By Rafaele Fierro
It was only a matter of time. Rocky Hill citizens since the 1820s had been petitioning the Connecticut General Assembly to become a separate town. Now in 1843 the residents of Wethersfield’s “Lower Community,” known since 1722 as Stepney Parish, took up the issue anew but with more vigor and in more numbers. Town leader Elias W. Robbins led this local independence movement, which succeeded by June of 1843. Rocky Hill would be the new town’s official name and henceforth would become known as the “political daughter of Wethersfield” to its north. Rocky Hill was not unique in its quest for and success in separation. Two other towns–Glastonbury and Newington–also emerged from Wethersfield.
And today, out of the 169 incorporated towns in Connecticut, more than half were created when they split from their “mothers.” Indeed, between 1820 and 1850, the state’s General Assembly incorporated 13 new towns, including Rocky Hill, one steeped in tradition and history, and created as much by nature’s fury as by the power of Connecticut’s legislative body.
Early Rocky Hill
Like so many Connecticut towns, Rocky Hill’s history began long before its official incorporation. The tract of land that John Oldham and the other “Adventurers” purchased from the Wongunk Indians along the Connecticut River in 1634 included an area rich in soil and high enough to avoid flooding that the river occasionally caused. A few Wethersfield men and women ventured southward from the original Wethersfield village. They quickly built houses and mills. Philip Goffe was one of the first inhabitants; Goffe Brook, running parallel to the Connecticut River and abutting the meadow adjacent to the river on its east and the eventual center of town to the west, was named after him.
Men like Goffe found the land appealing because it stood high above the river whose flood plains narrowed down, just south of the long hill for which the town would be named ultimately. And because it seemed logical to these early settlers to cross the river along this tapered stretch, they helped establish a transport service in 1655. Later known as the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry service, it remains the oldest ferry service in the United States. The settlers also realized that the land could be used for building ships and farming. A classic riverport was about to be born.
The century did not end before nature intruded upon Wethersfield, and Rocky Hill became the chief beneficiary. The Connecticut River changed course drastically and isolated the port at the inner village in Wethersfield proper in the newly formed cove. Meanwhile, the Lower Community became a more accessible place where ships could land. Newly created sandbars there, moreover, hampered the passage of smaller vessels above the Lower Community, which then became the head of navigation for larger ships tied to the triangle trade with the West Indies and colonial towns. These changes shifted the center of commerce and shipbuilding toward the southern portion of Wethersfield.
During the colonial era, Connecticut towns came into being for a variety of complex and intertwined economic, demographic, and religious reasons. Many towns were the products of larger ones breaking apart. Rocky Hill with its own population center was no exception. In the early eighteenth century, Lower Community residents had begun to insist on a separate parish because it was too far to walk to church service in the inner village especially in inclement weather that turned dirt into swamps. In 1722, the General Assembly approved their request. It was thus named Stepney Parish after a village outside of London. Four years later, in 1726, Stepney completed its first meetinghouse, and Daniel Russell was ordained minister the following year. Except for official incorporation, Stepney was now a separate entity from Wethersfield.
Dozens of prestigious colonial houses were built on the eastern side of town closest to the river. Main Street became the most conspicuous street in the area. Town leaders built inns and taverns to accommodate local visitors or tired seafarers.
Perhaps the most famous establishment, built in the colonial era, was Shipman’s Tavern whose Connecticut River shad dinners would later become one of Samuel Colt’s favorite eateries. Stepney prospered by mid-century with a substantial shipbuilding industry. Products such as livestock, salted meat, wheat, poultry, cheese, wood staves, lumber, and potash were commodities shipped out for export. Its residents prospered significantly and built more colonial homes.
The town’s elite stood in marked contrast to the few African slaves brought to Rocky Hill. The Goffs and Griswolds of Stepney derived from English stock and became Yankees.
The Congregational Church built a special gallery, still in existence, where slaves were segregated from the white congregation below. By the time of the Civil War, only 13 “Negroes” lived in Rocky Hill, none of whom were slaves now that slavery had been abolished in Connecticut.
The American Revolution did little in the short run to alter the status of slaves. Yet the town contributed significantly to the fight for liberty against Britain. Stepney sacrificed men for the cause. About 50 veterans of the war are buried in the Rocky Hill cemetery, though a few might have been enlistees from other towns. One Stepney veteran of the war, Jared Goodrich, became a fifer at age 14, was later declared a deserter, and had two brothers killed in the conflict. Another, Calvin Chapin, became a fifer as young as age 10, and would later become a minister in the Congregation Church who opposed separation from Wethersfield in 1843. The town also provided several vessels against the mother country with some commissioned by the state as privateers.
