On June 23, 1851, the Hartford Courant reported that on the previous Wednesday, “the Citizens of Cromwell, manifested their delight… upon attaining the dignity of a free and independent township, by the firing of guns, burning of tar barrels, and sundry other demonstrations usual upon such occasions.” This celebration was the conclusion of a process that began in April of 1848 to legally separate the North Society of Middletown from the main body of Middletown. After nearly three years of discussion, the people of the North Society presented a petition to the state legislature requesting recognition as a new township. To support their request, the petitioners, led by Elisha ”Squire” Treat, a former state legislator & abolitionist, cited geographical “inconvenience” related to the flooding Connecticut and Sebethe Rivers, and managerial “neglect” “particularly in regard to roads.” On March 18, 1851, 135 residents of the North Society signed the petition which would be presented to the next General assembly in May. The only disagreement amongst the petitioners was what to name the new town.
When this petition for separation was presented to the people of Upper Middletown on March 18, it Prayed “ that said North Society in said town of Middletown may be by the General Assembly constituted and organized as a distinct town to be called Hamlin.” And later that the property falling within the North Society “remain as part and parcel of said town of Hamlin when so constituted.” The name Hamlin was first suggested by Horace Stocking, a wealthy ship captain, as a tribute to Jabez Hamlin, the first mayor of Middletown. It was completely unsupported at the meeting and the assembly agreed to leave blank spaces for the name of the new town. Several names were proposed at the meeting which reflected the village’s nicknames, including Upper Middletown and North Middletown. Rufus Sage, a notable explorer and author, suggested that the new name should show no connection to Middletown and moved for the name Cromwell. Several more meetings took place throughout the Spring and in April 1851, a committee was assembled and charged with the task of surveying the residents of the village for a suitable name.
Having already missed several opportunities to bring the petition before the general assembly, the people of Upper Middletown were likely anxious to get the process of separation started. An announcement appeared in the Hartford Courant on May 1 saying that “The citizens of Upper Middletown will present a petition to the Legislature to be set off as a separate town. The voters of Middletown, in town meeting, have resolved not to oppose the petition.” While no official name for the town had yet been chosen, the blank spaces were once again filled in with the name “Hamlin” and the petition was presented to the General Assembly’s Committee for New Towns on May 7. While the assembly deliberated the fate of the Upper Middletown, the people of the town to be named later continued to work on their new title.
On May 19, a meeting was held to once and for all choose a name for the town. Twenty-five names were proposed with the most popular half-dozen being Upper Middletown, North Middletown, & Glenwood, each with 9 votes, Springfield with 3 votes and Cromwell & Middlesex each with 2. Seventeen other names were presented with one vote each. The top four names were then voted upon over three additional votes, with the least popular being removed each time. In the end, the name “Upper Middletown” was “chosen unanimously with applause.”
Meanwhile, during the General Assembly of May 3, the committee on new towns “reported favorably…on the petition of the North Society of Middletown to be incorporated as a new town.” Following the report, Senator Levi Heaton of Plymouth put forth a resolution that the new town be incorporated under the name Cromwell. The resolution was tabled pending further discussion. It is not clear how this resolution came about or whether or not the name change was officially supported by the soon-to-be residents of Cromwell. Legend has it that Bulkeley Edwards, himself a member of the General Assembly and one of the two men who had voted in favor of the name Cromwell, took steps to have the name changed without the knowledge of the people he represented. Perhaps it was through his fellow senator, Mr. Heaton, that he accomplished this. In the end, the final version of the petition listed Cromwell as the name of the new town and the General Assembly approved the incorporation on June 18, 1851.
Regardless of how the town came to be called Cromwell, the salient question would appear to be why it came to be called Cromwell. One possibility is that the name was inspired by a ship built in Essex by Uriah Hayden. Many revolutionary-era New Englanders related their fight with King George III to Oliver Cromwell’s fight with King Charles I and hoped that their efforts would have similar results. With this sentiment, and possibly a slight spirit of irony, the Connecticut Navy named this vessel the Oliver Cromwell. Launched in 1776, this three-masted brig was the Navy’s largest fully-rigged warship, and carried twenty guns. She weighed 300 tons, had an eighty foot keel, was twenty-seven feet wide and had a hold twelve feet deep. During her service, the Oliver Cromwell captured nine British ships before she lost a battle with three British ships off Sandy Hook and was herself captured. While the people of Upper Middletown may well have heard of the Oliver Cromwell, the only documented connection between the town and the ship is that 3 of the vessel’s crew members are buried in the Old Burying Ground. Another, although undocumented, possibility is that the name Cromwell was inspired by a steamboat named Oliver Cromwell which is said to have been built by local William Redfield in the 1830s.
