Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy


The years following the American Revolution were noted for a national impulse to establish grammar schools for young children, and academies for those considering college.  While there were several academies for girls operating in the county, none was more influential or noted than Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy.


Sarah Pierce (Courtesy of National Endowment for the Humanities)

      Pierce was born in Litchfield in 1767.  She never married and instead dedicated her life to educating young women.  Pierce’s father died when Sarah was 16, and her brother, John Pierce, Jr., invested in an education for her sister in the hopes that she would become a teacher and support herself.  The first classes were held in the dining room of the Pierce home.

Rebecca Couch Denison - View of Litchfield

            By 1798, Pierce had termed her school the Female Academy and began a subscription list to build a structure, which by 1803 was erected at a site on North Street indicated today by a stone marker.  Here young women were introduced to Pierce’s revolutionary ideas about education – namely, that girls should be taught what boys were, including geography and history.  Pierce went so far as to write her own histories when she couldn’t find suitable texts.

Litchfield Female Seminary in Connecticut

Litchfield Female Academy

            At the turn of the 19th century, so many students were coming in such large numbers – 130 in one year along – that Pierce needed to hire additional teachers.  The subjects they were responsible for grew to include chemistry, astronomy, and botany.  Academic pursuits were balanced with artistic endeavors including music, dancing, singing, embroidery, drawing, and painting.

John Pierce Brace

John Pierce Brace (Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society)

     Pierce brought in her nephew John Pierce Brace, a graduate of Williams College, as a teacher and her ultimate successor as head of the school.  Pierce was noted for his hands-on approach to education, as noted by Mary Wilbor in 1822:  “Mr. Brace had all his bugs to school this P.M.  He has a great variety, two were from China, which were very handsome, all the rest were of Litchfield descent, and he can trace their pedigree as far back as when Noah entered the ark.”

Needlepoint by Sally Miller, Litchfield Female Academy student, 1811

Needlepoint by Sally Miller, Litchfield Female Academy student, 1811

Pierce’s students boarded with Litchfield families.  The town was home to several large boarding houses, including Aunt Bull’s on Prospect Street, and may homes took in students from the Female Academy and the Litchfield Law School (see below).  Pierce was also committed to teaching her students proper etiquette, as evidenced by the following rule:  “You are expected to rise early, be dressed early, be dressed neatly, and to exercise before breakfast.  You are to retire to rest when the family in which you reside request you.  You must consider it a breach of politeness to be requested a second time to rise in the morning or retire of an evening.”

Connecticut tercentennial sign on North Street.

Connecticut tercentennial sign on North Street.

Mary Ann Bacon attended Pierce’s academy in 1802, and boarded with the Andrew Adams family on North Street.  Her diary entry for June 14th, 1802 provides an insight into a typical student experience:

Arose about half past five, took a walk with Miss Adams to Mr. Smith’s to speak          for an embroidering frame.  After breakfast went to school.  I heard the Ladies read      history, studied a Geography lesson and recited it.  In the afternoon I drew read and      spelt.  After my return home my employment was writing and studying I spent the        evening with Mrs. Adams and retired to rest about half past nine o’Clock.

Over 3,000 young women – and about 120 young men – were educated at Pierce’s school before it closed in 1833.  Their intellectual, social, and artistic abilities helped make Litchfield one of early 19th century America’s most cosmopolitan towns.


Carriage Steps

A prominent carriage step along North Street.

A prominent carriage step along North Street.

An earlier post examined the history of Litchfield’s hitching posts.   A similar reminder of Litchfield’s transportation history are the carriage steps (or mounting blocks) that dot North and South Streets.

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Mounting blocks were simple stone blocks – often granite – that allowed passengers and easier way of climbing on board a carriage or stagecoach.  Carriage steps were a fancier alternative, with two steps often carved into the stone.

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A remnant of a mounting block along South Street.

While they were often found outside the homes of the town’s wealthier residents, they speak to the importance of carriages and stages and means of transportation.  These conveyances brought students to the Tapping Reeve Law School and Sarah Pierce’s female academy.  The wealth and cultural refinement of these students helped establish the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Litchfield in the early 19th century.

