11. The Village
(a brief history of Newtown, Connecticut)
On a bright Wednesday morning in 1705, three land speculators and their crew boarded a vessel in Stratford, where the great Housatonic River drains into the Long Island Sound. They rowed north, into the high untamed wilderness, and as they came around a hook in the river, the white men saw that the waterway split around a hill, with the slender branch of the river flowing off to the south. On the hillside above, they saw a cluster of wigwams where the natives had formed a village, and here, the settlers came ashore.
The white men were farmers, the second and third generations descended from British families who immigrated to the colonies. The coastline in New England had grown crowded, and so the men had gone up the river to find unexploited land, where they could build larger farms and start futures for their families. This spot, where the rivers diverged, was perfect.
The natives were peaceful. They said they called the smaller river “Pootatuck” (meaning “falls river”) and the land in the surrounding hills — as the white men transcribed it on the land purchase — “Quanneapague.” The meaning of the name is unknown to this day.
The white men made their offer on August 5th, 1705, and the trade was signed; in return for permanent ownership of the tract of land (roughly eight miles long by six miles wide), the Pootatuck tribe accepted from the settlers a trade of four guns, plus ammunition (“forty pounds of lead, ten pounds of powder”), plus “four broadcloth coats, four blankets, four ruffelly coats,” and so on — each a full wardrobe. The business done, the natives retreated, further up the river with their new finery, and the white men settled in their place, keeping the native name for their new village: Quanneapague.
The village lasted for three years before the colony of Connecticut put a stop to it; the colonial government possessed “sole power and control of purchasing Indian lands” within its borders, and they had not transferred any such authority to the speculators before the men decided to head up the Housatonic. Facing prison, the settlers surrendered their claim back to the colony, and their transgression was forgiven. In 1708, “in the reign of her Majesty, Queen Anne,” an official charter of settlement was granted, and the town began anew, rechristened simply “Newtown.”
THE MILL & THE MEETING HOUSE
The town grew outward from a single crossroads, as towns do. The road that ran from the north to the south — delivering travelers from the riverbank, back down to Stratford — would be known over the immediate years as Town Street, or Newtown Street; eventually, it would be called simply “Main Street.”
The other road came down from the hills in the east, crossing Main Street and departing Newtown to the west along a crooked, wandering path. “As there could have been naught but natural obstructions,” the town historian would observe from a later century, “we cannot account for its serpentine course unless, in the lay out, the Indian trail as it led from the Pootatuck, over the hills to Danbury, [and] the Hudson river, was followed.”
There were thirty families in Newtown at the start, and each chose a plot of land near this crossroads, about a mile from the Pootatuck river. The settlers then went to work, each clearing away their share from the wilderness, and carving a greater space for their new civilization to flourish.
For the first few years in the village, each settler had to grind their grain themselves, with a mortar and pestle, or else have the task done at a grist mill in Danbury, with the grain returned by horseback at considerable expense. So it was, that the first municipal structure ever built in Newtown, in September of 1715, was a grist mill on the eastern shore of the Pootatuck river. For generations to come, the mill provided for the townspeople, its great wheel turning day and night on the riverside.
* * *
In order for the colony of Connecticut to recognize any of its villages as an official “town,” they required that the white men owning land there first organize a church. Newtown thus formed its official Ecclesiastical Society without delay, and started collecting the town’s first tax, to pay for a minister.
Across Connecticut’s territory, in the village of Killingsworth, a small group of congregational ministers had recently met to pool their religious texts. So was founded Connecticut’s first institution of higher learning: a “Collegiate School,” to educate and train clergyman. Each year, another group of new ministers was blessed, and sent out in search of flocks to gather; from one of the earliest graduating classes, a young theology student named Thomas Toucey would make his way west, to the little village of Newtown. He was ordained on October 15, 1715 as the first minister of Newtown’s Congregational Society.
Reverend Toucey would need somewhere to preach. On January 8, 1719, the citizens of Newtown gathered, and voted to build their first church, to serve also as the town’s meeting house. It would sit in the middle of the intersection of Main Street and — as the ancient serpentine path would now become known — Church Hill Road. This was not an unusual place to build a structure then, right in the middle of a street; after all, the meeting house would be Newtown’s most important and prominent structure, so it was only appropriate that it dominate the crossroads. In an an era of slow travel, along wide dirt paths, a church would not be any great obstacle to maneuver around. It would be the town’s anchor.
