The Woman’s Scepter: Fans Throughout History

By Sam Mankowski (Intern, Summer 2020)

Hand fans have been in fashion off-and-on for thousands of years. The first pictographic evidence of fans comes from Egypt around 3000 BCE, though some put the origin of fans much earlier. The blog All Hand Fans posits that fans originated around the same time humans learned to control fire: “It can be assumed that the origin of the fan can be found in prehistoric times, when humans discover fire and use any kind of object to blow air and keep it alive.” Hand fans have had both practical and cultural uses since their first evidenced existence in Egypt in 3000 BCE.

Throughout history, fans have fallen into two broad styles, each featuring much variation in individual execution.

The first style is the screen fan or rigid fan. These were the fans first depicted in Egypt that expanded all over China, Japan, and India. “A Chinese workman whose name is handed down as Chi-ki-long, was renowned for screen-shaped hand fans, which he made by beating out a sheet of gold to excessive thinness. ‘He then painted them with gods, with extraordinary birds, and with rare animals; varnished them and covered them with transparent sheets of mica’” (Victoriana Magazine). Later, these fans made their way into the Greek and Roman Empires, gaining a practical and spiritual use in the Christian Church. These fans were called flabellum by the Romans and they were mainly used to wave insects away from the sacred goblets and to cool off worshippers. Much later on, this type of fan would again rise in prominence as a means to feature contemporary events and locations, like this fan (below right) from the museum’s collection depicting the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.

Screen fan with blue print
A screen fan with a print of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

You may even see screen fans made today as a piece of cardstock or cardboard glued to a dowel or even a paint mixing stick, sometimes bearing advertisements for upcoming events or products. Because they could be cheaply and easily made, this type of fan, particularly in the 17th century, were popular among the bourgeoisie, or middle-class.

The second style, and the one you probably picture when talking about hand fans, is the folding fan. Both China and Japan have legends about the invention of the folding fan, both countries attempting to claim its creation. The Chinese claim that folding fans were invented after a Chinese princess used her mask to fan herself at a ball around 2697 BCE. The Japanese claim that, in 670 CE, bat wings inspired the creation of the first folding fan.

The imagery depicted on fans changed with time. Early painted fans portrayed biblical illustrations and later transitioned to depict contemporary events. Fans were also ways for artists to show off their work. “Many of the leading Impressionists – and indeed Post-Impressionists – painted fan leaves, the compositions of which were frequently inspired by Japanese art and culture, which continued to shape and inform art and design in the West” (Fan Museum). The detailed work necessary for painting on fans was a skill and the delicate paintings were part of what gave fine-crafted fans their role as a symbol of the status and wealth or their bearer. “Great maisons sprang up in Paris, which had become the epicenter for the manufacture of fine quality fans. These maisons would become bywords for the creation and distribution of objets de luxe, furnishing royalty and the upper echelons of polite society with fans of particular quality” (Jane Austen’s World).

Blue feathers with painted flowers
A folding fan made of blue feathers with a delicate painting of flowers and a bird.

This folding feather fan (left) in the collection of the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society is a wonderful example of the gentle hand needed to paint minute detail on fans. Not only is the painting small and detailed, the “canvas” (the feathers) has uneven edges where feathers overlap, not to mention the delicate nature of the feathers themselves, all of which make this beautiful artwork the more astounding.

Fans, particularly folding fans (though screen fans were not entirely excluded from this), became not only a symbol of status and wealth but also had very real practical uses, sometimes going beyond keeping cool or keeping away insects. Paper fans were sometimes used as ways to keep notes or reminders, acting as a sort of notebook. Some people even used their fans as autograph books, getting signatures of their favorite musicians on the blades exposed on the back of the fan. Companies even used fans as conduits for advertising. According to the blog Duende, companies such as Cordon Rouge and Coca-Cola used this method to advertise their products.

You probably have heard of the language of the fan, where it has been said that a touch of the fan to the right cheek meant “yes,” a touch to the left cheek meant “no,” running the fan across one’s forehead meant “we are being watched,” and running one’s fan across the eyes meant “I’m sorry.” The legend of the language of the fan is one of the most enduring stories of a historical phenomenon of the last two hundred years. It has made its way into the historical memory of many people around the world, but did the upper classes of the Victorian era really know, understand, and use this coded fan language to communicate with would-be suitors? Perhaps disappointingly for the romantics among us, there is evidence to suggest that the answer is no. Many experts suggest that the language of the fan was a marketing ploy to try to stir up sales for fans in the 1820s, since fans had begun to fall out of style following the French Revolution.

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A black folding fan with paper cutouts affixed on both sides.

This blog post came about because of the number of fans in the museum’s collection. The Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society owns numerous fans, each having unique designs and something interesting to offer. One fan in particular captured my curiosity. When closed, it is just a simple black paper folding fan with black wooden guards. When opened, however, the fan reveals its true nature. A collection of small paper cutouts thoroughly covers both sides of the fan (left and below).

