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.