Bloomfield, Connecticut, USA - 1886 - Bloomfield
BY MRS. ELISABETH G. WARNER.
BLOOMFIELD was incorporated in 1835, and consisted of Wintonbury Parish and a portion of Poquonnock Society in Windsor. In 1840 the town received an addition of a part of Simsbury known as Scotland Parish. As now constituted, it is bounded on the north and east by Windsor, on the south by Hartford, and on the west by Simsbury and Avon, and averages four miles in length and in breadth. On the east border a forest a mile aud a half broad extends the whole length of the township from north to south, and on the west is the range of hills called Talcott Mountain. Through this broad, gently undulating valley run three large brooks, which unite in the south part to form Woods River; and this, meeting another small river in the southwest part of Hartford, forms Park River, which flows through the city and empties into the Connecticut. These three Bloomfield streams are all of slow current, and overflow their banks several times a year, thus greatly enriching the soil.
Another fact favorable to Bloomfield as an agricultural town is that the climate is naturally warm for SO high a latitude. Beyond the mountain there is often snow, when only rain falls here. Between these streams lie cultivated fields and orchards, with large intervals of excellent mowing-ground. It is a singular fact that on the opposite sides of these brooks in many places there is an entire difference of soil.
The east part of the town is quite level land, with a warm, sandy soil; the middle from north to south, is principally a clay soil, covered with rich, deep loam, especially good for mowing-land; and as the ground grows higher, even to rolling hills toward the west, the soil is chiefly red loam, particularly well adapted to fruit culture, and has always produced the finest apples and pears. Formerly it yielded also cherries and plums, and, at certain periods, peaches in the greatest perfection. Appearances indicate the approach of another of these peach-cycles, as they have been aptly called, and many farmers are once more setting out peach-orchards. All this fertile region abounds in birds. A former resident of the town remembers counting forty-six kinds about her home, among them the scarlet tanager, cuckoo, rose-breasted grosbeak, kildeer, and indigo-bird. It was always the home of the fringed gentian, and of almost every other wild flower of southern New England. Here and there are woods of oak and chestnut, with alluring walks and bridlepaths, and roads intersecting each other in every direction, like Indian trails or cow-paths, as they douthless once were; so that the saying came about that every farmer had a road of his own to Hartford. With all this natural beauty the little town seems fitly named. And now, since it wisely chose to accept the Connecticut Western Railroad, which Farmington rejected, the number of its admirers niust have greatly increased. By this means the Tower in Avon, lying only four miles from the railroad station, has been brought within easy distance for excursionists from Hartford. Not far from the Tower are two mountain points,- one to the north and one to the east, both in Bloomfield, - called Big Philip and Little Philip. A tradition that on the latter of these King Philip was buried is still believed by many, and some have professed to be able even to locate the grave.
In 1801, as recorded by the Rev. William Miller, wood and hay were the chief marketable productions; "some hundreds of cords of wood being annually taken to Hartford market, and about two hundred tons of hay." He adds that "cyder, cyder-brandy, and apples are considered market articles; and that fifteen hundred meat-casks, consisting of hogsheads, barrels, and tierces, were made and marketed in that year, ." it is within the memory of a few still living, when corn was raised there to send to the West Indies. A great change has occurred in the last forty years in the productions of Bloomfield,- tobacco having largely taken the place of grass and grain in its fields. Although a crop involving continual risk and anxiety from its sowing to its selling, and requiring an immense amount of skill and care, its much larger profits have been the compensation.
