Here to return to
AN HISTORIC TOWN IN CONNECTICUT
MY acquaintance with Saybrook began rather unpropitiously at its one hotel. This was a shapeless yellow structure, evidently an old residence somewhat remodelled and enlarged. Its busiest portion was the barroom adorned with a heavy cherry counter and an imposing array of bottles on the shelves behind.
Setting out the House-plants
When I entered the adjoining office, several men were in the bar-room running over their vocabularies of swear words in a high-voiced dispute; and in the office itself sat two young fellows drowsing in drunken stupor. The whole place was permeated with the odors of liquor and with tobacco fumes, both recent and of unknown antiquity.
But if the aspect of local life as seen at the hotel was depressing, the village, on the evening I arrived, was to my eyes quite entrancing. I n the May twilight I walked from end to end of the long chief street. The birds were singing, and from the seaward marshes came the piping of the frogs and the purring monotone of the toads. Lines of great elms and sugar maples shadowed the walks, and the latter had blossomed so that every little twig had its tassels of delicate yellow-green, and a gentle fragrance filled the air. Among other trees, a trifle retired, were many pleasant homes of the plain but handsome and substantial type in vogue about a century ago. In short, the place furnished an admirable example of the old New England country-town, and imparted a delightful sense of repose and comfort.
The most incongruous feature of the village was an abnormal, modern schoolhouse that in its decorative trickery matched nothing else on the street. From this it was a relief to turn to the white, square-towered old church neighboring, which gave itself no airs and cut no capers with architectural frills and fixings. On its front was a bronze plate informing the reader that here was
THE FIRST CHURCH OF CHRIST
IN “THE GREAT HALL” OF THE FORT
IN THE SUMMER OF 1646
Thus it was one of the earliest founded churches in the commonwealth.
An odd thing about the town, and one that rather offset its sentiment of antiquity, was the omnipresence of bicycles. Everybody — old and young, male and female — rode this thoroughly modern contrivance. Pedestrianism had apparently gone out of fashion, and I got the idea that the children learned to ride a wheel before they began to walk.
Another odd thing was that the village looked neither agricultural nor suburban. It is in truth the dwelling-place of a country aristocracy possessed of a good deal of wealth, and labor is not very strenuous. The people are content if they have sufficient capital safely invested to return them a comfortable living and save them the necessity for undue exertion. Yet, to quote a native, “They are nothing like as rich as they were fifty years ago.”
Much money has been lost in one way and another. The decrease, however, is more due to removals and to the division of large individual properties among several heirs. But, whatever the ups and downs of fortune, the town apparently changes slowly, and the inhabitants cling to the customs of their forefathers. One evidence of this was the retention of miles and miles of unnecessary fences about the dwellings, some of them of close boards, suggestive of monastic seclusiveness.
The oldest house in the town that still presents in the main its original aspect dates back to 1665. It is painted a dingy yellow, and has a high front, from which the rear roof takes a long slant downward, until the eaves are within easy reach, and you have to stoop to go in at the back door. The windows have the tiny panes of the time when the dwelling was erected. The rooms all have warped floors, and low ceilings crossed by great beams; and the heavy vertical timbers assert themselves in the corners. The upper story has only two apartments finished. As was usual in houses of this kind, the rest was left simply garret space bare to the rafters. In the heart of the structure is an enormous chimney that on the ground floor takes up the space of a small room. There are fireplaces on three sides, but their days of service are past, though they never have been closed except with fireboards.
In a Back Yard
At the rear of the house, under an apple tree, were two vinegar barrels, each of which had an inverted bottle stuck in the bung-hole. The contents of the barrels, in their cider state, had been allowed to freeze and then were drained off. A highly concentrated beverage was in this manner obtained, much esteemed by the well-seasoned cider-lover. I was offered a chance to make the acquaintance of the liquor, yet not without warning that, as it was almost pure alcohol, there was some danger of overdoing the matter.
To the north of the town one does not have to follow the highways far to encounter country that, with all the years passed since the settlement of the region, is still only half tamed. Here are rocky hills, brushy pastures, and rude stone walls overgrown with poison ivy. Many of the homes are ancient and dilapidated and the premises strewn with careless litter. Work is carried on in a primitive fashion. A landowner of this district with whom I talked affirmed that farming did not pay, and the reason he gave was the competition of the West — it had knocked the bottom out of prices.
