When first settlers of the New Haven Colony purchased land from the Mattabesech Indians in 1638 it included the territory of Totoket, later called Branford, supposedly for Brentford in the English county of Middlesex. The colony thrived due to productive cropland and its location on the Branford River, which provided the only deep harbor between New Haven and New London. Ships trading lumber, livestock, brooms, and produce for molasses and rum from the West Indies.
Farming was the mainstay of Branford life for over 200 years. The railroad arrived in 1852, bringing small businesses like Branford Lockworks, Malleable Iron Fittings Company, and the Atlantic Wire Company, but the next real injection of financial vitality came from the vacation trade. Twenty summer hotels made Branford a popular resort area including the Indian Point House in Stony Creek, the Montowese House in Indian Neck, and the Sheldon House in Pine Orchard.
Our walking tour will concentrate on the Green, a triangular open space that is one of Connecticut’s most attractive and the heart of the community since 1699. But we’ll start a block away, in front of a marble building from 1896 that never fails to turn heads in Branford. Consider the lead by a reporter from the Boston Herald for his piece on Branford, “In a very plain village in Connecticut by the sea, nine miles east of New Haven; in a lonesome little town called Branford, which has a malleable iron factory, a lock shop, a quarry and miles of farm patches that produce annually 50,000 quarts of strawberries for the Boston market, there is a public library that cost nearly $600,000!”...
James Blackstone Memorial Library
758 Main Street
Timothy Beach Blackstone was born in Branford in 1829 butmade his fortune on the railroad lines of the midwest. For 35 years before he died in 1900 he was president of the Chicago & Alton Railroad. When he decided to donate a library to his hometown in 1893 he obtained a special charter from the Connecticut Legislature, vesting control of the library in a self-perpetuating board of trustees consisting of six residents of Branford and the librarian of Yale University. Architect Solon S. Beman of Chicago designed the Beaux Arts building under a domed, octagonal rotunda with unusually durable white marble from eastern Tennessee on the exterior and pink and gray marble in the interior. The library, named for Blackstone’s father James, who was born in Branford in 1793, was dedicated on June 17, 1896, and the next day it was opened for use with a stock of 5,000 books. The total cost was said to be $300,000, with another $300,000 contributed for an endowment fund.
CROSS THE STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
St. Mary Church
731 Main Street
Early Irish immigrants in Branford had to walk or ride in horse and buggy to New Haven to attend mass. Later, they would gather for services in the home of Francis Harding, who donated land on Montowese Street for the construction of the first Catholic church in town, which was dedicated in 1855. By 1897 this church had become too small for its rapidly growing parish and planning was begun to build a new church on its present site on Main Street. The brick structure was dedicated in January 1904 but didn’t make it through the year when a fire destroyed everything but the walls. The energetic congregation rebuilt the entire church and it was rededicated in 1906.
TURN AND WALK BACK UP MAIN STREET TOWARDS BRANFORD CENTER. BEAR RIGHT AT THE GREEN.
The Bradford Green traces its beginnings back to 1699 when John Taintor’s will stated, “I do give to ye town of Brandford that part of my homelott…which I give to said Towne to build a publick meeting house upon, and to continue for that use so long as they shall maintain a meeting house...” For 100 years the rocky patch of ground was used for sheep to graze and the local militia to drill. Around 1790 the town began sprucing up the Green with plantings and landscaping. Today, with three churches and the town hall facing Main Street, the Branford Green is considered one of the finest in Connecticut.
First Baptist Church
975 Main Street
The First Baptist Church is the oldest original building on the Green, erected in 1840. It received an expansion to the rear in the early 1900s.
First Congregational Church
1009 Main Street
This is the fourth house of worship for the church, crafted in the Greek Revival style in 1843. With fluted pillars and a center steeple it is a long way from the crude log meetinghouse with dirt floors that was constructed two centuries earlier in 1644. The congregation first moved to the Green in 1741. Continuing the pattern of modernization every 100 years, the church was remodeled in 1946 but repairs couldn’t hold until 2046 so in 1997 the wooden steeple and cupola were replaced with aluminum replicas.
1019 Main Street
The Branford Town Hall on the Green was built in 1857 in the Greek Revival style, the front pillars and stucco were added in 1917.
WALK BEHIND THE TOWN HALL.
The Green, behind Town Hall
The Cenotaph – A classical, semi-circular, stone wall set behind a paved circle was dedicated in 1923 to honor the veterans of World War I and was designed by nationally known Branford artist J. Andre Smith.
WALK LEFT TOWARDS MONTOWESE STREET.
corner of Montowese & South Main streets
The cupola-topped Branford Academy, built in 1820, is on the southeast corner of the Green near the site of the Reverend Samuel Russell house where in 1701 ten clergymen met and donated books for the founding of the Collegiate School that became Yale University. Since its use as a school expired the little building has hop-scotched around the Green, first to a spot behind the Congregational Church and to its present location in 1971.
TURN LEFT ON MONTOWESE STREET.
Trinity Episcopal Church
1109 Main Street
After being ministered by itinerant preachers since the establishment of the Episcopal Society of New Haven, Guilford and Branford a wooden frame church was erected on the Green in 1784. The present English Gothic style church was designed by New Haven architect S.M. Stone using ship’s siding lumber. The interior structural design was influenced by ship building techniques using oak, hemlock and hickory, which was available along the coast of Connecticut at that time. The ceiling beams and rafters were hand hewn. The resulting church was much more ornate than today’s clean white structure - over the years much of the flamboyant decoration has been removed.
Board of Education
Downtown Branford received a touch of Neoclassical architecture courtesy of this government building that now houses the Board of Education.
TURN LEFT ON MAIN STREET.
1036-1064 Main Street
The commercial block that forms the northern wall of the Green is the site where the Totoket House once stood. Ezekiel Hayes, great-grandfather of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, 19th president of the United States, built the bricks on the premises for the notable two-story house.
CONTINUE ON THE NORTH SIDE OF MAIN STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.