Independence did not occur without a financial cost. When the American Revolution ended, the shipbuilding industry entered into a period of decline. New York and Boston became the chief port cities. This decline was exacerbated by renewed conflict with Britain, the 1807 Embargo Act signed into law by Thomas Jefferson, and eventually the War of 1812.
When the town’s own independence came, 67 years after America’s own revolution, Rocky Hill remained a farming community with a population of no more than 1,000, and it stood as a microcosm of Connecticut in its unofficial label as the “land of steady habits.” The town’s population would hover around the 1,000 mark for the rest of the nineteenth century, a clear indication that its maritime prowess had come to an end.
The Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
A famous historian, Richard Hofstadter, remarked in the 1950s that “America was born in the country and moved to the city.” This mass migration of people from the rural to the urbanizing part of the country was incremental, but steady. Yet as he wrote he seemed unaware of the vast movement taking place from the cities to emerging suburbs
These changes–spurred by industrialization, two world wars, the automobile, the baby boom–impacted town’s such as Rocky Hill, which saw itself caught between two diverging worlds when the twentieth century began.
On the eastern part of town, the great meadows still stood prominently, and the town’s residents still relied upon farming for their survival and success. Horses remained the main mode of transportation for goods and people. Yet the railroads that ran through town for a generation connected the town to Hartford, intruded upon the serene setting along the east foot of the hill after which the town was named, and assisted in making shipping on the Connecticut River less prosperous. In a strange juxtaposition, to the west, hillside orchards grew plentifully. Rail literally split the town in half in a manner later replicated by highways.
The town’s population stayed relatively constant with no more than 1,000 people, but Irish and Italian immigrants as well as African American migrants had joined Yankees. Most newcomers worked on farms and farming remained the lifeblood of the community. The Grange Hall was built in 1901 as a form of cooperative of farmers and as a testament to the continued importance of agriculture, but also as an effort to keep the agrarian lifestyle dominant.
Industry came to Rocky Hill in spite of attempts to preserve the status quo. Small manufacturing such as broom making and shoemaking had existed in town for decades. A large factory building was built in 1881 by public subscription to induce factories to settle in town.
The Pierce Hardware Company, built by the turn of the century, was one of the major industrial creations in Rocky Hill. This small but significant industrial development served as a precursor to more advanced industrial growth that came to Rocky Hill by 1925 when the largest industrial development in the town’s history began a proliferation of factories on Dividend Road in the town’s southeastern corner. The manufacturing center became a major producer of rayon.
Change did not occur without a price. In 1921, a worker at Belden’s Store set off a blaze when he accidentally filled a kerosene tank with gasoline. The fire destroyed the store, the nearby Grange Hall, two other buildings, and several sheds. The fire was intense, but also symbolic. That the buildings destroyed were so much a part of Rocky Hill’s past was not lost on its residents. The fire occurred at a time when the agrarian lifestyle so much a part of the character of the town had come under attack by the forces of modernization, as if to remind its people of things that could not be undone. Two centuries earlier, nature caused great transformation by reshaping the Connecticut River; now human initiative highlighted by industrial development was about to bring Rocky Hill into the twentieth century.
A decade later still more change. The Hartford and the Middletown, passenger steamers that had been in existence for more than a century, were taken out of service. Rocky Hill’s shipping industry had already experienced dramatic setbacks, but the end of these last two steamers, as one resident put it, made “the old picturesque port scenes disappear.” Modern railroads were a major reason for the change. All over Rocky Hill streets and roads were paved, aided by state grants, in an effort to bring more automobiles to the town. The Silas Deane Highway was built in 1930, splitting the town in half and catering to the increased presence of cars. The Middletown to Hartford (ironically the same names of the steamers) bus service, established in 1930, put an end to the old trolley line.
The Modern Era
When the Federal government allotted hundreds of millions of dollars for construction of the nation’s highway system with passage of the Interstate Highway Act of 1954, it represented a triumph for the internal combustion engine. And if the engine was the victor, then agrarian nineteenth century America fell as the vanquished. In Connecticut, these federal funds brought Interstate-91 by the early 1960s, which as one Rocky Hill writer said, “dominates the map of the town.” In many ways the story of the town’s path to modernization is the same story as that of the nation.
