At the time of American Revolution Farmington was the 10th most populous town in the colonies. It was founded back in 1640 when a handful of English settlers from nearby towns and bought territory from Sequasin, chief of the Tunxis Indians. Under an agreement, the settlers ploughed the land and the Indians cut wood for fuel and traded their corn and hides. Eventually the Tunxis Indians adopted the culture of the settlers, joining them in the town’s churches and schools.
The town was incorporated as Farmington in 1645 by an act of the Connecticut General Assembly and it was an apt monicker as small farmers dominated the community for well over a hundred years. Following the Revolution the town began to bustle with industrial activity - linen and leather goods and muskets and clocks and buttons were all manufactured here. The burgeoning trading center boomed with the opening of the Farmington Canal in 1828, linking New Haven to Massachusetts.
Mercantile goods weren’t the only thing flowing through Farmington. The town became an important stop along the Underground Railroad with at least eight safe houses operating in the first half of the 19th century. So fervent were Farmington’s abolitionist, in fact, that the town came to be known as “Grand Central Station.” In 1839, after 53 Africans bound for slavery in Cuba took over the schooner Amistad and sailed into Connecticut many were brought to Farmington to await their fate, which was a return to Africa.
A combination of landslides and railroads brought an end to the canal by 1848 and the town gradually reverted to its historical roots as an agricultural community. Meanwhile, its vast area was divided to produce nine other central Connecticut communities - so many that Farmington became known as the “mother of towns.”
Our walking tour will focus on the historic center of Farmington studded with historic homes reaching back 200 years and more, where we’ll see what George Washington saw when he supposedly called Farmington a “village of pretty houses.” But first we’ll start down by the Farmington River where there is an historic mill and a convenient parking lot...
44 Mill Lane
The Old Grist Mill was erected by the Cowles family in the 1770s and served the community grinding corn and wheat until 1963. In its nearly two centuries of operation it had several owners, the most prominent being Hartford native Winchell Smith, a famous early 20th century playwright who moved to the east bank of the Farmington River. Smith invested in expensive harvesting machinery and encouraged farmers to plant rye, wheat and buckwheat on contract. Smith’s mill soon came to the attention of President Calvin Coolidge, who ordered whole wheat flour produced at the Farmington grist mill for the White House and even after he left office in 1929. Smith’s 1918 play Lightnin’ was for a time the longest-running play in American theatrical history, with 1,291 performances. Smith wrote and produced the silent film classic Way Down East and put his mill into the feature. In one scene star Lillian Gish is shown crossing the river in the winter by jumping from ice floe to ice floe. Smith’s Georgian mansion, Millstreams, is south of the mill at 188 Garden Street; the gates to the riverside estate were designed by the celebrated Stanford White of America’s preeminent Gilded Age architectural firm, McKim, Mead and White. They were built for the Lamb’s Club in New York City but when they were forced to take them down Smith, a member, bought the gates and placed them at the entrance of Millstreams. Smith died in 1933 and is buried nearby in Riverside Cemetery.
WALK AWAY FROM THE RIVER, UP TO GARDEN STREET, AND TURN LEFT. TURN RIGHT ON PORTER ROAD (THE SIDEWALK IS ON THE NORTH SIDE OF THE STREET). CONTINUE TO MAIN STREET AND TURN LEFT.
AS YOU WALK THE CAMPUS ON YOUR RIGHT IS MISS PORTER’S SCHOOL. SARAH PORTER FOUNDED THE SCHOOL IN 1843, STRESSING A CURRICULUM AS STRINGENT AS THAT REQUIRED OF YOUNG MEN. THE SCHOOL GREW STEADILY IN NATIONAL REPUTATION AND SIZE. FAMOUS ALUMIN INCLUDE TWO WITH TIES TO THE WHITE HOUSE, JACQUELINE BOUVIER KENNEDY ONASSIS AND DOROTHY WALKER BUSH, MOTHER AND GRANDMOTHER OF THE 41ST AND 43RD PRESIDENT.
Farmington Savings Bank
32 Main Street
In April of 1851, 30 Farmington residents signed a petition and sent it to the Connecticut State Legislature calling for the creation of a local bank. The newly formed Farmington Savings Bank was granted a charter by the State of Connecticut on August 12, 1851. After operating in bank officers’ homes for several years the bank moved into its first permanent home, an old store building at this location. The current Colonial Revival bank home was built in 1927.
Julius Gay House
36 Main Street
This Gothic-Revival style house belonged to Julius Gay, a president of the Farmington Savings Bank next door. It was left to Miss Porter’s School in his daughter Florence’s will in 1952.
CROSS THE STREET AND TURN RIGHT, WALKING BACK UP MAIN STREET.
50 Main Street
This Federal-style structure was built between 1813 and 1818 as a store and warehouse for Elijah and Gad Cowles. It was purchased by Miss Porter’s School in 1901 and did duty as the school library for many years.
