Congregational Church Cornerstone

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Litchfield’s Congregational Church has been called “the most photographed church in New England.” It’s Greek Revival design and the simplicity of its black shutters and white paint seemingly epitomize colonial architecture. Its style is a perfect match to its setting.

Except that this is both Litchfield’s third and fifth Congregational Church, a story partly illuminated by this cornerstone.

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The first Congregational Church was erected between 1723 and 1726 in the intersection of the town’s major north/south and east/west roads, where today we would find the green. A largely square structure, it was sold in 1761 and the larger second Congregational Church was erected the following year.  By 1828, the church building had deteriorated so badly that one anonymous writer to the Litchfield County Post commented, “the shabby building pains the eye of every stranger.” The structure’s dilapidated condition – coupled with their era’s surge in desire to separate church and state, as manifested in Connecticut’s 1818 constitution – led to a decision to build a new Congregational Church off the green.

It is the construction of this church that is commemorated by the “1829” on the cornerstone. For its popularity and the rave architectural reviews the structure draws today, its design fell out of favor in the post-Civil War era. Of the building, Henry Ward Beecher, who had grown up in Litchfield, remarked “There is not a single line or feature in the old building suggesting taste or beauty.” With the popularity of Gothic Revival architecture, the third church was moved down the Torrington Road in 1873 and replaced by a wooden structure with dark stained glass windows and dark paneling and furniture, representative of the Victorian era.

The third church served as a gym, a roller skating rink, concert and dance hall, and movie theater, until the Colonial Revival swept the nation in the 1920s. At that time, Edgar Van Winkle, chairman of the Congregational Church’s building committee, termed the fourth church a “monstrosity” and, in 1929, hired noted architect Richard Henry Dana, Jr., to develop plans to move the third church back to a site opposite the green and restore it to its Greek Revival splendor (if not to its exact appearance, as several details were changed). This restoration is commemorated by the “1929” on the cornerstone.

The Congregational Church is an iconic symbol of Litchfield, but its foundation highlights the fact that this was not always the case.

For more on the architectural history of Litchfield’s Congregational Church, see Rachel Carley’s excellent book Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town (2011).

 

 

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DAR’s Memorial Window at Litchfield Historical Society

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One of Litchfield’s newest markers (along with the War on Terror monument on the green) was dedicated in September 2016. It commemorates the dedication of a stained glass window in the north side of the Litchfield Historical Society.

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The window was dedicated in 1907 by the Mary Floyd Tallmadge Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution as a memorial to the more than 3,000 men from Litchfield County who served in the War for Independence. For more on the service of these men, click here.

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Frederic Crowninshield (1845-1918)

 

The Mary Floyd Tallmadge Chapter was founded as an independent branch of the DAR in 1899. Prior to that, it had existed as an adjunct of the Judea (Washington) Chapter. Elizabeth Barney Buel, the first regent of the chapter, spearheaded the effort to place a memorial stained glass window in the Noyes Memorial Building, which at the time housed both the historical society and the town’s library. It required considerable fund raising, both for the execution and installation and for the services of artist Frederic Crowninshield, who was president of the Fine Arts Federation and former instructor at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts School of Drawing and Painting. Crowninshield is perhaps best known for his stained glass window Emmanuel’s Land , depicting a scene from Pilgrim’s Progress, in Boston’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church.

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Crowninshield’s design for Litchfield depicts a young man with a sword in his right hand and a laurel branch in his left, symbolic of victory in the war. The full beauty of the artist’s design is visible when the window is illuminated at night.

 

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The Noyes Memorial Building, Litchfield Historical Society. The Revolutionary War Soldiers Memorial Window is at the far right of this picture.

 

In 1964, the library moved from the Noyes Memorial Building (named for Julia Tallmadge Noyes, a granddaughter of Mary Floyd Tallmadge) to its current location in the former home of Oliver Wolcott, Jr. This allowed for the Litchfield Historical Society to occupy the entire building on the corner of South and East Streets, where the young man with drawn sword in the window can guard the town’s history.

75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

Photo of Litchfield War Monuments - Litchfield, CT, United States

This December 7th marks the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and while Litchfield County residents tend to think that it was the Revolutionary War that had the greatest impact on our region, the World War II monument on the Litchfield green identifies 480 men from the town who served in the American armed forces. Nearly 250 men from Litchfield County died in the war. Additionally, many area factories were converted to production for the war effort, and many of our towns’s landscapes were altered as a result.

And while many of our town greens have notable World War II monuments, touching memorials also appear in out of the way places, like this one inside Washington’s Congregational Church:

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or this one along Route 202 in New Milford, which is particularly noticeable at Christmas time:

As the anniversary of Pearl Harbor allows us to reflect on the war, let’s be sure to remember those sacrifices by our Litchfield County ancestors.

