Jedediah Strong’s Milestone

It’s easy to miss.  Traveling past Litchfield Bancorp on Route 202, the modern motorist is often too concerned with navigating traffic to notice the small marker on the bank’s lawn.  However, when it was erected 225 years ago, travelers only as fast as their horse or feet could take them almost certainly saw the engraved stone:

33 miles to Hartford

102 miles to New York

J. Strong AD 1787

It remains today, a reminder of the ingenuity of early Americans as well as one Jedediah Strong, one of Litchfield’s more unusual characters.

Roman milestone

Milestones have existed since at least Roman times, and dozens of milestones – bearing the name of the emperor under who rule they were erected and the distance to Rome – remain scattered across what was once the Roman Empire.  Milestones serve to mark the route and distance to a site.  As such, they provided reassurance a traveler that he was on the right road, and gave him an idea of how much longer his journey would last.

Franklin’s odometer

In our age of satellite navigation and laser-guided surveying, it is interesting to ponder how these measurements were made in a much simpler time.  Assuming that Jedediah Strong measured these distances himself, he likely did it by attaching an odometer to one of the wheels of his wagon.  The Romans possessed this technology, but like many of their innovations, it was lost as Europe entered the so-called Dark Ages.  The technology was rediscovered by Benjamin Franklin who, as Postmaster General, was desirous of knowing the shortest routes for sending the mail.  His odometer kept count of the number of revolutions made by the wagon wheel; by multiplying the number of revolutions by the circumference of the wheel, he arrived at the distance traveled.  (Incidentally, Google Maps states that the distance from Strong’s milestone to Hartford is 33.1 miles, and to the Bowling Green in Manhattan is 101 miles, testimony to the accuracy of the odometers of the time.)

Jedediah Strong was born in Litchfield in 1738, and graduated from Yale College in 1761, making him the second Litchfield resident with a college degree.  Like many of his era, he studied divinity but, perhaps inspired by the tumult of growing opposition to Britain, turned to law and politics.  He served as a selectman of Litchfield and town clerk, as a state judge and representative, and as a member of the Continental Congress and the Connecticut convention to ratify the Constitution.

Of Strong, one writer commented, “a diminutive figure, a limping gait, and an unpleasant countenance were, however, in some measure atoned for by a certain degree of promptness and tact in the discharge of public business.”

When the Revolution broke out, Strong donated a gun, bayonet, and a belt that was carried into war by William Patterson, and a second gun that was carried by Benjamin Taylor.  In 1780, at the peak of his political powers, Strong welcomed Noah Webster as his student.  He also served as the driving force behind Litchfield’s first Temperance Association.

Tapping Reeve

His life soon took a dramatic turn.  Strong’s first wife, Ruth Patterson died after giving birth to a daughter and, in 1788, the widower married Susannah Wyllys, daughter of Connecticut’s Secretary of State.  Less than two years later Strong was arrested and brought before judge Tapping Reeve.  Accused of beating his wife, pulling her hair, and kicking her out of bed, Strong also allegedly “spit in her face times without number.”  Reeve granted Susannah an immediate divorce, and required Strong to post a 1,000 pound surety.  His career collapsed, and Strong increasingly turned to alcohol.  He was soon on public assistance, and when he died on August 21, 1802, at the age of 64, he was buried in the West Cemetery without a stone.

Despite these travails, Strong’s milestone remained, serving passersby for more than two centuries.  Still, the modern explorer is left to ponder, why did he build it in the first place?  We might speculate that it was perhaps his interpretation of his civic duty, or that he was looking to boost Litchfield’s commercial prospects.  Regardless, the stone has been a silent witness to most of the town’s history.

Litchfield’s Water Monument

Litchfield enjoyed a so-called “Golden Age” from 1784 to 1834.  In these fifty years the small town was a center of education -with both Tapping Reeve’s law school and the Sarah Pierce Academy bringing young, intelligent and often well-to-do men and women to town – and of commerce.  In 1810, the population of the town was approximately 4,600, making it, according to the Litchfield Historical Society (http://litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org/history/index.php), the fourth largest settlement in the state.

Litchfield, 1836

However, beginning with the United States’ Fourth Census in 1820, the number of residents in Litchfield began a steady decline, with the overall population dropping in nine of the next ten censuses.  By 1910, the town’s population stood at 3,005, a staggering drop of 35%.  There were many reasons for the exodus of Litchfield residents.  Across New England, populations fell in the aftermath of the American Revolution as farmers gave up their rocky lands for the promise of new lands in the west; the migration was so severe that editorials appeared in the Hartford Courant asking who would tend to the graveyards of Litchfield County in the aftermath of the departure of so many residents.  The drop in Litchfield’s population was due to perhaps a simpler cause – it was very difficult for those who lived in town to obtain an adequate supply of water.

