well in our community. Hall made a point to recognize the vote by the Hartford settlers to set aside common land for the benefit of all between Quaker Lane and Prospect Avenue. In 1902, Hall marveled that on this stretch of land that large portions of the territory were being used by the Hartford Golf Club, Elizabeth Park and Charter Oak Park, for “the use and benefit of the public.”

Hall was interested in civic virtue. Each section of his speech outlined an inheritance of public service, or actions that were for the good of all, not the aggrandizement of the individual. The first government of the town came out of the church. At the annual meeting, a Society Committee of three church members was chosen to run the town. Soon a committee of five took charge of the schools. They later became the Board of School Visitors, and then the Board of Education. The minister was always a member of the school visitors. According to Hall the five Visitors went to a school and then made a “call at one of the taverns for a mug of flip” before moving on to the next school.

Hall believed he could characterize West Hartford residents as industrious and thrifty based on the lack of a poor house. Only a few needed public aid each year.

Hall editorialized that “the worship of God, and the instruction and training of the children, are fundamental principles in all good government and society.” He believed that there were public schools here as early 1713 when the first church was built. When the town met to build three new school buildings in 1745, the meeting minutes recorded that the committee dispose of the old school houses. One of these buildings was the “old gambrel roofed brick school house,” built around 1745 near the Old Burial Ground on North Main Street. In Hall’s words, “within its walls, on side benches, often in a crowded condition, successive generations of noble and worthy citizens were trained.” On Sundays, the schoolhouse was used for Sunday School classes. “There is no doubt” according to Hall, “that the people of West Hartford, in those days, as in our own time, were public spirited, conformed to good customs, obeyed the laws and improved their privileges, and therefore established schools very early.”

Until 1795, the ecclesiastical society took care of the schools. By 1780, there were five schools in town, all on Main Street. Hall believed that one was located in the south end, one near the residence of Paul Thomson (near Park Road) and called the Popple School, because of the numbers of poplar trees, one in the Center, another called the Chestnut Hill School, and finally one in the north end. There were also schools in West Lane, Mountain Street, Prospect Hill and the Quakers ran one school. At that time, West Hartford had a population of about 1000 people, about 125 families.

From 1796 until 1855, a School Society, established by the General Assembly to separate church and state, managed the schools. The School Society broke the town into nine school districts. Each one had meetings each year to establish the policy and kept records of those meetings. In West Hartford, citizens actively participated in running the schools. Hall documents that the West District held eight meetings in one year to decide where to build a new schoolhouse. Because students were required to pay for their schooling with wood, the purchase of wood stoves was a big event. The South School District established a committee of three to discuss the purchase of one of these stoves.

Schools were open for eleven months a year, in the winter run by male teachers and in the summer by dames or female teachers. Hall records the pay for the men at $42 for 16 weeks and that for a dame (usually the best female scholar at the school) at $9 for nine weeks.

In 1845, shareholders started the West Hartford Academy. The 58 stockholders operated a flourishing school through 1865 whose pupils included boarders from out of town.

Hall pushed the school district to consolidate and it did so in 1885. Subsequently, the town began to manage the schools. Hall argued that this consolidation led to a marked improvement in the schools. Hall continued to praise the democratic process and the participation of townspeople in the workings of the schools. In his speech’s conclusion he proclaims:

Let us not forget, however, that our highest duty, our noblest endeavor, our grandest opportunity and our true success as a community are to be found in such use and improvement of all these advantages and blessings as will result in the training of our children and youth in character and life so that they may most worthily serve God and their fellow men in their day and generation.

Hall’s focus on community, hard work, education, and democracy continue to drive the town today when its population is twenty times larger than in 1902. Though the physical manifestations of these values have changed with 15 public school buildings and a Town Council rather than Town Meeting form of government, their importance to the community continue with an active citizenry imbued with civic virtue and education at their core.

West Hartford 1905

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, May 2014

Between 1885 and 1925, more than 80 percent of West Hartford residents had jobs that were not based on farming. The economic nature of the town changed as farming became more specialized, transportation to Hartford improved with the horse trolley, and developers began buying up land and luring Hartford residents out to the suburbs. Yet, even though West Hartford was changing from a farm town to a suburb by 1905, farmers, as well as florists, and gardeners who made their living off the land continued to play a significant role running the town. While it may seem that farmers would carry traditional political and economic values, in fact, those in West Hartford helped to reshape our community.

The town grew in the 1890s from 1,920 to 3,186 in 1900 and increased another 60% by 1910 to 4,806. While the town retained its rural look with plenty of land still farmed, the types of farms and variety of jobs of the newcomers to town helped change the character of the town.

In 1905, Geer’s City Directory collected information on West Hartford residents, listing their place of residence, their job and its location, and whether they owned their own home. West Hartford’s labor force worked as clerks in Hartford’s insurance industry, as machinists at Pratt and Whitney and as carpenters, civil engineers, and Charter Oak Bank cashiers. The Arnolds ran the Trout Brook Ice and Feed Company on Farmington Avenue and many women worked at St. Mary’s Home on Steele Road. West Hartford residents did white collar work, worked in manufacturing in both Hartford and West Hartford, did artisanal work as harness makers, blacksmiths, masons, and hostlers and did service work as butlers, domestics, drivers, and coachmen. This wide variety of occupations reflected a town making the shift from farm to suburb and in a town in which the wealthier residents employed service workers.