 

Dam Remains along Butternut Brook

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Remnants of a stone dam along Butternut Brook in Litchfield. This is a common feature on the Litchfield County landscape.

These remnants of dams are on Butternut Brook, along Duck Pond Road in Litchfield. They transport the explorer back to a time when the region’s many small industries were powered by water, an era historian Kenneth Howell has called an “empire over the dam.”

A grindstone, most commonly used in a gristmill to grind wheat into flour, or more commonly in New England to ground kernels into corn meal.

Water power was cheap and usually – except in droughts – reliable. Dams would hold back enough water to turn the water wheel, which in turn powered the drive shaft. Attached to the shaft was a vertical gear, which in turn transferred power to a horizontal gear. This, in many Litchfield County mills, turned the grindstones that turned wheat or corn into flour.

The Butternut Brook crosses Brush Hill Road (called Ripley Road on this older topographical map). The dams are located near Duck Pond Road’s intersection with Milton Road.

While Litchfield proper never saw industry rise above the level of small grist and saw mills, greater sources of water power in Milton and Fluteville (a section of town along the Naugatuck River bordering Harwinton, now lost to the Northville Dam) larger operations blossomed, powering lathes, blacksmith shops, and clock making. And of course, the dams in Northfield fueled that borough’s knife shop.

The streams of Litchfield County are dotted with hundreds of remnants of old dams, a reminder of the small industries that helped make life in this once isolated corner of Connecticut a little easier.

Look for a future post specific to Milton’s industrial heritage.

LHRR Series: The Last 1/10th Mile

Runners making the final turn from South Street to West Street experience the surge of adrenaline that comes with the wall of sound rising from the crowds along the sidewalk and the Green. The Green, the center of community activity in Litchfield, has not always been the pastoral heart of the town.

An 18th century map of Litchfield drawn by Ezra Stiles. Courtesy of Yale University.

Like many Connecticut communities, the Green began as simply a very wide road. In Litchfield, it was Meeting House Street, and was what is now East and West Streets. The western portion of this road was 264 feet wide, with the eastern portion stretching to 330 feet wide. (Colonial roads were much wider than our modern roads, in part because the lack of effective road building tools meant that large boulders and tree stumps would be left, so travelers needed ample space to get around them.) In the roadbed where Meeting House Street intersected with North and South Streets stood the Congregational Church. In 1752, the county courthouse was also built in the center of the road, and the sheep and pigs of local farms milled about.

Lyman Beecher, minister at the Litchfield Congregational Church from 1810 to 1826.

At that point the town did not have a centralized commercial district, but in the coming decades, especially during the Revolutionary War, businesses in town clustered around this intersection. An 1814 map of town shows a great deal of activity on North Street, with the courthouse having been moved to the southern side of West Street. The Congregational Church – with Lyman Beecher as minister – still stood in the intersection. This is commemorated with a monument that today is in the southern portion of the Green; there was, however, no grass there in 1814.

 

The Litchfield Green,. 1907.

What we would recognize as the Green began to emerge after a new Congregational Church was built outside of the intersection in 1828-29. The town decided to grade its central area to create a commons. This was divided into three sections, East, West, and Center Parks. By the time of the 1851 county centennial, this had become the major meeting place in town. The early 20th century would see transformations of the Green by Litchfield’s Village Improvement Society, but for the new sidewalks, lighting, and trees that came and went, the Green had become the heart of town, which it will be tomorrow when approximately 1,500 await the start of the 40th Litchfield Hills Road Race.

Good luck to all runners!

For more on the development of the town of Litchfield see Rachel Carley’s book Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available at the Litchfield Historical Society).

 

 

 

 

 

LHRR Series: The Seventh Mile: Gallows Hill

A lone runner practicing on Gallows Lane. Courtesy of the Hartford Courant.

A seventh mile featuring Gallows Hill is certainly an ominous way to end a road race, and the historian, trained to be a skeptic, wonders if the appellation survives a historical inquiry. It does, as Gallows Hill was the scene of three of the four widely documented executions in Litchfield.

The pillory, a frequently used method of punishment in early America.

 

There are many instances in Litchfield history of the gallows being used for punishment that did not quite rise to the level of execution. For example, Sheriff Lynde Lorde wrote  in February 1776, “I caused the within named John Thomas to be taken from the common Gaol in Litchfield to the place of Execution and there Set upon a Gallos with a Rope Round his Neck for the full Term of one hour and Then tied to the Tail of a Cart and Transported to four of the most public places in the Town of Litchfield and there whipped on his naked body Thirty-nine stripes in the whole.” Other uses of the gallows were more extreme. In 1768, John Jacob, a Native American, became the first documented prisoner to be hanged in Litchfield. On February 17th of that year he killed Jacob Chokerer, a member of the Schaghticoke tribe in Kent with a hatchet.