The structure’s function as a meeting house was also a welcome addition, so that the “inhabitants of ye Town might be under better advantage for ye enjoyment of all ye ordinances of God in his sanctuary according to Divine appointment,” as town records show. It was a modest building when completed, “nothing but wide benches for seats and no other furnishings save an open fire place where they could roll on logs for bodily comfort.” And in these early years, the townspeople were summoned to the meeting house by the beat of a drum, its low roll heard echoing throughout the valley and up into the eastern hills, where the natives still dwelled among the outlying settlers.
* * *
Around this time, ownership of this eastern portion of the land came into dispute. A Pootatuck native — a man calling himself “Quiomph” — appeared and went before the town elders, stating his claim to the eastern tract that extended out to where the Housatonic river formed an “elbow” — or hook — just downstream from where the white settlers had first gone ashore. Since Quiomph was not present for the Quanneapague land purchase, his tract was not rightfully included in the deal for the four guns and the ruffelly coats.
Fortunately for the settlers, however, he was willing to negotiate.
Newtown paid Quiomph a fee of sixteen British pounds to settle the matter. Quiomph signed his name with an “X”, and summarily disappeared, back into the forests. The neighboring area between the two rivers, “right against ye Wigwams,” was henceforth added to Newtown’s boundaries, forming a sister village in the new territory, known thereafter as “Sandy Hook.”
* * *
There would be more conflicts between the natives and the settlers as the years passed, and as Newtown’s borders started to expand. Relations were not always peaceful. But the settlers, in the long term, had little to fear; they vastly outnumbered the natives, who had been ravaged by disease brought from the new world. And, as the natives well-knew, the white men always had plenty of guns.
On March 12, 1723, the sound of the drum filled the valley. At that evening’s town meeting, “by reason of uneasiness,” the citizens formally asked that Reverend Toucey “lay down ye work of ye ministry among us.” Once again, Newtown would be without a minister.
It had been eight years since Toucey’s ordainment, and though the historical record is not definite about the circumstances, the “uneasiness” in the Presbyterian society appears to have been due to a great number of the townspeople having left the congregation, to attend services at an Episcopalian church in Stratford, twenty miles to the south. Toucey having lost his flock was bad enough, but since the church in Stratford was of an Anglican parish, those Newtowners making the long trek every Sunday were not just forsaking their hometown: they were fundamentally rejecting the Presbyterian concept, in favor of the English crown.
This conflict was representative of a larger one, then taking place at Toucey’s alma mater: even as the Collegiate School was graduating more of Connecticut’s ministers, there was a spiritual war unfolding over the validity of the doctrine they were being sent to spread. The root of the conflict was that each town’s congregational church granted spiritual authority — over themselves — to their minister, based on the will of that church’s elders. But meanwhile, Episcopal churches came from the Anglican tradition, where ministers were granted authority by a bishop, one who in turn traced their own blessing back through the centuries to the Pope; ostensibly, this was a chain of succession that began with Jesus Christ himself. Compared to that lineage, a congregational church’s connection to divine authority seemed tenuous, and alumni of the Collegiate School watched with dismay as many of their flock drifted toward the crown.
Rev. Toucey’s ouster from Newtown was one manifestation this great theological schism, but his dismissal from their church would not be enough to satisfy the conflicted townspeople. It would be up to Toucey’s successor to again fill the pews at the old meeting house, where the defectors once sat.
This young preacher’s name was John Beach, and he set out for Newtown from the same college as Toucey. However, his relocation crossed considerably less distance: the Collegiate School had since moved to a permanent campus in New Haven, just twenty miles east from Newtown, and changed its name to Yale.
* * *
Reverend Beach became one of the most influential personalities in the history of Newtown: greatly beloved by many of the villagers, and given considerable areas of land in their domain. However, he would prove ill-fitted for reconciling the forces pulling at their hearts. The rift that tore through Yale also ran through Reverend Beach’s own soul, and he was honest with his flock about the conflict he felt, until finally, in a town meeting in January 1732, it was written, “Ye Reverend John Beach declareth himself to be partly reconciled to ye Church of England, that he questions the validity of ye Presbyterian ordination, that he cannot in faith, administer the Sacrament and refuseth to administer them.” This time, it was the shepherd himself who had wandered to the crown.