The most surprising part of the data is the number of people still involved in working off the land. But, the type of land use varied more as those working the land specialized. Data from the directory reveals that about 12 percent of the workers listed were farmers. In the United States, farmers made up about 38 percent of the workforce in 1900 and 31 percent in 1910. West Hartford was moving away from its rural roots, to a mixed economy.

At the same time, those living off the land included gardeners, vegetable gardeners, landscape gardeners, milk dealers and peddlers, florists, farm hands, and tobacco workers.

The son of German immigrants, Frank Stadtmuller, was a progressive farmer who advocated a role for farming in 20th century Connecticut and West Hartford. He managed Vine Hill Farm owned by Charles Beach from 1885 to 1915 and invented the idea of “baby’s milk” by testing milk in the lab each day and keeping the cows clean and milkers free from disease. Stadtmuller, who lived on the farm, encouraged farming in West Hartford and encouraged farmers to also run efficient businesses. On his dairy farm, he marketed his product, and he believed that the state played a role as well in inspecting milk, certifying cleanliness, and providing price supports. These changes show that, though there were still many farmers in town, some farmers, at least, saw the benefits of government support and modern marketing techniques.

Stadtmuller, in his second role as State Dairy and Food Commissioner, urged farmers to improve distribution of their goods and to cooperate. He urged the government to provide price supports for milk, so that farmers did not give up dairy farming, and sell their lucrative farmland to developers.

The Thomson family, James, Paul, Wallace and Jennette owned all four corners of the intersection of Park and South Main where they established a florist business. Paul Thomson was listed as florist at the corner of Park and Main. James, who died by 1909, was the founder of Hartford’s Brown-Thomson department store, and like some other industrialists, moved to what was becoming the suburbs, to establish a “gentleman’s farm.” Wallace Thomson, his son, established the family greenhouses in 1899, providing vegetables and produce to the farmer’s markets throughout the Hartford area. Wallace’s son Pomeroy, went on to Cornell and came back to the West Hartford greenhouses in the early 1930s to grow carnations that sold wholesale and to supply the florist trade. Adjoining the greenhouses, was Thomson’s florist shop. Wallace Thomson, like Stadtmuller, was also involved in town government and served on West Hartford’s first Town Council from 1921 to 1931.

Frederick Duffy moved to town in 1900 and bought the old John Whitman House on North Main near Asylum Avenue. Listed as a farmer, Duffy studied and developed a herd of Jersey cows which produced a superior quality of milk and cream. He had these dairy products delivered each day to Hartford families. At the same time, Duffy promoted agriculture in the state and served as a judge at stock exhibits across the country. Duffy served on West Hartford’s School Board and as a member of the first Town Council in 1921. In the 1940s, he headed the West Hartford Housing Authority.

A.C. Sternberg and his son farmed at the corner of Sedgwick Road and Mountain Road. He owned the area to the east of the West District School. He had five barns and several houses on his property. From 1895 to 1896 A.C. Sternberg served as the representative to the Connecticut General Assembly from West Hartford.

In 1916, a contentious quarrel between farmers and suburbanites over the value of land led to taxpayers rejecting the assessment list. The town could not collect its taxes and had to borrow a year’s expenses. Sternberg headed a seven-member committee which studied the problem and recommended that the town move from the town meeting form of government to a council manager system with a zoning plan to control and encourage development on farmland being put up for sale.

While the number of farmers in the country, in Connecticut, and in West Hartford declined, they retained political power. Stadtmuller, Thomson, Duffy and Sternberg all served in elective office in the town and seemed to be a progressive force in the politics of the town. Their dedication to working the land did not necessarily mean their politics were traditional as they were elected to a Town Council manager system of government which was the first in the state of Connecticut.

Recalling the Days of Luna Park

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, May 2008

Imagine yourself in West Hartford on June 23, 1906. Luna Park, an amusement park, is set to open on New Park and Flatbush Avenues.

You’ve watched the construction and the hiring of more than 100 employees to run the park. You’d heard about the Columbia Exposition in 1893, Coney Island’s Luna Park that opened in 1904, and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

This opening is not on that grand a scale, but news articles from the Hartford Courant make allusions to these events.

At 2 p.m. on that Saturday afternoon, Governor Henry Roberts officially opened the park, flanked by Hartford’s Mayor Henney and West Hartford’s town selectmen. The Colt Band kicked off the celebration, playing the “Star Spangled Banner,” followed by exploding cannons.

There you were, in your hometown of about 5,000 people. Luna Park was Greater Hartford’s “first big metropolitan outdoor place of entertainment” and likely you would have been part of this opening celebration.

The Chatford Construction Company from New Haven invested $200,000 to build the park, starting in March 1906. At least 150 workmen built the midway, concessions and rides.

The day before the park opened, the men worked until 8 at night when, for the first time, they turned on the 50,000 lights. The Courant said “the illumination was spectacular in the extreme and the White City stood out in the darkness like some magic city flashed into being by the wave of a wizard’s wand.” A crowd had gathered both from the city and surrounding neighborhoods to witness the final touches on the amusement park. The park of pleasure offered a host of entertainment.

After paying a 5 cent entrance fee, you could see the Old Mill, Palace of Fun, Fatal Wedding, Streets of India, Ferris Wheel, Photograph Gallery, Snake Charmers, Temple of Mirth, Circle Swing, Penny Arcade, Miniature Railway, Pony Circus, Mammoth Carnival, Helter Skelter, Fortune Tellers, San Francisco Disaster, Rifle Gallery, Japanese Tea Room, Glass Blowers and a big ballroom, the biggest building on the grounds.

