Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Connecticut's Black Governors

Starting sometime around 1750, Connecticut’s enslaved Africans began a tradition of electing their own Governor. In later years, the newly elected black Governor would ride through the street leading a celebratory parade.

The title of Governor is specific to the New England colonies. Some accounts indicate that they were referred to as Kings “in remembrance of their Kings of Guinea,” while other accounts indicate that both a Governor and a King were elected. In African American Connecticut Explored, Katherine J. Harris wrote that Kings were elected in areas of the colony that had stronger ties to the British Crown.

The annual elections continued to be held long after slavery ended in Connecticut, continuing in the Naugatuck Valley until about 1856. I have found one reference indicating that at least one election was held in Waterbury during the 1800s. It also appears that the African American community in Waterbury was closely connected to those throughout the Naugatuck Valley south to Derby.

Nelson Weston, originally from Humphreysville in Seymour, was the second person to run a barbershop in Waterbury and the first black barber here, from 1846 until sometime in the 1850s. While he was living and working in Waterbury, he was elected as Connecticut’s black Governor, in 1850. He was one of three Weston men to serve as Connecticut's black Governor.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Farewell to Trinity

The Trinity Episcopal Parish was formed in 1877 as an off-shoot of St. John's Episcopal Parish, in part because St. John's had grown very large. Additionally, the new Trinity parish adhered to precepts of a Catholic movement within the Episcopal/Anglican faith.

For the first six years, Trinity's parishioners worshiped in a former Universalist chapel on Grand Street. Construction of the beautiful granite Trinity Episcopal Church was completed in 1884, with the first service held there on May 18, 1884.

Trinity Episcopal Church in 1884; photo by Adt & Brothers, published in Waterbury and Her Industries

In a centennial history of Trinity Episcopal Church, it was noted that Trinity "can boast of having some of the most influential people in Waterbury's history as her parishioners. She can also claim the allegiance of three Connecticut governors, Templeton, Stearns and Lilley."

The book's preface was written by John J. McMahon, who wrote the following about the interior of Trinity:
As an outsider to the church I was deeply impressed by the interior. It is a building that, regardless of one's religious beliefs, should be seen. The architectural lines and handcrafted fixtures have a charm and majesty of their own not often seen in more modern ecclesiastical buildings. In Trinity one can feast his eyes upon a composition of unusual beauty and strength. Here, one can forget all about the hurried noises of downtown Waterbury. There is only the hushed air of a church that can match any other around in terms of elegance and character. 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Gathering at Library Park 2018

I'm sorry to say I did not get in as much of The Gathering this year as I wanted. By the end of watching the parade, my back was killing me. The delicious Lithuanian beer helped mask the pain, but by about 3 p.m., I was ready to collapse and headed home early.

At any rate, here are the photos from what I was able to enjoy. There's always so much going on, and so many awesome things to try to experience. The photos barely skim the surface of all that happened at The Gathering.

Welcome from Ghana

The Gathering Parade 2018

Another year, another great day at The Gathering! I wasn't feeling my best, but there was no way I was going to miss out on this event.

As before, I'm posting photos of the parade first, then I'll do a second post of the events in the park.

Police Pipes & Drums

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church

Last weekend, a friend drew my attention to a distressing post on the Facebook group, You Know You're From Waterbury When.... The post has since been taken down, but it showed photos of the former Trinity Episcopal Church on Prospect Street and stated that the Immaculate Conception parish was about to demolish the building. The post was followed by a flurry of responses from people who were horrified by the news. Several of the Immaculate's parishioners responded with some conflicting information. The church is owned by Immaculate Conception, which ran it as the Father McGivney Center for many years.

The former Trinity Episcopal Church, 2018

Since there were so many rumors and conflicting details, I reached out to Immaculate Conception asking for the correct information. No one has responded. Father Ford, who is in charge of the plans, has been out of the country in Portugal. Perhaps when he returns, I'll find out more details. In the meantime, here's what I know.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Life and Death of a Factory

Waterbury has lost another historic factory building to catastrophic fire. The building most recently known as Ansonia Copper and Brass caught fire on July 30, 2018. The dramatic fire was covered by all of the area news media.

