John Oldham was one of the members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony more interested in the commercial possibilities of the New World than the religious freedom it offered. Accused of plotting a revolt, he was banished from the colony in 1624. As a trader Oldham sailed to Virginia and back to England. In 1634 he led a group of men known as “The Ten Adventurers” up the Connecticut River to establish the first English settlement in the valley. Oldham did not settle here, however, and in 1636 he was murdered by Naragansett Indians on Block Island, Rhode Island.
Those who stayed in Wethersfield found land richly endowed with deep, fertile soil, a legacy from the glaciers and the annual flooding of the Connecticut River. The first bounty from this agricultural treasure was an onion with a dark red-hued skin that became world-renowned as the Wethersfield red onion. Their pungent scent caused outsiders to know the little village as Oniontown. Soon Wethersfield became America’s first major seed-producing area.
Industry-wise, shipbuilding brought the first prosperity to town. The first ship said to be built in Connecticut, The Tryall, was constructed at Thomas Deming’s shipyard and launched here. Between 1661 and 1699 warehouses for the West Indies trade dotted the waterfront around Wethersfield Cove. Exports included furs, hides, bricks, fish and salt beef. And, of course, onions. At the height of the export trade more than one million bunches of onions crossed the Wethersfield wharves. The coastal towns inevitably usurped the town’s prominence as a Connecticut port in the 19th century and the pace of life slowed.
The evidence of these days lives on in the largest historic district in Connecticut, with more homes built before 1850 than any other town in the state. Our walking tour will begin in the center of town, where there is abundant parking, and circle Connecticut’s “most auncient town”...
Keeney Memorial Cultural Center
200 Main Street
Erected in 1893, this brick and sandstone building originally served as a Wethersfield public school. Additions and renovations came over the years and today it does duty as the home of the the town museum, Chamber of Commerce, exhibition hall and visitor center. After Mrs. William Keeney funded a major renovation of the building in 1985 it was named in memory of her only son, Navy Lieutenant Robert Allan Keeney who perished with hundreds of servicemen when the U.S.S. Indianapolis was sunk in the last days of World War II.
FACING THE KEENEY MEMORIAL, TURN RIGHT.
Chester Bulkley House
184 Main Street
This Greek Revival brick house dates to 1830; it lives on as a bed and breakfast.
150 Main Street
The Federal-style brick building was constructed between 1801 and 1804. It is little adorned beyond simple stone lintels over the windows and a centered, bell-shaped cupola on the roof. In 1824 the Reverend Joseph Emerson moved his female seminary from Massachusetts to the Old Academy. Emerson was a pioneer in women’s education, writing several educational works in addition to organizing his school of religious instruction for women. It became a public school in 1839. After its educational function was exhausted the building served as Wethersfield’s Town Hall and Library. Today it is home to the Wethersfield Historical Society.
TURN AND WALK BACK UP MAIN STREET.
Fire Company Number 1
171 Main Street
Firefighting in Wethersfield traces its origins all the way back to 1690 when parishioners of The First Church voted to stockpile ladders and leather buckets in the back of the church and to ring the church bell whenever fire threatened. Formal “Chimney Viewers” were appointed in 1708. The Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department was formally chartered by the Connecticut State Legislature at its May session in 1803 making the company the oldest volunteer fire company in continuous existence in Connecticut, and the oldest in New England. Following catastrophic fires in 1831 and 1834 that consumed whole blocks of buildings and destroyed the center of town a special act of the State Legislature formally incorporated the “Wethersfield Fire Company.” In 1927 Company #1 found a home here; the present brick building dates to 1974. Out front is a restored “hose gig” belonging to “Hope 1,” the town’s first ladder carrier, purchased for $125 after the Civil War. At first, Hope 1 was pulled by men, and later by draft horses. It was housed in a former car barn of the Hartford/Wethersfield Horse Railroad right next to Comstock Ferre Seed Company further north on Main Street.
212 Main Street
Sea captain John Hurlbut built this elegant brick home in the Georgian style in 1804. In the mid-19th century the house received an Italianate makeover picking up a bracketed cornice along the roof and porches at every turn. The Dunham family acquired the house in 1875 and in the early 20th century Howard Dunham and his wife Jane traveled the world to collect furnishings for their home. Dunham was the Connecticut State Insurance Commissioner from 1923 until 1935.
Silas Deane House
211 Main Street
Silas Deane was born in Groton in 1737, the son of a blacksmith. After graduating from Yale College and being admitted to the Connecticut bar in 1761, Silas Deane came to Wethersfield to establish his law practice. Mehitabel Webb, widow of Joseph Webb, became a client and, soon enough, Deane’s wife. After she died in 1767 Deane soon reeled in another rich widow, the granddaughter of a former Connecticut governor, and he quickly found himself on the political fast track. Silas Deane designed this house, completed in 1770, himself to serve as a power base for his personal ambitions. In 1774 Deane was sent to Philadelphia as one of Connecticut’s delegates to the the Continental Congress. By 1776 Deane was serving as America’s first diplomat, negotiating in Paris with Benjamin Franklin to gain French recognition of the United States as an independent nation. His whirlwind career was derailed however by charges of misappropriation of funds. Although Deane was never found guilty of the accusations his life was twisted with intrigue and he died in England in 1789 - poisoned perhaps - as he was readying to sail back home. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
Joseph Webb House
211 Main Street
The house was built in 1752 by Joseph Webb, a young and successful merchant. He hired Judah Wright to frame a stylish three-and-a-half story house and shop with a massive gambrel roof that provided greater upper-floor storage for Webb’s trade goods. Joseph Webb died in 1761 and the house passed to his son Joseph, Jr. The younger Webb and his wife Abigail were robust entertainers and their home was known in the colonies as “Hospitality Hall.” One of their guests, for five nights in 1781, was General George Washington who met in the front parlor with French commander the Comte de Rochambeau to plan the joint military campaign that led to the victory at Yorktown and the end of the American Revolution. It was later owned by famous antiquarian and businessman Wallace Nutting and in 1919 sold to the Colonial Dames of Connecticut to be preserved as a house museum.