I wondered if there were not other reasons. He was furrowing out a half-acre patch on which he intended to plant potatoes. His hired man was leading the horse while he himself held the plough-handles. It seemed to me his patch was not large enough to work economically with a view to profit, and that the profit was also being dissipated by having two men do work that might be done by one. Down the slope was a long stretch of marshes that swept away to the sea, with a muddy-banked creek wandering through the level. The man said he would cut salt hay on these marshes later in the year, and as the soil was too boggy to bear the weight of a horse, not only would the mowing have to be done by hand, but he and his helper would be obliged to carry the hay to firm land between them on poles. Here, again, it was not easy to discern much chance for profit. The process was too laborious where the product was of so little value. Then, at the man’s home, I noted that the stable manure lay leaching in the sun and rain, unprotected by any roof, that the mowing-machine and other tools were scattered about the yard accumulating rust, and that things in general looked careless and easy-going. I did not wonder he took a pessimistic view of farming.
Ploughing out for Potatoes
The places of many of his neighbors were akin to his, and as a whole this outlying district seemed a piece out of the past when farming was done by main strength, and brains and method and science were quite secondary.
This old-fashioned aspect was further emphasized by the presence of an occasional slow ox-team toiling in the fields, and now and then an antiquated well-sweep in a dooryard.
A well-sweep was an adjunct of one house in the town itself- a gray, square little house far gone in decay. Lights were missing from the windows, clapboards were dropping off, blinds were dilapidated or gone altogether, and the outbuildings had either fallen and been used for stove wood, or were on the verge of ruin. The shed used as a hen-house leaned at a perilous slant. Near it was a scanty pile of wood and a sawhorse made by nailing a couple of sticks crosswise on the end of a box so that the tops projected above the box level and formed a crotch. Along the street walk staggered a decrepit picket fence with a sagging gate. The yard was a chaos of weeds and riotous briers, and the place looked mysterious — as if it had a history — perhaps was haunted.
A Roadway on the Saybrook Outskirts
A tiny path led around to the back door, so slightly trodden I was in doubt whether the house was inhabited or not until I saw a bent old woman coming from the grass field at the rear of the premises. On her head she wore a sunbonnet of ancient type and over her shoulders a faded shawl. She was hobbling slowly along with the help of a cane, and bore on her arm a basket with a few dandelion greens in the bottom. I stood leaning on the fence, hoping chance would give me an opportunity to know more about this strange house; and to avoid an appearance of staring I now looked the other way. But my loitering had attracted the woman’s attention, and, instead of going into the house, she set her basket on the back door-step and came feebly down the path and spoke to me. She was a mild-eyed, kindly old soul, and in the chat which followed I learned that she was eighty years old and that her brother, aged seventy-six, the only other member of the household, was a “joiner.” Presently I asked about some of the garden flowers which had survived in their neglected struggle with weeds and brambles.
“They need the old woman,” she said, “but I’m most past such work now. My lameness is getting worse. I have it every winter, and it doesn’t leave me until warm weather comes. I shall have to get my brother to hoe some here. He isn’t much for taking care of flowers, but he likes ‘em as well as any one, and if he’s going to make a call, he’ll pick a bunch to carry along. I used to have more kinds, and I’d keep some of ‘em in the house through the winter, but when I did that I had to see the fire didn’t go out nights, and it got too hard for me.”
“What are those white flowers spreading all through the grass?” I inquired.
“Those are myrtle — white myrtle. Want one?” My reply was affirmative, and I was invited into the yard. I picked a myrtle blossom and the old woman said, “You can have more just as well.”
“Thank you, one will do; and what are these little flowers at my feet?”
“Those are bluebottles. I got the first plants from my cousin’s up in Tolland County. Want one?”
“Yes, I believe I would like one.”
“Take more if you care to.”
“No, I’d rather have just the one. Here are some pink flowers in a bunch. What are they?”
“Those are polyanthus. You can have a root to take home with you if you can carry it.”
Thus our talk rambled on, while we considered double violets, “daffies,” bloodroot, mandrakes, “chiny asters,” tiger lilies, “pineys,” tulips, hyacinths, etc. The garden had formerly been very tidy, and I could trace its decorative arrangement of beds and paths. The borders of the beds were outlined with rows of big “winkle” shells which the brother had brought up from the seashore a mile or two distant, where he sometimes went “clamming and oystering.”