The small cutout images on the fan are mainly logos for different attractions and hotels from the eastern United States and even a few from Canada. Places like the Albany Club in Toronto, the Grand Hotel in Indianapolis, and the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal are represented. Places closer to home, like the Murray Mill Hotel in New York, the Springfield Coliseum in Massachusetts, and the Hartford Theological Seminary, are also included. Some of the images are just names of cities like Baltimore or New Britain or Montreal. Others are small images with no text. A few are portraits of people, a few are coats of arms, and others are images of various objects like a wheel.

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The reverse side of the black folding fan with paper cutouts.

The paper cutouts adhered to the fan are reminiscent of stickers from hotels and cities that were frequently stuck to suitcases and trunks, the classic image of a well-traveled piece of luggage, or today’s sticker collections on the back of laptops or on water bottles.

Unfortunately, not much is known about this particular fan. We do know that it was made around 1880 and was owned by a member of the Herlebert family here in West Hartford.

Fans have played an important role throughout history, not just for the practical use of keeping cool or shooing away annoying insects, but also as a social marker of status and wealth. Whether or not the language of the fan is real or just a marketing ploy, there is no question that fans had, and continue to play, a role in our society. As Victoriana Magazine states, “So prominent a part has this little ‘modish machine’ played in intrigue, love, and scandal that it has been aptly termed ‘the woman’s scepter.’”

Author’s Note: All the photos in this blog post depict fans in the collection of the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society collection. All the photos were taken by me on June 24, 2019.

Sources:

History of Fans from The Fan Museum in Greenwich, London

History of the Fan from Victoriana Magazine

A Brief History of the Hand Fan from Purdue University and Tippecanoe County Historical Association

Hand Fan Wikipedia

Origin of the Hand Fan from All Hand Fans

History of Hand Fan from Lifestyle Lounge

The History of the Hand Fan from Duende by Madam Zozo

“Art of the Fan” by Joseph Addison

The Secret Language of Fans from Sotheby’s

Various blog posts about fans from Jane Austen’s World

The Beach Family of Vine Hill Farm

Charles M. Beach House, 11 Winthrop Road

The land known as Vine Hill Farm was assembled by Charles M. Beach beginning in 1859. The head of Beach Brothers Company, a chemical and dye making company in Hartford, Beach summered in a house on South Main Street just northeast of New Britain Avenue. (The house was built in 1850 and still stands today at 11 Winthrop Road.) Beach had come into money through his father, George Beach, who was the fourth president of the Phoenix National Bank in Litchfield, CT.  Beach built one of the biggest dairy farms in Connecticut after buying out six farms on the four corners of New Britain Avenue and South Main Street.

Charles E. Beach

When all of the property had been assembled, the land became known as Vine Hill Farm. A creamery was built on the east end of the farm and a herd of high-grade cows was secured. Since Beach’s cows were a superior grade, they resulted in the production of superior grade milk, which helped to cement Vine Hill Farm’s reputation as one of the finest dairying enterprises in the region. Still, the dairy business was a side venture for Beach and his family.  His son, Charles Edward Beach, would eventually take over family business (now called “Beach & Company”) and later served as chairman of the board of the Whitlock Coil Pipe Company.

A glass bottle that once contained Vine Hill’s “Clinical Milk.”

Charles E. Beach graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1882 and shortly thereafter took over the family farm. In 1885, he hired Frank H. Stadtmueller to run the farm. Stadtmueller was a native of West Hartford and a recent Yale graduate. Together, Beach and Stadtmueller create the certified milk business in Connecticut. Vine Hill produced “baby’s milk,” a hygienic milk achieved by careful daily cleaning of the over 200 cows, the milking tools, the milk pails, and the barns.  Baby’s milk or “Clinical Milk” was shipped in bottles by train all over the country and led to Vine Hill’s standing as a top notch dairy farm. In 1907, Governor Simeon E. Baldwin appointed Stadtmueller the State Dairy Commissioner, a position he held until his death in 1918. He was later also named the State Agricultural Commissioner.

Vine Hill Farm workers in their milking uniforms.

In its heyday, more than 30 men worked on the farm. They had not only the cows to care for, but bottling milk, making cream and butter, a grist mill, an ice pond, and a blacksmith shop.  Many of these men boarded in what is now the Sarah Whitman Hooker House museum on the southeast corner of New Britain and Main Street, which was also part of the Vine Hill property.

An interior view of the Charles M. Beach House, 11 Winthrop Rd. Watercolor by Frances Antoinette Beach, 1878. In the collection of Historic New England.

