Friday, September 11, 2015

Farm Memories

By John E. Calhoun 

The following are several paragraphs about various aspects of farm life during my childhood and young adult years. 

My grandfather, John E. Calhoun, over the course of several years during the 1890s, had built the three barns which exist today in Coltsfoot Valley. The valley barn, now the Neubauer property, was used to raise the young stock - heifers - eventually to be bred for the milking herd in the big barn at the north end of the valley. The middle barn, now owned by Jeff and Gail Jacobson, housed a small herd of Devon beef cows; feed, hay and various implements were also stored there.

Calhoun Barn, Jewell Street, from a glass plate negative, circa 1905.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Intern Update: Town Support of the Poor in the Early 1800s

By intern Ryan Bachman.

On April 8, 1799, the Cornwall Board of Selectmen voted to pay John Peck $11.49 for boarding Ann Olcott, “a poor child.” Olcott is one of the hundreds of people listed in a selectmen’s’ account book found in the Cornwall Historical Society vault. Within the book’s pages are individuals who otherwise left no record of their lives in Cornwall. Per state law, Cornwall, like other Connecticut towns, was required to take care of its less fortunate residents. While other towns had poorhouses or “poor farms” where these people could live communally, Cornwall’s poor residents were cared for by individual families for set periods of time. The families were then compensated by the town government for boarding, clothing, and feeding their neighbors who had fallen on hard times.

Town Records, April 1799.
(Collection of Cornwall Historical Society)

At the time of the April 1799 town meeting where John Peck was paid by the selectmen, Ann Olcott was about two years old. Ann was the child of John and Hannah Olcott, and soon after her birth, the Olcott family members became wards of the town. It is unknown why exactly Ann’s parents fell on hard times. Her father, a subsistence farmer, may have experienced a series of bad harvests, or could have been injured and unable to provide for his growing family. At the same time that Ann was living with the Pecks, her mother and newborn brother were living with the Judson family, who were compensated at the same town meeting as John Peck for providing a midwife for Hannah. Only months after the birth of Ann’s baby brother, town selectmen found a resident willing to care for Hannah and her infant for the following year—but with the caveat that the volunteer could explore opportunities to “put the child out.”

The “putting out” of children dated to colonial times, and was a common way for impoverished families to have their children cared for. Within the system, young children would be placed with foster families and work as an apprentice for their foster parents during a set amount of time. At only one year of age, Hannah Olcott’s son was bound out to East Cornwall farmer Caleb Andrews, while Hannah moved in with a family on Cream Hill. Ann, her siblings, and her parents, were all similarly shuttled back and forth between local families, until their names gradually disappear from the selectmen’s account book in the 1830s. The Cornwall Selectmen’s book provides an interesting window into the lives of a class of people often overlooked by traditional histories of the community.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Intern Update: American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews

By intern Ryan Bachman.

Receipt for donation of $58.50 given by the Auxiliary Society of Cornwall to the American Society in New York, 1825.
(Collection of Cornwall Historical Society)

 During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, Cornwall was one of the centers of the American Mission Movement due to the presence of the Foreign Mission School. At the same time, a small piece of paper from the historical society vault reveals that the community was also involved in another, lesser known, international missionary endeavor. The American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews was founded in New York in 1820. In theory, the goals of the Society were noble: to provide funding for European Jews to relocate to the Hudson River Valley, and theoretically escape anti-Semitism found in their home countries. Unfortunately, the conditions for removal dictated that potential candidates renounce their faith and culture and convert to Protestant Christianity.

The main office in New York City was supported by auxiliary organizations all over the country. By 1825, an auxiliary society was set up in Cornwall and began to collect money for emigration efforts. The treasurer of the Cornwall auxiliary society was John Hart Pierce, who sent $58.50 to New York City in April 1825. The Cornwall society’s donation was exceptionally large, and may have been related to the enthusiasm for missionary activity generated by the Foreign Mission School. In fact, at the time of Pierce’s donation, a student was attending the school who specifically represented the goals of the American Society. Judah Isaac Abrahams arrived at the Foreign Mission School in 1822, and converted from Judaism to Congregationalism the following year. However, the experience of Abrahams was not typical, and the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews remained a controversial, and largely unsuccessful, organization throughout the duration of its existence.