Isaac Stevens House
211 Main Street
Isaac Stevens was a leathersmith who built this center hall Georgian house in 1788-1789. It remained connected to the Stevens family for 170 years until it was acquired by the Connecticut Colonial Dames and opened to the public as part of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum.
First Church of Christ
250 Main Street
Founded in 1635, this is one of the oldest and largest Congregational churches in New England. The core of the brick church was built in 1761, modeled along the lines of the South Church in Boston. The building is marked by diamond-patterned brickwork and an open belfry with slender spire. Behind the church are the graves of many of the town’s earliest settlers, stretching back to 1648.
John Williams House
260 Main Street
John Williams built this Greek Revival home between 1832 and 1834 perpendicular to Main Street - the impressive two-story Ionic portico is attached to the side of the brick house. John Williams was the son of Ezekiel Williams, a successful merchant and public servant in town who lived until 1818 before dying just short of his 90th birthday.
Simeon Belden House/ Comstock, Ferre & Seed Co.
249 Main Street
Simeon Belden built this typical Connecticut pre-Revolution house in 1767; look from the side to see the gambrel roof. The house still boasts its original broken scroll, or swan’s neck, pediment over the front door. This was a signature entranceway throughout the Connecticut River Valley but only a few remain. James Lockwood Benden was born in the house in 1774 and lived here when he founded the Wethersfield Garden Seed Co. in 1820 that became the Comstock, Ferre & Seed Co., the oldest continuously operating seed company in the United States until it closed in 2009.
Henry Stillman House
297 Main Street
The Henry Stillman House is an example of the Gothic Revival style constructed in 1872.
Trinity Episcopal Church
300 Main Street
The cornerstone of Trinity church was laid on June 1, 1871 but the tentacles of Episcopalianism reach back to 1729, when the Reverend Samuel Johnson of Stratford attempted unsuccessfully to establish a church in Wethersfield. The stone sanctuary was designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, who also created the Mark Twain House in Hartford, in the High Victorian Gothic style with a distinctive polychromatic roof.
Captain Allyn Stillman House
330 Main Street
Allyn Stillman was a member of the Connecticut militia and a blockade runner in the Revolutionary War. His house, constructed in 1766, features a double entrance door commonly found on Connecticut River Valley homes.
Captain Timothy Stillman House
340 Main Street
Like his brother Allyn, Timothy Stillman was a ship master who helmed the brig Ontario. The two-story Colonial with a gable roof and central chimney was built around 1740; Captain Stillman was a later owner.
TURN LEFT ON HARTFORD AVENUE.
Francis Stillman School
127 Hartford Avenue
The Wethersfield public school system expanded dramatically during the 1920s leading to the construction of multi-classroom school buildings. The brick Colonial Revival Stillman School was built in 1924. In 2004 it was renovated for use by the Wethersfield Board of Education.
Solomon Welles House
220 Hartford Avenue
Solomon Welles was a descendent of Thomas Welles, the only governor from Wethersfield. Work on the house, begun in 1774, stopped because the men had to go off to fight the revolution. When they returned, they retrieved their tools and completed the job.
WALK THROUGH WETHERSFIELD MEMORIAL PARK WHICH, BEGINNING IN 1827, WAS THESITE OF THE WETHERSFIELD STATE PRISON. TURN LEFT ON GARDEN STREET AND BEGIN TOURING THE VICTORIAN SECTION OF TOWN.
James Pratt House
223 Garden Street
This is the most notable of the Italianate houses that sprang up in this Wethersfield neighborhood in the 19th century.
Michael Griswold House
116 Garden Street
An island of early 1700s architecture, this is an unaltered example of a salt-box house.
AT THE WETHERSFIELD GREEN, TURN LEFT ON BROAD STREET. THE LARGEST ELM TREE IN AMERICA ONCE STOOD ON THE EAST END OF THE GREEN, UNTIL IT WAS LOST IN THE 1950S. IT MEASURED 102 FEET HIGH WITH A SPREAD OF 146 FEET. IT WAS 41 FEET AROUND THE TRUNK.
Silas W. Robbins House
185 Broad Street
In 1873 Silas Robbins, a partner in the Johnson, Robbins and Co. seed business, built a house quite unlike any yet seen in Wethersfield. The Second Empire mansion features two full stories and a third under the mansard roof. The entire confection is crowned with an ornate cast-iron railing.
249 Broad Street
Its clapboards weathered nearly black, the Buttolph-Williams House approaches its fourth century. Built around 1711, the house reflects the continuing popularity of the traditional architecture imported from England. The house is thought to have been constructed for local tavern keeper Benjamin Belden, who lived in the house with his wife, Anne Churchill and their family. The historic house has been opened to the public since 1951.
TURN LEFT ON MARSH STREET. TURN LEFT ON MAIN STREET TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.