West Hartford residents were thrilled with the number of construction jobs and then with the work at the park. A May 6, 1906 help wanted ad in the Courant called for 109 employees to be hired at the park including female cashiers, male ticket takers, guides, ticket sellers, scenic car brakemen, Old Mill employees, property men, circus ring employees, hostlers (stablemen), garage men, engineers, electricians, gardeners, watchmen, police, musicians, lecturers, cooks and “colored” nurses.

Luna Park shared the property with the Charter Oak Park race track that opened in 1873 at the corner of Flatbush and Oakwood avenues. The 120-acre park, bounded by Flatbush Avenue, Quaker Lane, Prospect Avenue, Talcott Road and Oakwood Avenue, had a one-mile horse racing track.

This park put West Hartford on the map of harness racing. Daily trotting races, which climaxed with Race Week over Labor Day, drew thousands to town for the daily summer trotting races and betting ranging from $100 to $20,000.

This 1926 map shows signs that the Horse Race Track is no longer in use, and Luna Amusement Park has gone out of business. Its main purpose was for the Connecticut State Agricultural Fair. Source: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.

Luna Park drew people to town, too. But the shining new park brought with it problems as well.

At the end of May 1906, the Consolidated Railways Company asked the town to make the trolley to Luna Park a double track. The selectmen authorized the company to construct a double track, but it wasn’t ready for the park opening in late June.

When the park opened on June 23, there was trouble. On June 26, police discovered three cases of pickpockets who got $75 from their victims. As the Courant put it, “the opening of a large place of amusement like Luna Park naturally draws some from the underworld.”

Just three weeks after the park opened on July 15, the Rev. T.M. Hodgdon from the First Church of Christ Congregational, “preached a forceful sermon upon the desecration of the Lord’s Day at Luna Park.” Reverend Hodgdon argued that West Hartford was humiliated in the eyes of neighboring towns for letting Luna Park open on Sunday.

Management of the park, he believed, was happy to pay a $50 fine per week. Reverend Hodgdon believed the park could be open on Sunday, but they could not charge admissions fees or run the amusements because the law prohibited the doing of “any secular business or labor, except works of necessity or mercy.”

He referred to reports of liquor sales in this dry town and gambling in the neighborhood. According to the newspaper report, while peanut vendors were prosecuted for trespassing at the park, police did not enforce the laws against liquor or gambling.

On July 18, Louis Dubrowski was found guilty of trespassing with his peanut and popcorn wagon, which he set up on New Park Avenue at the front of the park property. The rule was that he could not have his cart in one place for more than five minutes. Witnesses claimed he was there from three to five minutes. A court interpreter, who translated from Polish for “the prisoner,” as he was called in the newspaper article, addressed the court saying “the Constitution of the United States allowed everyone to make an honest living and inquired why the gamblers who frequented the Luna Park region were not arrested instead of a poor man with a family to support.”

The prisoner was set free as long as he agreed not to go back to Luna Park.

Just two days later, a near riot erupted among the immigrant workers trying to finish the trolley tracks. The work to double track the trolley had moved slowly and park officials put pressure on the trolley company to finish their work because it affected the attendance.

The trolley company imported a gang of Italians, Hungarians, and Poles from New Haven to work on the Luna Park end of the track while local immigrant men worked on the Sisson Avenue end. The company paid the New Haven men $1.75 per hour while paying the local men $1.50.

When the local men did not get a raise, they threatened the New Haven men with violence and there were rumors that the Hartford men had guns. The New Haven men refused to go back to work for fear of their safety.

The general manager of New Haven’s Consolidated Railway Company came to the scene accompanied by the West Hartford’s Deputy Sheriff Foote and seven policemen from the Hartford police and surrounded the New Haven workers, making it safe for them to go back to work.

If the Hartford men did not go back to work at the old rate, they were told they would lose their jobs. About 30 men returned. The local men not only called for a raise in their pay, but also a decrease in the work day from 10 to 9 hours. The local men did not go to work on July 19. In response, the trolley company brought up another gang of workers from New Haven to complete the job.

Was this park “good” for West Hartford? If you were there, you would have felt the excitement of manufactured fun, big crowds and city lights.

For town officials, it wasn’t as simple as that. Workers, peanut vendors, immigrant laborers and Sunday amusement seekers pressed the bounds of what was acceptable in a 1906 suburban town.

Troop 12

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, July 2010

In June 2010, Adam Brown and Jeremy Schmitt both earned their Eagle Scout Award from Troop 12 at the First Congregational Church of Christ. Their journey, through more than 20 merit badges, countless weekends of camping, weekly meetings, popcorn sales, weeks at Yawgoog Summer Camp in Rhode Island and the demand to “do a good deed daily” added two more young men to the roster of about 1.8 million who have received this award since 1910. Four percent of those who start in scouting finally earn the award.

Jeremy and Adam are part of a strong scouting tradition in West Hartford. Troop 12 was founded in 1910 at the First Church. In 1936, the Universalist Church started Troop 44. Troop 136 is attached to the Westminster Presbyterian Church. Troop 146 began at the Methodist Church in 1941.

William H. Hall in his book West Hartford (1930) devoted three pages to “The Boys Brigade and Boy Scout Troop 12.” Minister Thomas Hodgdon of the Congregational Church organized the forerunner of Boy Scout Troop 12, the Boys Brigade, as part of an international organization started in Scotland in 1883. The activities included a mix of military drill, Bible study and camping. By 1905, about 14,000 12 to 18 year old boys across the United States joined the organization.