Ultimately, the lives of both Pierce and Abrahams ended in tragedy. Only months after sending Cornwall’s donation to New York, Pierce was killed when a cart suddenly shifted and pinned him against a fence post. Abrahams went on to graduate from not only the Foreign Mission School, but also Andover Theological Seminary. In 1830, Abrahams actually went to work for the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews. Two years later, he departed on a mission trip to Morocco and went missing shortly after landing in North Africa. As for the American Society, it survived for another several decades, before finally dissolving in 1870.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Scoville Farm and James Henry Moser's Cornwall Sketches

James Henry Moser, Cream Hill, March 1882
Martha's Album, Collection of Cornwall Historical Society

The Scoville Farm dates back to the 1700s. Ralph Ingersoll Scoville (1829-1887) ran the farm during the second half of the 1800s. In 1870, it was one of the largest dairy operations in Cornwall, with 27 cows producing 12,500 gallons of milk for sale.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Intern Update: The Ousatonic Canal

By Ryan Bachman. 

By the early 1820s, as the Erie Canal stretched across western New York, communities all around the United States became infatuated with the idea of canals, and Cornwall was no exception. Deep within the Cornwall Historical Society vault are several documents related to the short-lived Ousatonic Canal Company. Despite the enthusiasm of the company’s supporters, the proposed canal never advanced beyond its early planning stages, in spite of having the official support of several respected Cornwall residents. Even though the much-anticipated canal through the Valley never materialized, the arguments in favor of its construction were successfully reused a decade later during the region’s courting of the Housatonic Railroad. 


In May 1822, the Ousatonic Canal Company was organized with the goal of digging a canal alongside the Housatonic (or, Ousatonic) River from Long Island Sound to the Massachusetts border. For decades, entrepreneurs along the river had desired a way to move goods by water to Connecticut’s coastal cities, but shallow depths, waterfalls, and ubiquitous stones rendered much of the Housatonic impassible. Finally, businessmen from along the Housatonic River Valley seized upon the popular fascination caused by the construction of the Erie Canal and were able to incorporate their company.

According to the project’s promoters, the canal was essential to the economic growth of the Valley. Once the canal opened, businessmen from communities like Cornwall would have profited handsomely from their new abilities to ship items like slate, lumber, and iron to coastal cities, and receive luxury items from urban areas in return. As an added bonus, company executives also claimed that the region’s abundant lime and cinder (a waste product from the charcoal industry) could be mixed into a cheap and effective type of cement. Theoretically, the canal would have been dug on the western side of the river, lined with lime-cinder cement, dotted with various locks to control the water level, and flanked by a towpath where animals could tug along barges laden with goods. The estimated cost of the project was put at $599,400.

Despite the backing of some of Cornwall’s most influential residents, such as Philo Swift, John Calhoun, and Oliver Burnham, the canal was never attempted. According to Yale professor Robert B. Gordon, after the initial survey of the area revealed that the project would not be as easy to construct or inexpensive as early estimates indicated, support for the plan was abandoned. Ironically, fourteen years later, petitioners from the Valley used nearly identical language about their need for a connection to coastal markets to successfully bring about the construction of the Housatonic Railroad. Only in 1842, upon the railway’s completion, would Cornwall residents have a fast and relatively inexpensive way to ship items to the Connecticut coast.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Intern Update: Law and Order League

By CHS intern Ryan Bachman.

The vault is full of records from various Cornwall social clubs and organizations from over the past two centuries. Most of these societies were open to anyone willing to simply take an oath or pay a membership fee, with the notable exception of the secretive Law and Order League. In 1904, Reverend Edward Comfort Starr organized the league after witnessing what he saw as a marked rise in petty crime within the community. According to Starr, gambling, stealing, drunkenness, and general “licentiousness” went virtually unpunished by Cornwall authorities, and the Law and Order League was established as sort of vigilante group to monitor community behavior.