A stagecoach in Farmington; it was perhaps bound for Litchfield.

A stagecoach in Farmington; it was perhaps bound for Litchfield.

Historian Lynn Brickley has written that while stagecoaches were forbidden from traveling at night, advertisements stated that the stage would leave Litchfield at 3 a.m.  A stage could travel 4-5 miles per hour, with stops every ten miles to change horses.  Still, rugged roads could slow the process, and the stage took 14 hours to travel 24 miles.

George Woodruff's centennial inscription may have served as a mounting block.

George Woodruff’s centennial inscription may have served as a mounting block.

Ultimately the arrival of the railroad would make stagecoaches no longer economically viable, and automobiles would do the same to carriages.  The implements of horse-drawn travel – hitching posts and carriage steps – remain as testimony to their importance in an earlier age.

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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

The Original Site of St. Michael’s Church

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This small, difficult to find marker stands along Route 202 between the ABC Music Shop and the Tapping Reeve Condominiums.  It marks the first location of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.



The church was founded in November 1745 at a meeting of the heads of thirteen Litchfield families.  While the numbers of Episcopalians in colonial Connecticut paled in comparison to the number of Congregationalists, Litchfield’s families were fortunate to have a strong leader in John Davies.  Davies, who had been born in England, donated money to build the church and leased the land on which the first church stood.  The terms of the lease between Davies and the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts called for the parish to pay Davies one peppercorn annually on the feast of St. Michael the Archangel.  Thus, the parish got its name.


The Revolutionary War was a particularly trying time for the church, as parishioners took an oath of loyalty to both the King of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The church closed completely between 1777 and 1780, and American soldiers allegedly threw stones at the structure as they passed through Litchfield until they were stopped by George Washington, himself an Episcopalian.  Approximately 20% of Connecticut’s Episcopalians fled to Canada as a result of the war.

In 1784, the Connecticut General Assembly officially recognized the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Society of Litchfield was organized.  Further stability came the following year when Rev. Ashbel Baldwin was installed at the pulpit in Litchfield.


St. Michael’s Church today

These developments, coupled with the cessation of Episcopalian loyalty to the King, led to the need for a larger church. This resulted in the parish’s move to South Street, the site where the current church built between 1918 and 1920 still stands.

The Constitution Oak

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Connecticut, the “Constitution State,” has a unique history of state constitutions.  The “constitution” that is celebrated on our license plates is the Fundamental Orders of 1638.  This document stated that Connecticut held no political allegiance to England, but rather was loyal to its local government.  In 1662 the Fundamental Orders were replaced by a royal charter exerting the King’s authority over the colony.  However, Connecticut residents paid little attention to this document and continued to abide by the provision of the Fundamental Orders.  This continued until 1818, when provisions establishing the Congregational Church as the official religion of Connecticut were deemed incompatible with the relatively recent First Amendment.  A new state constitution followed.

The Civil War monument in front of the state capitol was erected at the time of the convention in 1902.

The Civil War monument in front of the state capitol was erected at the time of the convention in 1902.

By 1901 it was apparent that there were significant flaws in the 1818 constitution.  Senatorial and House districts were set up according to geographic rather than population guidelines.  The end result was that Union, with a population of 1,000, had the same number of representatives as New Haven, with more than 100,000 residents.  In 1901, Connecticut voters called for a constitutional convention by a 2-1 margin.  The convention put forth a proposal that would award towns between one and four representatives based on population.  This was not enough for the cities, but too much for the small towns, and the proposal was voted down by another 2-1 margin.

Charles Andrews

Charles Andrews

That convention would be all but forgotten except that each of the 168 delegates (representing every municipality in the state) was given a pin oak seedling to plant in their town.  Charles Andrews, one-time governor (1879-1881) and then chief justice of the state supreme court was Litchfield’s representative and the presiding officer of the convention.  He planted his at the eastern end of the town green.