The search for still another Presbyterian minister commenced anew; meanwhile, John Beach sailed across the Atlantic to Scotland, where he was ordained as an Anglican priest. He returned to Newtown, a missionary in his own land, but he was no longer conflicted about his faith. And a new flock awaited him.
The 1740s ushered in the American colonies’ very first intellectual revolution: what came to be remembered as the “Great Awakening.” It arose from another theological schism, but this time, the dispute was over faith itself, and predestination: traditional worshipers, like the first Newtown settlers, were of the “Old Light”: encouraged by their ministers to lead a life without sin, so that they might one day enter heaven. But suddenly, a revolutionary movement within the church — the “New Light” — declared this attitude to be contrary to biblical scripture. Instead, the New Light preached that only a sacred personal experience with God could save one’s soul, and that any attempt to “win God over” with earthly acts would only compromise the sacrifice Jesus made for mankind. Faith was what counted — not actions.
The New Light burned bright in Newtown, stoked by the fire-and-brimstone sermons of famous itinerant Rev. George Whitfield as he traveled through Stratford, New Haven, and other surrounding villages. Soon, the Newtown congregation drafted a Rev. David Judson to finally lead their church — a preacher straight out of Whitfield’s mold, and remembered by town historians as “the Great Awakening incarnate.”
The dissenting “Old Light” believers soon wandered from Judson’s congregation, and many of them were drawn to the alternative: the Episcopal church, the crown, and the welcoming arms of Rev. John Beach. Beach and Judson thus battled for the souls of Newtown, and soon the conflict came to a head: each champion would preach their case in their respective church, and then print copies of the day’s sermon to be distributed along Main Street: a “pamphlet war” for all the town to see.
As the town’s historical society remembers, Judson’s pages blazed that “man was so drenched in sin and wickedness that any attempt to live a Godly life was impossible.” All one could do was repent.
In contrast, Beach’s philosophy was liberating, offering Newtown’s residents “the opportunity to live in their fair and pleasant land without a sense of their own guilt and unworthiness.” The Anglican preached that the townspeople had a need to see purpose in their earthly actions, and so he was confident the rising of the New Light, “instead of diminishing, increases the number of my hearers.” Of his rival Judson’s doctrine — in which evil deeds could not damn a soul any more than good works could save it — Beach wrote, “Where those monstrous tenets are received, there will remain a temptation for wicked men to turn to infidels.”
Judson and Beach became the mainstays of their churches over the next three decades, and the faithful in Newtown finally stabilized around these two poles. The Episcopalians would continue to draw worshipers away from the town’s Presbyterian flock — but as Newtown’s population increased, both churches would ultimately thrive.
The Congregational Society’s growth over the years can be seen in the changes to the meeting house itself: a church belfry was added in 1746, and after a long search, the drum beat that had echoed throughout the valley was replaced by the tones of a bronze church bell, finally hung in 1763. The bell was donated by a citizen, “procured for ye use of ye society so long as there should be a Presbiterian society to meet in [said] house.” Four years later, the same man ordered two of his slaves (their names are not recorded) to quarry slabs of granite, and haul them to the Newtown crossroads by oxcart, where the stones were fashioned into a new staircase, leading up to the front doors of Rev. Judson’s church.
On April 19, 1775, the colonies and the crown finally clashed, as militiamen in Lexington, Massachusetts stood strong against an advancing British regiment. Someone — whichever side they were on — fired the “shot heard round the world,” and propelled the colonists into a final showdown for American independence.
In response, Newtown’s government presented “an able protest to the State Legislature against the action of Congress” — a condemnation of the colonial rebels. General Washington’s forces thusly determined Newtown to be a “Tory” stronghold. The citizens would have to be disarmed.
In November of 1775, the American rebels swept through Newtown, and as one resident wrote in his daily journal, “Almost every house was ransacked from ye top to ye bottom.” The revolutionaries seized every firearm they could find, and afterward, the only residents still owning guns in Newtown were criminals.
* * *
Meanwhile, John Beach and his church found themselves in an awkward position. Beach’s conflicting loyalties were evident every Sunday, when the reverend would lead his congregation in a prayer for the health of the King of England. At a time of war, these were not just words; soon, rebel leaders from neighboring Redding delivered Beach a letter, requesting quite firmly that he cease praying for the King in public. “Your compliance herewith may prevent you trouble,” the rebels not-so-subtly threatened.
