Glastonbury: A History
By Rafaele Fierro
The lustrous green element attracted the attention of the bulldozer’s operator. So he hopped out of the machine to observe what he had unearthed. Later the excavation revealed that the sheen came from copper salts that had soaked from beads onto a buried Indian skull. The 1971 event took place in Glastonbury’s Meadow Hill due east of the Connecticut River about 200 years after the last of the Wongunk natives had died. Several other findings occurred in Glastonbury after the floods of 1936 and 1938 had eroded the topsoil and brought to light many Indian artifacts. Observers must have noted the strange irony of twentieth-century Glastonbury men uncovering the skeletal remains of the Wongunk tribe their ancestors had killed accidentally by exposing them to small pox centuries earlier.
The excavation brought two worlds together long ago thought permanently separated—the early history of Glastonbury when natives inhabited the land and modern Glastonbury when the town had become a self-contained residential suburb filled with thousands of descendants of Europeans who helped bring about the great changes of the past three centuries.
About 4,000 Native tribes lived in Connecticut prior to European settlement, many making their home along the great tidal river, what natives called Quinnihticut. The various tribes created villages of approximately 100 people.
The Wongunk belonged to the great Algonquian Confederacy; they made the land east of the river their home. Sub-tribes included the Nayaugs and Naubucs, who lived in the foothills to the south of the river. Collectively, they were known as the Red Hill Indians. The great meadow adjacent to the river was their lifeblood. They planted corn, pumpkins, squash, beans, and sweet potatoes. They made nets out of hemp that grew in the meadow adjacent to the river to fish for shad and salmon. They hunted ducks, wild geese, turkeys, partridges, quail, and pigeons all of which were abundant along the river.
The Wongunk may have lived peacefully in New England, but others did not. The Pequot invaded their territory, and occasionally the Mohawk wandered onto their land from New York and killed them. Because the Wongunk saw enemies all around them, they may have appealed to white settlers in John Winthrop’s Massachusetts for assistance. Ten of them led by John Oldham, looking for economic opportunities to the south, moved to Wethersfield in 1634.
Only two years passed before a few Wethersfield settlers looked for fertile land “east of the river.” A generation later, peaceful relations between the Wongunk and the new settlers continued even as smallpox began decimating the Indian tribe. George Hubbard, one of the original surveyors of Glastonbury, in his deposition to the General Court, testified nostalgically in 1665 that the settlers “gave so much unto Sowheag (the great Wongunk sachem) as was to his satisfaction for all their plantation lying on both sides of the Great River.” The statement served as testimony to the peaceful coexistence between the two groups.
The Wongunk taught Glastonbury settlers to plant corn in the land’s most fertile areas and fish for shad. The settlement expanded in the next generation, and in 1689, it petitioned Wethersfield to be a separate township extending five miles eastward and four miles southward. The terrain ran from the river to the foothills which overlooked Hartford to the northwest. Wethersfield granted the request the following year with the General Court’s stipulation that Glastonbury create its own ministry. The new town appointed Timothy Stevens, whose 40 foot home was built on the corner of Main Street and Morgan Road, as the new minister two years later. A year after that, town leaders built the first meeting house on the green for both worship and town meetings. By the end of the century, Glastonbury’s population had grown to at least 50 families, a requirement for building a school, which the town did promptly in 1699.
Slow but steady expansion marked much of the next half century as indicated by population increase, and the creation of separate towns to the south including Eastbury and Marlborough.
Glastonbury in the Revolution
When the thirteen colonies prepared for war with Britain, Glastonbury already committed itself to the revolutionary cause. The town created a policy of non-importation with Britain and criticized the New York Colony for refusing to do so.
Glastonbury elite called a town meeting in June of 1774 to formally lend support to Boston in the wake of the British Parliament’s passage of the Coercive Acts. Led by Town committee chairman Elizur Talcott, the town called Britain’s behavior “subversive of the rights and liberties of the British Americans.” The committee also appealed to residents to relinquish to authorities any tea in their possession.
When the War for Independence began in April 1775, Captain Elizur Hubbard led 59 men to Boston to fight. Excitement gripped Glastonbury; little boys cheered, women wept, and church bells rang. When all was said and done, 369 Glastonbury men—about 23 percent of the town’s population--served in either the Continental Army or in the colonial militia. Of these, 31 died.