It is not known when the first settlements were made in this part of Windsor. A deed of an Indian purchase in 1660 mentions this section as "the wilderness." it is reported that at the period of the first settlement on the river an expedition sent hither to explore returned with the report that "there was good land sufficient for the maintenance of three families." In 1738 there were sixty-five families in Wintonbury, numbering three hundred and fifty souls. So it may be supposed that there were some settlers here as early as 1675. There was probably a period of fifty or sixty years during which Windsor was the political, religious, and social centre of this little colony of Messenger's Farms. It was a long way to go to church across the plains and through the thick pine woods, before the days of carriages, and very difficult in winter, with the snow often three and four feet deep lying on the ground from November to March. There is a tradition of the time when Wintonbury families must go the whole way to Windsor, six miles, even to "get fire," when they were so unfortunate as to be out of it in those days before friction matches. A native of the west part of Blomfield remembers her grandfather pointing out to her an apple-tree that he had seen his father bring on his back all the way from Windsor.
This zealous little people came at last to feel tha.t they must have some life of their own, and in May, 1734, "Peter Mills and twentysix others, inhabitants of the southwest part of Windsor, known by the name of Messenger's Farms," petitioned for "winter privileges." They were granted liberty to conduct a separate worship from November to March. It went hard with the old town, however, to lose their pecuniary assistance in church matters, and they won their cause in the face of much opposition. Two years more made their independence complete, when the thirty-one persons in Windsor, twelve in Simsbury, and eight in Farmington received, in answer to their petition for "parish privileges," a grant of a parish set off from these three towns. It was about four miles square, and its name was taken, according to Connecticut custom, from the towns from which it was composed, - a fragment of each, Win-ton-bury.
At the first society meeting, Nov. 16, 1736, it was unanimously voted to build a meeting-house and settle a preacher. The Rev. Hezekiah Bissell, who was ordained in February, 1738, so well justified their choice that his rare excellence of character should be recorded here; and it could not be done more forcibly than in the simple words on his monument in the old graveyard - "Sacred to the Memory of the Reverend Hezekiah Bissell. His birth was at Windsor, of pious and reputable Parents. Yale College was the place of his Liberal Accomplishments, and the Scene of his usefulness was extended. He was alike unmoved by all the Vices and Errors of the late Times; Secure against both, his doctrines & his Life were Exemplary. Remarkable Peace and good order that reigned among the People of Ins Charge During his Ministry bear WTitness to the Prudence and Greatness of his Mind. In domestic connections he was truly a Consort & a Father, and in Social Life a Friend indeed. After the faithful Labors of 45 years in Sacred Offices, his last and best Daye arrived, which was January 28th, A. D. 1783, ætat. 72."
The simplicity and liberality of his religious teachings are well illustrated by the fact that baptism was allowed to the children of those who were not " church members," as that term is used, by means of the "half-way covenant," which "admitted all baptized people of civil behavior to the watch of the church, and to the privilege of presenting their children for baptism without attending the Lord's Supper;" and by the lack of requirement of any creed in joining the church, this brief and tender covenant - probably of his own composing - being used instead:-
We do solemnly avouch the Eternal Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be our God, and do devote and dedicate ourselves and children to Him, promising, as He shall enable us by His Grace, to believe His truths, obey His will, run the race of His commandments, walking before Him and being upright, exercising ourselves in ye duties of Sobriety, Justice, & Charity, watching over one another in the Lord and because Christ hath appointed spiritual administration in his home, as censures for offenders, consolations for the penitent, Teachings and Quickenings for all, such as the Word and Sacraments, we will truly countenance and faithfully submit to the regular administration of them in this place, and carefully perform our respective and enjoyned duties that we may all be saved in the daye of the Lord."
The meeting-house was a plain, barn-like structure, forty-five by thirty-five feet, unpainted, with no steeple or the slightest mark to distinguish it as a church. Swallows made their homes in the rafters, and squirrels so abounded that it soon became necessary for the safety of the pulpit cushions to keep them over at the tavern between Sundays. A hewn log lay along the middle aisle for the little children, who generally came barefoot in the summer-time; and from this they would rise reverentially and "make their manners" as the minister walked among them to the pulpit. The pews, straight-backed and high, were annually assigned to the attendants according to their age and rank. In the gallery there was a high pew set apart for colored persons. The tradlitional tithing-man, from his post in the singers' seat, kept watch over the demneanor of old and young, and not seldom some playful or weary urchin was rapped at with his long stick, or pointed out to notice, or even treated with harsher measures. All the men sat on one side of the church, and all the women on the other. East of the church a great horse-block of hewn logs stood ready to receive from their saddles and pillions those who had come mounted.