Beach ignored the warning. Soon after, a handful of rebel soldiers arrived at Trinity Church during Sunday service, armed. As one parishioner remembered it, the men dared the reverend to pray for the king one more time, at gunpoint — he did as he was told, “with no change or even tremor in his voice,” and the rebels lowered their rifles. (Another account says that they dragged Rev. Beach out of the church, escorted him to the foot of the hill, and told him to say his last prayer, “for they were about to shoot him.” He instead prayed aloud for his would-be executioners. The soldiers walked away in shame.)
* * *
On July 10th, 1781, soldiers with the French Expeditionary Force passed through Newtown, under the command of famed general Count de Rochambeau. They were marching across Connecticut to join forces with the rebel Gen. George Washington, who waited on the banks of the Hudson River, preparing for what would be the Battle of Yorktown.
Several of the French officers kept journals during this march, texts that live on as rare eyewitness accounts of early Newtown, seen through foreign eyes. From these writings, there are signs that the rebels’ concerns about the townsfolk were well-founded: one officer wrote as he passed through Sandy Hook, “This is the capital of Tory country, and, as you may well imagine, we took great precautions to protect ourselves from their acts of cruelty.” Of the Tory loyalists, he wrote, “They usually strike by night, when they go out in bands, attack a post, then retire to the woods where they bury their arms.” In fact, General Washington himself had written a top-secret letter to the Count’s men, warning them that they were “now in a very disaffected part of the country.”
Other accounts from the visitors are more tranquil. “Newtown is on a hill surrounded by hills which are still higher,” wrote an officer Blanchard, from his lodgings near the main crossroads that night. The next morning was a Sunday, and having heard the tolling of the church bell, he documented what he witnessed at the meeting house across Main Street: “I counted more than a hundred horses at the door of the temple, where I heard singing before the preaching, in chorus or in parts. The singing was agreeable and well performed, not by hired priests and chaplains, but by men or women, young men or young girls whom the desire of praising God had assembled.”
Meanwhile, across town, many of the other French troops were similarly occupied, as the chaplain of Rochambeau’s regiment held a ceremony never before seen in Fairfield County: a Catholic Mass.
The Battle of Yorktown proved to be the decisive victory of the American Revolution. One year after the Frenchmen had passed, they were seen again on their return trip through Newtown, now as victors and — to some — liberators. A little girl named Mary Anne, who grew up near the old mill, would remember in her golden years how she peeked out a window and saw Rochambeau’s soldiers marching past, their bayonets glinting in the sun as they disappeared over the eastern hills of Sandy Hook, on their long journey back home.
* * *
It was around this time that a curious symbol first appeared over Newtown, on the steeple of the meeting house: a distinctive rooster (or “chanticleer”) weather vane. Nobody knows who made the rooster, or quite when they put it up there, but its construction shows it was fashioned out of copper, sometime in the 18th century. The chanticleer’s eyes are solid glass, and its body is hollow. As early as anyone can remember, its surface has shown dimples from being hit by gunfire, also of unknown origin (though local legend has it that it was Rochambeau’s troops, using the Newtown rooster for target practice).
* * *
Rev. John Beach passed away at his home in Newtown in 1782, not quite living to see the king recognize American independence the following year. His legacy would be carried on through the Trinity Church he left behind, which (after only a brief reversal during the war against the crown) would continue to surpass the Congregational Society in devotees. His “New Light” adversary, David Judson, had preceded him in 1776, falling ill after visiting troops who were dying of smallpox along the Atlantic coast.
The lingering uncertainty — over just which church would triumph as Newtown’s predominant faith — came to some resolution in the 1790s, when the Trinity parish announced that they would be building a new, permanent, stone temple. They chose a conspicuous place to build: right at the crossroads, on the southeast corner of Church Hill Road and Main Street. With the meeting house occupying the center of that intersection, its front door would have blocked Trinity’s new entrance. So one church had to go.
The bell above the meeting house tolled, and when the votes were counted, the gathered townspeople ultimately sided with Rev. Beach’s flock, opting “to render it more convenient for the Episcopal Society in Newtown to erect a church.” And so on June 13, 1792, a team of strong men gathered at the crossroads, surrounded the old meeting house, and all at once, lifted it from its foundation; over the course of an hour and a half, they transported the entire structure, “together with the steeple entire, about eight rods [132 feet] west of its present site,” to its new home.