As founder and president of the organization, Starr was responsible for the solicitation of potential league members. Prominent Cornwall men who embodied what Starr considered moral characteristics were sent anonymous invitations to join, conditional upon their payment of ten dollars. According to the League’s constitution, members were not to reveal their identities or even the existence of the club to the community; secrecy even prevailed within the League itself, as the day-to-day operations of the body were controlled by an elite secret council whose identities were kept secret from lay-members.

Ultimately, the Law and Order League exercised little tangible authority in the community. Members were encouraged to monitor their neighbors’ behavior and send detailed reports of any suspicious activity they witnessed to President Starr. According to the organization’s by-laws, members were instructed to “notice, remember, and then write down” (emphasis in original) anything that could be broadly categorized as immoral. Once Starr consulted with the secret council, police were contacted and given all of the information gathered by the League. Due to the secretive nature of the club and the few surviving records relating to its activities, it is unknown how active or successful the society was in moralizing the community. However, the details of its membership roll suggest that after a brief period of popularity, membership numbers steadily dropped until all traces of the society vanished by about 1910.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Intern Update: Early Trips to NYC

By intern Ryan Bachman.

Theodore Sedgwick Gold manuscript.
(Collection of Cornwall Historical Society)

Among Theodore Sedgwick Gold’s papers in the archive are several stories about Cornwall residents that he took down during his lifetime. Some of these vignettes appeared in his History of Cornwall, while others remain less-known. Two tales recorded by Gold deal with the early days of Cornwall’s connection to New York City, a connection that still exists today, even without the presence of passenger rail service in the community.

After the completion of the Housatonic Railroad in the early 1840s, Cornwall, along with the rest of the Housatonic River Valley, became linked to coastal cities like Bridgeport and New York. Originally, trains took passengers as far as Bridgeport, where they embarked to New York on board steamships. Prentice Emmons, son of Cornwall farmer Luther Emmons, was one of the young people who removed to New York during this period in search of work. Five years after Prentice left home, Luther decided to drop in on him in the city for a surprise visit. Rather than ask Prentice for directions to his home ahead of time, Luther determined that he would simply ask around the city for Prentice’s address when he arrived in New York. After the ship landed, Luther was shocked at the sheer number of people walking the city streets—but still asked everyone he saw if they knew Prentice. To his disappointment, Luther later remembered, his questions were uniformly met with “blind stares,” and he returned home to Cornwall without finding anyone in New York that knew his son.

 In the early 1840s, Gold recorded that an elderly Cornwall couple (whose identities he never specified) planned a sight-seeing trip to New York. Together, the couple rode the train down to Bridgeport and boarded the steamship for the journey across Long Island Sound. As the ship docked, the wife became overwhelmed at the sight of the crowds mulling about the pier. Rather than disembark, she chose to remain on the ship overnight and return to Bridgeport when the ship traveled that way the next morning. Her husband, on the other hand, strolled off of the ship and disappeared into the crowd. After the wife returned to Cornwall, alone, the next day, her husband remained missing for several days. Finally, about a week after the couple began their trek, the elderly gentleman arrived at the West Cornwall train station. The husband was in excellent spirits after his adventure, yet remained evasive about the details of what he had done during his weeklong adventure for the rest of his days.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Intern Update: Cornwall's Support of Boston Revolutionaries in 1774

By CHS intern Ryan Bachman.

 In the aftermath of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, this week’s blog entry relates to Cornwall’s Revolutionary War history. Following the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, the British Parliament passed a series of punitive measures directed against the Province of Massachusetts Bay, popularly known in the American Colonies as the “Intolerable Acts.” One of these measures, the Boston Port Act, effectively shut down all commerce in Boston Harbor until the destroyed tea was paid for. In response to this development, towns from throughout the thirteen colonies responded to Boston’s plight by sending money and provisions to the blockaded city.

At a special town meeting on August 22, 1774, Cornwall residents voted that it was their community’s duty to support Boston, which the selectmen claimed was “suffering in the common cause of liberty” (emphasis in original). A benevolent committee was established to collect donations and forward them to Massachusetts, and to show just how enthusiastic the selectmen were in their support of Boston, voters ordered that the meeting minutes be printed in the Connecticut Journal and thus made public throughout the state. Members of the Cornwall donations committee gathered supplies from their neighbors and subsequently met with other committees from nearby towns at a county convention where they commonly sent their donated items north to Massachusetts along with a letter of support.