To this simple worshipping-place in the woods, called by no bell, nor even drum-beat as in Windsor, the people came, - only about sixty families of them to begin with, - on foot or on horseback, from their equally simple homes. And the shepherd of this little flock received for salary three hundred dollars and thirty-eight cords of wood. In the latter years of Mr. Bissell's ministry several members of his church went over to the Separates, sometimes called Separatists, a sect that dated from the Revival of 1740, and had already made considerable headway in Connecticut. What had gained proselytes to this sect in Bloomfield more than anything else, it is said, was a quarrel between Abel Gillet, a deacon of the church, and John Hubbard. This happened about 1760. Mr. Bissell, being a peaceable man, refused to take either side; and this, construed by Abel Gillet to show favor to his opponent, so angered himu that he withdrew from the church and "turned separate." They were presently called Separatists, and subsequently many of themu became Baptists. "As this sect derived its first strength in this society from a quarrel in a family of some note, so they have, from that day to this," bemoans the good Parson Miller, in 1801, "always gained proselytes, more or less, as a spirit of contention has revived or subsided." He admits a small number to have been conscientious Baptists.
They are first noticed in the public votes of the society in 1782, and in 1786 settled over their society Ashbel Gillet, a son of the above-named Abel. They steadily increased in number, and in 1795 built a small meeting-house, since repeatedly repaired. Elder Gillet svhs considered one of the best of men, even by those outside of his church. His prayers were believed to have special power with the Most High, so that he was much sent for to pray by the sick; and if rain was needed, especially during haying-season, the remark would he made that there was no use praying for rain until the parson's hay was in. Sometimes the people would turn out and help himu when there was an unusual drought, and then send tip their prayers. It is told that he once found a sheep astray after shearing, and likely to perish; lie took off his overcoat, wrapped it about the shivering creature, and went to find its owner. And another story of himn has come down, -how Parson Miller, who had often ridiculed the Baptists for their mode of baptism, at last, during a period of partial insanity shortly before his death, left his home on Whirlwind Hill one winter night, and made his way, with bare feet, through the sharp crust, to Elder Gillet's window, a mile and a half away; of course time good man arose and took him in and devoted the rest of time night to warming and comforting him.
This Mr. Miller, a maim of strong powers of mind and ardent piety, as well as of noble countenance and bearing, was the third pastor of the Congregational Church, and he succeeded in restoring the harmony broken by disagreenient on the choice of his predecessor, and by dissatisfaction with the Half-way Covenant, it was during his pastorate that a new meeting-house was built. The first one must have been sadly dilapidated and the people slow to realize it; for the Simsbury preacher, Mr. Stebbins, "a man intelligent, shrewd, and sarcastic,'' was sent for to stir them up on the subject. His text was, "Surely the fear of God is not in this place;" and tins was one sentence in his discourse "When you pass through a village, and see the clapboards on the meeting-house hanging dingle-dengle by one nail, you may be sure the love of God is not in that people."
The new church was dedicated Dec. 6, 1801. "A joyous day," said the happy pastor in his sermon. "not a pew empty, above or below-.''
During the summer, while the new church was building, the Sunday services had been held under a group of four great oaks close by, one of which still stands by the third and present house, dedicated in 1858. Mr. George B. Newcomb, now a professor in the College of the City of New York, was the pastor of this church for five years, between 1861 and 1866,- a preacher of great ability.
A Methodist society was organized in 1817, its first class consisting of only three persons; bitt it grew to a tolerable number, and sixteen years later built a church on the top of Whirlwind Hill, which in 1854 was rebuilt in the centre of the town.