West Hartford’s group was called Company C. The impetus for the group back in Scotland came from a man who had trouble keeping order in his Sunday School classes and who believed that discipline instilled in the young men would help keep them in the church and out of trouble.

The original purpose of the Boys Brigade was “the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Reverence, Discipline, Self-Respect, and all that tends toward a true Christian Manliness.”

Reverend Thomas Hodgdon started the group and 30 boys joined. To be a member, boys had to swear off alcohol, tobacco, and obscene language. They wore military uniforms. Hodgdon met with the boys weekly; the first part of each meeting was religious. Then the boys marched to the old Town Hall on the northwest corner of Main and Farmington, where they performed military drills with dummy rifles.

In May, the boys performed their Annual Exhibition Drill and the townspeople came to watch. The best “driller” won a prize after keen competition. On Memorial Day they escorted the veterans to the cemetery.

Camping was an important part of the Boys Brigade in Scotland and in West Hartford as well. The boys went to camp for two weeks each June. Two years they went to the Aqueduct on the Farmington River. In 1909 they camped at the Connecticut shore for two weeks. Campers conducted mock battles, played sports and stood guard at night.

British Army Maj. Gen. Robert S.S. Baden-Powell, who fought in the war against the Boers in South Africa (1899-1902), saw 7,000 Boys Brigaders drill in Glasgow. He was impressed by their enthusiasm but believed the program could be expanded to include more of what he defined as scouting. When he formed the Boy Scouts in 1910, many Boys Brigades, like West Hartford’s Company C, transformed into Boy Scout troops.

Between 1910 and 1913, Connecticut Boy Scout Troop 12 raised $600 to buy lumber and supplies to build a cabin on the old Porter estate on the eastern slope of Talcott Mountain, just west of the Canal Road. Samuel Valentine owned the land and he allowed the boys to build on his property. The cabin had a sleeping loft and a stone fireplace and became known as Camp Valentine.

On the 200th anniversary of the First Church in May 1913, officials dedicated the cabin. The cabin was built by the labor of scoutmasters and the Boy Scouts. 150 people gathered including parents and friends of scouts, Campfire Girls and other bicentennial guests. Twenty-two Boy Scouts in uniform lined the veranda of the camp as their leaders related the short history of the troop. Though the Scouts are a religious organization, Troop 12 was established as a non-denominational troop.

Reverend Henry B. Roberts dedicated the cabin with the following words:

We dedicate this house for noble uses of the Boy Scouts, their parents, and friends; for the cultivation of the pleasures of comradeship and friendship, for the increase of our knowledge of the birds, the trees, the rocks and the precious things of the earth; for the promotion of mutual helpfulness and the cultivation of deftness of hand, and readiness of heart, to give help and succor to those who are in need of our kindness and assistance; for the honor of our church, the good name of our town, and the increase of true patriotism.

At the camp, activities included first aid to the injured, swimming, and hiking all to build character, independence and perseverance.

The moving force behind the troop was Rev. Hodgdon who had a son who was a patrol leader. Arthur R. Thompson was appointed scoutmaster in 1911 when the troop formed. Thompson was an explorer and naturalist. In the summer of 1894, he traveled with a group toward the North Pole. He was shipwrecked on the coast of Greenland. In 1898, he took an extended trip to Alaska where he panned for gold. Thompson wrote two books about his adventures and encouraged his troop to have an adventurous spirit.

From 1915 to 1928, Dr. Edwin H. Munger served as scoutmaster. He was an enthusiastic leader who trained and drilled the boys efficiently. He studied nature and took the boys on hikes exploring the birds, flowers, trees, ferns, and rocks. On his death, the man who became scoutmaster eulogized Munger by saying

“The Town of West Hartford has been exceedingly fortunate in having had a real Scoutmaster in the late Dr. E.H. Munger, for under his guidance Scouting in the Town has taken a very high rank. Troop 12 has been, since its organization in 1911, one of the leading troops in the East, with an average of 31 boys each year registered.”

By 1928, 17 years after its founding, Troop 12 had produced 40 Eagle Scouts, an average of more than two per year. Though Camp Valentine is gone, Troop 12 lives on.Their first Eagle Scout ceremony in six years was performed at the church in late June, promoting two scouts to Eagle, one being my son. These boys are part of a long line of young men who persevered to earn the Eagle Scout badge.

William Howard Taft comes to West Hartford

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, July 2011

What would you do if the President came to town? The people in West Hartford were faced with that very question in the summer of 1911. William Howard Taft’s visit to the Connecticut State Fair on September 7 mobilized the West Hartford Grange selectmen led by Frederick E. Duffy, the Hartford police and city council, Governor Simeon Baldwin, local citizens and peace activists looking to arbitrate rather than fight about diplomatic issues.

Every September, starting in the early 20th century, the Connecticut Fair Association held its harvest fair on the grounds of the Charter Oak Race Track on New Park Avenue. The Fair ran concurrently with Race Week, which started on Labor Day when the most important horse races were run. Luna Park opened on the site in 1906 and attracted the amusement park crowd, who also attended the State Fair. The three attractions pulled in tens of thousands of visitors.

Each year, the Connecticut Fair, a private venture established for profit, named one day as Grange Day and encouraged the Grange to find a nationally known speaker.

When September 7 was set for Grange Day in 1911, the Connecticut Fair went ahead and secured President William Howard Taft as the speaker. The Grange said that the fair had broken its agreement and declared the engagement off.

