The Sign-Post Elm

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This is among the most hidden in plain sight of Litchfield markers.

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Today, Litchfield residents who wish to spread news of an event hang flyers at Stop and Shop, the Oliver Wolcott Library, or the Post Office, or information posted on Litchfield.bz. In an earlier day, Litchfield’s residents hung notices on the Sign-Post Elm.

 

The Whipping Post Elm (White, The History of the Town of Litchfield)

The Whipping Post Elm (White, The History of the Town of Litchfield)

Litchfield had many distinguished elm trees. Brothers Oliver Wolcott Jr. and Frederick Wolcott planted many elms along North and South Streets. John C. Calhoun planted elms at the corner of West Street and Spencer Street and also on Prospect Street when he was a student at the Litchfield Law School. The ominously-named Whipping Post Elm stood in front of the jail at the corner of West and North Streets.; at 150 inches he reportedly had the greatest diameter of any elm in town. Second was the Beecher Elm at 146 ½ inches, at the site of the family home on the corner of North and Prospect Streets.

The Sign Post Elm, with notices visible, at left.  (White, The History of Litchfield)

The Sign Post Elm, with notices visible, at left. (White, The History of Litchfield)

 

The Sign-Post Elm was not as big, but was, perhaps, of greater importance. For many years it stood at the corner of South and East Streets, in front of what is now the Litchfield Historical Society. It displayed the legal notices of the town, informed residents of town meetings, and hosted, under its branches, auctions and sheriff sales.

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The marker for the sign-post elm is visible as the small stone-like object to the left of the telephone pole in this photograph.

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Henry Ward Beecher

While Dutch Elm Disease, which was first discovered in the 1920s, has devastated the mature elm trees of North America, the value which Americans of an earlier ascribed to the elm is indisputable. Litchfield native Henry Ward Beecher, in an 1856 account about returning to his hometown, wrote: “There were the old trees, but looking not so large as to our young eyes. The stately road had, however, been bereaved of the buttonball trees, which had been crippled by disease. But the old elms retained a habit particular to Litchfield. There seemed to be a current of wind which at times passes high up in the air over the town, and which moves the tops of the trees, while on the ground there is no movement of wind period. How vividly did that sound from above bring back early days, when for hours we lay upon the windless grass and watched the top leaves flutter and marked how still were the under leaves of the same tree!”

The Beecher Monument

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The monument sits prominently on the eastern end of where Route 63 passes through the Litchfield green, a fitting location for the monument to Litchfield’s most prominent family.

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Lyman Beecher (1775-1863)

Lyman Beecher was born in New Haven in 1775 and graduated from Yale in 1797.  The following year he became the pastor of the East Hampton (Long Island) Congregational Church at an annual salary of $300.  He remained there for twelve years before he was hired by the Litchfield Congregational Church, where he remained for sixteen years. (It is interesting to note that the monument sits at the site of Beecher’s church; the current Congregational Church was moved to its site in 1929).

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Beecher remembered his time in Litchfield as the most “active and laborious” of his life.  In his autobiography he wrote that he “found the people of Litchfield impatient for my arrival and determined to be pleased, if possible, but somewhat fearful that they should not be able to persuade me to stay.  The house yesterday was full, and the conference in the evening, and so far as I have heard, the people felt as I have told you they intended to.  Had the people in New York been thus predisposed I think I should not have failed to give them my satisfaction.  My health is good and I enjoy good spirits, some time past, am treated with great attention and politeness and am become acquainted with agreeable people.”

S4859-lgTimothy Dwight, the president of Yale University, preached the sermon at Beecher’s installment service.  Beecher very quickly established himself as one of the nation’s most important religious leaders.  He was central to the establishment of the Litchfield County Foreign Mission Society, and from the pulpit at the Congregational Church gave the Six Sermons on Intermperance, that when published in book form in 1826 were widely circulated on both sides of the Atlantic and were “among the earliest and most effective” statements on behalf of the temperance movement.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe

Lyman Beecher’s achievements have largely been eclipsed by those of his children; in fact, Theodore Parker, the noted writer and abolitionist said that Lyman was the father “of more brains than any other man in America.”  Harriet Beecher was born in Litchfield the year after Lyman was installed as pastor.  One townsperson shared a recollection of Lyman Beecher serving as the judge of an essay contest among the students of Sarah Pierce’s academy.  Upon hearing one essay he immediately brightened and asked who had written it.  He beamed when he learned it was his daughter’s work.

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Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher, soon to surpass his father’s fame as a minister, was born in Litchfield in 1813.  He was  remembered by his classmates for building a pulpit out of hay and impersonating the elder Beecher’s sermons.

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Catharine Beecher

Catharine Beecher, Lyman’s oldest child, would become a reformer and leading proponent of the cult of domesticity.  While not born in Litchfield, she had fond memories of the annual “minister’s wood sled” when members of the congregation would bring Beecher wood for the winter and in return the Beecher children would serve them cider, hot cakes and doughnuts.

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The Beechers’ time in Litchfield ended in 1826 when Lyman moved to a congregation in Boston.  Harriet achieved her fame in Cincinnati and Maine, Henry Ward headed the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, and Catharine opened a school for girls in Hartford.  Still, they had a great impact on Litchfield, as remembered by this monument which was erected by the University Club in 1908.