The Beach family had established very fine living quarters in the home on South Main Street (11 Winthrop Road), as evidenced by existing watercolors done by daughter Frances Antoinette Beach in 1878, now in the collection of Historic New England. In 1895, Charles E. Beach married Catherine H. Coffing, the daughter of Charles Coffing, a prominent farmer who lived at the house that still stands at 272 S. Main Street in West Hartford. The couple had two children: Charles F. Beach in 1896 and Thomas Coffing Beach in 1899. In 1900, Charles E. Beach built an 8,000 square foot mansion on the hill on the east side of South Main St., just northeast of New Britain Ave. (today 18 Brightwood Lane). It is a shining example of Shingle style architecture.

A vintage view of the Charles E. Beach house in snow, looking at the south side of the house and the ‘porte cochere’ (a roofed area over a driveway and entrance to a house).

According to a 1910 census record, Charles E. Beach lived in the home with his two sons, sisters Mary, Frances, and Edith, one Irish servant and one German servant (his wife Catherine had died in 1900 at the age of 31, possibly from complications from the birth of their second son). During World War I, the Beach family was very involved in the war effort: Charles E. Beach headed the Red Cross and his sisters held fundraisers and Liberty Loan drives, like a French Market they hosted on the farm that drew 1,000 people.

After Charles M. Beach’s death in 1910 and the turbulent years proceeding World War I, production on the farm declined. Farm hands joined the war effort or left agricultural jobs for factory work. Bloomfield’s Woodford Farm gradually took over as the area’s leading producer of baby’s milk.

As the farm declined, sections of Vine Hill Farm were parceled off. The largest part – some 30 acres – was given to the Town of West Hartford by the Beach family to create Beachland Park in 1932.

The Beach sisters: Harriet, Frances, Edith and Mary. Harriet is the only one who married.

Charles E. Beach died in 1940, leaving the estate to his surviving two sisters: Mary and Edith. Mary died in 1946, followed by Edith in 1948, and the estate was given to Charles E. Beach’s son, Charles Frederick, who had grown up in the house. Charles F. Beach sold the property and the land was subdivided into new residential developments east of the property to meet the need for more affordable housing to accommodate factory workers who had come to the Elmwood section of West Hartford during World War II.

Today, the Charles E. Beach House at 18 Brightwood Lane has been lovingly preserved by its owners of the past 30 years. It is currently on the market! For more info, contact Deb Ortega at Debra.Ortega@Raveis.com or (860) 977-6004.

Let’s Explore Elmwood!

The alliteration is just too tempting. We will be exploring Elmwood with award-winning architectural historian, Mary Donohue, this Saturday, May 26 at 10 a.m. Perhaps you’ve noticed the trend; when there’s a Sidewalk History Walking Tour, you get a sneak peek!

Enjoy this Excerpt about Elmwood from our traveling Exhibit (it’s not easy being addicted to alliteration), West Hartford Business: Images of Suburban Development :

“Elmwood is one of the first West Hartford neighborhoods to be a self-contained community with its own school, church, post office and stores. Elmwood’s earliest businesses, such as the Goodwin Brothers Co., produced utilitarian products from the area’s rich clay soil. The arrival of the railroad in the late 19th century cemented Elmwood’s position as the place for industries to locate, providing easy access for shipping products. The area was home to many international corporations including Royal Typewriter, Heublein, and Coleco Industries.

“With factories came the need for affordable housing for employees. Elmwood Acres was built as a federally subsidized housing project of 300 units, one of three built in West Hartford during World War II to house workers and their families. Following the war, the small ranches and capes newly constructed in Elmwood were purchased by returning veterans, and many small retail plazas appeared along New Britain Avenue. In 1997, the community group West Hartford Vision organized to clean up the neighborhood that had been blighted over time by drugs, crime and vandalism. Since then, Elmwood has experienced both refurbishment and new development that have led to its revitalization.

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“West Hartford was home to many long-lasting restaurants, including Maple Hill, Edelweiss, Scoler’s, La Scala and Elmwood’s Fernwood, the only one of these still in business today. The Fernwood originally opened at 1113 New Britain Ave. in 1945 and was purchased by Anthony Cacase in 1949. Long-term employees Laurie Hazelton and August Audibert took over the business after Cacase’s death in 2009 and credit the loyal clientele as the key to the restaurant’s continued success.

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“In 1947, as “going to the movies” became a popular pastime, the Elm Theater offered seating in both orchestra and balcony levels. Residents flocked for decades to see the latest Hollywood hits, but eventually new megaplexes presented serious competition. At that time, the Elm Theater found a niche as a place for second-run movies. However by the 1990s, with the advent of the VCR and the popularity of movie rental stores, the theater struggled. After closing in 2002, the theater was converted into a Walgreens amid protests from residents.

“In the early 1960s, the S.S. Kresge Corporation turned some of its more poorly performing S.S. Kresge stores into “Jupiter Discount Stores.” West Hartford was home to a few Jupiter Stores, including the one on New Britain Ave. These bare-bone, deep discount stores offered a limited variety of fast-moving merchandise such as clothes, drugstore items, and housewares. By 1966 there were almost 100 Jupiter stores in operation across the country. The S.S. Kresge Corporation changed its name to Kmart in 1977.”