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Periodic surveys of these trees have revealed dwindling numbers.  Of the 168 original oaks, 110 were still standing in 1939 and 86 in 1986.  The last survey, conducted in 2002, revealed only 74 remain.  While a new state constitution was finally approved in 1965, Litchfield’s oak – a reminder of a failed constitution – still stands.

Periodic surveys:

1902 168
1937 110
1986 86
2002 74

The Center School Inscription

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This post is the second to be accompanied by a video hosted by You can access the video here:

From the 18th through the early 20th century, public education in American towns was run through small school districts. These districts were organized around one-room schoolhouses and were situated to be within walking distance of homes. For example, when established in 1774 the school in Northfield constituted Litchfield’s 14th school district.

The school for the borough of Litchfield was located on West Street, but Arthur Bostwick who was born in Litchfield in 1860 and became a prominent librarian and author, wrote that “nobody went to it who could afford a term’s tuition at the Institute.” (This institute stood on North Street; the Wolcott Institute on South Street closed the year before Bostwick’s birth). This school was destroyed in the great fire that swept town in 1886.

Litchfield High School, on East Street.

Litchfield High School, on East Street.

Two years later a high school opened at the top of East Street. Students were required to study grammar, literature, arithmetic, United States History and geography.

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“1725 First Public School Appropriation”

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“The Center School Litchfield”

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“Bicentennial building dedicated 1925”

There was a movement In the early 20th century to combine the scattered school districts into “consolidated” or “center” schools. It was believed that this would offer students a more specialized education at enhanced economic efficiency to the town. The result for Litchfield was Center School, which opened its doors in 1925, the bicentennial of Litchfield’s first school. This anniversary was commemorated in the inscription at the top of the building. While the building has gone from housing all of Litchfield’s students to only those in grades K-3, the inscription remains as a reminder of the town’s educational history.

The Bantam Lake Ice House

This observation tower along the Lake (Yellow) Trail at White Memorial sits at the point where ice was taken out of the lake and sent to the ice house.

This observation tower along the Lake (Yellow) Trail at White Memorial sits at the point where ice was taken out of the lake and sent to the ice house.

This post marks a new partnership between and will occasionally be providing videos showing some of the sites discussed on this blog.

In the days before refrigerators foods either needed to be preserved (through canning, smoking, or salting) or kept fresh through the use of ice boxes.  Ice boxes were dependent upon a steady supply of fresh ice, no easy proposition in the summer months.  To satisfy the demand for blocks of ice, ice was harvested from New England ponds and lakes in the winter (usually in January and February when temperatures were the coldest).

Forty acres of Bantam Lake had to be harvested to fill the ice house.

Forty acres of Bantam Lake had to be harvested to fill the ice house.

The earliest ice harvests were done in the same manner as harvesting crops, with neighbors and friends pitching in and being compensated with a share of the crop.  Specialty tools, including gang saws, chisels and saw plows, were used to cut the ice into blocks which were then transported to ice houses for keeping.  Ice houses were designed with the floor one foot off the ground to allow for the passage of air under the ice.  They featured double walls, one foot apart and packed with shavings or saw dust for insulation.  The floors of these ice houses were pitched to allow for drainage.


The former machine shop at the ice house complex.

The largest ice harvesting operation in Connecticut was the Berkshire Ice Company (later part of the Southern New England Ice Company) on Bantam Lake.  Their facility stood near the present Litchfield Town Beach on North Shore Road in Bantam.  Here the foreman’s house and machine shop still stand, and the remains of workers’ dormitories and, most impressively, the 700 foot by 125 foot ice house are visible.

The ice house had fourteen  30-foot high storage sections that each held 4,000 tons of ice for a total of 56,000 tons of ice.  It would take 40 harvested acres of ice to fill the warehouse.  The particular challenge the workers faced was getting the ice into the storage house.  This was especially difficult as the ice was cut into the 300-pound blocks preferred for wholesale purposes.  (Retail ice was cut into 25, 50, or 100 pound blocks).


