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History Corner: Let’s Go Down South…

History Corner: Let’s Go Down South…

As you have been reading, Connecticut has a great deal of history, and since the Revolutionary War is my passion, I have focused on that portion of our history.  Well, if you think that my next county will have some history, hold onto your cup of coffee because Fairfield County saw a fair share of that history.  So, let’s get started.  Fairfield, the town, is the 4th oldest in our state, founded in 1639 with lands purchased by Roger Ludlow from the Pequonnock Indians.  A permanent settlement was laid out in four squares which defined the center of the settlement which today is the Historic Town Green.  People could not freely choose to live there upon their arrival from Europe but had to go before a town meeting where it was decided who and who could not stay.

Not being approved, the newly arrived were warned to leave.  Yipes.  It appears that the founders wanted a like-minded community, one based on Puritan religious values.  This Puritan ethic was a predominate thought during the early settlements, one which caused great strife within the colonies.  Roger Williams was forced to leave Connecticut making his way to Rhode Island because of religious disharmony.  Those living in Fairfield eventually moved east, naming the area Black Rock.  Fairfield prospered well into the 1700s as farmers finding the West Indies, New York and Boston favorable markets, but in 1777 the end of this prosperity loomed.  British General William Tryon landed at Compo Beach which is now Westport, marching through the area to destroy military supplies stored in Danbury.

Fairfield was spared but on July 7, 1779 the people of Fairfield awoke to a warning from the fort at Black Rock because a British fleet was anchored off the coast.  In haste, animals were driven to safety, with some citizens hiding their valuables in wells and stonewalls, while others fled inland.  Those that remained could not have predicted what would happen next.  The feared invasion came in the late afternoon with troops marching along the beach, heading northeast.

As they came within range of the cannons at Black Rock Fort, the colonial men were ordered to fire on the British troops.  Undaunted by this lack of hospitality, General Tryon and General George Garth marched their men toward the fort and unable to attack, they burned the houses, one by one in retaliation.  The greatest damage was the next day as the British left Fairfield being escorted out by German mercenaries who, in the face of the furious inhabitants set fire to almost all of the buildings, churches and ministers’ homes that Tryon had earlier given protection.

President George Washington visited the town, in 1789, observing the destruction which at that time had not been fully restored.  After WW II, the town’s population grew transforming what was a tiny, Puritan village into a vibrant and diverse community.

Bethel, known as a quiet town, was settled in early 1700.  Danbury, at one point was heralded as “Hat City” but at various points there were more hat factories in Bethel.  Many of the “hatters” houses are located on the west end of town, but Bethel is more likely to be known as the home of Duracell and Eaton Corp. a power management company.  Smirnoff vodka was first distilled in Bethel in the early 1930s, the first vodka distillery in the U.S.  This northern Fairfield County town was the home to some very interesting people, the most famous, in some folks’ mind was P.T. Barnum.  If you watch the Greatest Showman, you probably don’t know the real Phineas.  He was quite the scallywag.  Colonial Maj. General, Israel Putnam chose this area for his encampment in the winter of 1778-79 with the Putnam Memorial State Park museum celebrating colonial life and the Revolutionary War today.

If you want a town that has changed very little since 1757, then Easton is your town.  This little village was once part of Fairfield but was incorporated in 1845.  There are no streetlights, malls or mainstream shopping, no grocery store.  The center of town consists of the post office and Greiser’s General store with a pre-WW II style gas station.  I have been saying that Orange needs a good deli restaurant well, Easton has one and they say it has the best deli sandwiches around.  There is a fire station and as I recall now, my Mom, when I was about 7, would drive to Easton to buy sparklers for the 4th of July.

It too has had its notable citizens, Helen Keller, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, Ann Baxter, Edna Ferber, Dan Rather and Ernest Hemingway.  Starting out as a farming community, Easton with its many mills held onto that way of life until the cottage industries became factories and wagons were replaced by the railroads after the Civil War.  Steam-powered engines replaced the rivers and streams.  The small shops that produced shoes, clothing and iron implements were replaced by the larger factories but now, in modern times, farming is Easton’s main form of industry.

If any of this makes you want to move to Easton, let the buyer beware!  Numerous books and documentaries tell of Easton to be the home of the country’s most haunted cemetery.

Wilton is our next stop having once belonged to Norwalk.  As soon as the first meetinghouse was built in 1726, Wilton had a center of town.  The Revolutionary War came to Wilton briefly in 1777 when the British were marching out of Danbury after their invasion there.  Although several houses were set on fire, none were destroyed.

There is documentation of an event that took place in New York on July 9th, 1776 after the signing of the Declaration of Independence with around 40 soldiers and sailors sneaking under cover of night to take down the lead statue of King George III, the perpetrator of mistreatment of the colonies.  His statue was sent to the colonies by the English and as he strode atop his mighty stead, he soon succumbed to being toppled over.  This 4000-pound likeness of a despot soon gave way to 42,088 bullets!

So now why is this important to my story of Wilton?  Well?  Read on.  Postmaster Ebenezer Hazard wrote to the Colonial General Horatio Gates, “The king’s statue here has been pulled down to make musket ball of, so that his troops will probably have melted Majesty fired at them.”  And indeed, they did.  The loyalty of the King’s troops made every effort to keep this from happening, but the majority of the statue vanished; however, fragments of it survived and his head was sent back to England.  In addition, the tail of the king’s mount, a piece of his patterned sash and a 20-pound segment believed to belong to his cape or the horse’s mane are in the New York Historical Society.

Now to the connection for Wilton and you thought I digressed.  Me?  Never.  Fast forward to 1991, buried in someone’s garden, was found the 21” long forearm.  Yes, the king’s arm, found in the dirt so many years later.  The authenticity of the fragment was made by comparing the alloy contents of two other pieces housed in the New York Historical Society.  It’s him alright.  It was auctioned at Skinner’s and was believed to bring between 15 & 25 thousand dollars.  The owner of the property at that time was Loyalist Job Burlock and he no doubt stole the item from the Patriots after they dismantled it.

The monarch’s head remains unaccounted for except for a journal entry in November of 1777 by former governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, Thomas Hutchinson, where he writes “The nose is wounded and defaced but the gilding remains fair and as it was well executed, it retains a striking likeness.”

Thus, ends my story for Fairfield County.  Me thinks I should revisit Fairfield County again.  So, I will.

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