The most likely scenerio is that the town of Cromwell is named directly for Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the British Commonwealth and one of the most controversial figures in British history. Oliver Cromwell first gained public notoriety when he began to fight for the cause of the Protestant Reformation in England. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1628 and became known for his belligerence and strict Puritan beliefs. After civil war broke out in 1642, Cromwell became a bona fide hero when he defeated the King and supporters of the Crown. He became the leader of the Parliamentary Army and led a series of brutal military campaigns in Ireland and Scotland. In 1653, he rejoined Parliament but was disgusted with its workings and used the army to dissolve the House of Commons. After a military coup at the end of that year, he was named Lord Protector of the British Republic and continued to push his ideals for religious tolerance for Protestants, political representation, & legal reforms. When Cromwell died, he was buried in Westminster but when the Royalists returned to power they had his corpse disinterred, hung in chains and beheaded.
Throughout the 19th century, many Americans revered Cromwell as a champion of free speech, religious liberty and of the virtues of republicanism, a sentiment easily seen in Connecticut. In May of 1844, the Hartford Courant published a near half-page article describing the many virtues of Oliver Cromwell. The author described him as “the most remarkable person in English history” and drew comparisons between him and George Washington. When Cromwell’s biography and letters were published in 1845, the Courant boasted that “those who wish to acquaint themselves with the character of this great man, can finally here be gratified. Certainly, there is Historical instruction in these letters; Historical, and perhaps other and better.” In December of 1846, one Reverend J.T. Headley gave a lecture in Hartford on the Life and Character of Oliver Cromwell. The Courant reported that
“The discussions relative to the history of the great man have been revived with some warmth, in these latter days. The lecturer found much in the character of the stern warrior – commander of the revolutionary armies, to enlist his admiration. He defended the protector from the charges of inconsistency, hypocrisy and ambition, and found justification for his strong and vigorous measures, with the exception of the massacre of the Irish at Drogheda and one or two other scenes of cruelty of the same description."
It is highly possible that at least two men from Upper Middletown, Bulkeley Edwards and Rufus Sage, shared this reverence for Oliver Cromwell and may well have determined the name of the new town in 1851. Whether the town of Cromwell was named after the warship, the steamboat, or the Heroic qualities of the man, Oliver Cromwell, we appear to have the man himself to thank for inspiring the people of Upper Middletown in 1851.
Oliver Cromwell...not a bad guy? Lines are open...
The story of the J.&E. Stevens company begins in the period following the War of 1812 – a time of great independent change for the Middletown Upper Houses. The war had effectively destroyed the maritime industry of the area, and the village settled in to being a small farming community with a identity crisis. By the 1830s, this had begun to change. Small manufactories began to appear in neighborhoods such as the Nooks – known at that time as Cold Spring - which with its light settlement and excellent water power potential soon became a popular setting. In 1837, a budding industrialist named John Stevens began purchasing land and water rights at the base of Nooks Hill. In 1843, he entered into a business arrangement with his brother Elisha and together they formed what would become the most significant manufacturing firm in Cromwell’s history, the J.&E. Stevens Company.
John Stevens was born in 1806 in Haddam, Connecticut and moved to Middletown in the 1830s. When John first moved to the Upper Houses, he lived in the Prospect/Nooks Hill area with his wife, Cordelia, and their four daughters, Julia, Sarah, Harriet, & Kate. In 1851, John began building a house at 395 Main Street and the family took up residence in it in 1853. After just two years of residing in their new Italianate mansion, Cordelia passed away in 1855. A year later, John re-married to Frances Augusta Rathbone, and they had four sons, John Francis, Francis, Edwin, and William and one daughter, Frances Augusta. John resided in the house until his death in 1892, at which point Frances sold it to Russel Frisbie. In addition to the J.&E. Stevens Company, John Stevens founded the Cromwell Plate Company, became the first president of the Cromwell Dime Savings Bank in 1871, was a deacon in the Congregational Church, and served the town of Cromwell as Post Master from 1876 to 1885.