More insights to come this Saturday! Get your tickets while you can. Walk-ins are welcome!

(Please tell your friends you’ll be joining the tour, too!)

Wandering Arnoldale and Beverly Roads

In the 1920s, wealthy business men built handsome new homes in West Hartford neighborhoods that lined the eastern end of Farmington Avenue. Two of these outstanding side streets, Arnoldale and Beverly Roads, feature homes that were built to impress. Their styles range from Shingle to Colonial Revival to Bungalow to Spanish Revival. On Saturday, May 19, 2018, we will continue our celebration of Historic Preservation Month with a Sidewalk History Walking Tour of Arnoldale and Beverly.

Every home has a story, and we can’t wait to hear what award-winning architectural historian Mary Donohue has to share with us.

Here is a sneak peek (sans spoilers):

711 Farmington Avenue

Ludlow Barker’s home, pictured above from a newspaper feature, once stood on the corner of Beverly Road and Farmington Avenue. Pianists will fawn over this advertisement from the Hartford Courant in 1903:

ludlow barker

Ludlow Barker started selling Newby & Evans Pianos in 1886. His plaintive enthusiasm for the product, laced with testimonials through history about the power of music, gives a sense of Barker’s personality. A particularly compelling excerpt:

I verily think, and am not ashamed to say, that next to divinity no art is comparable to music. – Martin Luther

The tones of a Newby & Evans Piano thrill one! They are selected with great care by Ludlow Barker.

1910-11-21 (Death of Ludlow Barker)

Ludlow Barker & Co. was operated by Barker himself until his death in 1910. His obituary in the Hartford Courant indicates his funeral was held on November 23, 1910, at his home.

Barker’s stately house at 711 Farmington Avenue was demolished in 1966. Farmington Avenue Apartments now stand in place of the home.

Though we won’t be able to gawk at what was once there, we will have the chance to learn more about houses like these:

Arnoldale bungalowArnoldale grey hseBeverly red house

Beverly Leach hse

Join us for the second in our trio of Sidewalk History Walking Tours of West Hartford this Saturday, May 19, 2018. (And tell your Facebook friends you’ll be there!)

More information on this and the tour of Elmwood (Saturday, May 26) can be found at noahwebster.yapsody.com.

Walk-ins are more than welcome! We’ll keep you posted on a rain date – but hopefully will not have to use it.

Strolling Through History – Literally

Park Road, so named because the street led to Hartford’s first park, South Green, extends 12 blocks west of the Hartford city line to South Main Street. The area’s terrain and streams made it an ideal area for farming. In the 1920s and 30s, as the automobile increased in popularity, roads to and from Hartford, like Park Road, became more traveled. Population increases in the Park Road neighborhood led to new housing developments that offered a combination of single and multi-family dwellings. At the same time, numerous commercial strips and family-owned businesses lined Park Road to serve the needs of local residents.

To celebrate Historic Preservation Month this May, the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society is offering three walking tours of West Hartford! Architectural historian, Mary Donohue, will lead the forge through Park Road on Saturday, May 5, 2018 at 10 a.m.

You are about to get a sneak preview, of sorts. Some throwback images from the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society show just how much the quirky business district has changed (and a bit of what has stayed the same).

Rest assured, there are no tour spoilers below! 

 

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132 Park Road
(Jacobs Paint and Wallpaper Co. is no longer there, nor is Perry Pharmacy. Can you tell what businesses are there now?)

 

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178 Park Road
(My, do we wish we could get a brake adjustment for $1!)

 

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185 Park Road

 

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202 Park Road

 

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338 Park Road
(And it’s still a Shell station!)

 

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353 Park Road
(Now Park Road Cleaners.)

 

Parade 2.jpgIn the 1990s, a neighborhood task force worked with the town to help reinvigorate the area. New lighting and landscaping were installed and the reconstruction of Park Road itself contributed to the stability and growth of the area. When the repaving of Park Road was finally completed, a celebration parade was held to mark the event and to bring shoppers back to the area. This Park Road Parade has become an annual event.Parade 1.jpg

Join us for the first of three Sidewalk History Walking Tours of West Hartford this Saturday, May 5, 2018. (And tell your Facebook friends you’ll be there!)

More information on this and the tours of Arnoldale & Beverly Roads (Saturday, May 19) and Elmwood (Saturday, May 26) can be found at noahwebster.yapsody.com!

Who gets to use to the parks?

Written by Dr. Tracey Wilson, Town Historian

When my kids were little, in the 1990s, there were big signs at Rockledge Golf Course disallowing sledding and skiing on a great hill off South Main Street.  Now, the town has opened the course in a movement across the country to use parks in the winter as well as the summer.

