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History Corner: It’s Onto Litchfield County…

History Corner: It’s Onto Litchfield County…

Before I take you to the land of snow, I need to reflect back to Eastford for a gentleman who was a notable citizen, General Nathanial Lyon (1818-1861).  You can guess by the date of his death why he was a general but what we didn’t know is that he was the first general killed in the Civil War.  According to the write-up in the Connecticut 169 book, 15 thousand mourners attended his funeral and his grave and monument, including a canon are in the General Lyon Cemetery, in Phoenixville which was one of three distinct villages in Eastford.

Ok, so onto Litchfield County.  Barkhamsted is a rural town in the northwest with a somewhat short history because it was one of the last areas to be settled in 1779.  Good farmland was not abundant and not being near a body of water, transportation was difficult due to steep, rocky hills, thick woods and streams.  But those streams proved to be the answer as grist mills and sawmills were up and running providing valuable resources.

Some of you might know that the famous Hitchcock Chair Company was located here and small factories did flourish for a time.  In 1930, Hartford was in need of water, which led to the construction of the Saville Dam and Barkhamsted Reservoir with a huge impact to this rural town.

Colebrook, located in the foothills, was the last colonial town settled.  Within the 21,000 acres are farms, scenic hills, stonewalls (my favorite) and plenty of wildlife with elevations from 560’ to 1, 552’.  No wonder they get so much snow.  Many industries were located here in the 18th and 19th centuries including sawmills, gristmills, and iron forges that aided the patriots in the Revolutionary War.  Not only did this little town have a chair factory, a creamery, and a cheese factory but they had a potashery.  Yes, a potashery.  That name isn’t even in spellcheck but I will tell you what it is.  Potash is made up of two words, pot and ash and it used as part of a formula for fertilizer derived from plant and wood ashes soaked in water, in a pot!   A potashery existed before the Industrial Revolution.

The Colebrook store from 1792 sounds like a wonderful place for a bite to eat and to visit with folks from this quaint village.  It offers hiking, trout fishing and boating and you might even see a bear or two.  During school months, the Rock School House is open to the public and is used to teach the children about the early days at school.

Cornwall may be known for its wonderful covered bridge, but did you know that it was actually a group of villages?  Auctioned off by the colony of Connecticut, in 1738, Cornwall was not established around the church as others in our state were but they established isolated farms scattered around the township which gradually developed into villages referred to as the six Cornwalls, or maybe seven or eight.

By 1855, there were 17 schools spread around town. Most of the citizens were farmers with some taking on a role of minister, lawyer or a miller.  As agriculture began to wane in 1810, small mills and factories sprang up along the rivers, processing raw materials to make charcoal, scissors, shears, stoves, lumber, cheese and tanned hides.  One might find it confusing upon visiting with its three current town centers but they provide maps for you “newcomers”.

The Town of Litchfield is next on the “hit parade” of snow country towns.  Founded in 1719 it too was one of the last towns to be settled. During the Revolutionary War it became a critical supply depot and “home” to Loyalist prisoners.  By 1800, Litchfield had become the 4th largest town in the state.  Along with commercial growth, it was known for its educational prowess including the country’s first law school begun by Tapping Reeve in 1774.  In 1792, Sarah Pierce founded the Litchfield Female Academy.  The students at Litchfield Law School played an important role in the foundation of American democracy.  It provided two vice-presidents, three Supreme Court justices, 28 Senators and 10% of Congress in the 1800’s.

With the opening of the Shepaug Railroad in 1872, the way was paved for Litchfield to become a resort community. Today, it is the embodiment of a Connecticut historic town with its architecture, landscapes, museums, and its bird and wildlife sanctuaries, another town for your bucket list, folks.

By any chance do you know where the largest lake in our state is located?  I’ll give you a hint: approx. 947 acres within a town of 18.9 square miles.  Give up?  It’s Morris, just south of Litchfield.  Although the land was purchased from the Pootatuck Native Americans in 1715, it was part of the southern portion of Litchfield organized as South Farms in 1767. But, it wasn’t until 1859 that Morris came into its own, named for the Revolutionary soldier James Morris. It was well-known that soldiers were welcomed to spend the night in homes during their marches from New England to New York.

After the war, James established Morris Academy, a co-educational facility unheard of in those days.  It lasted almost 100 years before closing in 1888.  Initially, Morris was a farm town like so many, with numerous dairy operations.  Mills were also present but for the most part, they and the dairy farms are gone now, replaced by homes and horse farms. To date there are least 90 homes still standing built before 1859. If you plan a trip to Morris, save some time for a visit to White Flower Farm.

I can’t leave this story without something to say about New Milford.  What I know about New Milford is that Nathan Bryan, the son of the builder of the Bryan-Andrew House moved to New Milford after inheriting his father’s home.  He was given 2/3 of it and his mother 1/3 as was set out as dower rights.  It appears that he, his wife and 6 children left Bryans Farms (south Orange today) but upon research, I was not able to find any information about them except to be listed in the 1790 census. Many Milford residents did move to New Milford seeking larger lands for their farms.

In 1703, Colonel Robert Treat and others secured land of 84 square miles, parts of which became New Milford. Many names from the colonial town of Milford appear in New Milford town affairs, but only two planters, Samuel Prindle and Isaiah Bartlett were the first Milford settlers within the plantation.  The Connecticut 169 Club book, which I talk about, mentions that in 1702, a group of Anglo proprietors purchased the land but WE know who those proprietors were, don’t we?

My research tells me that the proprietors built a house of worship in 1716 but was eventually razed and replaced by the Congregational Church that is there today.  Keep in mind that the church in Milford was also Congregational.  New Milford grew with various mills early on with the 19th century hosting such companies as the New Milford Hat Factory, Kimberly Clarke, Nestle and a bleachery. Now this one is easy, right?  Right.  In order to print fabric, it must be pure white, otherwise the colors are muddy…now that was easy, wasn’t it?

Tobacco was king in the river valley of New Milford with several buildings dedicated to processing, sorting and shipping. During most of the 1800’s small shops and factories dotted the landscape with farms, cattle and dairies on the outskirts.  One cannot leave without knowing that plans for flooding, would become Lake Candlewood that was inspired by Henry Roraback providing power opportunities in 1926. Due to its size, New Milford consists of a number of villages, Merryall, Northville, Lanesville, Park Lane and Gaylordsville.  If you read my last article, I mentioned that Samuel Huntington’s name on the Declaration of Independence is under Roger Sherman’s.  Well, Mr. Sherman called New Milford his home and had a business there but moved to New Haven after 1761.

Don’t forget to buy the Connecticut 169 Club book for Christmas gifts, available at the Academy Saturdays, 10-3.

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