Prior to the conveyor belt system, ice was floated to the ice house via this canal.

Channels were cut into the lake, and the workers (who were paid 60 cents an hour and worked seven days a week in the mid 1920s) utilized poles to float the ice to a ramp on which rested a conveyor belt.  The concrete pillars of this system still stand as ghostly sentinels in the swampy grounds of White Memorial; the final pillars today support an observation tower on the shores of Bantam Lake.  The conveyor belt was powered by a 100-horse power engine that derived its energy from the Bantam Falls power plant.


Concrete pillars mark the path of the old conveyor belt.

The conveyor belts ran approximately 1000 feet from the lake to the ice house.  In the summer months, a spur of the Shepaug Valley Railroad ran from the Lake Station (today, the Cove Shops on Route 202) to the ice house, where it split to run parallel so cars could be filled from both sides of the structure.  Up to 20 box cars a day were filled, and the ice was transported as far as Bridgeport.   Alain White, in his History of Litchfield, described the “long trains,” which “pull out daily in the summers, carrying concentrated relief from the Litchfield Hills to the larger cities southward.”


Remains of the ice house foundation, at the southern end of the Butternut Brook trail.

The spread of electricity and refrigerators to households in the 1920s led to a severe decline in the demand for harvested ice.  On August 8th, 1929, a massive fire swept through the facility.  Some have speculated that the fire was caused by spontaneous combustion of either the hay or sawdust at the site, while others reported that their were several cases of arson in the area.  Either way, over $350,000 in damages resulted from the destruction of the ice house building, nine railroad cars, and over 50,000 tons of ice valued at $200,000.  The next year the Southern New England Ice Company sold its land to the White Memorial Foundation; as a result, the foundations remain to remind us of this once vibrant industry.

For the video of the Bantam Lake ice house, click here

The Litchfield Garden Club


This stone flower urn stands at the intersection of North Street and Norfolk Road in Litchfield.  There are no markers or inscriptions to tell the curious passerby when or why it was built, or by whom.  Further investigation, however, reveals that this is one of the many contributions made by the Litchfield Garden Club to beautify the town.

LGC-CentLogoFinal_jan2012_722013 marks the 100th anniversary of the Litchfield Garden Club.  On September 9, 1913, nine women from the Litchfield area met at the home of Edith and Alice Kingsbury on North Street and organized the club, with annual dues of two dollars.  S. Edson Gage, an architect who had designed the Litchfield Playhouse that stood at the  site of the current town hall, was elected president.

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The old Litchfield train station on Russell Street.

The organization’s first civic project took place in 1914, when – in cooperation with the Village Improvement Society – they spent ten dollars for plantings at the town’s train station on Russell Street.  After the First World War the club was active in maintaining the plantings at the train station as well as beautifying the grounds of the town’s schools and library, and in creating Litchfield’s Wild Gardens on land leased from White Memorial.


Flowers planted by the Garden Club in the trough of Litchfield’s Water Monument.

The Norfolk Road planter was installed in 1954 (the club’s website indicates there may have been others along Norfolk Road), flowers were planted at traffic intersections, and the organization was also instrumental in getting Litchfield’s Historic District added to the National Registrar of Historic Places.  More recently, the club has replanted the trees along North and South Street that were originally planted by Oliver Wolcott, Jr. to commemorate the original 13 states and installed period lighting on the Litchfield Green.

Happy 100th anniversary to the Litchfield Garden Club, which has done so much to enhance the natural beauty of our town!

July 4, 1876: Litchfield Celebrates the Centennial


The town of Litchfield celebrated the nation’s centennial in grand style.  A committee had been formed “to arrange for the commemoration of the Centennial Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.”  The festivities began on the evening of July 3, when the village bells were “rung from 8 to 10 o’clock P. M., and houses in the village illuminated.”


An 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly depicted Fourth of July fireworks.

