Newington: A History
By Rafaele Fierro
“It doesn’t matter that George Washington never slept here or that we never produced a U.S. President,” declared Bertha C. Thomas author of The Newington Tapestry written in 1995, “We’ve produced people who became legends in their own times. Not famous in a worldly sense, but honest, hard-working family and community oriented individuals.” In fact, Washington not only didn’t sleep in Newington, but perhaps purposely avoided the town because of its intractable spring mud. And “unlike our parent, Wethersfield,” wrote Roger W. Eddy, the son of a prominent Newington family and the town’s first Republican state senator, “no onion has ever taken its name.” Thomas’ and Eddy’s statements served notice that Newington took great pride in its unassuming and modest character. Like their counterparts from more legendary towns, Newington citizens became bold entrepreneurs, served heroically in wars, and built dynamic political and cultural institutions. But they did so quietly. The town’s claim to fame is that it is not famous.
Newington has a history of nearly 375 years. While not established officially as a separate town until 1871, Wethersfield settlers took up residence on the western frontier of their riverside town in 1636. “West Society,” as some called it, was an area rich in timber that was used for pipe staves, barrel-sized containers used for colonial trade. Grand pastures also made the land ideal for herding and grazing cattle. Its inhabitants received land grants from Wethersfield leaders. Known as “West Farms,” the area west of the central portion of Wethersfield became settled by those who were almost exclusively the descendants of the earliest Wethersfield settlers. In 1721, the “western” farmers requested that the General Assembly of the Connecticut Colony give their land the name “Newington” to denote “the new town in the meadow.” The Assembly granted the request, even though it took another 150 years before Newington officially became an incorporated town. The town’s name predates its official existence.
Newington’s motto inscribed on its town seal is “growth and progress,” which it began putting into effect at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1798 the Hartford/New Haven Turnpike was authorized and it changed the complexion of the land by dividing the vast farmlands from the commercial center. Immediately, stage coaches traveling at the record speed of six miles per hour appeared. The turnpike attracted a number of businesses from north to south between Hartford and New Haven.
The town came into its own at the start of the nineteenth century. Its location in the center of Connecticut attracted an increasing number of residents and commercial enterprises. Veteran of the War of 1812 Levi Lusk established one of the first businesses on the Turnpike, a tavern that stood as a precursor to the many motels, bars, stores, and restaurants that would come later. Railroads passed through Newington as early as the 1830s, which accelerated residential and commercial expansion. More homes were built and businesses established as the nineteenth century unfolded.
Newington grew in population and area by the second half of the nineteenth century. Wethersfield had done likewise, and two population centers were produced as a result. One centered on Wethersfield’s inner village still closely tied to the Connecticut River; the other in Newington had developed its own identity distinct from its mother town.
An 1870 map of Newington shows that the town was divided into four districts—the North, the Middle, the South, and the South-east—that ran from east to west. From north to south, four main roads traversed the four districts starting from what is today the West Hartford line extending all the way to the Berlin line to the east. Later the roads would be called the Berlin Turnpike, Main Street, Willard Avenue, and Church Street. The town extended four miles in a north-south direction and three miles in an east-west direction.
In 1871, Newington had a population of 871 people with 132 dwellings, and roughly 130 farms, a substantial increase from the start of the nineteenth century. When Wethersfield town leaders refused to fund highway improvements for better access to the railroads, the town formally declared its independence on July 10.
The Birth of the Modern Era
Newington’s incorporation coincided with the emergence of the modern era. John Fish’s Store, in the center of town off Willard Street (later Willard Avenue), got the town’s first telephone in 1883. The trolley began service in Newington in 1894 and connected Hartford and New Britain. The ride from Newington to the city took 20 minutes and cost five cents. Not only did residents marvel at the invention, but took note of its revolutionizing force; it was now possible to live in Newington and to work in surrounding cities. Farms still comprised the bulk of Newington land, but the road to the world of suburbia was being paved.
The trolley spurred more population growth. Newington had only 1,000 people living in it at the start of the twentieth century, but the number reached 4,000 by 1930. At first, Anglos moved to the town from Hartford and New Britain as foreign-born Poles, Italians, and Irish settled in those cities. But immigrants had begun moving to Newington in an area known as “The Settlement” between the trolley tracks and Willard Avenue south of Newington center. Not without ethnic tension, however. Most old-time residents tended to ignore the newcomers or worse yet regard them as strangers in the land. When Reverend Herbert Macy of the Old Congregational Church gave a sermon expressing compassion for Newington’s foreign born and arguing that Yankees should care for them, the old Ecclesiastical Society requested his resignation after 27 years of service.
The promise of American life ultimately made it possible for those same immigrants and especially their children to join their Anglo counterparts and thrive in the comfortable setting that was Newington. An oral history of one second-generation Polish man whose father had settled in New Britain where he worked in a factory is indicative of the general immigrant experience. Eventually he acquired enough capital to move to Newington where “he built himself a house and bought enough land to give each of his five sons and daughters a fine house lot adjoining his own.” He ultimately became active in forming Newington’s Polish-American Club, and his children, according to one historian, became “active members of a town where their vitality has provided much benefit.” Immigrants were as much the products of modern Newington as technological change.
