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Roxbury Place-Name Storiesfacts, folklore, fibs
By Jeannine Green
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Jeannine Green
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Glimpse of the Past
Roxbury is a rural New England town of approximately 2,000 people nestled in the hills of northwestern Connecticut. This 27.4 square-mile rectangle is about six and a half miles long north to south and four miles wide east to west. It is a picture postcard village known for its rocky terrain. Its highest peak soars over 1000 feet at its northeast corner on Painter Hill and its lowest valley dips to 250 feet at its southwestern corner in the Shepaug valley. The Shepaug River, broken by whitewater, waterfalls, and boulders, defines its western border as it tumbles south into Lake Lillinonah, a dammed portion of the Housatonic River. Woodbury lies across hills to the east.
Like most of Connecticut's 169 towns, Roxbury developed from settlement, to ecclesiastical society, to incorporated town. Woodbury, its parent town, settled in 1673 under the name Pomperaug Plantation.
When religious differences got out of hand in Stratford, the Connecticut General Court ordered Capt. John Minor to lead the Rev. Zachariah Walker and fifteen men to follow the Pootatuck (Housatonic) River about sixty miles north. Once there, they were told to purchase land from the PootatuckIndians and to settle a new plantation. The band of adventurers had detailed instructions about what rivers to follow, where to head north, when to turn east or west.
With map in hand, the venturesome settlers trekked through the wilderness and followed the Pootatuck River until they saw another river that flowed from the north and joined the Pootatuck River. It was the Pomperaug River, but the pioneers thought it was too small to be the one they were looking for, so they continued west and found the Shepaug River. Even though the men thought this river also looked small, they followed it north to present-day Mine Hill. The men were lost and exhausted but forged ahead. They turned east, arrived at Good Hill, looked down into the Pomperaug Valley, and knew their search had ended.
The court had selected Capt. John Minor to lead the settlers because he was fluent in Indian languages and could negotiate with the Indians to acquire land. In total, he negotiated six land purchases with the Pootatuck Indians. The second one, known as the Shepaug Purchase, was dated March 17, 1685-1686 and included about two-thirds of the present town of Roxbury. The sixth, or Confirmatory Purchase, was signed May 28, 1706 and included all former grants and purchases and a large tract of land that became the northern part of Roxbury.
Historian William Cothren explained that records of the first deeds were made over a hundred years after the settlement. It is likely that the second and sixth purchases were also recorded long after they were signed. Cothren assured us that Woodbury's settlers came upon these lands in a fair, honest, and legitimate fashion. However, he made no mention of the payment for the second and sixth purchases. He points out that the price of land bought from the Indians was not very high. He concluded that the Indians did not value their land highly. Settlers had paid for earlier purchases with a gray homespun coat, a hatchet, and a little powder and lead.
Settlers came prepared with a code of laws called the Fundamental Articles that directed them about how to pay the Indians. The Articles also provided instructions on how to allocate land and grant home lots to each family. The laws commanded them to settle around a center as protection against the Indians. It guided them on how to hire ministers, build churches, and organize schools. With these strict rules from the court, the settlers began the hard work of clearing the land, building homes, and creating the Pomperaug Plantation.
As the population grew, families settled farther away from the center. No one surveyed the western lands in the Shepaug Purchase until 1712 and the following year a man named Joseph Hurlbut became the first to settle that land; others soon followed. Unlike the Pomperaug Plantation, the Shepaug settlement was scattered and had no town center.
In those days, there was no separation of church and state, but there was a rule that applied to every person in a settlement. They absolutely had to attend worship; no excuse was accepted. The rule presented problems for Shepaug settlers who attended church in Woodbury and still paid taxes to it. The Woodbury meetinghouse was miles away, and worshippers from Shepaug had to travel on foot and horseback, a long and arduous trip, especially in winter. They soon tired of trekking over two ranges of hills at 800-foot elevations over rocky terrain to attend worship six or eight miles away. Worship however, was compulsory.
In desperation, the settlers petitioned the court for permission to hire a minister for the winter months, but it was not until 1732 that the court allowed them to build a meetinghouse closer to where they lived, and a town center began to form. Settlers continued to petition the court, this time for permission to establish their own ecclesiastical society. The court refused petition after petition until 1743, when it finally granted permission to the Shepaug settlers to establish their own society and be relieved from paying taxes to Woodbury.