In the 1940s, the town encouraged skiing and skating in the parks.  The town bought the 70 acre West Hartford Golf Club for $20,000 in 1943.

The town used the course as both a summer and winter venue. The Recreation Department set up three ski trails at Buena Vista and provided a first aid toboggan. The West Hartford Outing Club organized activities on a “Practice” and “Advanced” slope.  They also helped get the pond in shape for skating.

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In February 1945, the ski committee of the West Hartford Outing Club sponsored ski racing at Buena Vista. Elementary, Junior and Senior High boys and girls ran a series of races in February with the hopes of winning an emblem for their ski jackets at the end of the season.

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Buena Vista Skiers circa 1946

On the Sunday after Christmas in 1947, according to the Hartford Courant, over 600 people skied on the three slopes.  By the second week in January 1948, the town provided lights for night skiing. There was also a hill for coasters and tobogganers.

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The Recreation Department offered free ski lessons to both children and adults. By February 12, 1948, the Rec Department counted almost 8,000 skiers and skaters.

At the same time, the town set up a skating rink behind Hall High School (the present Town Hall in the town’s center). The rink was three inches of solid ice on the ground, so parents did not have to worry about their kids falling through. On January 22, 1948, the Rec Department planned to add lights. Students at Hall could skate during gym periods. Residents could also skate at Fernridge Park, Beachland Park and Buena Vista.  All three places had warming huts for skaters.

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On January 13, 1958, the Rec Department claimed 5,000 people “flocked to West Hartford skating, skiing, and coasting in one of the biggest turnouts in town’s history.”

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As late as 1972, the Parks and Rec Department sponsored free downhill ski lessons at Buena Vista.

This year, the town has once again opened a golf course to the public in the winter.  What fun to go cross country skiing at Rockledge.  And, what about opening up some of these ponds to skating? Or having an outdoor rink at some of the parks or schools?

 

 

 

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Share your thoughts in the comments section!

 

 

 

The Iceman Cometh (and Goeth)

Ice is in the news. Connecticut’s rivers are being clogged by ice jams and the U.S. Coast Guard is sending out ice cutters to take care of the mess. With all the hubbub about ice right now, I can’t help but think that 2018 would be a boon year for the ice harvesting industry, were it to still exist.
Icejames
Ice jams on the Farmington River, January 2018. Photo by Tessa O’Sullivan.
But alas, the ice harvesting industry has long gone by the wayside. Refrigeration pretty much took care of that in the 1930s. Still, you might encounter an oldtimer or two who remembers their grandmother using the old icebox. So where exactly did that ice come from?
If you lived in West Hartford at the turn of the 20th century, you didn’t have to go far. Edwin Arnold founded the Trout Brook Ice & Feed Co. on Farmington Ave. in West Hartford in 1879. A complex of company buildings were situated on the banks of Trout Brook. When the brook froze over, the ice was sawed in to blocks, stored in an ice house using an early conveyor belt, and packed in sawdust to keep cold. The company employed huge red wagons to carry the blocks of ice to homes in the area. Hundreds of workers purportedly came by trolley from Hartford to report for work during the ice harvesting season.
Trout Brook ad
Ad for The Trout Brook Ice & Feed Co., once located on Farmington Ave. in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Trout Brook Ice & Feed map
Trout Brook Ice & Feed was located on Farmington Avenue, near the intersection of what is today Trout Brook Drive. Notice in this 1909 map that Trout Brook Drive does not exist! Notice also the pond to the right, resulting from a dam in the brook.

But Trout Brook Ice & Feed didn’t just service the Greater Hartford area. With an influx of immigrants to metropolitan area, the need for ice grew. At the same time, increases in technology meant more factories setting up shop along the rivers. Many sources of natural ice in metropolitan areas became contaminated from industrial pollution or sewer runoff. And so, ice from a pristine rural community like West Hartford, Connecticut became desirable. At its peak, Trout Brook Ice & Feed would ship up to 50 carloads per day by railroad to New York City.

Trout Brook Ice & Feed image
An early conveyor belt used to transport heavy blocks of ice into the ice barns for storage.
Business was good for Trout Brook Ice & Feed. So much so that in 1912, Edwin’s son Fred Arnold purchased land along what used to be the Middle Road to Farmington to build another ice pond to keep up with demands. In addition to dredging for the new pond, the company built ice barns for storage and laid trolley racks to carry the ice to Farmington Ave. for shipment throughout the region.
girls delivering ice
Women working at an American ice factory during World War I. National Archives & Records Administration.
Now, as increases in technology allowed for new refrigeration methods in the early 20th century, there was a chance that the ice industry would die out. However, when the United States entered World War I in 1917, the American ice trade rebounded. The nation’s existing refrigeration capabilities were challenged by increased shipments of chilled food to Europe during the war. Factories upped their production of munitions, which used up ammonia and coal that might otherwise be used for refrigeration plants. In short, the ice industry was called upon to relieve the refrigeration burden and maintain adequate supplies.
Early Refrigerator
Vintage ad for the Kelvinator, “the Finest in Electric Refrigeration,” 1934.