Taft was in his third year as president, after serving as Teddy Roosevelt’s Vice-President for four years. Taft was a Republican who believed in Progressive ideas. He opposed trusts, and in 1911 brought suits against American Tobacco, Standard Oil, and US Steel. Taft also supported a protective tariff, which the conservative wing of the party supported.

For the Grange leadership, Taft’s invitation was anathema. On August 2, West Hartford’s Frederick E. Duffy, a Democrat and executive officer of the State Grange was quoted in the Hartford Times saying “the Grange cannot consistently participate in the reception to be tendered for President Taft when he comes to Hartford. The Grange is opposed to the Reciprocity Idea in all its aspects, and as President Taft has been the leader in that movement the Grange does not care to take part in any event in which he is a guest.”

Duffy, who owned Meadowbrook Farm in West Hartford, traveled to Washington earlier in the year to testify in hearings against the Reciprocity Treaty. The 1911 treaty negotiated with Canada’s Liberal government provided for free trade in natural products and the reduction of duties on a variety of other products. In August 1911, the US Congress ratified the treaty but when Canada’s Liberal Government lost the general election in September 1911, the Canadian government never ratified the treaty. When Taft planned his trip to Connecticut, this treaty was much in the news.

Duffy believed that free trade would hurt U.S. farmers and Taft should know just how strongly the farmers felt. Duffy said that they meant no slur on Taft, but that Duffy was “very much opposed to the President’s stand on reciprocity.”

Most of all, the Grange, who had been representing farmers for over 35 years, believed reciprocity would help the middleman, those who would trade in the increased volume of goods, much more than it would help the farmer. The Connecticut Grange, which began in 1876, tried to support and protect small farmers in their relationship to the state and federal governments. By 1910, there were 25,00 Grangers in Connecticut.

But just like in unions, the rank and file did not always agree with the leadership. On the reciprocity question, many Grangers were able to separate their beliefs about Reciprocity and the visit of the President to their town. In local politics, however, Democrat Duffy would not relent. His position led L.J. Masury to resign from the West Hartford Board of Education rather than serve on the board with Duffy because of his active stand against President Taft and his visit.

Grangers who went to a Field Day at Lake Compounce on August 25 also expressed their opinion about Taft coming to the Connecticut State Fair. Some in the Grange wanted to boycott the Fair because of Taft’s presence but many claimed not to be opposed to the President himself.

Meanwhile, town and city governments rolled into action. On August 8, Hartford’s Board of Police Commissioners discussed Taft’s visit to the Connecticut Fair. The Hartford Police Department had jurisdiction over Charter Oak Park even though it was in West Hartford. The police regularly stood at the gates and patrolled inside the park. With the President’s planned visit, the cost of police protection at the West Hartford site increased even more. Hartford’s Board of Commissioners questioned their role in West Hartford. Newspaper articles claimed that other for-profit organizations had to pay for their own police protection, but not the Connecticut Fair Association. This issue would not be resolved until West Hartford had its first paid police eight years later.

Just ten days before Taft’s arrival, West Hartford’s selectmen resolved that they should develop a committee whose purpose it was to prepare the town to officially welcome Taft. The Selectmen named Judge William Case the chairman of the committee of 192 men. Frederick Duffy was notably missing from the list of the town elite. By time September rolled around, West Hartford closed schools for the Thursday Taft visited to allow the children to visit the Connecticut Fair and see the President

On September 7, Taft arrived in Hartford’s Union Station from Boston on his private railway car. Democratic Governor Simeon Baldwin met him and led the opening ceremonies and the parade as they rode in an automobile from the train station to the newly opened Supreme Court and State Library building where he had lunch among Connecticut’s finest.

The car then took him and his entourage including U.S. Attorney General George Wickersham to the Fair where Taft delivered his speech to an estimated 30,000 people who completely filled the Charter Oak Race Track from fence to fence.

Taft made a nod to those at the fair, saying that farmers increasingly needed to use the scientific principles in farming to increase the value of farmland. He noted that in Connecticut with two representatives from each town in the General Assembly that farmers had a particular hold on political power.

Then he moved into the topic of his speech: the “duty of the American nation to promote worldwide peace.” On August 3, 1911, the United States, France and Britain signed a series of treaties on international arbitration to settle international disputes. Taft’s excitement and interest in this topic came at a time of militarization in Europe, and imperialism in Central and Latin America. In Taft’s speech he used arguments that would appear again eight years later when the Senate debated the Versailles Treaty.

Taft spoke of permanent peace to relieve nations of preparation for war. He believed tariffs could be arbitrated and that these negotiations would not take away power from the U.S. Senate. Just three years later a “war to end all wars” broke out in Europe.

For September 7, 1911, West Hartford focused on the visit of the President. As Taft was whisked back to his personal train car, and taken back to Boston and then his summer home in Beverly, Massachusetts, West Hartford’s residents were left to mend their political disagreements, think about a professional police force, enjoy the rest of Race Week, and perhaps, dream of international peace.

Mary Beach’s trip to the Mediterranean

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, August 2001

Just back from a classical tour of Greece, I was fascinated to reach back in the files of the Noah Webster House and find Mary Beach’s 102-page diary of a tour she took in the Mediterranean in early 1912. Mary, born in 1858, was the third of three daughters and two sons of Charles M. Beach, a Hartford merchant in dyes and chemicals and a gentleman farmer in West Hartford.