An Episcopal society, growing out of controversies in the Simsbury Congregational Church, was formed in 1740, and built a small, Plain church in Scotland, - a part of Simsbury that was annexed to Bloomfield in 1843. A new church was built in 1806, two miles south of the first; but this was afterward taken down and removed to the old site, where it was rebuilt in 1830, and is the present church.
The public schools of the parish were for a long time under the care and control of the Ecclesiastical Society. Great deference paid to the periodical visits of the parish pastors. When they entered the school-room, all the scholars were compelled to rise and make obeisance. And here also should be mentioned other reguler visits remembered by an old resident as such stimulants to our pride and ambition,' but in these days too rare, - visits of the fathers and mothers. But little was taught. in the country schools in the early days; it is sometimes summed up as "the three R's." But the reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic, with the never-omitted spelling, and, for the girls, sewing on sheets, shirts, and often bedquilts, were taught with a thoroughness that laid a good foundation for the substantial education of many a. youth and maiden.
The teaching of the little children, in the early part of this century, began with a series of questions as to their names and those of their parents, their age, what town they lived in, what parish, what county, what State, and what country; the name of each pastor of their town, the Governor of their State, and the President of the United States. Great attention was given to spelling; and one of the excitements of those days was the strife in the evening spelling-schools.
The society was divided into seven school-districts, in which were built, in or imear the year 1800, five school-houses, two of which were quite large and convenient. "One of these two," says Mr. Miller, "is an elegant brick building, and both are provided with a good bell." The upper story of the old school-house on Whirlwind Hill was anciently used as a Freemasons' lodge, but was abandoned full seventy-five years ago; when the onter stairway leading to it was removed, it became thenceforth a habitation for rats, bats, and owls. Early in the century this school had a remarkable teacher, Mr. Lucas, who roused the greatest enthusiasm in his pupils, amid who closed his omme winter with a brilliant exhibition in the chnroh of the play of Pizarro, "Priest" Miller reluctammtly consemmting. Time schools were generally kept by male instructors in winter and by female in summer. One of the teachers- an old gray-haired man, and college-bred, which was a rare thing in those days - had the habit of getting his queue done over during "noon spell" by one of the girls of his "fore class." An interesting old lady, Mrs. Wealthy Gillet Latimer Thrall, who lived all of her nearly one hundred years in Bloomfield, used to tell her grandchildren how frightened she was the morning she was promoted to this class, when the master rapped with his ruler on the desk, and announced before tIme school that henceforth she was to take her turn at that august task. Her fingers trembled so that she could scarcely tie the black ribbon, as she stood behind the master, sitting by time big, open fire, keephig order during "noon-spell." This same little girl had such a good mnemory for grammuar, - all the grammar they had in those days was in the "fore part" of the spelling-book, - that her teacher delighted in taking her about the streets amid into the houses, of evenimmgs, to show off; when her listeners \vould exclaim, "What a pity she is n't a boy!" In her last days, after her strong mind had begun to give way, in wandering back to childhood she would repeat sentence after sentence from those old spelling-book pages. After she was grown and married, she and her husband kept Thrall Tavern, in the Old Farms district, for forty years, and in her old age she never wearied of telling how they once entertained Lafayette at dinner with a hundred other guests; delighting her eager grandchildren with all the particulars as to looks and dress and bill of fare. Her husband had the first chaise ever used in Bloomfield.
When the Revolutionary War broke out, nearly every man in the town was drafted; and this brave woman - then a young girl - was left by her father and lover, so that when one night her little brother died, taken suddenly with the disease then called hoarse canker, she and a very old man together made the coffin,-" rough, but lined with something soft," she said, - and with her own hands she dug the grave. The night before he died, as she was going up-stairs she "saw a vision in the window, and knew that something was about to happen."
A great many years ago two brothers named Brown made drumns, including small ones for toys; and once tin-ware was made in Bloomfield by Captain Filley, and sent by pedlers into Vermont. There were two sash-and-blind factories, short-lived, and an oil-mill, now gone to pieces. The making of wagons and carriages has for some time been an important industry of Bloomfield.