WTNH Channel 8 coverage of the factory fire, July 31, 2018

Amazingly, the fire was contained to just one building. Sadly, it was the oldest and most beautiful building in a sprawling complex of historic factory buildings, with a rich history that made it worth preserving.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Calder in Waterbury

Although the legendary sculptor Alexander Calder has been mentioned frequently in connection to the new artworks in downtown Waterbury, I haven't seen anyone delving into the history of Calder's Waterbury connections, so I figure I might as well do it here.

Alexander Calder at "Stegosaurus" dedication, Hartford, October 10, 1973
Collection of Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library
and Connecticut History Illustrated

If you don't have a background in art or art history, you might be wondering, why Calder? Why is he so famous? Why would five artists come all the way from Italy (twice) for the opportunity to create art in the same city in which many of his sculptures were made?

Sunday, June 03, 2018

On the Trail of Calder in Downtown Waterbury

Five new public artworks, inspired by the work of Alexander Calder, were installed throughout downtown Waterbury on May 24. The dedication was held yesterday, beginning with a reception for the artists at John Bale Books. I wasn't able to attend, but since I work downtown, I get to enjoy the new art regularly.

We had our first look at the artwork last year during an open studio on Freight Street. Since then, the sculptures have been getting their finishing touches (and color) at White Welding.

They lend themselves to interesting photography, and they add a modern flair to downtown.

Rebirth by William Papaleo, Library Park

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What Is Good History?

Everyone learned at least some history in school, whether it was the cute story about George Washington telling the truth about chopping down a cherry tree, or more advanced studies about politics, economics, and war.

Traditional history has focused on the story of society's elite, the top tier leaders who made history, but there's so much more to history than that.

So what is history, and how should it be told?

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Race Relations in 1914

An interesting debate played out in the editorial pages of The Republican newspaper in February, 1914. James E. Kefford, a prominent businessman and a founder of the local branch of the Negro Business League, took offense at the paper's demeaning description of African Americans and apparent embrace of Jim Crow laws in an editorial published on January 31, 1914. The letters and editorials that ensued reveal much about racial discrimination in Waterbury during that time.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Waterbury's Frank Pepe

There's more to the Frank Pepe name than pizza. In 1910, Frank Pepe was the name of a successful grocery business in Waterbury.

Frank Pepe advertisement, Waterbury Republican, 10 May 1911
(Silas Bronson Library microfilm)

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Slavery in Waterbury

Years ago, during a program on slavery at the Mattatuck Museum, a white audience member stood up and said that he had been taught that slavery happened only in the South and, later, that the slavery which happened in the North wasn't so bad, that there weren't very many slaves here, so what did it matter? His comments reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of slavery and the whitewashing of history which, at the time, the Mattatuck was trying to correct.

In the past year or so, it's become clear to me that there are still too many people who are dismissive of the history of slavery in the North and in Waterbury, and too many people who are dismissive of what that history means to people whose ancestors were enslaved and to people who deal with systemic racism every day.

The Fortune's Story website does an excellent job of presenting the history of slavery in Waterbury. Since that site was launched, I've uncovered a few more pieces of information that help tell the story.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Hamilton Park

You might think that Hamilton Park was named for Alexander Hamilton, but it was actually named for a local silver manufacturer whose wife donated the land to the city.

David Boughton Hamilton (1824-1898) was the president and treasurer of Rogers & Bro., best known today for their silver-plated flatware, which is still popular with collectors. Hamilton and the Rogers brothers came to Waterbury in 1858 to start the Rogers Brothers manufacturing business. After Hamilton's death, the company merged with others to become International Silver Co.

Silver Street takes its name from the Rogers and Hamilton silver-plating factories which were located next to the land that became Hamilton Park.