Mary’s ability to take a three-month trip to Europe in 1912 at age 54, rested to a great degree on the business accomplishments of her father. Charles M. Beach’s success allowed him to move to West Hartford in 1859 when he bought the land on the northeast corner of New Britain Avenue and South Main Street, stretching east to Quaker Lane. He established a farm, run scientifically, that produced the first sterilized cow’s milk suitable for babies, called “babies’ milk.” Charles M.’s success on Vine Hill Farm in business and agriculture led to a very comfortable life for him and his family.

Mary took her first trip to Europe at age 20, in 1878. Though we have no written record from this trip, her 1912 diary notes that she was at Solfaterra, Italy at the site of an active volcano which she found “much more wonderful than when I was here 34 yrs. ago – and even more scary!” Her trip at age 20 was part of a new movement among the upper class to send daughters on the grand tour to complete their education.

We often think that “in the old days” people were not as mobile as we are today with airplanes, busses, and high-speed ferries, but Mary’s trip from January 10 to April 30, 1912 constituted a grand tour of the Mediterranean, the envy of any modern traveler.

Mary Beach’s diary entry of February 22, 1912 describes her visit to Cairo — which she found depressing. She tells of visiting the mummies of Rameses II and a drive along the side of the Nile with views of the Pyramids. She describes riding a camel for the first time. Source: Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.

Tourism as an industry began to appear in the United States in the late 19th century. As wealth accumulated with industrialization and people were able to separate work from family, the middle and upper classes had distinct periods of vacation time. In 1910, President Taft suggested that a vacation should be two to three months long. People agreed that the pressures of modern life necessitated an annual vacation. Spurred by paintings and photographs of the west and the growth of national parks, and the transcontinental railroad completed in 1869, travel in the United States grew into an industry.

In the two decades before World War I, an estimated 200,000 upper class Americans traveled to Europe each year. Travel agencies could be counted on to make all the necessary arrangements for transatlantic crossings and Continental tours that cost between $400 and $600. At this time, an average male factory worker made, at most, $1,000 per year.

Mary Beach’s trip began in New York City on January 10, 1912 aboard the SS Adriatic. She traveled with a group that included her sisters Edith and Frances. After nine days on the Atlantic, they arrived in the Azores where she was “delighted with the quaint town –- so clean & fresh & yet so mediaeval with many town street gates and arches, & elaborate stucco doorways.”

The group then went to Madeira, Gibraltar, Algiers, Nice, Genoa, Naples, Cairo and the Aswan Dam, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Athens, Corinth, Naples, Pompeii, Amalfi, Sorrento, Rome (at Easter), and northern Italy before returning home after a full three months.

Mary’s trip, like those in the 21st century, included sightseeing, shopping, and learning. When she left Egypt, she noted, “None of us cared for Alexandria nor for Port Said, except that at the latter shopping was good and reasonable.”

At Constantinople, Mary noted that at the Hippodrome she saw a “broken twisted bronze column, which once supported the famous tripod of the Priestess of Delphi of which Miss Hamilton [Edith Hamilton’s Mythology] had told me when I was a child of 8 or 9.” Mary’s classical education was reinforced by her travel.

On trips like Mary’s, the sites were important, but the dynamics of the group also added to the trip. “The next morning March 8 we reached Piraeus and just after lunch E.B. (Edith, her sister) and I took a run up to Athens and photographed the Acropolis from the street on the further side. Had not time to climb. On my return I bought Mr. O. a 3p. box of matches with a picture on it of the Acropolis, etc. and found he had bought me a jar of honey from Hymettus (strained) which is very delicate and yet highly flavored and which we are greatly enjoying. It is not overrated at all. Thought continually of F.B. White and his love of the place.” Traveling provided a milieu in which to build relationships, which she might not have back home.

On returning to Athens after visiting Constantinople, the tour took them to the Acropolis as well as to the countryside. Mary was interested in both antiquities and the present day situation in Greece. Upon arriving, she wrote “Drove this morning & saw modern Athens with its handsome public building copying the ancient style; one of the finest cities we have seen, Byron’s monument, the beautiful modern stadium (for the 1896 Olympics).” She noted the ongoing archaeological work: “excavations are begun on the Roman market place [next] to the Forum which are to extend to the base of the Acropolis and to be turned into a public park. The Archaeological Soc. have both and expect to pull down all the modern houses (all of a humble sort) in this portion of the city to carry out this place.”

She also noted the quaintness of what she considered traditional life. “On the edge of the sea, we saw a most picturesque sight of a peasant and his wife and daughters with a large herd of goats, sheep, 2 donkeys and sheep herder dogs. The man with his short petticoats, the woman and girls with crooks and yellow handkerchiefs, trying to make a goat give its newborn twin kids their dinner. We tumbled out of the carriage and tried to get photos. The family were very fine & noble looking, with attractive manners, at first even refusing the money we offered after posing for us. We were delighted with them.”

Mary Beach’s tour must have made West Hartford look new and small when she returned. The town had about 5,000 people and was becoming more of a suburb, but its oldest buildings were but 250 years old. She did not feel that she would keep up with any of the “fellow travelers” in her group when she got home, but her outlook on the world must have been altered by these three months.

In the past 50 years, travel has been democratized by being more accessible to more of the population, but trips like that of Mary Beach in 1878 and 1912 set a standard for vacations and tourism.

Mary S. Deming

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, January 2010

On November 12, 1920, just after the first national election in which all United States women had the right to vote, Katherine Ludington, President of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association spoke at a meeting commemorating 50 years of activism. With the national suffrage amendment just three months old, she proclaimed “not paper imitations of citizens but women of purpose and practical information will be the result of the citizenship campaign the association is to conduct.” She proclaimed that the CWSA would build a state organization that would be a “non-partisan civic organization—a league of women voters.”