Close about the house were blue and yellow lilies, bunches of ferns, and a good deal of shrubbery, including roses, a “honeysuckle” bush, and a tall “lilack.” This last carried its blossoms so high that they were far beyond the woman’s reach as she stood on the ground, and she only picked such as she could gather from an upper window. Near the back door was a big butternut tree, and a grape-vine overrunning a shaky trellis. Here, too, was the well-sweep with its rickety curb and its oaken bucket.
I was made welcome to step inside the house and see the old dwelling, but I did not find it especially interesting. The barren, cluttered rooms, with their suggestion of extreme poverty, were depressing. In the parlor, which was used as a sort of storeroom, were a number of antiquated pictures on the walls, most of them in heavy frames that the woman had contrived herself- some of cones, some of shells stuck in putty. The cones and shells varied much in size and kind, and the patterns were intricate and ingenious. Then there was a specimen of hair work, dusty and moth-eaten, which she took out of its frame that I might inspect it closer. “I used to be quite a hand making these sort of things,” she explained, “but now I don’t have the time. It’s about all I can do to get enough to eat.”
DRAWING A BUCKET OF WATER
I came away wondering what the trouble was that the brother and sister were so poorly provided for in their old age, and when I inquired about it I was told that the brother was “one of the smartest men in Connecticut,” an architect and builder of great ability, but “he had looked through the bottom of a glass too often.”
The most historic portion of Saybrook is what is known as “The Point,” a seaward-reaching projection a half-mile across, connected with the mainland by a narrow neck. Here the first settlers established themselves in 1635. The leaders who had planned this settlement had in October of that year reached Boston from across the sea. In Boston they collected twenty men, hired a small vessel, and about the middle of November posted off for the mouth of the Connecticut. They brought with them materials for the erection of houses to accommodate both themselves and others who were to follow; and they were prepared to construct a fort, in part to prevent the Dutch, who aspired to control the river, from accomplishing their purpose, and in part to defend themselves against the Indians. They arrived none too soon; for a few days after they landed, a vessel from New Amsterdam appeared off shore with intent to take possession of the region and build fortifications. Luckily the English had mounted a couple of cannon, and the Dutch thought best to return peaceably whence they had come.
Winter soon set in, and the settlers could do little beforehand save to provide themselves with shelters of the most primitive kind. In the spring work was taken up in earnest, and other settlers came; but for a long time the colony grew very slowly, and the earliest years were years of annual struggle with the stubborn earth and the hard winters. One of the first tasks of the pioneers was to build a wooden fort and to set up a line of palisades twelve feet high across the neck of the peninsula. Like all the early towns, Saybrook suffered at the hands of the Indians. A number of its inhabitants were slain in the immediate vicinity, and the cows sometimes returned from the pasture with arrows sticking in their sides.
By 1647, while the population was still less than one hundred, a church was erected. Up to that time the meetings had been held in what the records speak of as the great hall” of the fort. The church stood at one end of a public square called “The Green.” To assemble the people for service a drum was beaten, and it was voted that at the front door of the church should be “a gard of 8 men every Sabbath and Lecture-day compleat in their arms.” A sentinel, too, was stationed on a turret or platform built on the meeting-house roof. The necessity of this protection against savage assaults is seen when one remembers that an average of over fourscore English are estimated to have been slain yearly by the Indians during the first half-century of Connecticut’s settlement.
In the Old Cemetery
This seems distressing enough, but from an Indian viewpoint the slaughter was far worse; for twenty of their number were killed to one of the whites. A second meeting-house was completed in 1681 near the site of the first. Of this structure it is known that the seats in the body of the house were plain wooden benches assigned to members of the congregation according to age, rank, office, and estate. Several leading men were given permission to build square pews against the walls of the audience room, and the minister’s family had a square pew at the right of the pulpit. The pulpit itself was a high, angular construction furnished with a Geneva Bible, a “Bay Psalm Book,” and an hour-glass with which to time the service. The two deacons faced the congregation, sitting on a seat at the base of the pulpit, and the tithing-man, with his fox-tail rod of office, took his position where he could best oversee the behavior of the worshippers.