Detail of 1899 map of Waterbury showing factories on Silver Street.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Monday, March 26, 2018

Hillside's Palliser Homes

The Hillside neighborhood has some of the most ornate homes in the city. Developed during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Hillside was home to Waterbury's wealthiest residents: factory owners and upper management, bankers and financiers, attorneys and judges, real estate developers, and business owners.

Although most of the houses were built for families, some were built for the unmarried daughters of industrialists. One such house, on Hillside Avenue, was built for Mary L. Mitchell, a widow whose brother, Charles Benedict, built a mansion for himself right next door.

The architect for both houses was Palliser, Palliser & Co., a Bridgeport-based firm that specialized in "cottages." During the late 1800s, the term cottage was used to describe the Queen Anne or stick style, no matter how large or grand the house might be.

House and floorplans from advertising brochure
for Palliser's New Cottage Homes, c. 1888.
This house was built in Peekskill, NY.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Library Park History

Plans to renovate Library Park were announced this weekend (Rep-Am, 23 March 2018), so it seems fitting to spend some time delving into the park's history.

Library Park was created during the 1890s and expanded during the early 1900s. The expansion was part of a civic improvement project that eventually led to the redevelopment of all of Grand Street. Cass Gilbert, the architect for City Hall and four neighboring buildings constructed for the Chase family, worked with the Olmsted Brothers landscaping firm to beautify Library Park during the 1920s. The most recent improvement to Library Park was the installation of the Harrub Performing Arts Pavilion in 1985. Library Park's history begins, however, with a colonial-era burying ground.

Library Park in 1899, when the park was a rectangle extending straight back from Grand Street. There was a steep drop-off to a low retaining wall which isn't shown in this map. Hall, Livery, and Cedar Streets were removed during the early 1900s, making room for an enlargement of the park. (Detail of a map in the collection of the Library of Congress)

Monday, February 19, 2018

Gordon Webster Burnham

Gordon W. Burnham (1803-1885) was born and raised to be a farmer in eastern Connecticut, but instead wound up as one of Waterbury's most successful and wealthiest brass magnates, rubbing shoulders with Cornelius Vanderbilt and marketing Waterbury's brass products to the world.
Gordon W. Burnham
Published in The Town and City of Waterbury, Volume II

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Train Line History

One of the key assets that helps draw people to Waterbury is the train line connecting us to Bridgeport and New York City. Speaking as someone who relied on the train line to get me to my job in NYC for two years, I can't emphasize enough how essential the train service is, and how we very much need to see improvements to the train line. We need more daily trains, and we need express service trains during rush hour to make it easier for commuters to choose the train over their cars.

The Waterbury train station platform, 2018.

Unfortunately, due to the ongoing state fiscal fiasco, the Department of Transportation has suggested reducing, maybe even eliminating, the train line between Waterbury and Bridgeport, as well as the other branch service lines for New Canaan and Danbury. A little bit of history regarding the main line illustrates how potentially devastating this could be, and a longer bit of history regarding the branch lines illustrates what we've already lost.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Waterbury's Trotting Parks

Trotting parks were a 19th century feature of New England life, offering the owners of standardbred horses a track for races. The racing circuit included Waterbury, Hartford, Putnam, and various other locations throughout New England.

The earliest documentation (found so far) of a trotting park in Waterbury is the 1879 Waterbury atlas, which shows the Jefferson Trotting Park on land owned by Matthew Lynch. The location is approximately where the Waterbury Screw Machine Products company is today on Thomaston Avenue. In 1879, there was no road, only the railroad. There was also a reservoir that has long since been drained.

G. M. Hopkins, Atlas of the City of Waterbury, Conn., 1879, Plate T
(Collection of Silas Bronson Library)

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Cyclone Bomb Day

Remember when winter storms were called things like nor'easter or blizzard? Things were so much simpler back then. At any rate, today we were hit with a small blizzard which dumped about a foot of snow on Waterbury. The Governor asked everyone to stay off the highways, and almost everything was closed.

A flock of about 50 sparrows spent the day in my yard, gobbling up bird seed.