Litchfield was first laid out along elevated lands, initially along the ridge marked by present-day North and South Streets, then spreading to the Chestnut Hill area. While this allowed for plots away from swamps and wetlands, it made for great difficulty in digging wells.  A solution to the town’s water problem would be arrived at only with great difficulty and after decades of planning and work.

Fox Brook, Goshen

After discussions of how to solve the water crisis – and the continued decline in the town’s population – the Litchfield Water Company was established in 1891.  The company proposed damming Fox Brook in Goshen to create a reservoir.  While water was brought to Litchfield in 1891, within a few years the source was proven to be inadequate, for it was later written that Fox Brook “could not properly be called a brook, as it practically dried up soon after a rainfall.”

Professor Henry S. Munroe, of Columbia University’s Department of Mining was brought in to solve the problem.  Munroe, whose other contributions to the Litchfield County landscape included the tower on Mount Tom, oversaw the construction of a new pumping plan in the valley below the reservoir, with wells 90 feet deep.  These wells, as Alain White wrote in his history of Litchfield,

“have provided an unfailing supply of pure water ever since, so that however dry the season or how near a water famine many of the surrounding towns were, Litchfield people … had no cause for worry.”

The Litchfield Water Company soon after purchased 500 acres of the surrounding watershed of the reservoir, which they allowed to return to a natural forested state – excepting, that is, the fences they erected to keep out cattle.  Filters were added to the pumps in 1914 to help ensure the purity of the water supply.

Apparently the mere prospect of a clean and secure source of drinking water excited the commemorative spirit of the town.  In 1890, a year before the water system was activated, a small monument appeared on the western end of the town green bearing the inscription:

Erected by the

VIS

to commemorate the

introduction of water

October 1890.

The Litchfield Village Improvement Company (later the Village Improvement Society, or VIS) was incorporated in 1875 to oversee improvements to the town’s streets, parks, and public structures.  In erecting this particular marker, however, the organization perhaps did more than improve the appearance of their town; they may have commemorated its very survival.

Hidden Nearby: Goshen’s Liberty Pole

Note: Occasionally Hidden in Plain Sight will leave the environs of Litchfield in search of the historical landscape of the area.

On this Fourth of July, a marker on East Street North in nearby Goshen, Connecticut, allows us a window on to past celebrations of American freedoms and liberties.

John Adams famously believed that the signing of the Declaration of Independence “ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” He was not far from the mark; he erred only in believing that the celebrations would be held on July 2nd, the day the Continental Congress approved the document.

Raising a Liberty Pole in New York City, 1765

In Adams’ time, American patriots expressed their desire for freedom with liberty poles. Liberty poles were a common sight in the years before and during the American Revolution. These were tall, wooden poles, planted in the ground; they were different from regular flag poles in that they were usually topped by either a banner emblazoned with patriotic phrases or a liberty cap. (Liberty caps were conical-shaped hats, often made out of felt or other soft material; they were associated with the quest of Roman slaves for freedom.)

Liberty poles were often seen flying a red ensign; this was a signal for patriots to assemble to discuss the latest acts of British oppression. Naturally, British authorities objected to this means of communication between rebels, and the poles were destroyed. Just as quickly, however, they were rebuilt by Americans – especially the Sons of Liberty.

A French liberty pole

Liberty poles became symbolic of liberty, freedom and independence, and their use caught on in France during the French Revolution. They were also used as symbols of protest by farmers in western Pennsylvania during the period of the Whiskey Rebellion, from 1791 to 1794. As a symbol of liberty and freedom, the liberty pole was a popular image on 19th century American coins. In this 1857 “half dime,” the seated figure of Liberty holds a liberty pole topped with a liberty (or Phyrgian cap) in her left hand:

One wonders about Goshen’s liberty pole; it seems unlikely that there were many people in the area to gather around it in 1776. Why was it erected at this site, and not in the center of town? Was it, perhaps, simply a patriotic statement by an individual? Has there been a dramatic shift in the population center of Goshen? (There are other remnants of colonial Goshen further north on East Street.) Still, the town was proud of its patriotic activity in the Revolutionary Era and chose to commemorate it for the nation’s bicentennial. The town’s history records the events of July 4, 1876:

“In the early morning a company had assembled at the spot where a liberty pole had stood during the Revolution, and with appropriate ceremonies the stars and stripes were raised and flung to the breeze.”

One hundred years later, Goshen’s liberty pole was rededicated, as part of the official celebration of the nation’s bicentennial. A stone marker was dedicated, bearing the official seal of the Bicentennial, a flag pole erected behind it, and a time capsule buried.

We will celebrate the 236th anniversary of the nation’s independence in the style predicted by Adams – with pomp, parades, sports, and illuminations. Still, it is worth a trip to Goshen to be reminded of how freedom and liberty were celebrated in a simpler time.