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A map of Litchfield at the time of the Davenport trial. Note the church and the courthouse in the center of town. Courtesy of Yale University.

One of Connecticut’s most brutal and best known crimes saw its climax come on Gallows Hill in 1780. Barnet Davenport had served with George Washington’s Continental Army until he deserted and became a live-in worker with Caleb Mallory’s family in Washington, Connecticut. In early February of that year, Mallory arranged to have several members of the Mallory family leave on a trip, while he killed Caleb, his wife Jane, and their three granddaughters. He then gathered up the family’s valuables and set fire to the house, believing that if the entire structure was destroyed, investigators would think that he had also perished in the fire. He fled to Cornwall, but was captured while sleeping in a cave. He was sentenced to 39 lashes before being hanged on the gallows.

This illustration depicts the short-drop gallows, designed to kill the condemned through strangulation, an exceedingly painful enterprise. It was used for Litchfield’s first three executions.

Five years later, Thomas Goss, a Barkhamsted tavern keeper from Barkhamsted, was convicted for the ghastly crime of splitting his wife’s head open with an ax, then smearing her blood on the couple’s three children who were sleeping in the bed with their mother. He later told the authorities he committed the act because his wife was a witch, and he was acting only to save the children. Goss was sentenced to death by the gallows on November 7th, 1785, but swore that the sheriff would never be able to carry out the act, as Goss was in fact that brother of Christ and that the Heavenly Father would intercede to save Goss and kill 30,000 men in retribution. Sheriff Lorde soon disabused  Goss of these notions.

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Andrew Borjesson. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society

Litchfield’s final execution did not take place on Gallows Hill, but rather in a special building erected for the occasion in the courtyard of the county jail on North Street. In 1890, Andrew Borjesson, a Swedish immigrant living in Kent, killed Emma Anderson at the Buckingham home in New Milford. Borjesson had paid for his fellow Swede Anderson’s passage to the New World in exchange for her promise to marry him. When she later refused, Borjesson climbed to the roof of the home in which she lived, entered her room through the window, and slashed her eight times with a knife. As it had been over 100 years since there was a public execution in town, some worried that it wouldn’t be carried out efficiently. “The town green was packed with a seething mass of humanity from end to end,” the Litchfield Enquirer reported. “There was great fear lest a human stampede erupt. When the black flag of death was hoisted above the jail a great cheer burst forth from the crowd.” “Every detail of the execution was carried out without delay or painful mistake whatever,” another story reported. Still, the Enquirer did not that “an unnecessarily large number viewed the scene, many of whom were more or less intoxicated.”

For more on crime and punishment in early Litchfield, see my forthcoming book, Wicked Litchfield County (History Press, July 2016).

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available at the Litchfield Historical Society).

 

 

LHRR Series: The Sixth Mile: The West Cemetery

Microwave Mile (Courtesy of Janet Serra)

Entering the sixth mile of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, runners encounter what is known as the “Microwave Mile.” Here the shade of White Memorial forests is left behind, and in the open the sun of a hot June afternoon is brought fully to bear. The scene becomes more ominous to those runners who take note of the West Cemetery alongside the course.

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Here, some of the town’s earliest settlers were buried. Current burials continue in the adjacent Saint Anthony’s Cemetery (an annex is across the street). The historian, however, is drawn to effigy markers, gravestones without accompanying bodies. One of these is a memorial to Joseph Harris, the first original settler of the town to die. In 1723, Harris was killed by  a group of Native Americans while tending to his fields. Shot dead and scalped, his body was found by neighbors the next day, sitting on the ground with his head resting against a tree. This was in the area of town where Litchfield Ford now stands. That area became known as Harris Plains.

Harris’s burial location is no longer known, but in 1830, Litchfield residents erected a monument to their ancestor in the West Cemetery. It reads:

In Memory of Joseph Harris who was murdered by the Indians in the year 1721. While plowing in his Field in the vicinity of the Alms House, he was shot by the Indians concealed in Ambush. He was found dead Sitting on the Ground, his Head and Body reclining against the Trunk of a Tree. To record the first Death among the original Settlers of this Town & to perpetuate the Memory of a worthy but unfortunate Citizen this Monument is erected 1830 by the voluntary Benefactions of individual Subscribers

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Effigy graves in the West Cemetery

A second example of effigy graves is in the area of the cemetery reserved for Civil War veterans. Initially, this land was donated as a potters field for those soldiers who could not afford a grave plot. Over time, it became a place for families to erect markers to their sons and husbands whose bodies did not return home from the war. In Victorian America, the idea of a “good death,” in which the stricken died at home, in their bed, surrounded by loved ones, gave comfort in times of grief. The Civil War, with young men dying in brutal fashion in unfamiliar surroundings posed an obvious but serious threat to this notion. A solution was the effigy grave, a place on which where families could focus their grief and prayers.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available at the Litchfield Historical Society).