Among the Wintonbury records are instances of slavery. One reads of 1754, "Died Fortune, a negro servant, who belomiged to John Hubbard, Jr., and but a little before his death was Jon'a Smith's." The Rev. Mr. Bissell records the baptism of Ceaser, "a negro servamit of mine," in 1772. There were a few more, probably not a dozen in all, and their bondage must have been of the lightest type. In the early days Indians often went roving through the town, selling their baskets and other usual wares, and in the very early tinies they made their home there, generally harmless and peaceably disposed. Traces of an Indian reservation still exist in the Old Farms district. A native of Bloomfield remembers how a family of Mohegans used to come and settle down to their basket-making by Old Farms Brook, under the hill, on his father's farm. They would say to the little boys that all the land belonged to them, and they could get their basket-stuff wherever they liked. This was as late as 1820; and, as they fished in the stream where many kinds of excellent fish still abounded, they would tell how in the days of their fathers the salmon and lamprey-eels used to run up there from the Conneeticnt.
The old graveyard has the nsnal interest of bearing some curious epitaphs, and of testifying, by the manifold Scripture names recorded on its moss-grown and weather-worn stones, to the Bible-loving spirit of our ancestors, A small clearing was made in the beginning in the north end of the forest, which continued back a long way from the original church; and there, in what is now the extreme north corner of the large yard, a low, brown stone tells how soon sorrow came into the little parish.
"Here lies ye
Body of Lucy the
Daugh'tr of Serg'nt
Isaac Skinner who
Died Feb'ry ye 23rd 1739-40 aged 18 year this was ye first Person that was Buried Here."
New England retained for many years the custom of putting both the years to a date from January 1st
to March 25th, after which only the current year was written.
''When I was young I did die,
Why not you as well as I?"
What, for startling brevity, could equal this? And this, for biographical conciseness ? -
"Sixteen years I lived a maid,
Two years I was a wife,
Five hours I was a mother,
And so I lost my life.
My babe lies by me, as you see,
To show no age from Death is free"
Deidamia, Mahala, Lodesca, Loviey, and Chimena are a few of the quaint feminine names; and Reuel, Abi, Amaziah, Zemiah, and Defer, some of the masculine.
A rather showy monument among the simple stones, standing near the highway, marks the grave of Pelatiah Allen, who, dying young and leavimig no near heirs, bequeathed his property as appears from the following inscription on his monument: - monument to the memory of Pelatiali Allen, who died Feb. 5th, 1821, in the twenty-fourth year of his age, was erected by the Congregatinal Society of Wintonbury, of winch he was a member. Mr. Allen early arrived at maturity in the powers of his mind, and was possessed of more than ordinary energy and decision of character. In the testamentary disposal of his estate good judgmeimt and benevolence were happily united. After several legacies to individuals, he gave £200 for foreign missions, £100 annually forever for the relief of the industrious poor of Wintonbury, £30 annually for the support of religious psalmody in the Congregational Society, and £200 to £270 annually forever for the support of the gospel in the same society."
The whole property of his father had fallen to him in rather a singular manner. He was the only son by a secomid marriage which was so offensive to the children of the first, that they in turn offended their fatimer, and were turned off, each and all, without a shilling.
The state and town poor-lmoimse was kept for many years early in the century by Captain David W. Grant, who found it lucrative, and left a handsome property to his only son, Wadsworth, who built the house of rough stone in the western part of the town, and was one of Bloomfield's most liberal-minded citizens as long as lie lived.
Hiram Roberts, belonging to one of the oldest families in the place, which settled there before 1700, was for many years the merchant of the town and a lead- ing citizen, and was twice sent to time State Legislature. He was a man of unusual judgment and integrity; and when he died, at only forty-eight years of age, he was widely mourned.