Unfortunately for the ice business, the years following WWI resulted in the industry’s collapse. The introduction of inexpensive electric motors resulted in the modern refrigerator replacing grandma’s ice box. In 1927, Arnold sold Trout Brook Ice & Feed Co. to the Southern New England Ice Co. That company dissolved nine years later. And it wasn’t the only ice company to do so.

In the 1930s, natural ice harvests declined dramatically and ice warehouses were abandoned or converted for other uses.
In 1936, Wallace B. Goodwin (of the Goodwin Pottery family), purchased land west of Ridgewood Road with the dream of creating a development that would offer “seclusion” but not “isolation.” He had trouble finding funders for his project because no one believed that a neighborhood out in the woods would be a desirable location. Eventually, Goodwin was able to purchase land between Wood Pond and Tunxis Roads, which included the land around Wood Pond and Woodridge Lake. The first house was built in 1937 for Charles Derrick, the Hartford Electric Light Co. CEO, designed by Norris Prentice and built by Charles Robinson. Guess what? The development was a hit and by 1941, 44 houses had been sold.
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A ca. 1940 aerial photo of Woodridge Lake and Wood Pond, originally built by the Trout Brook Ice & Feed Co. In the late 1930s, the land around the lake and pond were developed into a residential neighborhood.  By 1944, the Woodridge Association that still exists today had been formed.

A newspaper article from the mid-1940s describes the neighborhood:

“Few Hartfordites are aware that there is a winter-summer resort just a stone’s throw from West Hartford Center – Woodridge Lake, just back of Ridgewood Road, formerly the old Arnold ice pond. Now this mile and a half long lake is a sight on Sundays – you see skaters, ice boats, toboggan slides, and 19 cabins dotting the edge of the water with smoke curling up from the fireplaces.”

The homes were originally intended as summer homes for the well-to-do of Hartford. In the past 20 years, an increasing number of residents have vastly expanded and modernized the homes for year-round use. Some residents built entirely new homes and kept the original, smaller cottage on the property. It is said that the foundations of the Trout Brook Ice & Feed ice barns can still be found on the properties.

Today, there is not a trace of the building complex that once occupied Farmington Avenue alongside Trout Brook. There is, however, a street that bears its name, though few would know that an ice company once stood at its intersection with Farmington Ave. The iceman may have come and gone before our time, but its history is still worth remembering.

Trout Brook Ice & Feed ice pick
Vestiges of the Trout Brook Ice & Feed Co. include this vintage ice pick, donated to the museum by Joan and Arnold Casinghino.

A Trolley Runs Through It

Hartford and West Hartford Horse Railway
The earliest trolley, the Hartford and West Hartford Horse Railway, laid tracks along Farmington Avenue in 1894.

The section of Farmington Avenue west of the Center but east of Mountain Road doesn’t normally get much attention. It’s a relatively quiet residential area peppered with a variety of house styles that intersects at almost every block with a side street. Even at rush hour when there’s moderate traffic, it’s hard to imagine that at trolley once ran up and down this street.

In 1894, when the first plans for the Hartford & West Hartford Horse Railroad Company were approved, Farmington Avenue was sparsely populated with about 10 houses between today’s Pleasant Street and Mountain Road.  These were mainly farm houses with large swathes of land. Up until that time, the intersection of Farmington Avenue and Main Street was where the action was, with a variety of fine houses (including the home of William H. Hall) built in today’s West Hartford Center.

In the late 19th-century, West Hartford experienced a population boom. With an ever growing influx of immigrants in Hartford, more established residents began moving west into West Hartford. Increased transportation – like the trolley – allowed businessmen to work in the Capital City but to live in the rural splendor of West Hartford.

0217g Reservoir No. 1 and Farmington Ave
Trolley tracks laid on Farmington Ave. next to the Reservoir (looking east)

The earliest form of mass transportation was the “horse railroad” begun in 1863. Steel rails were laid on major Hartford streets and train cars sat on the tracks and were pulled by horses. The Hartford & West Hartford Horse Railroad Company began laying down tracks on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford in 1894. Service began shortly thereafter, but there were still kinks to work out. The local churches were bothered by excessive noise and trolley cars jumping the tracks at different switches. And with winter’s arrival, patrons began appealing for stoves, fur robes, and better closed compartments within the cars.

Still, the introduction of the trolley along Farmington Avenue was an attraction for most. A trolley car house on the north side of Farmington Avenue, just east of Pleasant Street, which had been recently created to provide access to the newly laid out Fairview Cemetery. By January 1, 1895, two “special” trolley cars showed up at the car house with finished rooves and luxuriously upholstered cross seats. Around the same time, wires and poles were installed to allow for all of the horse-drawn cars to be converted to electric cars.