The town not only provided soldiers for war, but industry too. A gunpowder factory on the north bank of Roaring Brook in South Glastonbury called the Stocking Mill supplied ammunition for Washington’s Army. When the factory burned down in August of 1777, Eunice Cobb Stocking helped rebuild it with the financial assistance of Howell Woodbridge, a prominent and wealthy resident.
The Nineteenth Century
Like many Connecticut towns, industrial development reached fever pitch in Glastonbury between the Revolution and the Civil War. Shipbuilding increased. Between 1800 and 1820 alone, Roswell Hollister built more than 100 sloops, schooners, and brigs. Iron, textiles, glass, and cast metal goods transformed the town from a small agricultural community to a maritime and manufacturing center despite its continued rural flavor. Many industries were placed on sites that had been saw or grist mills. The J.B. Williams Company, for instance, replaced Hubbard’s grist mill, and became the world’s first soap manufacturing business in the world.
The Roaring Brook section in the southern portion of town attracted one of the largest cotton mills in Hartford County—the Hartford Manufacturing Company. The mill was placed in Cotton Hollow in 1814 near the Stocking gunpowder mill set ablaze during the Revolution.
The manufacturing company became part of a larger pattern of industry. Samuel Welles organized the Eagle Manufacturing Company producing woolen goods in 1822. Azial Goslee established the Hoe and Farm Implement Factory in 1836. At mid-century, charcoal had become Glastonbury’s sixth largest industry.
The town’s population, not surprisingly, swelled from 2,346 at the end of the eighteenth century to 3,363 in the middle of the nineteenth, a 50 percent increase, which supplied the labor for these industries. Inevitably, with more people more churches were built. Between the start of the century until the Civil War, six new churches were established, including an Episcopal church in 1813, a Methodist church in 1828, and two Congregational churches in 1836 and 1837 respectively.
The Civil War and Beyond
Glastonbury, like most towns, had a long sordid history with slavery. Dating back to the early eighteenth century, black slaves lived in town. In 1774, for example, the 79 African Americans comprised roughly 4 percent of Glastonbury’s population, many living on present-day Chestnut Hill Road. Shortly thereafter, perhaps because of the difficulty reconciling the revolutionary ideal of liberty with the enslavement of blacks, Glastonbury set on a path toward freeing them.
When the Civil War began in April 1861, 10 Glastonbury men immediately signed up, and a total of 393 served overall. The most famous was Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under President Lincoln, and the descendant of Thomas Welles, one of the town’s most famous early settlers.
When the war ended, the nation returned to a state of normalcy. One of the town’s leading historians, Marjorie Grant McNulty, summed it up this way: “Glastonbury settled down into a long era of conservatism, going about its business with characteristic caution, seemingly bypassed by the mainstream change beginning to affect American life.”
The railroad industry, for instance, did not pass through Glastonbury. Town leaders rejected two attempts to bring rail to town, one in the 1880s and another in 1890. The abundance of brooks in town attracted small enterprises that relied on water power rather than steam.
Glastonbury completed the construction of its last ship in 1876, almost as a rite of passage into a new era. Subsequent innovations were unfamiliar to the town’s former identity.
In 1880 trolley service came to Glastonbury, which, in turn, brought immigrants who supplied its labor, including Italians who eventually dominated the orchard industry. They joined a handful of Germans and Irish who had settled there the previous generation, and preceded Polish and Lithuanian families by a couple of decades. When the twentieth century began, Glastonbury families would ride the trolley into Hartford, and the town’s factories were largely assisted by the trolley line that shipped goods out. In the end, Glastonbury could not resist the temptation of modern technology.
Electricity arrived in Glastonbury by the late nineteenth century and the East Haddam Electric Light Company would place street lights on Main Street. In 1892, an electric trolley ran from East Hartford to Hubbard Brook near the town’s center. The telephone first appeared in Glastonbury in 1883. The town’s first water main was placed on Main Street in 1900.
In 1909, a flying object stunned Glastonbury residents as it passed over the meadows. Townspeople had just gotten used to automobiles which only a handful of residents owned. That Glastonbury’s own Frank H. Harriman built the airplane must have shocked them even more. The twentieth century brought about modernization that not even Yankees with their “wait and see” tradition could resist.