Elisha Stevens worked as a blacksmith with his father and was involved in several small manufacturing ventures before founding the J.&E. Stevens Company. He served as treasurer of the J.&E. Stevens Co. until 1868 when he co-founded the Stevens & Brown Manufacturing Company. Elisha had built an Italianate home at 380 Main Street in 1863 but was forced to sell it after assuming enormous debt when the Stevens & Brown Co. failed in 1874. In 1836 he married his first wife, Martha M. Davis, who died in 1844. That same year, he began his second marriage with Susan Barnes and they had one child, Isabel, in 1849. Susan died in 1853, and a year later, Elisha was married once again to Clarissa J. Hubbard.
For more than a century, the J.&E. Stevens Company drove the economy of Cromwell from its factory site at the base of Nooks Hill. When the Stevens brothers opened the factory, they began manufacturing cast iron hardware, hammers, and small iron toys. An 1853 Middletown Gazzette article stated that “ among the factories in Upper Middletown, first in the lists is J&E Stevens and Company who are making wardrobe, coat & hat hooks etc. We might go on in enumeration until we reached the sum of about 70 different articles made at this establishment.”
In 1868, the J.&E. Stevens Company reorganized into a joint stock corporation, and Elisha left the company to pursue other interests. Russel Frisbie, a talented designer and inventor purchased 25% of the firm and became President & Superintendant. Russel Frisbie was born in New Haven in 1822 and was working as a designer and pattern maker in Middletown prior to joining the Stevens Co. He and his wife, Mary purchased the home next to Stevens’ house on Main Street. When John Stevens died in 1892, Russel purchased the Stevens home. In addition to his work with the J.&E. Stevens Company, Russel had several business interests including the Middletown Banking Company, Dime Savings Bank of Cromwell, Cromwell Plate Company, and the Meriden & Cromwell Railroad Company. In 1877, he served in the Connecticut State Legislature.
Frisbie’s vision for the company involved expanding its production of toys and in 1869, he contracted a design for the first cast iron-mechanical bank from John D. Hall, a manufacturer and designer from Watertown MA. “Hall’s Excelsior Bank” was an instant success and Hall became a regular designer for J.&E Stevens, producing five of the firm’s best selling banks. Hall’s banks are unique in that the weight of the depositing coin triggers the mechanical action.
Shortly after the success of the Hall banks, Russel himself began to create bank designs including the all time favorite, “William Tell.”
In 1877, James H. Bowen, a fee-lance designer from Philadelphia began submitting his designs to the company in exchange for $1.00 per dozen sold. His banks were especially creative and employed highly animated action. The Creedmoor Bank was the first to feature a firearm using a coin as ammunition – a design that would be utilized in several future Stevens banks.
Of all the mechanical bank designers employed by the J.&E. Stevens Company, the most significant was Charles Bailey. Charles served as head designer for 26 years and is credited with at least 32 banks. He began his career in a sculpting workshop behind his home in Cobalt and opened a shop on Main Street in Middletown in 1880. While working in Middletown, Bailey began to design mechanical banks which featured cast lead figures several of which were manufactured by J.&E. Stevens. In 1889, Charles Bailey officially joined the firm, making $25.00 per week.
Upon the death of John Stevens in 1892, Russel Frisbie took a larger role in the firm and turned it into an internationally renowned company. Russel’s son, Charles Brown Frisbie joined the firm in 1877 and became superintendent when his father died in 1898. He later became president of the firm and bought it outright in 1925.
The Company thrived on the production of Mechanical Banks – more than 70 in all, until the poor economic conditions of the 1920s-30s forced them to look for a new point of revenue. In 1925, Russell A. Frisbie joined the firm and began to expand the company’s production of toy cap pistols.