It is difficult to get a handle on the tremendous change wrought by technological advancement and the U.S. Government’s actions to facilitate it. The automobile, one of the first signs of technological progress in the modern era, effectively ended the domination of railroads. It also brought more people to towns such as Rocky Hill. In about a century, from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, the town’s population grew from roughly 1,000 to more than 18,000. Between 1943 and the close of the century the town’s population grew more than eight fold.
The nation’s highway system merely reinforced existing patterns, and then helped create the world of suburbia. In 1943, Rocky Hill remained a largely rural town, but after World War Two, an event itself the producer of great transformation, the town reinvented itself as a predominantly residential suburb of Hartford.
Population growth produced the need for more houses, more cars, and more schools. The eastern part of town had been the main location of homes, many of them built during the colonial era, but after World War Two much of the housing boom occurred in the western portion of town in which residential housing, including condominiums, replaced farmland. A comparative analysis of the Directory for Rocky Hill before and after the war paints an illuminating picture of the vast residential growth that took place in the western part of town in the second half of the twentieth century. When the twenty first century began, more than 7,500 households would exist in town.
School development accompanied population growth. Many of the older schools, able to accommodate a smaller number of students, were demolished. Newer and more innovative facilities such as the Rocky Hill High School and the Griswold Junior High School took their place. And like virtually every Connecticut town, Rocky Hill shifted to a Town-Manager system in the 1960s to handle the growing number of people and decisions that had to be made on their behalf.
Perhaps one of the more significant changes the town experienced in the second half of the twentieth century was the diversity of its people. Though this growth included people “from many cultural backgrounds and walks of life,” Italians moved from Hartford in large numbers during this time. Changes in Hartford impacted changes in Rocky Hill. Old tenement buildings such as Front Street were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s in the name of urban renewal projects, and though some Italians moved to other parts of the city, others gradually moved to suburbs such as Wethersfield and Rocky Hill. Most recently, perhaps, as Wethersfield brought in more people from more diverse backgrounds, Italians and others have tended to move into the more clearly defined suburban world of Rocky Hill.
Subtle but important signs of the cultural richness of the town remain. St. Rita’s Bakery, for instance, caters to a large segment of the Italian population and others. Saint James Church on Elm Street, just west of the Silas Deane Highway, was established as a parish in 1945 and continues to be the place of worship for hundreds of Italians and other Catholics. According to the parish, “From the earliest days of St. James, the education of youths was of special concern to the faith community.” The Church took the responsibility for educating young people many of whom were the children of immigrants. In this endeavor the church was just one of many local civic organizations that formed the essence of the community.
Try is it might to retain that unique sense of community, Rocky Hill, like many Connecticut towns, did not completely escape the forces of modernization so much impelled by outside forces including the state and federal government. Today, the town stands as a suburb of Hartford that has seen the migration of many ethnic groups that have made the town diverse in nature.
Rocky Hill also serves as a testament to how history continuously shapes the present like a river that feeds the sea. A century after the town declared its independence from Wethersfield it remained conscious of its status as the daughter town. A poem by Arthur Neumann even presented a tone of inferiority in this regard:
We hadn’t had time since eighteen forty-three
To breed a giant elm. Or chief of state
But previous of all that important date,
Imbuing us with independent powers
Our history was yours and yours was ours.
It ill becomes a parent steeped in grace
To about a daughter to her face
And tell belittling tales when she be grown.
Be that as it may though, on our own
We have a ferryboat of moderate fame,
And some have staked a doubtful claim
that all the state revolves around our axis.
Such words may seem the work of a melodramatic poet eager to make his present part of the weary past. Or they may reveal that permanent rivalries do not merely exist among nation states, but also Connecticut towns whose histories matter long after the initial years of incorporation.
Photos courtesy of Rocky Hill Historical Society.
Shirley Belden, Peter Revill, and Martin Smith
Likely Tales, Stepney Parish, 1776
(Rocky Hill, CT: The Bicentennial Committee, 1976)
Peter Revill, et.al.
Looking Back at Rocky Hill, Connecticut
(Rocky Hill, CT: The Sesquicentennial Book Committee, 1992)
A Short History of Rocky Hill, Connecticut
(Rocky Hill, CT: Pioneer Lithographers, 1972)
About the Author: Rafaele Fierro