Historical Society

Yesterday Is History

"Yesterday is History" is a series of essays written by Cromwell Historical Society member Rebecca Bayreuther Donohue, originally printed in the Cromwell Chronicle
The articles will be re-published here on a monthly basis.



Yesterday is History.


20 October 2002. – Observations from Russell’s Cupola.


            As the crisp, smoky air of Autumn drifts over the town of Cromwell, it may prove difficult to recall the oppression of this Summer’s temperatures.  Even the Riverport Festival in September simmered in unseasonable warmth!  Those of you who retreated to the shade of the park that Saturday were given a glimpse of some of the trades and foodways in towns like Cromwell in the year 1855 (and who can forget the spitted pig?).  One hundred fifty-odd years being a flash in the pan: just how was the town shaping up in 1855?


Living in Cromwell then was a relatively new concept, seeing as the vote to separate the Upper Houses from Middletown had passed only four years previous.  Besides stalwart old families like Savage, Ranney, and Hubbard, your neighbours might include the Irish who were building the roads and quarrying brownstone – the latter which effectively replaced shipbuilding in Cromwell a couple of years ago.  The yards in Portland are still active, however, so if your skills lie in planking, rigging, or caulking, you’ll take the ferry steamer Mattabessett from its slip north of Wall Street across the river to Worthington Drive.  If you prefer to stay in town, William Wilcox might need a clerk at his Ship’s Chandlery, where you’ll monitor the sale of manila or hemp cordage much like the small rope manufactured at the Riverfront Park in 2002.

Connecticut Brownstone Quarry (Extant)

You may be, however, young enough to be still living off the fruits of your parents’ labours.  After morning chores and a hearty breakfast, you hurry to the Brick School House across the street from Elisha Sage’s West Street house so your teacher, Mr. Adams, doesn’t make you stand on tiptoe with your nose to the chalkboard.  If you live too far away to walk home for dinner, you carry a tin dinner pail along with your books.  Farming parents require your help in Spring for planting and Autumn for harvesting, so you may never attend either the local academy or the first public high school in Connecticut, located just down the road in Middletown.  Your parents might have very modern views concerning women’s education, though, giving you a chance to rub pagoda-sleeved elbows with the fine young ladies at the experimental Mineral Springs Institute.  It opens this year on the future site of Holy Apostles Seminary.

            One of the best aspects of 1855 Cromwell is the community involvement of its ladies.  Most of you attend the Congregational Church where Revered Bryan presides, so plans can be made for the upcoming meetings of the Temperance League, the Friendly Association, the Ladies Sewing Circle, and the Ladies Foreign Missionary Society.  In December your conversations center around Christmas, which is slowly being reformed from an excuse to abuse Connecticut’s prohibition laws into a celebration for Christian families.  Socialising also occurs at the grocery stores by the River Road, the old centre of town left from the glory days of shipbuilding.  Since newspapers are delivered once a week at best, it is in town or during morning calls to your friends that you learn of events like the death of Charlotte Bronte (authoress of Jane Eyre) in March, Britain’s war in the Crimea, the publication of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” and the radical Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”, and the political unrest in both Kansas and Mexico.  You may not have the vote, but that certainly doesn’t subdue your interest in the world around you.

            No matter who you are, you know someone who works in one of the many hardware manufacturing companies in town.  The names of J.&E. Stevens, Allison, Beaumont, Smith, Manning, Warner & Noble, and Sage & Hubbard resonate with the banging of hammers and shine with the brushed luster of pewter.  A jaunt down Nooks Hill or Stony Brook brings you within sight of their great water-driven factories.  Who knows – you might be the visionary who first suggests to Mr. Stevens that he experiment a little with iron toys and cast-iron banks.  And of course you can’t help admiring the Italianate yellow mansion he had built a couple of years ago on Main Street, right in the newly fashionable section of town.

J. & E Stevens Company



            1855 was, in some respects, a year like any other for Cromwell.  Soon the peace and prosperity would be interrupted by the political turmoil preceding the War Between the States, and local boys would march off to die on Southern battlefields.  But in the nineteenth century as well as this one, sometimes it is enough to sit on the front porch on an Autumn evening, nodding to passers-by and simply being a part of the history of Cromwell.










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