Part of the deer park is still undeveloped. One area, Western Woods, is currently being considered for acquisition as a park by the City of Waterbury. If it does become a city park, it could be considered the oldest park in the city, arguably the oldest public park in the country (although I’m sure this would be contested, since it hasn’t been maintained as a park all these centuries).
I recently walked along a stony path through the woods and was deeply impressed by its beauty. The first signs of Spring had arrived: skunk cabbage was curling upwards along small creeks, and green ferns were growing on rocky outcroppings. The area I walked is extremely rocky: small rocks, big rocks, boulders, ledges. I could imagine why it has remained undeveloped: nothing but rocks everywhere. I was surprised, however, to realize that most of the trees are new growth. Then again, if this was an old growth forest, it would be famous for its rarity, and I would have visited it long before now.
As I walked, I wondered about the land’s history. Were the trees harvested by the brass industry as fuel for their forges? Did neighboring farmers keep the land treeless for grazing cattle? I climbed up an impress rock mound and sat on top to rest. All I could hear was the wind in the trees and a nuthatch chirping loudly in a nearby tree. I was still in Waterbury, but I might as well have been in the middle of the countryside. After my walk, I went to City Hall and spent a few hours digging through old land records and assessor’s maps, tracing as much of the history of the old deer park as I could. I searched old newspapers and books for more information about James Nichols and his deer park, wishing I could find a detailed contemporary description. I didn’t have luck with that, but I did find tantalizing references to the Nichols Deer Park.
|Painting by a follower of artist Adriaen van de Velde of an elegant couple |
walking in a deer park in Europe, probably from the late 1600s.
Sold at Christie's on September 30, 2005.
Deer parks are typically associated with the estates of nobility in Europe and the very wealthy in America during the 1700s and 1800s. George Washington was perhaps the most famous owner of a deer park in America. Originally held within a paddock, Washington’s deer learned to jump the fence and wandered freely in the woods. The Mount Vernon deer park included both American wild deer and “English fallow deer.”
In Connecticut, wealthy colonists established private deer parks for themselves in a number of towns. In 1744, the Colony of Connecticut established an “Act for the preservation of Deer kept in Parks or other Inclosures,” noting the “sundry” people had recently established deer parks. The Act established penalties for anyone caught poaching deer within a park enclosure, with fines as high as one hundred pounds. Reference to 18th century deer parks appear in various town and family histories.
The Woosters of Oxford owned a deer park of several hundred acres, fenced in to keep the deer from wandering and to discourage hunters. According to John Warner Barber’s description of Oxford, the Wooster deer park was established during the mid-1700s. The park was located south of Quaker Farms and was known as “the Park” well into the 1800s.
In Woodbury, Gideon Treat owned a 100 acre deer park which he built around 1780. The park was surrounded by a high fence and, on one side, a steep rock. Deer could, according to a genealogical history of the Treat family, jump into the park but could not get back out.
Jobamah Gunn owned 563 acres of land in Naugatuck in 1791, a portion of which was a deer park. Gunn was wealthy, furnishing his home in the best style of the time, and aspired to be the largest landowner in the region.
James Nichols and His Park
The Nichols family came to Waterbury around 1729. Several of the Nichols children married into prominent Waterbury families. Captain George Nichols, brother of James, became one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Waterbury. James Nichols (1712-1785) began buying land all over Waterbury in the early 1730s. During the early 1740s, Nichols began buying land in the western area of Waterbury for his deer park. Through several purchases, Nichols assembled about 300 acres of land, bordered, more or less, by what are now Park Road, Grandview Avenue, and Bunker Hill Avenue.
Park Road was surveyed in 1763, taking its name from its location at the Park. The gated entrance for the Park was on Park Road, with a pathway leading towards the Stone Path connecting Grandview and Bunker Hill Avenues. The Park included a clubhouse on the pathway to the Stone Path. A second clubhouse was believed to have been built two generations later, although its exact location was unknown to the authors of Anderson’s History.
There is no known record of the number of deer contained within the Park. Much of the land was surrounded by a fence, as was typical for deer parks. Anderson’s History, written in the 1890s, described the remaining Park land as “a wild, rugged region, almost untouched by the hand of man.” That description is just as true today. A prominent feature of the Park was called World’s End Rocks, located in the middle of the Park. Although it is not know if those particular rocks are still standing (they may have been located in an area that has since been developed), there are several impressive rock outcroppings remaining.
Sales of the Park Land
Nichols didn’t keep his deer park for very long. In 1756, he was living in Salisbury and sold several parcels of land to his brother-in-law Ebenezer Wakelee and to his son-in-law Ezra Bronson. Wakelee immediately sold half the Park to James Wakelee of Stratford. These were the first of many subdivisions of the property. The Waterbury Land Records reference “the Park” in each transfer of land until about 1963. A deed for the purchase of land by the Westbury Homes Company on January 22, 1963 describes a parcel of land located “easterly of Clough Road and westerly of Westwood Avenue, at the “Park”, so-called.” This is the most recent mention of the Park that I was able to find in the Land Records.
Most of the Park lands remained undeveloped until the late 1800s. A map of Waterbury in 1852 shows several farms clustered along Bunker Hill Avenue and maybe two farms on Park Road. One large parcel was owned by St. John’s Episcopal Church Parish. Another parcel was owned by Scovill Manufacturing: Scovill purchased 50 acres of woodland at the Park in 1862, possibly to use the wood as fuel for their forge. Another manufacturer, Brown & Brothers, also owned a portion of the former park land.
The Park Today
Since 1900, residential developments have been gradually eating away at the edges of the original 300 acre Park. The remaining undeveloped land is owned by less than a dozen small owners, including private individuals and organizations such as the Republican-American, which owns about 19 acres. The three largest owners of undeveloped land in the former Park are CL&P, which owns roughly 68 acres; Norman Drubner, whose 134 acres are known as the Western Woods; and the City of Waterbury, which owns more than 476 acres of the former Park and adjoining land, including the Western Hills Golf Course and several parcels that have been subdivided for residential development.
The future of the former deer park is currently up the in air. Western Woods has been offered to the City of Waterbury in a deal that was hotly contested during last year’s mayoral election. The City is currently waiting for a new Conservation Commission to conduct a survey of all land in the city before it negotiates any open land purchases. Depending on the outcome of the survey and the recommendations of the Commission, and depending on whether or not Drubner is still interested in selling Western Woods to the city, nearly half of Waterbury’s first park could become its newest park.