Some others of the leading men of the place - several of them captains in the War of 1812, some of them representatives of the town in the State Legislature, and nearly all substantial farmers who died at a good old age - were: Elihu Mills, who is remembered as never having failed to be in his seat at church twenty minutes too early, and who was the last man to give up the custom of standing during prayer; Elijah Griswold, a noted singing-master, and one of the two publislmers of an early singing-book, "Connecticut Harmony" (printed about 1800), the engraved copper-plates and little press for which are still in existence the three Bidwell brothers, the Hitchcocks and Browns, and captains Lord, Goodwin, Filley, Loomis, and Rowley. Time last names outlived all the rest of the old soldiers. These captains drilled the old militia company, which mustered from one hundred and twenty to one hundred and fifty men, and was disbamided just long enough before our Civil War for it to find only raw recruits; but of these Bloomfield sent her share. The whole number who went to the war was one hundred and ninetytwo, and this was thirteen above her quota.
Another name to be remembered in connection with this town is that of Francis Gillette. the son of Elder Ashbel Gillet. The son was led to change the spelling of his name by a request received when in college from a distant relative, who had ascertained the original spelling of the name which is French. His Bloomfield life was interrupted for several years by the death of his father when he was only six years old. His mother, at her second marriage, two or three years after, removed the family to Ashfield, Mass. There, in the face of many obstacles, he fitted himself for Yale College. After graduating (1829), and being thwarted by weak lungs in his attempt to study law, he took up life again in his first home as a farmer, and in 1834 built his house of unhewn stone brought from the near mountain-side. It is still a striking feature of the town, set far back from the street, and entered from two directions through winding avenues of trees.
This is the west half of his father's farm, of two hundred acres or more, lying a mile and a half from the Centre, on the Hartford road. Here for eighteen years he lived, his health entirely ic-established by much out-of-door life, and his mind deeply devoted to the interests of Bloomfield. At the incorporation of the town he suggested the new name, which was at once adopted. He did all that lay in his power for its educational improvement, bringing about the building of the neat brick school-house in his district in the place of the ancient little wooden one in the hollow, with its knife-hacked desks and awkward benches, where he had learned his first lessons. More than once when in his possession the old stone house welcomed and gave shelter for a night to the flying slave, whose stories and songs, as he warmed and cheered himself by the fire, made a lifelong impression upon his young listeners. Mr. Gillette's earnest advocacy of the Antislavery cause showed itself first in a fearless speech on striking the word "white" from the State Constitution. This was in the legislature, where he had been sent by Bloomlield in 1838. He had been sent there once before, in 1832, at the age of twenty-four, hy Windsor, before Wintonbury had become an incorporated town. In 1841, against his will, he was nominated for governor by the Liberty party; and during the next twelve years the Liberty and Free-Soil parties frequently repeated the nomination. In 1854 he was elected United States Senator for the remainder of the term of the Hon. Truman Smith, who had resigned. Mr. Gillette's election was just in time for him to cast his vote against the Nebraska Bill, which was passed at midnight of the day of his arrival in Washington. He was also active all his life in the cause of temperance and in the promotion of education. Hartford had been his home for thirty years, when he died there, on the 30th of September, 1879, at the age of seventy-two. He was buried in Farminghm.
Of other natives of Bloomfield who have recently died, a most excellent and widely loved man was Jay Filley, a son of Captain Oliver Filley. He spent his last years in Hartford. Other sons took more or less prominent positions in the West., one of them having been mayor of St. Louis.
Samuel R. Wells, the well-known phrenologist, lecturer, and author, was born in Bloomfield.
Of those still living, James G. Batterson is one of the leading citizens of Hartford and a prominent business man of New England, the head of the New England Granite Company, president of the Travellers' Insurance Company, and one of the pioneers of Accident Insurance in the United States, - a man of great energy and public spirit.
Lester A. Roberts, a man of unusually wide intelligence and some literary note, is now a resident of Brooklyn, but still makes Bloomfield his summer home.
The population of the town, by the census of 1880, was 1,346.
The Memorial History of Hartford County, CT, J Hammond Trumbull LL.D., Published by Edward L. Osgood
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