The new foundation was thus off-center from the intersection — no longer blocking Main Street as it traveled north-and-south, but remaining in the middle of Church Hill Road, blocking east-west traffic. To this day, the two lanes of West Street briefly split into a “Y,” to accommodate the spot where the townspeople set the meeting house back down, in 1792.
* * *
The meeting house lasted just over a decade after the move. In 1803, with the house’s timbers rotting, the townspeople voted to build a new structure in its place. (The construction was to be paid for, partially, by a church lottery.) The new meeting house was finished-enough to provide shelter from the winter of 1816, and the builders incorporated as much of the original timber as could be salvaged. The stone steps were also carried over into the new structure, as was the church bell, and the copper rooster on the steeple.
Facing it across the street, now, was the completed stone-and-stained-glass facade of Trinity Church.
Meanwhile, the colony around them had formally begun it history as the State of Connecticut, after the Americans drafted and ratified their Constitution of the United States. In 1787, the Congress attached a list of ten amendments — a Bill of Rights, protecting the Freedom of Speech first, followed by its Second Amendment:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
One day during the winter of 1839-1840, a thunderous sound was heard echoing across the Housatonic Valley — an iron-and-steam racket cutting through the forest, drawing closer and closer to Newtown: the railroad era had arrived.
A man who would become the town’s foremost historian, Ezra Johnson, was seven years old and sitting in class at one of the town’s tiny one-room schoolhouses that morning, when he heard a classmate exclaim, “The locomotive is coming!” With that, Johnson writes, “All the children, without a permit from the teacher, went helter-skelter out the door and on to the stone walls where all stood in mute amazement to see the first of these work trains as it passed.” Back at Ezra’s home, his father’s young horse, “never broken to harness,” was so frightened by the sound of the alien machine that it scaled the high barnyard fence and bolted east, so far that Ezra had to go fetch the animal back down from the hills of Sandy Hook.
The Industrial Revolution spread throughout New England, and Newtown changed rapidly. Downtown became a hub of production, its workshops at first making mostly hats, combs, and buttons. But then, 1839 saw the arrival of a miracle product: Charles Goodyear discovered the process of rubber vulcanization, vastly increasing the material’s durability, and giving rise to America’s rubber industry. The actual discovery happened in Woburn, Massachusetts — not Sandy Hook, despite local folklore — but one of Goodyear’s nieces did marry a man from Newtown, who in turn established a series of rubber factories at the north end of Sandy Hook, near the old mill, their crankshafts powered by the flow of the Pootatuck River. The rubber products flowed out of Newtown, capital flowed in, and the town’s economy swelled.
The locomotive’s first appearance had not been to bear freight, nor passengers, but to supply the railroad’s construction crew, steadily laying the tracks before them as they crossed New England. The railroad’s laborers were mostly from Ireland, and many of them took notice of the quality and abundance of the land around them; longtime Newtown farmers had been giving up their homesteads to seek fortune in the city, in business and manufacturing. And already, the rubber factories on the river were being purchased and retrofitted by New York Belting and Packing Company; now the factory was in need of laborers, to help make a new kind of high-pressure fire hose, necessary to extinguish flames at the top of the era’s new, taller buildings.
The Irish came to Newtown in waves, escaping the Great Famine that was ravaging their homeland. They brought with them a different way of life, and the town changed around them as their ranks grew; Newtown’s first Roman Catholic Church was organized on August 1, 1859, when the Reverend Francis Lenihan began conducting mass out of an old Universalist temple, just north of the town crossroads. Its cemetery is still marked by the names of soldiers from the 1860s, each representing Newtown’s sacrifices in the Civil War: men that had followed the flow of arms from Colt’s factories in Connecticut, down to quell the southern rebellion.
The Catholic parishioners of Newtown would continue to meet in their second-hand temple until 1882, when they finished building their own house of worship: St. Rose of Lima Church, located a half-mile east of the meeting house, on Church Hill Road.
* * *
The waves of Irish immigrants arriving in Newtown coincided with a boom in the newspaper industry. The town’s first paper, the Newtown Bee, debuted in June of 1877 as just a weekly publication, with surprisingly little actual news about Newtown. Their first local competitor, the Newtown Chronicle, started as a daily paper in 1880, and right away, the Chronicle was the clear favorite: each issue was tailored especially for the town’s Irish readership, with local headlines alongside detailed reports from Ireland — even breaking down gossip by county, so that the immigrant community could read about their homeland, and their new home, in one place.
