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Windham County Connecticut
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WINDHAM COUNTY HISTORY RECORDS
 

 

"Windham's Bi-Centennial, 1692-1892; A Memorial Volume of the Bi-Centennial Celebration of the Town of Windham, Connecticut, containing the historical addresses, poems, and a description of events connected with the observance of the two hundreth anniversary of the incorporation of the town, as held in the year 1892." Published by the Committee, Hartford, CT, 1893.

 

Windham’s Second Century ­ Old Windham:

 

The opening of the second century finds Old Windham in the zenith of her glory and in the beginnings of her decline. An hundred years of growth had ripened her into the foremost inland town east of the Connecticut river. Norwich and New London surpassed her in wealth and numbers, because they were at tide water, but Windham
surpassed even them in influential association with the head centers of government. The brilliant Samuel Huntington of Scotland Parish, ex-president of the Continental Congress and late chief justice for Connecticut, was now in the sixth year of his decade of service in the governor’s chair, and he made frequent visits to his old home. Zephaniah Swift,* the young lawyer from Tolland county who had settled in Windham years before, and had become the oracle of local wisdom for many miles around, was chosen to congress in 1793, and this gave Windham direct association with the centers of national influence. Judge Swift was one of the most remarkable men of his time and was widely sought for his practical advice in affairs. His famous “Swift’s Digest,” compiled here in Windham after he left Congress, was long a standard among law books, and still ranks among the classics of the profession. [Notation at bottom of page: *Judge Swift was a native of Old Plymouth county, but in early childhood came to Lebanon, and graduated at Yale in 1778, when fifteen years old; studied law and settled for a brief time in
Mansfield, then came to Windham. He was naturally adapted to public life and received rapid advancement. He entered the legislature in 1787, was speaker of the house in ’92, went to congress in ’93, and soon after was
secretary of a legation to France. Later he was for eighteen years a superior court judge, and the five latter years chief justice. His various legal writings brought order to the confusion of the common law. He was the moving spirit in the revision of the Connecticut Statutes in 1821. Here at Windham he wrought out that invaluable working manual “Swift’s Digest.” He lived in the spacious mansion on the crown of the hill eat of the village now occupied by the family of the late George S. Moulton. Judge Swift died at the age of 64.] The clergy, lawyers, doctors and business men of Windham were of high order of intelligence and took a lively interest in public affairs. The Windham “Herald,” established in 1791, was fast gaining a wide circulation, reaching about 1,200 copies during its first decade, and it served to make Windham the center of actual information as well as of intellectual prestige.
Here, too, was the center of commercial activity. The old Green was a lively trading center. Here were several small manufactures, large and progressive for those days and a score of more of stores, where the prosperous farmers of the vicinity bartered their products for the dry and wet goods brought from the New York market and the West Indies. Here stockings and mittens were made from home-grown wool, and large flocks of sheep dotted the hillsides. Col. Elderkin wove silk fabrics from his own mulberry orchard for his favored daughters and for the New York market. Elisha Abbe’s stanch and dapper little craft, “The Windham,” with a frog militant at her bow, plied the coast waters in the carrying trade as proudly as her more pretentious rivals. Here on the Green was
“the largest drug store in Eastern Connecticut,” wherein Col. Dyer’s son Benjamin had kept his fabulous stock worth 1,000 pounds. Col. Dyer had built a dam across the Shetucket at South Windham, and another at the
Frog Pond, and saw and grist mills were operated at these and other points. Henry DeWitt, a convict at the county jail, had caught the industrial inspiration and by deft handiwork wrought headed tacks out of old iron, and thus won rank among the pioneers in tack manufacture. As shire town since 1726, Windham was also at this time the great
center of all county gatherings, not only for courts and political conferences, but for religious associations as well, in which its “First Church” was a leader. Here too was Windham Academy, finishing school for her own thirteen populous districts, and educational center for surrounding towns. The population of Windham at this time, including
Scotland and parts of Chaplin, Lebanon and Columbia, was somewhat over 2,500. Over at “Willimantic Falls” there was only a grist mill and a tannery, besides the disused powder mill and iron works, and nothing to foreshadow the future, save that old “Uncle” Amos Dodge had predicted that a great settlement would one day grow out of the privileges of the rapid water fall. Such was Windham at the opening of the second century. But her glory
was more ripened than growing, and decline had already set in. The most potent factor of disintegration was religious dissension. The Separatist agitation was in its last stages. The demoralization and burdens of war had fanned the flame of dissatisfaction with the existing order. The men of the Dyer and Elderkin stamp, who had been so influential on orthodox and established lines, were passing away, the infidel influences of the French revolution, added to our own newly-acquired freedom from kingly rule, led to a relaxation in moral and civil affairs that was disastrous for a time, until the rising generation came to a clearer appreciation of the responsibilities, as well as the privileges, of civil and religious liberty. But this will appear in detail when we come to review the status of the churches. Suffice it to say that with the first decade of our new century, there comes a decline of public spirit and unity, a scattering of the forces that had made Old Windham what she was, and a looking towards new fields
