Shifting Center of Town

From Essex Events -- Fall 1996:  Shifting Center of Town
    "Most people consider Essex Square to be the so-called "center" of town, but this has not always been the case.  A brief look into the past may be very revealing as far as this issue is concerned, and answer the question of why Essex does not have a "town green," in the historical sense of the term.
    "Between 1700 and 1730 events in Centerbrook firmly established that area as a center and most important section of town.  The Congregational Church had been established there, effectively making us a separate and definitive part of Saybrook.  The initial Meeting House was in approximately the same location as the current building, but a short distance to the east.
   "The first minister was the Reverend Abraham Nott, and his homestead and later that of his son's stood on "country road" (current route 154) north of the Meeting House.  Across the way stood the impressive homes of Daniel Williams (site of the current New Haven Savings Bank) and his brother Samuel (site of the current Cumberland Farms).  In addition, the Gristmill, Sawmill, Iron Works and Tripp hammer shop were located here, right behind Daniel's house.
    "The land behind the Church and these buildings to the west was really the original "green" in Essex--the area where the Essex Hardware, bank building, and American Legion Hall are located.  The Town Hall, Town Pound, and Poorhouse were also soon located in the vicinity.  Interestingly, the aforementioned Daniel Williams and his son-in-law, Captain Danforth Clark (lived adjacent to Rev. Nott, "on the green") were two of the first real "recorders" in Essex.  We call this position Town Clerk today.  These two held this post for many years.
    "By the end of the 18th century, events of great economic importance, centering around ship building, were making Essex village very much the "place to be."  The commercial center moved to the intersection of West Street, South Street, Hill Street and Pound Hill.  Today this is known as Champlin Square.  It featured at least seven stores, including the largest retail outlet (and money lending center) in the lower valley.  Well known Essex people such as Joseph Hill, Ebenezer Hayden, Nathan Pratt, Joseph Hill Hayden, and Henry Champlin were in business here.  It was perhaps the first concentrated retail center south of Middletown.
    "Within 20 years, there was another shift, as many stores became located along the river front, and the original Ropewalk (running from Talbot's store 3/4 the way down Main Street) was removed and a new one built about 200' to the north.  In a very short time New Street (now Pratt Street) and North Street (North Main) were instituted, and Main Street was moved very slightly to the south.
    "This all resulted in Essex Square as we know it, where all these roads plus Hill Street (ran from Main Street to the corner of West Ave. and South Main by the Pratt Village Smithy) intersected.  Since it was originally so commercially oriented, there was virtually no opportunity to have a "green" here.  Most Main Street houses were built in this early 1800 period for a very obvious reason--the shipyard people wanted their homes near their place of business.
    "The creation of wooden sailing ships soon came to a halt however, throwing this section of our town into relative economic oblivion.  The railroad was put through well to the west, where a new star was rising.
    "Ivoryton was not really a town with a factory, it was a village designed around a factory.  Samuel M. Comstock and George A. Cheney founded the Comstock, Cheney, & Co. in 1862, and once again the economic focus of Essex shifted, this time [to] the far western section of town.  Ivoryton remained the most viable economic part of town up to the great depression of the 1930s.
    "Since the second world war we have seen moves that make us more one town than three separate villages.  One might well ask, however, with a growing retail presence in Centerbrook, are we going back to our town's founding?"

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