The Bee was sold into more capable & local hands in 1881, and the new owners overhauled the publication into a competitive daily. The Chronicle surrendered in April of 1882, sold itself to the Bee, and suddenly, Newtown became a one-newspaper community. The Bee lives on as the essential source of daily news for the residents of Newtown, published from its offices on Church Hill Road, around the corner from Trinity Church.
* * *
Meanwhile, across Long Island Sound, in New York, a man was organizing a marksmanship tournament. He was the editor-in-chief of the Army Navy Journal, and before that had fought for the Union in the Civil War, where he had been appalled at the lack of firearms experience demonstrated by his fellow soldiers — especially those drafted from cities. He thus advocated gun-range competitions, as “one of the means of rendering the National Guardsman familiar with his piece, giving him confidence under excitement, and siding him to secure accuracy of aim.”
Writing in his newspaper, he contrasted the state of American marksmanship with that of England, where “an amount of attention is given to the subject and the pursuit of practice with the rifle [that is] unknown in this country.” These shooting competitions across the Atlantic were organized by the “British National Rifle Association,” he wrote, an organization that espoused, “It is the man and not merely the weapon that decides the battle.” He felt the United States should have a similar organization, of their own.
Soon, the editor announced he was creating just such an organization, together with an associate from New York. Their stated purpose was “to promote and encourage rifle-shooting on a scientific basis,” confident that it “would be a paying investment.”
At the association’s first meeting, they finalized plans for constructing a rifle range on Long Island, to host the inaugural tournaments. Thus was born, on November 17, 1871, America’s National Rifle Association — the NRA.
In 1876, the United States celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of its Declaration of Independence. Newtown observed the Centennial by establishing a new, patriotic landmark: a flagpole, right in the town’s center, in the middle of the intersection of Main Street and Church Hill Road, where the meeting house once stood.
The flagpole was made from two lengths of wood, joined as one, like the mast of a ship. Exposed to the harsh New England weather, it lasted until 1892 before its timbers grew brittle, and the town cut it down, erecting a new, second flagpole in its place.
Newtown celebrated its own Bicentennial in 1905, marking two hundred years since the first treaty with the Pootatuck natives had been signed. During the festivities, it was observed that the second flagpole was already showing signs of wear, and guy-wires had to be strung to anchor it upright, and ensure the safety of the parade as it marched down Main Street.
A few months later, the weakening flagpole was struck by lightning. Its top mast burst apart, littering main street with glowing cinders, and the flag, which had been raised at the time, was burned. The town Men’s Club raised money to purchase a new mast, replacing the top portion, and the second flagpole stood in the intersection for six more years.
On February 28, 1912, during a powerful storm, a big gust of wind came roaring up main street, and the flagpole came crashing down, snapped off fifteen feet from its base. The results could have been much worse; thankfully, the mast fell north, into the empty street — and not onto the meeting house, or Trinity Church.
The stump of the fallen pole is visible in photos of U.S. Army maneuvers from August of 1912 — part of the nation’s readiness efforts, as the outbreak of war in Europe increasingly appeared inevitable. In a simulated military struggle that year, a “red team” attempted to seize possession of New York City from a “blue team” of defenders, to “demonstrate the safety or peril” of the city in case of foreign invasion. The battle lines came right through Newtown; an August 16 account from the New York Times detailed the red cavalry pushing from the east, where, “The folk who live in this Sandy Hook country had never before seen even a little battle, and they had the time of their lives watching the progress of the noisy and smoky, yet bloodless conflict.”
As part of the skirmish, small airplanes were employed to scout troop positions, these air vehicles among the first to ever appear in the skies over Newtown.
Ultimately, the blue team triumphed in the two-day war game, and New York was saved.
* * *
That there would be a third flagpole was a foregone conclusion, yet the wind that had fallen the now-familiar landmark had also brought a moment of opportunity: automobiles were becoming a common sight in New England by then, and the flagpole’s placement in the town’s central intersection was increasingly viewed by visitors as an unnecessary hazard, given the rate of travel that the newer vehicles afforded. Why not move the pole to the sidewalk, or to the small park at the north end of Main Street?