The original settlement at Saybrook Point about the fort gradually overflowed to the mainland, until presently the centre of population and chief village were a mile or two from the earlier hamlet. Thus, when the third church was built, in 1726, at a cost of sixteen hundred dollars, a new and more generally convenient location was chosen. Until near the end of the century this edifice had no steeple and no bell. After these were added it was customary, down to 1840, to ring the bell every noon to announce to the people the arrival of the dinner hour. The bell was also rung during the winter at nine in the evening as a notification it was bedtime. Neither of the previous churches were ever warmed, nor was this for more than one hundred years. The chief feature of the interior was the high pulpit, overhung by a huge sounding-board, both much elaborated with panels and mouldings. On Sunday the pulpit stairs were filled by small boys, who were always eager to get the upper step, for this position gave the occupant the honor of opening the pulpit door to the minister when he ascended to his place. The pews were square, with seats on three sides, so that a portion of the worshippers sat with sides or backs to the preacher. A wide, heavy gallery extended clear around the room except on the north, where rose the pulpit. The east wing of the gallery was exclusively for females, the west for males.
The front tier of seats was reserved for the singers. Behind them, on the south side, were four box pews regarded by many as most desirable sittings. Some of the young people of both sexes found these especially attractive, though more because the seclusion was adapted for social purposes than because of any religious ardor. Finally, in each of the remote rear corners of the gallery was still another box pew for the occupancy of the colored people, who were not allowed to sit elsewhere.
Perhaps Saybrook’s strongest appeal to fame is the fact that the town was the first domicile of Yale University. It was characteristic of the settlers of New England, that no sooner had they set up their houses on American soil than they began to make provision for the education of their children. Not content with establishing primary schools, they founded Harvard College within seven years of the settlement of Boston. Connecticut, in proportion to its population and means, bore its full share in Harvard’s support; but after the lapse of some fifty years the people of the colony began to feel the need of having a collegiate school of their own. The idea took definite form at a meeting of Connecticut pastors in September, 1701, when each one present made a gift of books to the proposed college.
The infant institution, which, in honor of a generous benefactor, subsequently took the name of Yale, was thus started, and shortly a citizen of Saybrook gave it the use of a house and lot. This house was quite sufficient, for during the first six months the college community consisted of the president and a single student, and only fifty-five young men were graduated in fifteen years. The trustees were far from unanimous in locating the college at Saybrook, and its affairs continued in an unsettled state until 1716, when it was transferred to New Haven. The change was not accomplished without turmoil, a curious account of which is found in the Rev. Samuel Peters’s “General History of Connecticut,” published in 1781. He says: “A vote passed at Hartford, to remove the College to Weathersfield; and another at Newhaven, that it should be removed to that town. Hartford, in order to carry its vote into execution, prepared teams, boats, and a mob, and privately set off for Saybrook, and seized upon the College apparatus, library and students, and carried all to Weathersfield. This redoubled the jealousy of the saints at Newhaven, who thereupon determined to fulfil their vote; and accordingly, having collected a mob sufficient for the enterprise, they set out for Weathersfield, where they seized by surprise the students, library, &c. &c. But on the road to New‑haven, they were overtaken by the Hartford mob, who, however, after an unhappy battle, were obliged to retire with only a part of the library and part of the students. The quarrel increased daily, everybody expecting a war; and no doubt such would have been the case had not the peacemakers of Massachusetts Bay interposed with their usual friendship, and advised their dear friends of Hartford to give up the College to Newhaven. This was accordingly done to the great joy of the crafty Massachusetts, who always greedily seek their own prosperity, though it ruin their best neighbors.
CLEANING UP THE BACK YARD
“The College being thus fixed forty miles further west from Boston than it was before, tended greatly to the interest of Harvard College; for Saybrook and Hartford, out of pure grief, sent their sons to Harvard, instead of the College at Newhaven.”
Another anecdote related by Mr. Peters has to do with the visit of the evangelist George Whitefield to Saybrook in 1740. “Time not having destroyed the walls of the fort,” says the narrative, “Mr. Whitefield attempted to bring them down, as Joshua brought down the walls of Jericho, to convince the gaping multitude of his divine mission. He walked several times round the fort with prayer, and rams’-horns blowing; he called on the angel of Joshua; but the angel was deaf or on a journey or asleep, and therefore the walls remained. Hereupon George cried aloud:
‘This town is accursed for not receiving the messenger of the Lord; therefore the angel is departed and the walls shall stand as a monument of sinful people.’ He shook off the dust of his feet against them, and departed.”
