The Market Revolution

We Are What We Have

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, December 2002

When I look at the possessions in my house, I know that life is different for my children than it was for me. They have more things: more toys, more sports equipment, more books, computers, electronics and even different types of food.

The material trappings of a 21st century life reflect not only what we have, but also our values. Different things surround me, and my beliefs are shaped, to a degree, by these possessions.

Historians look back in time to reveal both what we have in common with those who lived before us and what makes us different. They like to discover connections between people over time that reveal not only what they own, but also what they thought and felt.

An 1836 inventory from West Division resident Thomas Barrows gives a snapshot of his world. When Barrows died in 1836, officials from the town came to his home and enumerated all of his belongings.

When I read his inventory, a list that goes on for five and a half columns, I see evidence about how life changed in the West Division from 1770 to the 1830s, and I think about how national and world events contributed.

The first industrial revolution began in the U.S. because of an embargo of British goods caused by the war of 1812. With the embargo, Americans began to manufacture more of their own products outside the home in shops and factories. This began with the mass production of textiles in Lowell, Massachusetts, around 1815 and continued with mass production of chairs, pottery, and carpets. Manufacturers used new technology and a new organization of work to produce better goods at a cheaper price.

As farmers began to specialize and produce a surplus, they joined the market economy and had the means to buy more products. Transportation improved with the coming of the steam engine and railroads; the steamboat and canals also encouraged trade.

Thomas Barrow’s inventory does not let us down on this score. His belongings revealed the increase in the amount of goods Americans possessed.

He had more than 40 pieces of clothing including nine coats, nine pairs of pantaloons, six cotton shirts and nine vests. This is far more clothing than the three sets of clothing the average man had in the 1770s.

Cloth was cheap and without having to spin, women had more time to sew clothing. Even though he had a great wheel, it is likely it was used only for spinning thread for specialty items, not for everyday cloth. He had one pair of boots and three pair of shoes.

Some items tell us about trade. He had a silk handkerchief, silk stockings and a palm leaf hat. The China trade, which began in the 1780s, continued, and the interest in producing silk cloth in Connecticut had begun. Cheney Mills in Manchester started to produce silk cloth. It is likely the palm leaf hat came from the British -controlled islands in the Caribbean.

The Barrows inventory reflected the increased importance of individualism found in the amount of silverware. In the 1770s, some inventories list no silverware. Barrows had three sets of knives and forks, two large silver spoons, five tablespoons and twelve silver teaspoons.

He had a tin wash basin. In the 1770s, wash basins were made of pottery. The 1850 census shows that a tinner actually lived in town. Barrows also had tin funnels, a tin coffee pot and a tin two-quart measure. In the 1770s, measuring for baking was done with a pottery cup with no markings. In the 1830s, the first recipe books came out which required more exact measurements. New foods were available and cooking changed as people began to use cook stoves rather than cook over an open fireplace. No longer was a meal made as a stew in one pot.

Barrows owned a carpet, a new addition to home decorating. This was a sign that people had money beyond what it took to provide food and shelter. Carpet mills in Tariffville and Thompsonville had already started to manufacture these carpets.

Though there is no evidence in his inventory, some people put wallpaper on their walls for the first time and others added curtains. This ability to decorate was not just an activity of the rich, but served the middle class as well.

Barrows’ brass clock may have come from the fledgling clock industry in Waterbury and signified an increased interest in time, which came with industrialization’s marketing of a workday in hours.

But some things continued. Reminding us of 60 years earlier, Barrows had a horse harness, leather halter, horse whip and draft chain, a plow, a wood saw, 30 harrow teeth, a hoe, an axe, an iron crowbar, an ox yoke and an iron shovel, all tools of a farmer.

Barrows had a Bible and a psalm book and these were his only books. He had horses, swine, sheep and cows. He had 4 pounds of wool rolls, 5 bushels of wheat, 4 bushels of rye, 2 and a half bushels of wheat, 100 bushels of potatoes, 17 pounds of butter, 10 tons of hay, 6 barrels of cider and 75 pounds of cheese. These items showed continuity with the past.

