It was an immense specimen. At 97 feet tall, with a 29.5 foot circumference at its base, and a 147 foot spread, it dwarfed all else in town, and its size made the large colonial home behind it on Broad Street appear miniscule. The Great Wethersfield Elm, according to Porter Sargent, author of A Handbook of New England, was “the tallest elm in America and the most magnificent tree east of the Rockies,” and it symbolized Wethersfield’s pride and commercial spirit.
Planted around 1758, the splendid tree, like old guard Wethersfield citizens themselves, spanned three different eras–the colonial period’s commercial success, the nineteenth-century’s relative economic quiet, and the modern era’s suburban growth–before it succumbed to Dutch elm disease in 1953. When the giant tree died, the town’s Yankee traditions died with it. Throughout its history, however, Wethersfield, contrary to its reputation as an unchanging small town, has shown an impressive ability to reinvent itself in the face of adversity.
John Oldham had been a rebel since his days in the Plymouth Colony. Miles Standish scorned him after asking him to take his turn to “watch and ward” for the night, but Oldham pulled a knife on him instead. He left the colony. On his subsequent journeys Oldham migrated to Watertown, Massachusetts where he became unhappy with Puritan orthodoxy. In the early 1630s, his southerly travels made him acquainted with a “great meadow” cradled by what natives called the Great Tidal River, which produced fertile soil for anyone interested in farming it.
In 1634, Oldham and nine others known collectively as the “Ten Adventurers,” permanently settled in Connecticut after the Massachusetts’ General Court granted them permission to purchase land they called Watertown–a six mile stretch moving in a north-south direction, a five mile tract directly to the river’s west, and a 3-mile stretch to the east–from the Wongunk who called it Pyquag, “cleared land.” Renamed Wethersfield in 1637, “Ye Most Auncient Towne,” is arguably Connecticut’s first settlement.
The initial ten settlers built homesteads mostly on Broad Street’s eastern side near the meadow where the Wongunk taught them to cultivate beans, squash, peas, and maize. In 1635, a second round of migration occurred thereby increasing the settlement’s population. More homes were erected on Broad Street and what would later be called Main Street running the length of the inner village all the way to the cove that flowed into the river. Decimated by small pox, the Wongunk began to disappear.
In 1637, by which time the Pequots had killed Oldham on Block Island, Wethersfield, Windsor, and Hartford had formed the Connecticut Colony, partially a response to potential Indian attack. The Pequots were crushed by the end of the decade. The Wethersfield settlement grew.
By 1645, farming opportunities had expanded and 125 families had moved to Wethersfield, which consisted officially of the inner village to the immediate west of the Connecticut River, and sister villages called Glastonbury to the east, Stepney (later renamed Rocky Hill) to the south, and Newington further west. The men and women who made up its population had much land with which to work, and theirs would be the first generation of farmers, the founders of Wethersfield. They included names such as Hubbard, Abbot, Chester, and Foote. The population increased consistently, but subsistence farming continued. Life remained uncertain and unpredictable.
Inexplicable weather caused drought and “ye great fever” in the late 1640s claimed dozens of lives including that of Leonard Chester, one of the town’s founders. The anxiety surrounding these events led to an increased fear of witches. Four witch trials and five executions occurred over the next few years. Among them, Mary Johnson, who confessed to “familiarity with the devil,” was executed for witchcraft in 1648, followed by Joan and John Carrington in 1651. Accusations of witchcraft continued into the 1670s.
The next generation cultivated commodities such as flax, vegetables, and grain not merely for subsistence but for export. With the financial capital provided by the great meadow’s fertile soil, Wethersfield residents expanded their commerce. Shipbuilding, of course, became an important industry. Thomas Deming built the ocean-going vessel Tryal (1649) the first ship used for trade in Connecticut for the purpose of developing markets in the West Indies.
The town became an important distribution center for the interior portion of the Connecticut River valley. The cove commanded a central place in the settlement as town residents built half a dozen storage areas there. Tens of ships like the Tryal waited to pick up their commodities, sail out to the Connecticut River, and then to the Atlantic Ocean bound for the West Indies. Wethersfield readied itself for a century of prosperity.
No more important industry existed by the 1730s than that of red onions. “You could smell Wethersfield before you could see it,” the saying went. Thousands of bushels were shipped down the Connecticut River yearly to the West Indies where sugar plantation owners made it an important part of the diet of their enslaved workers. The product was exchanged for molasses, with which New Englanders made rum.