The author of the “General History” was a Royalist clergyman driven by persecution from the colonies early in the Revolution. He writes with a certain amount of sarcasm and bitterness, yet the book is by no means wholly condemnatory. He apparently attempts to be fair, though his own experience and his affinity with the English Church gives a bias to his opinions. The part of his book which has been most severely criticised is where he gives a list of Connecticut “blue laws, that is bloody laws,” which he affirms were strenuously enforced though never printed, and those who transgressed them were punished with excommunication, fines, banishment, whippings, ear‑cropping, tongue-burning, and even death. I quote only a few of these alleged blue laws.
“No one shall run on the Sabbath-day, or walk in his garden or elsewhere, except reverently to and from meeting.
“No one shall kiss her child on the Sabbath or fasting-day.
The Sabbath shall begin at sunset on Saturday.
“Whoever wears cloathes trimmed with gold, silver, or bone lace, above two shillings by the yard, shall be presented by the grand jurors.
“A debtor in prison, swearing he has no estate shall be let out and sold to make satisfaction.
“Whoever brings cards or dice into this dominion shall pay a fine of 5l.
“Νο one shall read Common-Prayer, keep Christmas or Saints-days, make minced pies, dance, play cards, or play on any instrument of music, except the drum, trumpet, and jewsharp.
“No man shall court a maid in person, or by letter, without first obtaining the consent of her parents.
“Every male shall have his hair cut round according to a cap.”
This last law, Mr. Peters says, was the cause of all New Englanders being given the nickname of “pumpkin-heads.” It frequently. was convenient, he adds, when caps were lacking, to substitute the hard shell of a pumpkin, “which being put on the head every Saturday, the hair is cut by the shell all round the head.” The author’s comment is that there is much “prudence” in this method of hair-trimming, for: “first, it prevents the hair from snarling; secondly, it saves the use of combs, bags, and ribbons; thirdly, the hair cannot incommode the eyes by falling over them; and fourthly, such persons as have lost their ears for heresy and other wickedness, cannot conceal their misfortune and disgrace.”
Other paragraphs from the “General History” purporting to show the life of early Connecticut are these:—
“On Saturday evenings the people look sour and sad; on the Sabbath they appear to have lost their dearest friends, and are almost speechless; they walk softly; they even observe it with more exactness than did the Jews. A Quaker preacher told them with much truth that they worshipped the Sabbath, and not the God of the Sabbath. These hospitable people, without charity, condemned the Quaker as a blasphemer of the holy Sabbath, fined, tarred and feathered him, put a rope about his neck, and plunged him into the sea, but he escaped with life, though he was about seventy years of age.
“In 1750 an Episcopal clergyman, born and educated in England, who had been in holy orders above twenty years, once broke their sabbatical law by combing a discomposed lock of hair on the top of his wig; at another time for making a humming noise, which they call whistling; at a third, by running into church when it rained; at a fourth, by walking in his garden and picking a bunch of grapes: for which several crimes he had warrants granted against him, was seized, brought to trial, and paid a considerable sum of money.
“Smuggling is rivetted in the constitution and practice of the inhabitants of Connecticut as much as superstition and religion, and their province is a storehouse for the smugglers of the neighboring colonies. They conscientiously study to cheat the King of those duties which they say God and Nature never intended should be paid. From the Governor down to the tithing-man who are sworn to support the laws, they will aid smugglers, resist collectors, and mob informers.”
The writer’s view of the colonial clergy is far from flattering. When a church gives a man a call and states the salary and other inducements, the prospective pastor, “after looking round him and finding no better terms offered from any other parish, answers in this manner, ‘Brethren and friends, I have considered your call, and, after many fastings and prayers, I find it to be a call of God, and close with your offer.’”
The pastor’s manner of visiting persons who are ill is described thus: “The minister demands of the sick if he be converted, when, and where. If the answer is conformable to the system of the minister, it is very well if not, the sick is given over as a non-elect and no object of prayer. Another minister is then sent for, who asks the sick if he be willing to die, if he be willing to be damned, if it please God to damn him?
Should he answer No, this minister quits him, as the former. Finally the sick man dies, and so falls out of their hands into better.”
In all this a touch of exaggeration is evident, yet there is enough of fact and of human nature behind it to make the reader enjoy its spice, and the narrative is far from unpalatable — at least to readers who are not natives of Connecticut.
The Seaward Marshlands