He had mulberry trees worth $14, the value of one of his 24 acres of land. Silkworms live in mulberry trees, and there was an idea that they could grow silkworms in New England for the silk industry. Only two years later the Cheney Silk Mills opened in Manchester.

Why would Barrows take a risk and invest in mulberry trees? As a budding capitalist, he had an idea that his investment could bring him some profit along the way. He had to have a surplus to take the risk; he had to have an idea to take the risk. He had to have the means to procure a tree, all things that took time and money. Woefully, this experiment with mulberry trees was unsuccessful, though the silk industry in Connecticut was quite profitable from the 1840s to the 1920s.

Thomas Barrows’ inventory provides a snapshot into a life during Andrew Jackson’s presidency that shows both continuity and change. He was both a traditional man with his roots in farming, but also a man accepting new ideas with his carpet and his mulberry trees. Often it is our grounding in the past that allows us to try new things.

Diversity in West Hartford

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, November 2003

According to the 2000 United States census, 22% of West Hartford residents spoke a language other than English at home. The languages spoken in these homes included Spanish (6.4%), other European (11%) and Asian (4%). Almost 15% of the town’s residents are foreign born. Of these foreign born, 46% come from Europe, 28% from Asia, 16% from Latin America, 6% from North America, and 4% from Africa.

When residents report their ancestries, the largest was Irish at almost 17%, followed by Italian (11%), English (10%), Germans (9%), Polish (6%) and Russian (6%). When residents were asked about their race, 86% indicated they were white, 6.3% Hispanic, 4.8% African American, and 4.8% Asian.

This represents a population which many consider to be much more diverse than West Hartford has ever been. In the schools, the differences are even more defined. That is, at Conard, for instance, about 12% are Hispanic, 9% African American and 9% Asian, about double that of the general population. These groups tend to be younger and have families.

A look back into the 19th and 20th centuries shows a picture of ethnic, racial, and religious diversity as well. The 1840 census (in which West Hartford was included in the Hartford figures), the population included Irish, German, French, and Swedish immigrants. Patrick McCabe, Patrick Martin, and James Riley were all petitioners in 1854 to make West Hartford a separate town. None, though, were among the first office holders in the new town.

The Irish presence in the 1840s, however, did not translate into much religious diversity at that point. In fact, it wasn’t until 1918 that the first Roman Catholic Church, St. Brigid opened in town. This church was a mission chapel of the St. Lawrence O’Toole Church just west on New Britain Avenue in Hartford. Today St. Lawrence O’Toole holds services in Vietnamese on Sundays.

A look at the birth records of the town from 1885 to 1899 reveals quite a diverse population before the turn of the twentieth century. Irish, English, Swedish, and French Canadians are the ancestries most listed. A look at the death records for the same time period reveals mostly native born and Irish. Other anecdotal evidence appears as well. In a letter which described registering men between the ages of 18 and 46 for the war on September 12, 1918, three interpreters were present: N.C. Casciano, Italian, Bernard Caya, French, and Malcolm Swanson, Swede. In 1918, West Hartford’s population stood at about 8,000, and there was a need for interpreters in three different languages.

By 1919, Swedes bought property on Park Road near Oakwood Avenue for $1,000 to build a chapel seating 200. The structure was built mainly by men from the church. In 1921 the West Hartford Ladies were organized into an auxiliary and by 1941, they had worked long enough and hard enough to pay off the mortgage. The Swedes were active in the Boy Scouts and they built a cabin for the troop near Mountain Road in the area around Spice Bush Swamp. Very quickly the West Hartford Chapel had to be enlarged because the Sunday School grew so rapidly. Even today, the legacy of this large group of Swedish immigrants remains in the Park Road area. You can still buy Swedish sausage and bread at Hall’s market. A.C. Petersen’s and Youngstrom’s Floor Covering are still going concerns.

But, today if you drive down Park Road, you will see a distinct Asian presence with a Vietnamese and a Chinese market, and Pho Tuong Lai, a Vietnamese restaurant.

