West Street – Then and Now

Return visitors will recognize the above image as the banner used on this blog.  It depicts Litchfield’s West Street, likely at some point in the late 1920s or early 1930s.  Shot in black and white, it was later colorized for use on a post card.

Here is the same view on sunny fall morning in 2012:

A later post will explore the history of Litchfield’s Historic District.  But the juxtaposition of these two images is testimony to the remarkable job of preservation done in the center of town.  The most striking difference is that the street has been paved; also, it appears that West Street once featured parallel parking.  The right side of the building on the extreme right of the image is now red instead of gray.  The stores in the center of the 2012 view have painted their fronts white, which accentuates the colonnade.  Note that the signs on the building have changed over time.  In the top image, one business has a marquee-style sign, with the other businesses have prominent signage above their store fronts.  Today’s stores have less prominent signs.

Otherwise, the appearance of the street is virtually identical.  The notable architectural features – the bricks in the shapes of diamonds, peaks along the roofs, the patterns along the tops of the facades – all remain.

The historic district was created to protect the town’s colonial character.  Along West Street, however, it has been remarkably successful in preserving the character of the early 20th century.

Connecticut Tercentary Signs

Travelers entering Litchfield from the west encounter this tercentary sign as they pass Stop and Shop.

In 1935, Connecticut celebrated the tercentenary of its European settlement. It was an enormous undertaking, with over 3,000 events attended by more than 4 million people (the total population of the state was 1.6 million,which ranked it 29th in the country; in 2012, with 3.5 million residents, Connecticut still ranks 29th!).


The State Legislature created the Connecticut Tercentary Commission in 1929 to plan and oversee the commemoration.  Among its sponsored activities were special exhibits and ceremonies, musical events, pageants and parades, activities for schoolchildren, and special license plates.  Special coins were minted, and special stamps created.


Two undertakings of the Commission continue to serve their original purpose more than three quarters of a century later.  The first is the series of sixty pamphlets on Connecticut history published by Yale University Press for the Commission.  These pamphlets, authored by various Connecticut writers including Commission chairman Samuel Herbert Fisher, are all available at the Connecticut State Library.  Of particular interest to Litchfield are The Settlement of Litchfield County, The Litchfield Law School, 1775 – 1833, and Connecticut Portraits by Ralph Earl.

The east side of the sign between Stop and Shop and the Webster Bank. It bears Connecticut’s state motto, which translates to “He who transplanted still sustains” and the state seal, which shows three grapevines, one representing each of Connecticut’s three earliest settlements, Windsor, Wethersfield and Hartford.

More noticeable on the Litchfield landscape are the roadside historical markers erected by the Commission.  Thousands of cars pass Litchfield’s four signs every day, yet there is no indication on the signs about who put them up, when they were put up, or why.  There were 139 known signs erected to inform motorists about important episodes or people from Connecticut history.  However, as many of these signs were duplicate (for example, nine signs in Hartford told the passerby about a nearby 17th Dutch fort), there were 71 different historical sites marked by the Commission.

The west side of the sign located between Stop and Shop and the Webster Bank.

All the signs were 1.5 feet by 2 feet, and painted in the distinctive brown with white letters.  However, while most hung from poles, there was no uniform method for hanging the markers.

It is interesting to ponder, what sites were marked? What sites weren’t? In keeping with the historiographical attitudes of the time, it is not surprising to learn that many identified sites of military importance.  However, eleven of the signs identified sites of educational importance, and sites of literary importance were also well represented.  Litchfield’s markers reflect these trends.

This sign marking the Beecher homestead is located at the intersection of North Street and Prospect Street.

Signs mark the Litchfield home of the literary and theological Beechers …

Located along North Street. Note: If any town officials are reading, the tree around this sign needs to be trimmed!

… and Litchfield’s educational pioneers Sarah Pierce …

Located in front of the Tapping Reeve Home and Law School on South Street.

… and Tapping Reeve.  Yet no signs (at least no extant signs) mark the sites of homes of Revolutionary heroes Oliver Wolcott or Benjamin Tallmadge, further evidence that what is considered significant in history changes over time, and isn’t always cast in stone, or metal.

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.

A Post on Posts (or, Hold Your Horses!)

They stand as vestiges of a bygone era of transportation, reminders of the age of the horse.  More than a dozen hitching posts remain along the streets and sidewalks of Litchfield.  They evoke, in the imaginative passerby, images of riders in the saddle, of wagons or coaches, of landaus or sleighs.

Illustration from John Barber, “Connecticut Historical Collections,” (1838) showing horse-drawn traffic entering Litchfield.

Americans were a restless people in the 18th and 19th centuries, crossing the Appalachians and pushing the frontier first to the Mississippi and ultimately to the Pacific.  This was accomplished primarily on horseback or with wagons.  The horse played a vital role in Litchfield’s commercial life; as the railroad did not reach the town until 1872 and there is no navigable waterway, all goods had to enter town via horse-drawn conveyances.

Hitched horses, RIchmond, VA, 1865.
Photo courtesy of hmdb.com

The hitching post was the parking space of the 18th and 19th century.  Most houses had them; it is likely that nearly all commercial enterprises had them.  Hitching racks secured several horses at one time.

Upon arriving at his or her destination, the rider would dismount the horse or vehicle, and tie the reins which were attached to the horse’s bridle to the post with a “hitch”, a type of knot or tie.  Hitches varied in style, and travelers could opt for the simple clove hitch if they had only a horse and were in a hurry, or the more difficult but secure rolling hitch to secure a wagon or carriage.

 


Hitching posts are of different materials and sizes, and present a variety of ways in which a rider could secure his horse.  Those that remain in Litchfield are most often made of granite, although there are examples of sandstone posts as well.  One wonders about the industries that grew up to fabricate the posts.  Were they presided over by local craftsmen, or were they brought in to Litchfield from distant manufacturers?

Most often the posts are found near the present sidewalks.  One walking the sidwalks on North and South Streets sees many examples of hitching posts.  They stand close to the sidewalks, most often as solitary sentinels.  However, the careful observer will see a house on Prospect Street with twin hitching posts.

This cast iron hitching post was likely made outside of town.  Molten iron was cast into the desired design and allowed to cool.  A simple search for “hitching post images” reveals many different designs of cast iron posts.

Why do more not remain?  Perhaps many were made of wood and eroded over the years.  Did owners remove their hitching posts when automobiles made them unnecessary?  Did the paving of the roads widen existing roadways and necessitate the removal of posts?  Are those that remain all original, or were they erected simply to be ornamental?  Many of those that still stand have house numbers posted on them.

While obsolete, there is a sort of grace and beauty to them.  It is doubtful that anyone will ever say the same about parking meters.