Fifty-three years would pass before Roxbury became an incorporated town. Meanwhile, the American Revolution broke out and Roxbury's Green Mountain Boys-Seth Warner, Remember Baker, Jr. and Ethan Allen-became heroes of that war. Finally, in 1796 Roxbury became one of twenty-two post-Revolutionary Connecticut towns
Between 1713, when Hurlbut arrived, and 1796 when the town incorporated, men like Asahel Bacon, Judge Nathan Smith, and Phineas Smith from Woodbury, and Gen. Ephraim Hinman from Southbury had moved in, built elegant homes, established businesses, and begun to practice their professions. These men were wealthy, creative, and optimistic about Roxbury's future.
They were prepared to invest in and grow this town, and others wanted to live where they lived. A new town center began to form when the Congregational and Episcopal Churches built edifices along present-day Church Street and Wellers Bridge Road.
Roxbury was primarily an agricultural community in those days, and though these men were merchants, lawyers, and businessmen, they were also farmers. In the early nineteenth century, nearly half the town's one thousand people were farmers. They were self-sufficient with a strong internal economy. Families and small businesses provided the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter.
The town flourished in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Artisans and small manufacturing supported a stable population. Millers ground flour from grain, shoemakers made shoes and repaired saddles, fullers and weavers prepared cloth, tanners cured leather, blacksmiths made nails and horseshoes, and coopers made barrels to store and ship goods.
Mine Hill, one of the first stops Stratford settlers made in their search for the Pomperaug River, became a major employer. From 1750 to 1850 and again after 1900, men harvested silver and iron ores, mined garnets, silica, and quarried granite. A village named Chalybes supported the miners and quarrymen with boarding houses, a post office, general and hardware stores. Mining was a well-paying industry, and quarrying prospered nearly forty years and continues today. The rich and powerful fought over ownership rights to the hill.
The Oxford Turnpike, now Route 67, ran between Roxbury and New Milford. The turnpike connected this town to larger markets and was instrumental in the growth of the hatting industry. Homes of leading hat manufacturing families like Lathrop, Squire, and Hurlbut still stand. The hat fabricating and hat assembly industry survived from about 1820 to 1865, but the small shops were no match for the mechanized hat manufacturing system in nearby Danbury.
The Civil War broke out and disrupted lives in a state where over 50,000 were killed, wounded, or missing. This town lost few men, but incurred a war debt that took years to pay off. After the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, but Roxburians were slow to change and reluctant to plunge into manufacturing and new technologies. The Shepaug Railroad is an example. Fundamentalists saw it as the work of the Devil and farmers worried it would damage cattle and buildings. The population at large feared strangers and city slickers would move into town. Nevertheless, regular trains started running shortly after New Year's Day 1872. But it was too late; the mines had stopped producing and the heavy ore shipments the railroad expected never materialized. In addition, the panic of 1873 swept the country and dashed all hope for industrial or tourism industries to develop along the railroad route.
A little hope appeared on the horizon-tobacco. In January 1878, the Woodbury Reporter noted that Roxbury had produced upwards of $30,000 worth of tobacco during the previous season. Robert Keeler employed thirty men to sort and pack tobacco; Eli N. Bradley hired extra hands; others reported planting fifteen acres, and many farmers grew three to five acres. The tobacco was a fine quality used to wrap cigars, not the shade-grown tobacco seen in other parts of the state. Even though keeping a crop in good shape was a lot of work, tobacco proved to be a lucrative business.
Other industries did not fare so well. By World War I, mining and quarrying had almost disappeared. Chalybes, also known as Roxbury Station, became a ghost town. Workers left town and boardinghouses closed. In time, the village itself vanished. In 1920, only 647 people lived in Roxbury and only 122 farms remained. Half the farmers were in dairy production; the rest were general farmers. In the new century, tobacco prices fell, and the few remaining farmers started beef and dairy farms. Nathan T. Beardsley raised Red Devon oxen and was one of the more successful farmers.
Before World War I and during the Great Depression, people looked for places to escape the hustle and bustle of big cities. Roxbury's landscape was unspoiled, beautiful, and near the city. Outsiders arrived and bought up old farms for summer retreats and retirement homes.
Between 1910 and 1960, the population was less than one-thousand. By 1930, most farms were gone, and the population dwindled to 553 people. After World War II, highways improved, and people with automobiles were on the move. Artists, sculptors, authors, playwrights, and actors from the stage and screen who wanted second homes and privacy moved to Roxbury. Mystery writer Ellery Queen and actress Sylvia Sydney bought homes in the town center. Sculptor Alexander Calder moved to Painter Hill; playwright Arthur Miller and his wives actress Marilyn Monroe and photographer Inge Morath lived nearby. Authors William and Rose Styron settled in another part of town. Actors Walter Matthau and Richard Widmark and author Frank McCourt settled in the northwestern part of town. Most of these personalities are gone now, but others still find privacy and refuge here.