In the early twentieth century, another modern creation, the public school system, had come to Glastonbury when the town voted to establish it in 1902. That same year, tragedy beset the school when Charles Raze Gager died of a broken neck sustained during a high school football game against East Hartford. Consequently town officials removed football as a high school sport until 1966.
Not even Two World Wars, tragic as they were for Glastonbury residents, could impede the commercial success generated by the arrival of suburbs.
The Rise of Suburbia
More than 250 Glastonbury men served in the First World War and more than 1,000 men and women in the Second World War. In addition to these tragic man-made events, the great floods of 1936 and 1938 wrecked havoc on the town as well. The 1938 hurricane destroyed the First Church of Christ. The Depression also impacted the town greatly. In 1932 uncollected taxes surpassed $112 thousand. A Welfare Commission for Glastonbury was set up by the end of the decade and schools cut jobs. Despite these tragedies shared with the rest of New England and the nation, they served as mere interruptions to a century of transformation and general prosperity.
Suburban growth accelerated after World War Two. The town’s population grew by 3,000 and between 1944 and 1954, the school population increased by 800, a fact that led to the increase in the number of public schools, as well as the expansion of High Street and Naubuc Schools in 1946 and 1947 respectively. A Junior/Senior high school was built on Hubbard Street in 1952. That same year the Glastonbury Expressway, connecting the town to Hartford and with the interstate highway system, was completed. It also had the effect of bringing more industry and commuters to Glastonbury.
By the end of the 1950s, the population increased even more dramatically to 14,497, a 64 percent increase in ten years. This led, among other things, to the growth of the police department with an additional three officers and one extra cruiser and the transition from a Town Hall style government to the Council-Manager system in 1959.
Annual town expenditures tripled in the next decade as the population would see an additional 40 percent increase to more than 20,000 by decade’s end. The school population grew to more than 5,000 students in 1970. Between 1961 and 1968, crime in town had increased 99 percent; automobile accidents rose 69 percent. This led to increased calls for a larger police force, leading to even greater expenditures.
Like many suburbs throughout the nation, Glastonbury took on a homogenous self-contained character. Ninety-five percent of American suburbanites were white in 1970, a percentage about the same as that of Glastonbury. In fact, more African Americans lived in town during the colonial period than in the second half of the twentieth century. And despite its proximity to Hartford, a heterogeneous city, Glastonbury remained a Yankee town insulated from its urban surroundings in a manner not even the Expressway could subvert. It became, also, the wealthiest Connecticut town east of the river, a title it still holds.
In the last decades of the twentieth century Glastonbury had still to use roughly 60 percent of its land, unlike Wethersfield, its “mother town,” which by the same period had exhausted its supply. Glastonbury’s birth rate did not increase enough in these years to fill the land. The town turned East Glastonbury’s Minnechaug Mountain into a major residential area in the last thirty years, but plenty of space remained.
At century’s end, however, its population grew to more than 30,000, a sizeable increase spurred in part by migration from Hartford and from surrounding towns. While more than 90 percent of Glastonbury residents were white, a small but significant number of people of color had managed to settle there. The richness of culture formed by Wongunks and other tribes had long passed, but modern migration added an unexpected ethnic pluralism to the town’s character.
These new realities challenged Yankee hegemony. Glastonbury resident and New Britain firefighter Jose Carlos Silva moved to town in 2003 with his wife Lisa. Silva, the son of Portuguese immigrants, had grown up on Hartford’s Park Street. He never imagined that he would raise his two children in the other-world of Glastonbury. “Growing up in Hartford, the suburbs were just not attainable,” he stated. “Glastonbury could have been Paris, Moscow or Barcelona—so close yet so far.” Though still the exception, the town would witness more people like him filtering into this now only semi-insulated Hartford suburb.
Alonzo Chapin, Glastonbury for Two Hundred Years—The Town’s First Published History, (Glastonbury Historical Society: 1976)
Marjorie Grant McNulty, Glastonbury: From Settlement to Suburb (The Historical Society of Glastonbury: 1995)
http://www.hsgct.org/history.htm This is the Historical Society of Glastonbury’s website.