In 1936, Congregation Beth Israel moved from Hartford to 701 Farmington Avenue. Jews began to move from Hartford’s north end to West Hartford in the mid 1920s. Abraham Feldman had been the rabbi of the congregation since 1925. When he came to Hartford, there were about 200 families at the temple. When he retired in the early 1970s, his West Hartford congregation had over 1,400 families with more than 1100 children in the religious school.

Feldman, in an oral interview in 1974, remembered West Hartford as being a closed community politically. He believed it was “the most Republican town in the United States.” Feldman related that there was “no chance for a young Jew, or a Jewish lawyer… to enter the political life of the community.” He said this was also true for Catholics.

Feldman related a story he had with a town chairman of one political party in town at the dedication of the Universalist Church in town in 1931. Feldman said the chairman asked him point blank, “What do you want?” He replied, ”There isn’t a damn thing I want from you… I have never come to ask you to appoint a Jew, to give a job to a Jew, or to do anything else for a Jew. But heaven help you if I ever get a report that you have denied a job to a man because he was a Jew.”

The Catholic population had been in town longer than the Jews, but still the Protestants controlled the town politically until the 1960s when Democrats got elected more frequently. In the 1970s and 1980s Sandy Klebanoff, Beverly Greenberg and Lonnie Brick led the Town Council and Board of Education.

How has the town reacted to these changes? It seems like the economy changes first. The various ethnic and racial groups establish businesses and through that become a part of the community. It seems as though it takes at least another generation to get political representation.

The newer migrants to West Hartford — Asians, Hispanics, and a larger group of African Americans — have only begun to test the political waters in town. The first Asian, Naogan Ma, who serves on the Board of Education, is a Republican. Today’s elected officials reflect the ethnic diversity of second and third generation migrants from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Present members of the Town Council and Board of Education represent the Irish, Italian, French Canadian, and Jewish migrants of two or more generations earlier.

Though the housing stock in town has changed little since 1970, those who live in those houses have changed, not so much in their economic backgrounds as in their ethnic and racial makeup. In a real democracy, the town government should reflect those changes, but using the past as a yardstick, without any direct recruiting and encouragement, it may take another generation.

Remembering Romanta Seymour and 19th Century Agriculture

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, April 2010

In 1850, if you stood on the ridge that is South Main Street where it meets New Britain Avenue, cleared fields, pastures, and woodlots would surround you. You might see a grist mill to the east along Trout Brook and the South District one-room schoolhouse to the west.

If you traveled down the hill toward Elmwood Center, you could find Romanta Seymour’s farm. In October 1850, the Hartford County Agricultural Society awarded West Hartford’s Romanta Seymour second prize in a contest for the best-cultivated farm in the county. Seymour won $15 for his farm production, which made a 19 percent profit over the 1850 growing season.

By 1815, competition with western farms began the switch for New England farmers from wheat and meat production into dairy farming and vegetable production. Transportation improved over the next 35 years, allowing local farmers to more easily sell their surplus. The Hartford-New Haven Railroad line opened through Elmwood in 1839. Agricultural societies and fairs flourished under state aid.

Farmers began to use more scientific methods to increase their yields and the agricultural societies supported these efforts. The Hartford County Agricultural Society was incorporated in October 1817. While the industrial revolution in textiles began during this period of time, agricultural production continued to drive the U.S. economy. The value of agricultural goods increased more than 100 times between 1810 and 1880. West Hartford farmers were part of this growth in production.

Romanta Seymour’s house lot of 50 acres was on the south side of the old Farmington Road, now known as New Britain Avenue. The entire front of his property was lined by a white picket fence, according to the agricultural society, “giving a pleasant and comely appearance.”

In 1847, Romanta Seymour passed the farm’s management to his son William, who actively worked to increase the cultivation and production of the land. According to Seymour, the field produced a large hay crop without any manure and only a light top dressing of ashes. He planted grass seed in two small patches and its yield increased so much that he thought he would do that more in the future. His fields produced between two and three tons of hay to the acre. The average farm produced between three-quarters and one ton per acre.