This is still a part-time and full-time country refuge for high-profile and well-to-do residents who enjoy the privacy, quiet, and rural beauty that playwright A. R. Gurney described as the feel of a nineteenth century farm village. Still, the town has changed from being an agrarian community. The town's population is the highest it has ever been in its history, yet less than a handful of farms remain in Roxbury. Maple Bank Farm is one that has survived and is the oldest operating farm in Connecticut.
One reason Roxbury has retained its bucolic beauty is that early generations left the landscape unspoiled, and throughout the twentieth century additional steps have been taken to preserve its beauty. For example, the town introduced strict zoning laws in 1932, the Roxbury LandTrust was established in 1970 to preserve undeveloped land, and in 1997 the town adopted a Scenic Road Ordinance
As a result, visitors passing though will see white picket fences, stone walls, and streets with mature maples and oaks. There are no sidewalks, no stoplights, and no supermarkets. People congregate at the one school, four churches, a public tennis court, a restaurant, a gas station, a market/deli, three museums, a library, a senior center, a land trust office, a town pond, a post office, a fire station, a transfer station, a town hall, and numerous parks, gardens, and nature preserves.
A Board of Selectmen presides over a town meeting form of government, and volunteers who serve on commissions do much of the work of the community. Locals protect their rural surroundings, support their community, and embrace its rich past. Its historic homes are all private homes cared for by owners who cherish their history; none have become commercial establishments.
Generations of residents have left their mark on the land, many in the form of place-names. Over a century passed before Roxbury could untangle itself from Woodbury. By then, Pomperaug Plantation settlers had already bestowed many names, but new industries, growth, and unexpected events required new names. In this twenty-first century, townsmen still add place-names to the landscape of this now prosperous and prestigious community. Read on for the stories behind those names.
Chapter TwoGone But Not Forgotten
Now you see it; now you don't. Officials like to rename, renumber, and discontinue roads and highways. Post offices and villages vanish. Even immovable objects like hills, fields, and rocks disappear from memory, and folks forget names that were once memorable. Discontinued, vanished, and forgotten-a gloomy picture, if you think about it.
But cheer up; we're here to remember stories of places and names dredged up from the past. The following curious, amusing, and sometimes convoluted tales were all part of Roxbury's rich history. Sometimes they explain the names; sometimes they don't.
Baker Plains. John Baker's name is not in Who's Who, but he played a critical role in Roxbury's history. In 1746, when Roxbury's first church was bursting at the seams with parishioners, John Baker petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly to allow the society of Roxberry to build its second meetinghouse. This level stretch of land half a mile north of Christ Church, where his family settled, bears his name.
Bishop Avenue. The name may be from Miles Bishop who, in 1813, served in the State House of Representatives in the Connecticut General Assembly. His descendants were farmers in Roxbury through the mid-twentieth century. The New Milford Gazette, April 7, 1899 cited the avenue's name when it announced that someone had moved from Bishop Avenue into the house vacated by Thomas Spargo.
Booth Hill. Richard Booth (b. 1607) emigrated from England and settled in Stratford in 1640. His descendants included Ebenezer Booth, an early member of the Congregational Church and Ely Booth (1775-1854), whose son, Hervey Minor Booth, became a prominent Roxbury philanthropist.
Bradley Street. Student Jeremah Decker wrote in 1864 that the Seth Warner Monument was at the corner of Main and Bradley Streets. Four years earlier, when census takers counted Roxbury's population, thirty Bradleys lived in Roxbury, enough to merit a street named for them.
Brian Tierney Lane. This lane leads to a preserve on Squire Road that honors Brian Edward Tierney (1948-1968), a Roxbury soldier killed in South Vietnam.
The land trust provided evidence of the glacial activity in the area. Some geologists believe that the deep gullies that run through it and the enormous boulders perched on the ledges and hills are evidence of Noah's flood. They believe that a huge upheaval in the Arctic Ocean sent floodwaters rushing across New England, dropping boulders and rocks in its wake.
Excerpted from Roxbury Place-Name Stories by Jeannine Green Copyright © 2010 by Jeannine Green. Excerpted by permission.
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