Automobiles, the most visible sign of technological progress, encouraged more immigration and did away with many farms. In the 1930s, Newington’s political leaders facilitated this change by paving dirt roads, despite the Depression which ground much business activity to a halt. Model A’s and T’s now could be seen throughout town, especially trudging up the New Haven-Hartford Turnpike where previously successful commercial establishments stood abandoned. Town constables occasionally would arrest the more intrepid for speeding. Cars as well as the bus system replaced the trolley service in 1937.
Modernization, to Newington, meant more than just trolleys, automobiles, and buses. Using government as an instrument of social improvement, in the spirit of the Progressives, reflected advancement in the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1898 Newington’s Virginia Thrall Smith had appealed to the town’s political leaders to build an asylum in Newington for the purpose of caring for neglected children. Overwhelmingly the town approved the request after Smith purchased land at the foot of Cedar Mountain in the town’s eastern portion. Initially, it had been called the Home for Incurables, but in 1968 would be renamed The Newington Children’s Hospital. Three other hospitals were built in town in the early twentieth century contemporaneous with the rise of Progressivism, including the 1911 establishment of Connecticut’s first tuberculosis sanitarium on Cedar Mountain. As for Smith, she was Newington’s Jane Addams, the nationally renowned settlement house pioneer out of Chicago. That Smith was not much known outside her town was in keeping with Newington’s humble disposition.
By the 1940s, Newington experienced the same level of expansion and population growth that other towns around the state and the nation had. The Hartford/New Haven Turnpike was renamed the Berlin Turnpike in 1942, and the road was widened from 18 to 200 feet the same year, a clear indication that this part of Newington had become vital to the town’s commercial life. Mill Pond, in the western part of town, remained a big attraction for residents because of its natural beauty; its 16 foot natural waterfall remains the smallest in the United States and is depicted on the town seal. But the lifeblood of the community by mid century had shifted away from the area and toward the Turnpike, now known as “gasoline alley” because of the vast number of gas stations there.
Newington’s population grew from 5,449 in 1940 to 9,110 in 1950. With North Haven this increase constituted the fastest in the state. The end of World War Two brought more people to many Connecticut towns including Newington. The Federal Housing Authority and GI Loans enticed young people to the town many of whom were the children of immigrants while others were African American. More people meant more religious establishments, including The Emmanuel Gospel Church, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, and the Temple Sinai all of which were organized in the second half of the century.
This time period also witnessed a transformation in public education and politics. The new high school was built to accommodate a burgeoning young population, where it would eventually be relocated on Willard Avenue. The public school system augmented its population even further in the 1960s from 4,064 students to 6,779, a 40 percent increase. A total of seven public schools were built by the second half of the twentieth century. “The pressures of population” also led to a change in government structure in 1966 from the town meeting form to the Council-Manager style, the same pattern that had occurred in other Connecticut towns. The town’s centennial celebration in 1971 caused those citizens who took the most pride in Newington’s history to look back nostalgically at a simpler time when the complexities of modern society had not yet begun to encroach upon the town. As one writer sadly noted, “with the passing of the town meeting something has been lost that we shall not see again.”
Growth was accompanied by setbacks. In 1971, Newington shared in the nation’s sorrow over the Vietnam War and the Kent State Massacre. The John F. Kennedy assassination, eight years before, was still fresh in the minds of many in town. “Americans still felt shattered,” wrote Bertha Thomas that year. The Vietnam era brought back memories of the 56 who had fought in the First World War and the more than 600 who had served in the Second World War, and especially of the dozens of men who currently were serving in Vietnam. Newington suffered through the pessimism and stagnation of the seventies like other Americans.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, the town’s manufacturing base began to face dramatic challenges too. Newington became the victim of the dwindling defense industry, while at the same time its own businesses such as the Torrington Company, a manufacturer of automobile parts, solvents, and surgical staplers and Loctite, a specialty adhesives maker, left town in the mid-1990s.The building of Interstates-91 and 84 earlier in the century had affected Newington businesses adversely by making other cities and towns more attractive to industry, but a new phenomenon known as outsourcing was the culprit in more recent years. But for the success of shopping centers, condominium development, and the continued commercial activity of the Berlin Turnpike, Newington might have seen a sharper economic decline as the twentieth century came to an end.
Newington’s population had increased to 29,701 in 2009 and was projected to surpass 30,000 by 2013. The town remained mostly residential with the exception of the Berlin Turnpike, which witnessed a renewed proliferation of commercial enterprises. Reflecting the conspicuous nature of technological advancement, the Turnpike, by the start of the new century, saw the replacement of small businesses with new and larger chain stores. In thirty years, for instance, the same general area saw Two Guys, a small department store (its name is revealing), replaced by Bradlees, only slightly larger, which in turn was replaced by the conglomerate Walmart in a never-ending cycle of creative destruction. The businesses there—some ostentatious and flashy in character—now stood in marked contrast to Newington’s residential areas where its citizens continued living quiet lives.
Elizabeth Sweetser Baxter, The Centennial History of Newington (Hartford: Finlay Brothers, Inc., 1971)
Henry Little, Early Newington, 1833-1836 (Printed Privately, 1937) Available at the Newington Public Library
Bertha C. Thomas, The Newington Tapestry: Our Special Town (Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing, 1996)