Map of West Hartford, 1896
The trolley “car house” was located on Farmington Ave. just east of Pleasant St.

By June 1895, the trolley had helped spur a demand for building lots along Farmington Avenue. Real estate speculators purchased tracts of land and began to subdivide them into lots. Ironically, the lumber and other materials needed to build new homes on Farmington Avenue were often transported to the building sites by the trolleys. The growing attraction of the area is further demonstrated by the creation of the side streets Westland Avenue and LeMay Street. Laid out in 1905, Westland Avenue gained additional attention when Edward W. Morley, a nationally recognized chemist and professor, built a house at 26 Westland Avenue in 1906. George LeMay built a home “off Farmington Avenue at 1114” in 1905; by 1909, it was known as 9 LeMay Street.

Edward Morley

Competition between trolley companies produced more alternatives, like branch lines. In 1899, Hartford & West Hartford Railroad was bought by the Farmington Street Railway. According to a 1901 book called Trips by Trolley Around Hartford, one could take the Hartford Street Railway from City Hall in Hartford to West Hartford Center (a 25-minute trip) for 5¢. If you

Trolley time table 1901

 

wanted to continue on to Farmington, you had to switch to the Farmington Street Railway in the Center, which ran every half-hour in the summer. It cost 10¢ to make the 25-minute trip to Farmington or 15¢ to reach the street railway’s terminus in Unionville (a 40-minute trip).

 

0228 C west hartford trolley - Copy
Trolley service left from Hartford’s City Hall (the Old State House). This trolley’s “West Hartford” sign can be seen faintly.

The year 1914 is considered to be the height of the trolley industry in America. In that year, 14 billion people rode on trolleys throughout the United States. There were now over 200 miles of trolley track in Hartford County (the lines being consolidated into The Connecticut Company). It’s no surprise, then, that residential development on Farmington Avenue grew significantly around this time, as more people began to take advantage of the easy transportation the trolley provided and moved farther west. The majority of houses built on Farmington Avenue between Westland Avenue and Garfield Road date from 1915-1930.

1917 Map The Center and outer ring

Additional side streets were drawn out [by 1917: Sunset Terrace, Wardwell Street, and Ellsworth Street (later changed to Garfield Road)], even if no houses had been built on them yet.

As romantic as the trolley seems to us today, they did not come without problems. To make way for them, the landscape of Farmington Avenue was changed. The street was widened and trees were removed, to be replaced with poles and wires. The road was now not as passable for horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians, and bicyclists. And once automobiles came into vogue, accidents involving the trolleys became common. The local residents – who might have moved to the area because of the promise of easy transportation – began to complain that the trolley did not stop frequently enough on Farmington Avenue. Passengers would wait at the designated area only to find a streetcar filled to capacity whizzing by with shouts of “Take the next car!” trailing behind.

The advent of the automobile correlated directly with the decline of the trolley. As more people drove to work, the use of the trolley diminished, eventually to be replaced by buses. The streetcar service from Hartford to Unionville ran until 1934, when trolley lines through Hartford County were reduced mainly within the City of Hartford.  By 1941, The Connecticut Company had retired its last car.

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The last West Hartford trolley, Park Road, 1934.

But here in West Hartford, the trolley had done its work. The development of Farmington Avenue from a patchwork of individual farms to a seamless community was only possible with the advent of the trolley, which attached the neighboring tracts into accessible strands of homes. Individual real estate and land decisions were made by the older generation as they retired away from town and sold off the land to prospective buyers; however, the increase in improved transportation, including the automobile, helped provide Farmington Avenue with a support network of side streets that coincided with the housing boom. Real estate companies and like-minded developers capitalized on these waves to provide a supply of “modern” suburbia to Farmington Avenue, a perfect storm that pushed residents from farmland to sidewalk to side street within three decades.

Love and gingerbread

One of the earliest pieces of correspondence in the Butler Collection at the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society is this 1796 love letter from Erastus Wells to his sweetheart Abigail “Nabby” Benton back home in West Hartford – then still officially known as the West Division. Erastus was a sea captain, in port in Norfolk, Virginia on a voyage from New London. Click the links in the captions to open the images below at full size, or jump to the full transcript at the end of the post.

Erastus Wells to Nabby Benton, 1796 September 8 (1 of 2)
Erastus Wells to Nabby Benton, 1796 September 8 (1 of 2). Click for full size image.
Erastus Wells to Nabby Benton, 1796 September 8 (2 of 2)
Erastus Wells to Nabby Benton, 1796 September 8 (2 of 2). Click for full size image.

Erastus Wells was born in the West Division and baptized at the Congregational Church on October 13, 1771. He was the son of Ashbel Wells, who served in the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen in New York in the late 1760s and again at the 1775 capture of Fort Ticonderoga, as well as in the state militia during the Revolutionary war.