At sunrise on Independence Day, the town’s bells rang for another hour, and all townspeople were asked to display the American flag.  The formal public ceremonies began at 10:00 am with church services and a reading of the Declaration of Independence by Truman Smith, the 94 year-old former senator and congressman.  In the afternoon, a display of Revolutionary War artifacts was opened in the Court House.  The day concluded with another illumination and with fireworks over the center of town.


George Catlin Woodruff

The driving force behind the festivities was George Catlin Woodruff, who that day delivered a 44-page address on the town’s history.  Woodruff was born in 1805, and was described by a fellow townsman as “erect in figure, and singularly robust; always of the finest health; always at work and never seemingly fatigued; nothing in nature so typified him as an oak which has withstood every vicissitude of storm a century of time.”

An 1825 graduate of the Litchfield Law School, Woodruff served several terms in the state legislature, and one term in the United States Congress.  He was best known for his 1845 history of the town, which was marked by the precision of his research.  The same year he wrote a Geneaological Register of the Inhabitants of Litchfield from 1720 to 1800.  In his address that day, Woodruff discussed the town’s history between 1776 and 1876, but was “concerned chiefly with the share our town had taken in the Revolution.”

DSC_0035Woodruff would go on to be the first vice president of the county historical society before his death in 1885.  It is not difficult to imagine that it was with great pride in his role in honoring the nation’s centennial that Woodruff had that memorable date carved into a stepping stone outside his home on South Street, opposite Saint Anthony of Padua’s Church.

The Frances Howe Sutton Bridge

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The Frances Howe Sutton bridge on the Little Pond Trail in White Memorial Note the plaque on the right side of the bridge.

The most popular trail in the White Memorial Foundation is the boardwalk that encircles Little Pond.  The bridge in the photograph above, which carries a plaque honoring Frances Howe Sutton, spans the outlet of the pond, where the Bantam River turns toward Bantam Lake.

Wild Garden Map

A 1932 map showing the Litchfield Wild Garden. The Sutton Bridge appears at the bottom. “Map of the Litchfield Wild Garden” Litchfield Historical Society, Helga J. Ingraham Memorial Library. Thanks to Linda Hocking at the Litchfield Historical Society for providing the digital image.

In 1922, the White Memorial Foundation leased 150 acres east of Little Pond to the Litchfield Garden Club for the “creation and maintenance of a wild garden containing trees, shrubs and flowers native to Connecticut and to Litchfield County.”  (The Garden Club paid $1.00 to lease the land for ten years.)  The garden club created trails through this area to allow visitors to access the flora.  This became known as the Litchfield Wild Garden.  In 1928, the Munroe Bridge was built to offer visitors access to the west side of the Bantam River as it flowed into Little Pond.  (This is the bridge near the Litchfield Country Club.)

suttonTen years later, Herbert L. Sutton financed the construction of a second bridge, which was built in memory of his wife, Frances Howe Sutton.  This bridge crossed the river as it flowed out of Little Pond, and gave visitors access to the Pine Island section of White Memorial.

sutton 3In subsequent years management of the Wild Garden passed from the Litchfield Garden Club to the Wild Garden Association and then to the Litchfield Hills Audubon Society.  In 1959, the boardwalk was completed around the entirety of Little Pond, in memory of Ralph T. Wadhams.  Finally, in 1975, the area of the Wild Garden reverted back to White Memorial.  While the trails in this area are no longer maintained, the careful observer can still locate where they once ran.

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The view from the bridge.

In September 1985, flooding from Hurrican Gloria necessitated a rebuilding of the boardwalk.  Ultimately this project required 57,000 board feet of lumber, 2,600 hours of labor, tons of nails, and $73,000 to repair the 1.2 mile trail.  While entire sections of the trail and uncounted individual boards have been replaced since 1985, the structure of the boardwalk remains today.  Those who have ventured to Little Pond for birding in the spring or to admire the stark beauty of a New England winter understand why this trail remains White Memorial’s most popular.

For more information on the Little Pond boardwalk, see Keith R. Cudworth, The White Memorial Foundation:  The First 100 Years, The Legacy of Alain and May White (White Memorial Foundation, 2012).