West Hartford women in the late 1910s and 1920s got involved in the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association and the newly formed League. West Hartford was a rapidly developing suburban town of about 9,000 people, the population almost doubling in the previous World War I decade. Many of the families who moved from Hartford to West Hartford during this time period held white-collar jobs at Hartford’s growing insurance companies.

West Hartford’s Mary S. Deming held leadership roles in the suffrage movement and the League of Women Voters and ran for election to West Hartford’s new Town Council in 1922. Like most women involved in women’s rights, she took her role as citizen seriously, and got involved in many different issues between 1918 and 1922.

Mary E. Smith married William Deming sometime between 1916 and 1918. William became a secretary of Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1906 at age 49. He had been employed since 1875 when he first got a job, straight from high school, as a clerk. He belonged to the Hartford Golf Club, the Hartford Club, the Twentieth Century Club, the Republican Club, and the Hartford Yacht Club. His first wife died in 1909 of typhoid fever at age 52 at their summer home in Sachem’s Head, Guilford. He owned a home at 47 Highland Street in West Hartford.

Mary Deming’s first mention in the Hartford Courant is on July 30, 1918, 14 months after the United States entered World War I. She was in charge of enrolling the first group of women as nurses to enlist at Liberty College in Hartford’s City Hall Square. The Hartford Courant noted that some women were married, most were employed, and the women represented many ethnic and socio-economic groups. Deming was in charge of the booth that recruited the nurses.

When the United States entered World War I, suffragists around the country wondered if they should jump into the war effort if they themselves were denied the rights of citizenship. In Connecticut, the great majority of women involved in the suffrage movement believed that their aid in the war effort would help change President Woodrow Wilson’s mind about woman suffrage and speed along the movement. Deming knew that citizenship included more than the vote and she jumped into the war effort at the very start.

In April 1919, Mary Deming appeared in a Hartford Courant photograph with eleven other women as one of the “Suffrage Workers for Liberty Loan.” Even after the war ended in November 1918, the federal government needed to borrow money from its citizens to pay for the war through the sale of liberty bonds.

In January 1919, the Social and Personal section of the Courant showed Mrs. Deming resuming her Monday, Wednesday Friday Red Cross classes in First Aid. Her interest in health was useful during wartime.

Mary S. Deming, also written about as Mrs. William H. Deming, was involved in the leadership of the suffrage movement. She led fundraising in Hartford County and raised $100,000 in May 1919. The point of the campaign was to raise money for citizenship work and public services to be offered by the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association. Many men and women not actively involved in the suffrage movement jumped in to help out. Deming helped to formulate the campaign that sought subscriptions from individuals from every community in the state during the second week of June 1919. Team captains reported daily on their progress. She helped organize each county for the work. This type of grassroots campaigning continues to mark the work of the League of Women Voters.

Right after this campaign, Mr. Deming died at the end of June 1919. He was 61 years old. Mary, now a widow, continued her political work.

When women won the right to vote in August 1920, Mary continued her political work. She moved, as most women did, to affiliate with the League of Women Voters. She became chair of the Legislative Committee, and spent much time at the state capitol, following bills through hearings. Authors Nicholas Kristoff and Shirley WuDunn in their new book, Half the Sky (2009), argue that the woman’s right to vote, led to a elected officials paying attention to their new female constituents. They particularly point to the passage of the Shepard-Towner Act (1922) for maternal and infant care as part of their evidence.

Deming was part of these new voters. On March 18, 1922, she wrote a letter to the Hartford Courant in support of the Shepard-Towner Bill, which would provide federal moneys for maternal and infant health. The Courant, a Republican newspaper, opposed the Act, worried about federal intrusion into what they considered to be a local issue. Deming countered by using statistics that 200,000 babies died in 1919 in the United States and 20,000 mothers died in childbirth. She called this a “national disgrace.” The United States ranked 7th among 20 developed nations in the death rate of children under one and 17th on the list of maternal mortality.

Deming countered the Courant editors’ fear of federal aid saying that it was a 50:50 proposition with the federal government and state governments splitting the cost. She argued that the Courant supported the Good Roads Act under which Connecticut accepted over two million dollars for good roads, and she believed that the state should be willing to accept money for maternal and infant health. Connecticut stood to gain $45,000 for maternal and infant health over the period of two years. She assured readers that a state agency would administer the act.

Later in 1922, Deming and one other woman were candidates running for Town Council. According to the Courant, “she has been interested in politics for some time and attended sessions of the Legislature as chairman of the legislative committee of the League of Women Voters.” Though neither woman won, they exercised their rights as a citizen in getting in the race. Like the first women who were finally elected in West Hartford in the 1960s, her League experience pushed her to take part in the public world.

The League of Women Voters of Greater Hartford has been working feverishly over the past six months to put together a display on the 90-year history of the Connecticut League since it began November 1920. Go visit the Legislative Office Building in the month of January 2010 and you will learn how the League defined active citizenship. The Greater Hartford Chapter has been active over the past 90 years. They work to be sure that women do not just exercise their right of citizenship at the ballot box. They work to insure that voters, both men and women, are informed, run for office, and lobby their representatives. Their issues change with the times, but their bipartisan movement, remains to make people good citizens and make sure government is of, by, and for the people. Look at Mary Deming’s example 90 years ago.