Abigail “Nabby” Benton was the daughter of Capt. Asa Benton, a naval officer and later a merchant on Front St. in Hartford.

In his letter, Erastus writes that “two days shall not pass before my promise” — to marry Nabby — “is fulfilled”. It took a little longer than that, but on September 13, 1798, Erastus Wells and Nabby Benton were married in the Second Church of Christ in Hartford. They had three sons: George Benton, in 1800; William Woodbridge, in 1801; and Erastus Henry, in 1805.

erastus_wells_death
Connecticut Courant. July 9, 1806.

Further details of their lives are scant, but on July 9, 1806, the Connecticut Courant published a death notice for Captain Erastus Wells. He died on the fourth of July, at West Hartford, and is buried in the North Cemetery.

In a previous post, we met Jonathan Butler, 2nd, who inherited a cider mill and brandy still in the West Division from his father, Zacheus Butler. Jonathan’s daughter Maria married Erastus’ nephew George Wells, son of Ashbel Wells, Jr., in 1825, making Nabby Benton her aunt through marriage. Sometime after 1825, Maria recorded this recipe for “Aunt Nabby’s Gingerbread” in her recipe book.

Aunt Nabby's Gingerbread
Aunt Nabby’s Gingerbread. Teacup Molasses, 2/3 of Cream + Butter, 1 Egg, Table spoonful Ginger, tea spoon of Salaeratus, Tea cup of Sour Milk.

The recipe calls for “Saleratus”, an old term for baking soda, and omits all mention of flour – presumably any nineteenth century lady could figure that out on her own. It took me a few tries to get the proportions and process just right, but here is the recipe translated for the 21st century:

  • 3/4 cup of Molasses
  • 1/2 cup of heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup of butter
  • 1 large egg (or 2 smaller eggs)
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon powdered ginger
  • 1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Grease a loaf pan with butter. Preheat oven to 350 F.

Combine all ingredients except flour in a mixing bowl and whisk together.

Stir in flour with a wooden spoon until just combined.

Pour into loaf pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour.

Aunt Nabby's gingerbread
Aunt Nabby’s gingerbread

Full transcript of letter:

My Ever Eseemed Friend Norfolk Virginia. Sept 8th 1796.

Since I am safe arrived at this place I cannot help addressing the person whom my Soul Loves dear – First I will give you an acct of our passage. We left N. London on Sunday Morning at Nine oclock, and arrived here on Thursday Evening at 8 ofclock. We had a fine passage, and pleasant weather, but as for this place I cannot give any favorable account of it, surely I was never so much dissatisfied with any place that I ever was in. Although there are many people here which are very friendly + kind to me yet that place called W. Hartford is at present mostly in my thoughts, for which reason you may judge for yourself and I am sure you must very well know the cause.

O, My dear N- how the time does pass, one day appears as long as a week did formerly, and according to that how many weeks must pass away before I can once more behold, with Real Eyes, the person whom I so much adore. Do not think this to be vain thought or words of Flattery for upon the Honor of a Friend not a word is here written but what comes from the foundation of my Heart.

When I left home you will doubtless Recollect that I told you I expected to return in 8 or 9 months but I must now inform you to my sorrow that I shall not expect to be home before the latter part of June next – I do not expect to sail from here these six weeks. Yet do not be discouraged for as sure as we both live and you hold of the same mind that you appeared to be in when I left you, two days shall not pass before my promise is fulfilled.

How much do I lament my fate when I look around me in this Harbor + see the Numbers of Masters of Vessels here with their wives, The pastures of their joys with them to partake the bitter and sweet of life, but here I am alone to partake of the bitter itself, but let us hope all is for the best, & when once now we meet all will be well.

The line I wrote you from N London was wrote at a time when I was quite sick and scarce able to hold a pen, which I suppose Wm Bull told you if he delivered the letter according to his promise but my health soon returned after my getting to sea + I am now quite well.

Forget not I desire you to visit the place of my nativity which you will soon Recollect I enjoined upon you but I am fearful you will forget or on some bashful motive keep back and therefore not see the place and people who you know I prize in every respect next to yourself therefore on my account take every opportunity to fall on them as often as it is in your power, and I am sure you can spare one week in four. Your visiting there will not only oblige me but all our Family Especially – Polly & Hannah, who at all times will be ready to Receive you with the tenderness of an own Sister. You may tell them that I shall not write them by the Post, but will before I sail. Let them know the particulars of my intended voyage. As my paper is nearly filled I will conclude. And that you may have every blessing that you can wish to enjoy in my absence is the sincere wish of your Ever Constant, + Sincere Friend, Who will be Ever Ready to Serve, Love
& Adore you
Erastus Wells

PS. Give my best
Respects to Parents
Brothers + Sisters
and all that may and oblige. E Wells