Seymour probably planted about one quarter of his acreage in hay. The pasture at the end of the ravine that ran through his farm had not produced much under his father’s cultivation. However, William plowed the tract and the improvement raised yields by 50 percent.

He bought a section in the southeast part of his farm, which was covered with white birches and bushes so thick that even the cattle could not get into the area. In the past three years, Seymour “subdued it” to get in a crop of buckwheat.

Buckwheat, not related to wheat, grows best in a low-fertility, acidic soil. Today buckwheat is eaten as soba noodles, porridge and kasha. The grain grows quickly and is used as a second crop in the season, especially where the growing season is short. Some farmers use buckwheat as a cover crop because it grows and establishes itself quickly and keeps out weeds. Seymour’s crop netted him $50 in 1850.

According to the agricultural society, this land would soon turn into “handsome meadow ground producing hay in abundance, adding more than 100 percent to its value.” Seymour’s intensive use of the land through his “untiring industry” was a major factor in winning the agricultural prize.

Seymour owned 12 acres of land across the street to the north of his house. On this patch, he had three acres in pasture and the rest in grass and corn. The agricultural society commented on Seymour’s use of manure. He had large stalls with abundant straw. With some of last year’s manure remaining in the bottom to act as yeast, he was able to accumulate a good batch of manure. His animals produced 200 loads of manure annually, all of which Seymour plowed in for crops.

Even though by 1850 many New England farms had switched to dairy, it is unclear how many cows Seymour kept, but he did raise hogs and turkeys. He started an orchard by planting young apple trees that in 1850 were growing “luxuriantly.” He grew strawberries and had beehives and grew 11 different crops. Seymour’s income also included pasturing a neighbor’s two cows and a calf for $21 and labor done off the farm garnered $72.

He grew crops to consume directly, but also marketed some. According to former Town Historian Nelson Burr, rye was in great demand; West Hartford had a prosperous distilling business. Elmwood’s Ebenezer Faxon specialized in distilling and selling rye. The Goodman family distilled rye, corn, barley and cider. Mountain Road and Still Road had five distilleries and Gin Still Hill had three. The Connecticut River Valley also grew into a center of broom making and Seymour’s broomcorn would have fed this industry. His hay and corn were most likely fed to animals.

Seymour’s expenses included $160 for his own labor and $180 for hired labor. He bought ashes and plaster worth $47 and seeds for $25. His 19 percent profit for his work added up to $757 and led his farm to be recognized in Hartford County.

In 1850 West Hartford, farming dictated the rhythm of life. The fields, barnyard, garden and household ruled the lives of young and old from April to November. But farming changed with the market, just as manufacturing did. Farmers like William Seymour were moved by supply and demand, using their acreage to make the highest profit, and experimenting on plants, animals and insects to insure a good income. To be a good farmer in 1850, farm owners had to change with new technology, markets, transportation and crops. Seymour’s willingness to take risks on his farm led the Hartford County Agricultural Society to honor him.

In so doing, the society encouraged others to step out of the traditional ways and experiment, not unlike those in the industrial sector.

West Hartford Moves to Payson, Illinois

Originally appeared in West Hartford Life, December 2012

This building was erected by
Henry M. and Lucy W. Seymour
In memory of their only son

Jeff Zanger, principal of the Payson Seymour Elementary School, Payson, Illinois, assures me that this bronze plaque is still in the “beautiful marble foyer of our building. It is the first thing you see when you walk through our front doors.”

West Hartford descendants of the first settlers of Payson funded this high school building in 1912 and named it after the Seymour family. One of the original Charles Seymours lived in the West Division of Hartford during the American Revolution and served in the local militia. His son, Martin Seymour moved to Payson in 1838 and his grandson Henry built the high school.