of development. The first avenue which led people away from Old Windham was the upbuilding of the great Turnpike lines for through travel by stages. True, they brought to her hotels an increasing patronage and for a time
made her more of a center of hospitality than ever, but they also opened the eyes of her young men to the outside world and her population continued steadily to decline. The Windham Turnpike Company was organized in 1799 to equip the road from Plainfield to Coventry, as part of the through system from Hartford to Providence. Timothy Larrabee was the moving spirit in this enterprise and the next year he led in another company to build a turnpike from Franklin to Stafford, an extension of the New London & Norwich line, which afterwards went on to Springfield.
The building of turnpikes led also to the general development of better roads to surrounding towns.
Four-wheeled wagons made their first appearance in Windham in 1809 and were the wonder of the time, few believing that a horse could ever draw one. In 1818 the Natchaug river was bridged at what is still called the “Horseshoe” bridge (because of the shape in the bend of the river just above) and direct connection with Willimantic Falls was thus secured.
During the stage-coach days Windham’s taverns became famous for their generous and free-hearted hospitality. The most famous was the Fitch tavern, which stood on the site of the present Windham hotel. Its distinctive sign, then the type of the times, was the “jolly rotund Bacchus,” as the image was then called, which was perched aloft on the sign post, but which looks to the advancing intelligence of to-day more like a grinning, bloated idiot than an attractive type of pleasure. Later the old Stanniford Inn was in its glory, standing where Thomas Ramsdell’s house now is, and with a magnificent elm, long since gone, spreading its hospitable branches over the inn and green. On an arm of that elm the Bacchus image rested for many years until, some time after the Washingtonian movement, a great gust of God’s righteous breezes broke off the limb and the image descended. It is still preserved by A.E. Brooks of Hartford. There were a dozen or more smaller houses that entertained the numerous travellers who came this way. Henry Larrabee well remembers the four-horse coaches that passed here daily in 1840, from north, south, east and west. There were several smaller stage lines for mail service, from Windham to Woodstock, Middletown and other points. Such were the modes of public travel until the advent of the railroads in 1849.
Windham took keen interest in the movement for the state constitution which culminated in 1818. The underlying motive of its advocates was to overthrow the church tax and leave men free to worship as they chose. The Federalist party, maintained on conservative lines, was falling to pieces. It was only by showing liberal tendencies that Judge Swift had been chosen to Congress. The “Sectaries” entered then with increased vigor the movement for a new constitution. Peter Webb, a leading merchant and Republican (as the Democrats of those days were called) boldly declared that the Connecticut Charter was “no constitution at all” and to the consternation of the Conservatives there was sufficient approval of the sentiment to elect him to the legislature in 1804, and thereafter he and others of similar view were repeatedly sent up to the General Court. It is interesting to note that the same argument was made against constitutional reform that we hear so much in the present similar movement, namely, that the instrument was “too sacred” to be disturbed and that disaster would follow the repeal of ancient customs.
But the vigorous Windham reformers kept right on and Peter Webb was one of three chosen from Windham county to help draft the constitution of 1818.
The decisive blow to Old Windham’s prestige and the last great mark of her decline was the removal of the court house and county seat to Brooklyn in 1819. She had been shire town for nearly a hundred years, and all the interests of this section had centered here. But now, --disintegrating influences were at work all around her. The northern towns of the county had grown in population and influence and objected to travelling so far for public conveniences. To the west, young Willimantic was drawing away citizens and industries and opening up new fields. As early as 1797 Timothy Larrabee and others had met representatives of the northern towns to counteract their movement against Windham’s shire-town privileges. The struggle was long and hotly contested. But in 1819 the General Court decreed that Brooklyn should have the coveted privilege, and Windham was reluctantly forced to yield. The county-seat question has ever since been one of intermittent interest, and even now lingers with suggestive possibilities. For years after the removal to Brooklyn, Windham fought to regain at least half-shire privileges, but to no avail. Chaplin, portions of Columbia and Lebanon, which had made her their judicial center, now drew away, and Old Windham'’ day was over. But in later days these same towns have come to look upon the new Windham at Willimantic as their natural center in trade. The modern drift of people and business to large towns has left Brooklyn more completely at one side than ever Old Windham was left, and the partial shire privileges granted to Willimantic in recent years suggest that a new county of the towns surrounding her is not an
impossible thing.

 

 

 

 

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