In November 1774, Cornwall’s selectmen received a reply from the Boston Committee of Donations, pictured below. According to the committee chairperson, David Jefferies, Boston’s civic leaders were very impressed with the “liberal donations” sent to the city from Northwestern Connecticut, especially in regards to the 51 cattle that were driven from the Litchfield Hill towns overland to the Massachusetts capital. Although the contents of the letter that the county delegation forwarded to Boston is unknown, the language was evidently prophetically strong—Jefferies took the time to specifically thank the Litchfield County committee for pledging to assist Boston with their “lives and fortunes whenever there shall be occasion.” Five months after the Cornwall selectmen received the letter from Jefferies, the Revolutionary War began at Lexington and Concord and militiamen from throughout New England swarmed to the countryside outside Boston. Four of the five men appointed to Cornwall’s donations committee went on to fight in the Revolution, namely Thomas Porter, Edward Rogers, John Sedgwick, and Heman Swift.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Intern Update: Base Ball Score Book

By CHS Intern Ryan Bachman.

Baseball Score Book
(Collection of Cornwall Historical Society)

Among the shelves of scrapbooks, diaries, and account books in the Cornwall Historical Society vault sits a baseball score book from the late nineteenth century.  From 1869 through 1890, dozens of Cornwall baseball players jotted down their names and statistics, and their notes give insight into sports culture in rural Connecticut during the final decades of the 1800s. 

All of the ballplayers listed in the record book were men in their early- to mid-twenties. Games were played during the summer and fall, and it appears that the timing of games may have prevented many young professionals from taking part. Instead, the majority of people who took part were college students. In one typical 1878 game between the Blue Gulls Base Ball Club and the Black Legs Base Ball Club played near the village green, six of the athletes whose identities are known were college students at the time. 

Team names were occasionally chosen for the neighborhoods where their players lived, such as in a game between the Dudleytown Base Ball Club and the Dibble Hill Base Ball Club, but other team names were taken in a more light-hearted manner. For example, in 1870 the Pot Base Ball Club played the Kettle Base Ball Club in Cornwall Plains, and eight years later, the players of the Muffin Base Ball Club took on the Booze Base Ball Club near Ballyhack. Most of the team names found in the record book were of the lighthearted variety, and these teams typically only existed for one or two games, with the notable exception of the Drunkard Base Ball Club.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Intern Update: A Farmer's Diary

Ryan Bachman, a graduate student at James Madison University, is working as an intern at CHS this summer, creating a Finding Aid to our archives collection. He will be posting highlights from the archives throughout the summer. This is the first post in the series for this year.

The vault at the Cornwall Historical Society is full of diaries and journals written by Cornwall residents over the past two centuries. In 1859, East Cornwall farmer Seelye Hart purchased his first diary from Pratt and Foster’s general store. For the next several decades, Hart kept a daily record of life on his College Street farm. His notes reveal not only the everyday details of operating a nineteenth-century farm, but also a wealth of information on social life in the community. In all, there are six volumes of Hart’s diaries in the historical society vault, and this week’s installment to the historical society blog comes from his first volume.

Page from Seelye Hart's Diary
(Collection of Cornwall Historical Society)

In 1859, twenty-eight year old Seelye Hart and his twenty-six year old wife Jeanette lived on College Street with Jeanette’s widowed mother Marie, their two young sons, Reuben and Elias, and their dog Rover. Every night after work, Seelye sat with his diary and recorded the events that occurred during the day. Topics in Seelye’s entries range from everyday struggles on a New England farm, such as digging large stones out of his fields, to worries that his baby son Elias’ cough may have been indicative of the croup, to musings about Rover chasing woodchucks around the family garden. Entries from the last week of February are especially useful in showing the contrast of hard work and leisure time that Cornwall farmers experienced in the mid-nineteenth century.