60 Main Street at the head of Mountain Road
Ground for the privately funded Farmington Canal was broken in 1825 and by 1828 the canal was open from New Haven to Farmington and by 1835 the complete route to Northampton, Massachusetts was finished and operating. By 1830, four million pounds of merchandise were shipped every month on the Farmington Canal. That year the Union Hotel was constructed to accommodate the watermen and travelers on the canal. But the Farmington Canal was never successful financially, threatened by the competition from the new railroads almost from the beginning. In 1848 the canal failed and the New Haven and Northampton Railroad was laying track along the canal’s right of way. Two years later the vacant building was rented by Sarah Porter for her new school for girls. It continues as the “Main” building of Miss Porter’s School.
TURN LEFT ON MOUNTAIN STREET.
St. James Episcopal Church
3 Mountain Road
St. James was founded in 1873; the attractive fieldstone sanctuary dates to 1898. A mural on the wall was painted by Robert Brandegee, co-founder of the Society of Hartford Artists.
WALK UP THE HILL TO HIGH STREET AND TURN LEFT.
37 High Street
This post-and-beam constructed house was constructed sometime between 1709 and 1720 and is a rare surviving example of early New England architecture. The second floor extends beyond the first on the front façade creating an overhang the purpose of which is unknown but harkens back to the houses of the English countryside. The lean-to addition that extends across the width of the back of the house was added some time in the mid 18th-century, giving the house its distinctive saltbox shape. Today the house is a National Historic Landmark and opened to the public as a museum.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO MOUNTAIN STREET AND TURN RIGHT. TURN LEFT ON SCHOOL STREET. WHEN THE ROAD BENDS DOWN TO THE RIGHT CONTINUE STRAIGHT.
71 Main Street
D. Newton Barney, a banker and director of Aetna Life Insurance Company, donated the library to the town as a memorial to his mother Sarah Brandegee Barney in 1919. The Neoclassical building, designed by Stephen Brainerd Lawrence, was originally known as the Village Library and was the town’s primary lending institution until 1983; it was renamed the Barney Library in 1999.
WALK DOWN TO MAIN STREET AND TURN LEFT.
66 Main Street
Samuel Deming was a legislator, merchant, farmer and one of the town’s most respected citizens and churchmen. He was a member of the Farmington Anti-Slavery Society, and a co-founder of the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society in 1838 and used this house as a station on the Underground Railroad. It was built by Captain Judah Woodruff in 1770 for Thomas Hart Hooker, fourth in direct line of descent from the Reverend Thomas Hooker, the first settled clergyman in Hartford, and a framer of the Connecticut Constitution. Woodruff was a veteran of both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution and is credited with building 21 houses around Farmington.
First Church of Christ, Congregational
75 Main Street
The organizers of the First Church of Christ, who signed their names to establish the church on October 13, 1652 were known as the “seven pillars”: the first minister Roger Newton (son-in-law of Hartford founder Thomas Hooker), Stephen Hart, Thomas J. Judd, John Bronson, John Cowles, Thomas Thomson and Robert Porter. The present Meetinghouse, the third, was completed in 1772. Built by Captain Judah Woodruff it sports one of New England’s most admired steeples, an open-belfry spire acknowledged as a masterpiece of Georgian-Colonial architecture. The Greek Revival entrance porch is a nineteenth century addition.
Deacon John Hart House
northeast corner of Mill Lane and Main Street
This is the homestead of Stephen Hart, the original settler and founder of the Hart family in Farmington. In 1740, about the time he became town clerk, John Hart, a great grandson, built this house. John Hart was chosen deacon in the Farmington church back in 1718; he died on October 7, 1753 at the age of 69.
Thomas Cowles House
87 Main Street
This was considered the finest house in Farmington when it was constructed for Major Timothy Cowles in 1815. Active abolitionists, the Cowles family sheltered one of three little girls who survived the rebellion aboard the slave ship Amistad in 1839.
116 Main Street
Noah Porter became minister of First Church in the years before the War of 1812 and was still head of the church when the civil War ended. In 1808 he built this brick house when he married. An ardent abolitionist, the Porters hosted one of the Amistad Africans, Margru - the only one to return to the United States after being shipped back to Africa. She studied at Oberlin College and then returned to Sierra Leone where she spent her life as a teacher in a mission school. Several of the Porter’s seven children devoted their lives to education, as well. Their oldest daughter, Sarah, founded Miss Porter’s School in 1843 and their son, Noah, became president of Yale College. Sarah Porter continued to live in the house after her father’s death in 1866, adding the third floor in the 1880s.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO MILL STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Your Village Store
2 Mill Street
Samuel Deming’s father and uncle built the store he later ran in Farmington in 1809. He offered local goods and imported items for sale. The store originally stood next to Deming’s house on Main Street but was moved to Mill Lane in the 1930s when a new town hall was built on the site of the fire station. Two hundred years later it is still a local emporium.
CONTINUE DOWN MILL STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT. BE CAREFUL - THERE IS NO SIDEWALK ON MILL STREET BUT IT IS A SHORT WALK.