American School for the Deaf

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, October 2011

After ten years of discussions, the American School for the Deaf is razing its iconic Gallaudet Hall and erecting a new building in its place. Since 2009, the main building at the American School for the Deaf, with its 175,000 square feet of space, was limited by health and safety officials because it had deteriorated to a point where it was unsafe for students. Executive Director Ed Pelletier wants to build a new 60,000 square foot facility for $20 million that will better serve the needs of the school. Pelletier argued that rehabbing Gallaudet Hall will cost $45 million.

In 1914, officials from the American School for the Deaf began to plan the new building which became Gallaudet Hall. The buildings on Asylum Avenue in Hartford were old and not fireproof and the directors of the school worried about getting students out in case of a fire. They were concerned about the mobility of the “defective children” who could not hear.

When they looked for a new site, they wanted it to be big enough to teach the boys how to farm, which according to a Hartford Courant article in November 1920, was a “vocation which as deaf mutes, they were most fitted to follow.”

On August 4, 1917, officials from the American School for the Deaf recorded the transfer of 92 acres of land on North Main Street just north of Fern Street for $30,000. On May 10, 1918, the Hartford Courant reported that the school would not move from its 690 Asylum Avenue (where Asylum and Farmington split) location until after the Great War ended.

When the land was bought in 1917, the directors estimated it would cost $350,000 to build the new building, based on labor and building conditions. They planned to build it for 200 students.

On March 12, 1919, representatives of ASD in Hartford appeared before the Appropriations Committee to get their support for $300,000 to build the Hall. The American School for the Deaf was incorporated in 1816 after a petition signed by 63 citizens made its way to the legislature. In 1816, the state gave the school $5,000. The school opened in 1817 with seven students and became the first permanent school for the deaf in the United States. In 1819, Congress gave ASD 22,000 acres of land, which they sold to build the school on Asylum Avenue. The original building was completed in 1821. At its original site, the school was “in the country.” But by 1919, it was surrounded by buildings. The school planned to sell its building and land in Hartford, to build Gallaudet Hall at an estimated cost of $500,000. According to Trinity Professor Henry A. Perkins, who was President of ASD, “the present ones [buildings] are antiquated, the new buildings will be fireproof. Other states will probably withdraw their pupils as they build schools of their own,” if the state would not appropriate the money.

On May 13, 1919, Governor Marcus Holcomb signed a bill to provide $250,000 to build the school and to equip it. Two days later, the Hartford Fire Insurance Company bought the Asylum Avenue building from ASD directors for $250,000. Hartford Fire planned to raze the building within four months.

When the state appropriated the $250,000 for building the new school, they had to approve the plans that included a fireproof brick building, with a “maximum of light and convenience.” According to Professor Perkins from Trinity who was chair of the ASD Board, the “new building will be of attractive appearance, although it will not be ornamental to any great extent.” The architectural firm Isaac A. Allen, Inc. of Hartford designed a colonial style building. It set a trend for the buildings later built in the center of town including Hall High School, which is the present town hall building built in 1924, the Town Hall and Noah Webster Library built in the mid 1930s and the First Congregational Church built in the 1940s.

The cornerstone was laid on July 22, 1920. As they built the building, right at the end of World War I, they had much difficulty getting materials. Tile ordered in June 1919 arrived 10 months later. In March 1921, the trustees asked the legislature for an additional $100,000 because of cost overruns.

The building committee wanted the new building to be “substantial, durable, and reasonably attractive.” The architects planned for an imposing three-storied administration building with 286 feet frontage, and 40-foot depth. The two wings of three stories held classroom buildings and the south wing had a covered passageway to connect it to a separate building for the primary grades. Attached to the north wing were the heating plant, boilers, workshops, and laundry. The structure included two grassy courtyards between the two wings of the main building, which separated the dining room. The kitchen was built as a separate building. The administrative building had a reception room, executive offices, library, 11 classrooms, a club room (one for girls and one for boys), locker rooms, and toilet facilities.

The second floor included 14 classrooms, a study hall for girls and one for boys, a room for a supervisor and a matron, and the girls’ dorms in the south and the boys’ dorms in the north wing. The assembly hall over the dining hall was two stories, had a stage, was set up to show movies, and could seat 250 people. Above the kitchen were “women servants’” quarters.

On the third floor was an infirmary, and living quarters for nurses and attendants. It included an art room, three sewing rooms, a room for a cooking class, and six more dorm rooms for teachers or students.

In March 22, 1922, Governor Templeton dedicated the buildings which served the school well for almost 90 years.

In 2011, architect Tai Soo Kim will design the new building which will be located to the east of Gallaudet Hall. When it is completed, Gallaudet Hall will be taken down and architects and landscapers will design a quad in between the new building and the gym. The cupola from Gallaudet Hall will sit in the middle of this quad.

For members of the ASD community, the decision to raze Gallaudet Hall has been long and agonizing. But the realities of the 21st century technology and the changes in ASD students have led them to this decision.

When Gallaudet Hall was built in 1921, most of the students who attended the school became deaf after they learned language. In the 21st century, almost all ASD students are born deaf with multiple obstacles to learning added onto their deafness. This new building will be able to serve these students more effectively.

About this book

Copyright © 2018 by Tracey M. Wilson. Life in West Hartford is freely available online at http://LifeInWestHartford.org and distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Readers may share the work for non-commercial use, by including a source credit to the author.

Creative Commons License

Print copies of this book are available for sale from the publisher, the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society, in West Hartford, Connecticut. Proceeds of sales benefit the Society http://noahwebsterhouse.org.