When Wethersfield leaders built Main Street’s Congregational Church in 1764, they levied taxes for the purpose; many residents paid in the form of onions, making it known as “the church that onions built.” Wethersfield women, later known to mythology as “onion maidens,” played an instrumental role in cultivating the crop. Over the next century, some 33 percent of Wethersfield onion producers would be women.
The more the townspeople exported their commodities, the more wealth they produced. The more profit, the more their commercial activity expanded. With increasing wealth, colonial Wethersfield also became a major importer of luxury goods including glass, ceramics, cutlery, and books. Brick-making and tanning were added to its commercial itinerary. As a further reflection of their status, they built prestigious houses. The Joseph Webb and Silas Deane houses were two of the most notable. With more than 200 homes built before 1850, Wethersfield is one of the state’s best preserved towns. Wethersfield’s first meetinghouse remained the center of community life. Made of brick it further reflected affluence.
Wethersfield’s commercial rise generated a high degree of visibility and respect beyond the region, and the town was known for its stability. When George Washington came to town preparing for the renowned Battle of Yorktown, he observed those traits firsthand. John Adams visited too calling the view from the town’s meetinghouse “the most grand and beautiful prospect in the world.” In addition to the many Indians wars in which Wethersfield men served, the War for Independence continued Wethersfield’s long-standing commitment to military service when dozens participated, as many more would later in the Civil War (228), World War One (198), and World War Two (1,800).
Wethersfield had earned its reputation as a land of steady habits like Connecticut in microcosm, yet great transition lay ahead. The custom of primogeniture guaranteed town land to the oldest male child, leaving many others with few options. Young men, looking for the same opportunities their parents had had, left for states such as New York, Ohio, and Illinois where they purchased inexpensive land. The exodus contributed to a stagnant population, an indication that financial success could no longer be taken for granted.
The contagion of liberty that the Revolution unleashed affected Wethersfield’s economy. The slave trade was outlawed in 1808 and abolitionist movements throughout the Western world began in earnest, putting an end to Wethersfield’s profitable export trade to the Caribbean. Combined with a blight that destroyed the onion crop in 1838, Wethersfield residents faced tough times. Other ways of making money had to be found, but Wethersfield spent the rest of the nineteenth century without duplicating the great commercial success that highlighted the colonial period.
Wethersfield did benefit from the Connecticut State Prison, which opened in 1827 and replaced the Newgate Prison in East Granby. The maximum-security facility, located where the Department of Motor Vehicles now stands, proved to be a basis for Wethersfield’s economy by ultimately providing utilities such as water, gas, and electricity. The prison created capital that would speed up the introduction of trolleys to town later in the century.
The town also turned to the seed industry for its commercial success. Wethersfield’s first reported seed business began in 1811, but in the next two decades Comstock, Ferre & Company became the most famous of eight such Wethersfield businesses established during the nineteenth century. Seeds were sold to mid-western and western states, and large commercial seed gardens grew behind both Main Street and Broad Street houses and barns in the town’s inner village. Wethersfield became the cradle of American seed companies, remaining a steady supplier for the next sixty years.
Onions had built churches, but seeds could not build houses, a fact born out by the paucity of Victorian homes in town. Its population grew slowly. More than 1,900 individuals lived in Wethersfield in 1779. A century later, the population increased to more than 3,000, as Glastonbury (1692), Rocky Hill (1843), and Newington (1871) had become separate towns. But for the sale of seeds and the presence of the prison, Wethersfield would have remained a relatively small farming village.
More dramatic change followed and not for the better. California and Pacific-rim states, with longer growing seasons, began producing their own seed gardens. The seed industry declined leading to financial uncertainty. In 1890, C. Eugene Adams, sensing the changing times, began Wethersfield’s Grange Movement in his Broad Street barn with the intention of “easing the hard life of farmers.” One Granger that same year wrote a paper for the organization’s Tuesday night meetings entitled, “How Shall We Keep Our Young People on the Farm?” In this regard, the town’s proximity to Hartford would save it, while transforming it.
At century’s end, electric trolleys replaced horses as the main mode of transportation and in important ways linked the town to Hartford, then America’s wealthiest city. Successful city businessmen eager to escape the bustle of urban life found refuge in the neighboring town. Wethersfield became a “trolley suburb” able to accommodate an elite entrepreneurial class settling beyond the city. Wethersfield had begun its transition from a small farming community to Hartford’s residential suburb.