This sentiment gained considerable momentum after Main Street itself became part of Connecticut’s state road system — the path through Newtown now serving as a conduit from the city of Brookfield in the north, to Bridgeport in the south. The State Highway Commissioner in fact ordered the flagpole relocated, but he was met by fierce resistance; the flagpole at the crossroads had become a part of the fabric of Newtown by then, and the townspeople refused to move it. Eventually the state gave up, telling Newtown in 1914 that they could rebuild their prized traffic hazard, right where it was.
The third flagpole was raised on Independence Day, 1914. Its two pieces of timber arrived from Oregon by rail, and were brought to the intersection, where a decorative golden sphere was affixed to the top of the pole. When assembled, the third flagpole was Newtown’s tallest yet, at 100 feet; as the flag was raised on it for the first time, a pastor from St. Rose of Lima Church delivered a brief address, and a great celebration followed, with musical accompaniment from the Sandy Hook Band.
That same year, Newtown joined the electronic age. While the rubber factories and other industrial buildings had been generating their own power from the flow of the Pootatuck river since the 1880s, the town’s residences and small businesses had until then relied on gas for their light and heat. The outbreak of the first World War had made borrowing money for civic projects difficult, but over the summer of 1914, workers gradually strung wires along 30 miles of tree branches, from Danbury to Newtown. On October 14, the switch was flipped, and the grid’s first light bulb blinked to life, in the general store belonging to resident R.H. Beers on the south end of town. From there, the wires gradually spread up Main Street and across Church Hill road, and finally over to Sandy Hook in 1922.
* * *
One night in 1920, the old academy building that was serving as Newtown’s high school mysteriously caught fire, and burned to the ground. A local heiress, Mary Hawley, volunteered the money to build a new one at a site on Church Hill Road, down the street from the Newtown Bee offices, and across from St. Rose of Lima. This new school turned out to be a state-of-the-art facility, with a gymnasium and a chemistry lab — things students in Newtown had never seen before. In a way, the Newtown Bee would write, “The burning of the [old] high school led the way to the modern school system.” Finished in 1922, Mary named the building Hawley School, after her departed parents.
In 1930, another of Mary Hawley’s gifts appeared: over on Main Street, just north of the flagpole, in the spot where the first Trinity Church once stood, the brand-new town hall opened its doors. Edmond Town Hall was also home to what would become known as one of Newtown’s most enduring traditions: moving picture shows for the townspeople at bargain prices, projected in its new 560-seat theater. The tradition had started at the original town hall, with the silent pictures of Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle; slapstick fare, accompanied by a live piano. But at Edmond Town Hall, the townspeople heard something entirely new: “talkies.” Films with spoken dialogue.
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Newtown was spared the worst circumstances of the Great Depression; although farmers continued to flee, the population of commuters to-and-from New York grew in their place, while out-of-state demand for inexpensive summer housing held steady. The most visible changes in Newtown were the discontinuation of passenger rail service, and the closure of one of the local hotels, for its conversion into a Federal Transient Camp. Other towns had it much, much worse — the people of Newtown donated and volunteered generously to ease their suffering, including holding Red Cross “sewing bees” at the meeting house every two weeks, where the women of Newtown crafted clothing for the nation’s out-of-work.
During these hard times in America, an unemployed architect in Poughkeepsie, New York named Arthur Butts began developing a new board game, inspired by his love of crossword puzzles. He assigned number values to each letter of the alphabet, printed on square tiles, and arranged a playing board with different multiplying scores on certain positions. He called the game “Criss Cross Words.” One of its earliest devotees was a man from Newtown named James Brunot; fed up with his commute to New York City every day, Brunot secured the rights to Criss Cross Words, made some modifications to the rules, and hired Sarah Mannix — who operated a wood shop out of her home on Main Street — to produce the wooden tiles for each game set. Finally, he changed the name of the game to “Scrabble.” For its first 25 years, every game box was marked prominently, “Production and Marketing Co., Newtown.”
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In 1939, a granite statue was dedicated at the small park on the north end of Main Street. Its official title was the Liberty and Peace Monument, but it became more popularly known around town as the “Soldiers and Sailors Monument.” The statue is 30 feet tall, and depicts a woman in robes standing atop three joined pillars, carrying a flag with a speared tip. She is the spirit of victory.