Russell Abner Frisbie was educated at the Wesleyan School in Wilbraham, MA, specializing in drafting and design. His business career began with the designing and selling of bicycles, but his interests eventually turned to the manufacturing of automobiles. After building several motor cars in the 1910s, Frisbie began to specialize in marine engines and established the Frisbie Motor Company in Middletown. This venture proved very lucrative for Russell and he retired from the business in 1915. After spending 10 years in South Eastern Connecticut, he returned to Cromwell and began work as a consulting engineer for the J.&E. Stevens Company. In this capacity, Russell made his greatest contribution to the company by improving the design of toy cap pistols. In his design, the paper caps were automatically fed through a slot in the hammer, rather than through fixed parts of the gun. This development led the J.&E. Stevens Company to become the foremost innovator in toy cap pistol production in the world.
In 1935, Charles Brown Frisbie died, leaving the J.&E. Stevens Company to Russell A. Frisbie. The company continued to produce iron toy firearms until the onset of the Second World War. In 1940, the Hartford Courant published an article which compared the real guns being used by both sides in World War II with the toys being manufactured in Cromwell. The article praised the company for helping to prevent the “development of uncontrollable and destructive urges.” The article went further to say “Deprive the child of his harmless toy and will [sic.] play with father’s more dangerous and real weapon.” During the 1940s, the company added the production of plastic/die cast cap guns, the most popular being Stevens Big Chief, Pioneer, Big Scout, Billy The Kid, Trigger, Western Boy, Buffalo Bill, Sheriff, 49-ER, Peace Maker and Cowboy King.
Kate Ralph, daughter of Civil War veteran Tilla Ralph, began working for the J. & E. Stevens Company when she was sixteen years old. The 1870 census lists twenty-two-year-old Kate’s occupation as: “Works in Toy Shop” along with her sister, Mary, age 18. The Ralphs’ farm was on Old West Street (near the intersection of Routes 9 and 372), and Kate made the six-mile trip to the factory and back on foot each day. During her sixty-three year career at the firm, she missed just thirty days of work. In these images, she is seen painting cap pistols and posing in front of the paint shop with Charles Frisbie and Ed Warner.
The J.&E. Stevens Company suffered set- backs around the time of the Second World War due to restrictions on the use of iron, and Russell Frisbie sold the company to Bulkley Brother of NewYork in 1950. The century-long success of the J.&E. Stevens Company brought about an economic and social shift in Cromwell that gave the town a unique identity within the Connecticut River community. The one time bustling river-port town turned quiet farming village had, once again, become a prosperous hub in the world-wide economy.
As the J.&E. Stevens company continued to grow, the financial success of the company and its officers began to change the architectural landscape of Cromwell, itself. One by one, important members of the company began to build very modern, Italianate houses along Main Street. These houses continue serve as testimonials to the vast financial success of the J.&E. Stevens Company and the changing economy of the town in the mid-nineteenth century.
The ownership of John Stevens’ house, now called the Stevens Frisbie House, parallels the ownership of the J.&E. Stevens Company. When John Stevens died in 1892, the house was sold to Russel Frisbie, then superintendent and future president of the J.&E. Stevens Company. When Russel died, he left the house to his son, Charles Frisbie, who would eventually own the entire J.&E. Stevens Company. Ultimately, Charles sold the house to his son, Russell Abner Frisbie who joined the company in the 1930’s as a consulting engineer and became President upon the death of his father. In the end, three generations of Frisbies directed the J.&E. Stevens Company and owned the Stevens-Frisbie House.
Mechanical toy banks are among the most sought after collectables.
After working at the Connecticut State Hospital for ten years, Dr. Winthrop Hallock wanted to open a private institution to treat nervous and psychotic patients. In 1877, he purchased the octagon building on Prospect Hill and opened Cromwell Hall. Dr. Hallock's son and daughter, Frank and Susan, continued to run Cromwell Hall upon Dr. Winthrop's retirement. Susan and her husband, William Couch, had a son, Frank, who grew up to become a doctor as well. He and his wife, Mildred would run Cromwell Hall until it closed in 1956. the property and 14 buildings were sold in January of 1857 to the Missionaries of the Holy Apostles of Canada.
Note: A fuller history of Cromwell Hall, written by Lois Donohue, will be published at a future date.
Today, the campus that was once Cromwell Hall is the home of a Catholic college and Seminary.