Hartford, for its part, metamorphosed into one of the nation’s financial and insurance capitals. Its population nearly doubled from 1900 to 1920 to more than 410,000. Immigrants accounted for much of the increase. Housing developer Albert Hubbard built hundreds of homes for middle class insurance managers and bankers off Main Street between 1908 and 1933. “Wethersfield has much to commend it to the man who would be near his office,” declared Hubbard’s promotional brochure, “yet away from the city’s turmoil.” Hubbard did not specify what he meant by “turmoil,” but traffic alone did not cause congestion. Tens of thousands of Italians, Poles, and Russian Jews had made their way into the city. Anglos who could afford to leave did, keeping Wethersfield a Yankee town with only a smattering of ethnic groups on the outskirts of town.
In the 1920s, automobiles replaced trolleys and accelerated Wethersfield’s transition to a residential suburb. Although initially cars seemed out of place in Wethersfield’s still rural and idyllic landscape, soon town leaders made accommodations. Homes quickly filled land used for seed gardens. The Silas Deane Highway was built in 1930, cutting the town in half and separating the more compact village section from the new brick capes and colonial revival homes along Ridge Road to the west. Nearly 8,000 vehicles daily would use the Silas Deane Highway in 1940. Residential expansion continued even during the Great Depression. The town’s 1930 Annual Report mentioned the Depression only once.
Wethersfield, moreover, rejected FDR’s New Deal and its effort of ethnic coalition-building, voting overwhelmingly for Roosevelt’s Republican challengers: Herbert Hoover winning the town by a nearly three to one margin in 1932, Alf Landon two to one in 1936, and Wendell Willkie more than two to one in 1940.
After the Second World War, new homes proliferated as the town mirrored national patterns. Returning GIs and their brides sought marriage, children, and houses. Slowly, but surely, Hartford migrants, many of them the descendants of the southern and eastern Europeans who had come to the city at the turn of the century, trickled into town. The long era of Yankee homogeneity was winding down.
Wethersfield’s population increased dramatically from 12,533 to 20,561 between 1950 and 1960. The town shifted from a selectman style government that characterized much of its history to a town council/manager form that could handle more people. In the town’s western portion, new homes were erected. Officials built public schools to accommodate children.
Six public schools were built in the century’s second half–more than in the previous three centuries combined–as a response to the burgeoning population. Along with Episcopalian, Baptist, and Methodist churches that had been built earlier, more religious institutions were constructed too; Corpus Christi, a Catholic church, was established in 1941 becoming the second Catholic church in town after Sacred Heart (1876); St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in 1942; the Church of The Incarnation, another Catholic church, in 1963; and a Jewish Temple, in the heart of the inner village on Main Street, was dedicated in 1961.
When the Great Elm died of Dutch elm disease in 1953 it signaled the end of Wethersfield as it had been known for three centuries. The building of Interstate-91 in 1960 on a raised roadway through the great meadow permanently severed Wethersfield and its cove from the Connecticut River, and in the process severed modern Wethersfield from its own history, notwithstanding a successful historical revival since the 1960s.
From a small but successful farming community in the colonial period to a modest agricultural and maritime town in the nineteenth century to a heterogeneous residential suburb in the twentieth century, the town twice remade itself.
Wethersfield, with its 8,597 acres, remained a thriving suburb in the twenty-first century. Yet with nearly 27,000 people living there in 2009, the population had been static for a generation; the town exhausted land supply available for residential construction. Early on, when the Great Elm stood proudly, the few had claimed ownership of vast amounts of land. Now that the town had become populated fully, land was scarce, and Wethersfield had reached the culmination of its suburban growth.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Nora Howard, Stories of Wethersfield: four centuries of American life in Connecticut’s most auncient town,” (Wethersfield, CT: White Publishers, 1997)
Gladys G. Macdonough, The Stone and the Spirit: a walking tour guide to the Ancient Burying Ground in the Wethersfield Cemetery (Wethersfield, CT: Wethersfield Historical Society, 1987)
Brenda Milofsky and Beverly Johnson, “Legendary People, Ordinary Lives,” 1998, Wethersfield Historical Society
Henry R. Stiles, The History of Auncient Wethersfield, 2 volumes (New York: 1904)
John Willard, Willard’s Wethersfield (West Hartford, CT: West Hartford Publishing Company, 1975)
Special thanks to Melissa A. Josefiak, Assistant Director of the Wethersfield Historical Society. Her tremendous knowledge of Wethersfield, along with the Historical Society’s wealth of resources, proved invaluable.
A version of this article was commissioned for the Encyclopedia of Connecticut History Online currently under development by the Connecticut Humanities Council.
About the Author: Rafaele Fierro