At the base of the monument, two bronze slabs are embedded, listing the names of Newtown’s veterans from the great World War, alongside those from the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Inscribed below the slabs, a message dedicates the statue to the memory of these townspeople “who ventured all unto death that we might live a republic with independence, a nation with union forever, a world with righteousness and peace for all.”
But war came again on December 7, 1941, and Newtown once again sent its fighting men overseas in service of their country. (One who served with distinction was a Francis J. Bresson, an army sergeant who saw combat in two campaigns with the Army Air Corp in the Asiatic Pacific Theater. His family owned a dairy farm in Sandy Hook, high on a hill.)
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The third flagpole endured longer than either of its predecessors. But by 1947, it, too, was showing signs of decay. Hoping to avert the loss of another flagpole, the town dug a hole around its base, filled the hole with concrete, and welded a steel collar around the decaying wood. They expected that the restored pole could last another 25 years; but just 3 passed before the rot was back again.
This time, the town decided against repairs, and drew up plans for a fourth flagpole. This one was to be made from metal.
In January of 1950, two long, steel cylinders were hauled to the intersection, and welded together, creating a 100-foot span that weighed two and a half tons. A crane pulled the pole upright, and lowered it into its base, a 16-inches-in-diameter steel housing that now sits atop the pavement, securing the bottom 11 feet of the pole underground. The gold-gilded sphere from the third pole was kept, and affixed to the top, as the new flagpole’s height was raised to the sky.
With that, the central intersection of Newtown — Main Street and Church Hill Road — had fully taken shape: the old Presbyterian Meeting House, with its copper rooster weather vane on top, splitting the lanes of West Street on one side, and the stone edifice of Trinity Church facing it from the east side, with the town’s iconic flagpole in the middle.
The strength of the fourth flagpole’s construction would be tested most stringently a few decades later, when a speeding car crashed into it head-on; the pole stood unscathed. The car was demolished.
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Newtown celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1955, and marked the occasion by adopting an official town seal: a silhouette of the copper rooster, as seen on the steeple on top of the meeting house.
In 1954, the Newtown School Board convened a meeting; with the nation becoming increasingly suburbanized after the war, the town’s population had exploded past 7,500, and enrollment at the only elementary school in the district, Hawley School — which was handed down to the younger students after the construction of Newtown High School in 1951 — was well above capacity. And it was only going to get worse. Something had to be done, and quick.
The town had recently purchased a plot of land in Sandy Hook, along the Pootatuck river, about a mile downstream from the old rubber factory. The solution to the town’s overcrowded elementary schools would be built here, just off Riverside Road, and they would name it Sandy Hook Elementary School. It would be a simple, single-story structure, with a floor plan the shape of an “L.”
Early during the school’s construction, tragedy occurred: A. Finn Dickenson, the town’s first selectman (the highest office under Newtown’s charter, taking the place of a mayor), was visiting the building site on May 17, 1955, when a truck driver who was maneuvering a load of bricks failed to see him. Dickenson was struck and killed. The town decided that the curving driveway leading to the new school, from Riverside Road, would be named Dickenson Drive in his honor.
In the fall of 1956, Sandy Hook Elementary School opened its doors.
Newtown continued to grow, and in 1964, the voters approved funding for an expansion to Sandy Hook Elementary. More classrooms were added, and the outline of the school grew: from an “L” shape, to a “U.” The school’s sixth grade class took up donations to install a plaque in the new hallway, dedicated to President John F Kennedy, who had been assassinated in Dallas just the year before. It showed a profile bust of the late president, alongside his famous quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
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In 1974, the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire Department built its central firehouse on Riverside Road, on the corner of Dickenson Drive. With its location right next to the school, the fire drills at Sandy Hook Elementary would just have the students, after lining up for roll call, simply walk down the short curve of Dickenson drive, to the waiting firemen.
In 1993, the school again required an expansion. More classrooms were added, and the ends of the “U” outline were joined, to make a square. The school became one big, looping, corridor, with an open courtyard at its center.
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That same year, Newtown’s flagpole was struck by another vehicle. Again, the pole stayed upright — but this time, the impact knocked the decorative gold sphere off its top, sending the globe sailing down Church Hill Road. Thankfully, no one was hurt. The golden ornament was recovered, and put back in its place: at the top of the flagpole, in the center of the crossroads.