West Hartford’s connection with this town of 1,026 people dates back 180 years. According to William H. Hall in his History of West Hartford (1930), “in 1833, Albigence Scarborough, a prominent citizen of West Hartford, rode on horseback to the far-off state of Illinois, for the purpose of prospecting with reference to the establishment of a new settlement there.” Scarborough, like so many others, believed that life could be better out west; his new settlement in Payson is a story of the transplanted, a move which made him adapt to the geography of Illinois, and brought much from New England.

A 1919 book, the History of Payson and Plainville, IL, claimed that Payson had “some of the richest lands” in its location just five miles east of the Mississippi River, just south of where Missouri, Iowa and Illinois meet. In the 1830s, many farmers from Connecticut and Massachusetts moved west as land became scarce and word of the fertility of western land filtered east.

Scarborough, it seems, walked “much of the way, in order to save the strength of his mule to carry provisions” on his first trip in 1833. He must have found the location satisfactory as he returned to West Hartford in 1834, packed up his family and belongings in a wagon to return to Illinois.

Deacon Albigence Scarborough purchased the land on which Payson now stands and in the spring of 1835 laid out the village in a grid, having it mapped and recorded. Scarborough followed the pattern of New England towns by setting a commons in the center. With two other settlers, he laid out and sold lots in late summer 1836, and four acres of land were given by Deacon Scarborough upon which to build a school.

Scarborough named the town after Edward Payson (1783-1827), a Congregational minister from Portland, Maine who preached during the Second Great Awakening. Scarborough admired Payson, a man who read Jonathan Edwards and preached with “the eloquence of truth spoken in love.” Payson preached in Maine and in many pulpits around New England and Scarborough must have heard him.

Scarborough acted on his faith and helped to build a Congregational Church in 1839 but even before it was dedicated, it burned down. A second church, smaller than the first, was built right away. The Congregational Church was the second church in town, following the Baptist Church in 1834. In 1836 the Methodists formed a religious society as well.

Deacon Scarborough planted the first apple orchard in the spring of 1838. He bought the trees in St. Louis. A few years later he planted peach trees which produced some of the best peaches around. By 1835 a new migrant from New York opened the first store in Payson. By 1837, two merchants set up shop and one became the first postmaster.

Scarborough helped fund and build the first parsonage in 1845. Scarborough had the help of the Mormons in his endeavor. They were hounded out of Nauvoo, a town just 60 miles north where Mormon leader Joseph Smith was killed in 1844. Most of these refugees made their way to what became Salt Lake City by 1849, but in the meantime, some stopped in Payson and helped Deacon Scarborough.

In the late 1830s, many other West Hartford residents moved to Payson. According to Hall, Moses Spencer left his farm on Farmington Avenue just west of the center and took his wife and nine children there in 1839. In 1930, his descendant was one of the largest landowners in Payson. Charles Whitman, Cyrus and Wells Butler, and Martin Seymour with his wife and nine children all travelled to Payson. Seymour owned a 100 acre farm on the present site of the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford; in Payson he managed a limestone quarry.

Payson quickly distinguished itself as a place to get a good education. This was unusual for the frontier, but the West Hartford settlers seemed to take responsibility. When Scarborough sold the first land in Payson village, he took 20 percent of each sale price and donated that money to education in the town.

Before there were enough students for a public school, many were educated in private schools. The first was in an old log cabin with a roughly finished timber floor on the northeast corner of Edwards and Fulton streets. Miss Emily Scarborough, probably Albigence’s daughter, taught students at this school and later became the first public school teacher.

In 1916, Henry M. Seymour, a grandson of Martin Seymour, one of the founders of the town, donated one of the finest school buildings in the west. He gave the building in memory of his only son who was killed at age 16 playing baseball on the school playground and commemorated his son with the aforementioned bronze plaque.

The five West Division families that settled Payson in the 1830s brought material goods and values with them. While the geography of Payson, near the Mississippi River may have changed something of their daily lifestyles, their priorities stood the test of time. The idea of common land, and the importance of an education were key parts of 19th century New England settlements that descendants carried on in both towns.

About this book

Copyright © 2018 by Tracey M. Wilson. Life in West Hartford is freely available online at 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.

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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