February 1859 was unusually warm for northwestern Connecticut. After a long day of work on his farm, Seelye excitedly recorded the happiness he felt working to the tune of “blue birds singing.” In the midst of the unseasonable warm spell, the Hart farm welcomed the birth of three healthy calves. In addition to the newcomers, the Harts already owned twelve milk cows, and after making a delivery to Pratt and Foster’s general store in West Cornwall, Seelye noted matter-of-factly that his farm had sold 3,778 pounds of cheese in the past year—Pratt and Foster used their store’s location along the railroad tracks to ship massive amounts of dairy products to urban locations like New York City. However, the Harts’ lives did not revolve solely around work, as Seelye’s late-February recollections reveal.

On February 24, Seelye and Jeanette left their two sons in the care of their grandmother, and went to a cotillion in Litchfield with their friend Eve. Cotillions in rural New England resembled square dances, and according to Seelye, couples danced to the accompaniment of fiddles, mandolins, and bass viols. The cotillion was held at the home of wealthy farmer, Daniel Dickinson, and lasted late into the night; Seelye and Jeanette didn’t arrive back at their farm until 4:30 AM. In spite of their late night out, they woke up at their usual time later that morning, and Seelye spent the day helping his father build an earthen dam while Jeanette worked at preparing oysters for a family dinner that evening. The cotillion was one of many such events that Seelye and Jeanette spent their leisure time enjoying, and Seelye’s diary is an interesting window into the social lives of farmers in rural Cornwall during the 1850s.  

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Longing For Home

Speech given by Lisa Lansing Simont on Memorial Day, May 25, 2015.

Two thousand fifteen is a year for anniversaries: It’s the 70th of the end of WWII; the 60th of the end of the Korean Conflict; the 150th of the end of the Civil War; and the 40th of the end of the Vietnam Conflict.

It’s even the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, although it’s safe to say Cornwall, Connecticut, didn’t have a dog in that fight!

But we did in the other wars both far away and here at home. After the servicemen and women had gone away to take up their duties, the families they left behind lived their version of the war, out of harm’s way, but often lonely and worried. Every family has its stories and its memories. Here are some of mine.

Here in Cornwall during World War Two we were a community mostly made up of women. My mother and I moved in with my grandmother Martha Hubbard for the duration. Three of her five children were away in the war – Gordon and Tom in the Navy and Lydia in the International Red Cross. It was a quiet life. My mother and grandmother planted a large garden and kept chickens to supplement wartime rationing. Milk was delivered several times a week from the Calhoun barn.

We all waited for the mail, the telegrams and sometimes the telephone. I was three years old by the end of the war, but even as a toddler I could sense the tension in the waiting.

Once in a while my father came home on leave from his ship, tall and handsome in his uniform. I thought he was terrific! Once or twice my mother and I went down to New York on the train from West Cornwall, summoned by my father calling from a pay phone at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He had a few hours ashore and was dying to see us. It was very exciting but after my father returned to his ship -- and we were back home in Cornwall -- my mother cried and hugged me very hard. I remember that.

Between these rare leaves my parents wrote hundreds of letters to each other, letters full of affection and funny stories which masked the loneliness my mother felt and the danger my father was often near. Letters found their way from Cornwall to the South Atlantic traveling finally to my father over a rope line between ships, the mailbag bouncing up and down, skimming the water. Letters went back over the same route to Cornwall where they were read and reread again and again. These letters -- hundreds of them tied up in bundles and sorted by date -- fill two large cartons at our house. I haven’t the heart to throw them away.

By this time 70 years ago service personnel were coming home and picking up where their lives had stopped. This was what they had longed for – to get back on the tractor, bring in the hay and have supper with the family. Just the ordinary events of living, precious to them because they could have lost it all far away in some place whose name you couldn’t pronounce. Still, being home took getting used to, especially with a family that had learned to get along by itself during the long years of deployment. Everyone had to adjust to peacetime life.

Who were they? Their names are on the memorial stones behind me. Some of these men didn’t make it home and those are the ones we honor today. The lucky ones came home to the place where they longed to be and helped build this community into the Cornwall we love. Many of them are gone now too, some are buried in the North Cornwall Cemetery where Virginia Gold told some of their stories this morning.

We all have our stories. Remember them. Tell them. Keep on telling them to the children and the grandchildren so they can carry these memories into the future.

Thank you!