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 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.
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.
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.
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
PS. Give my best
Respects to Parents
Brothers + Sisters
and all that may and oblige. E Wells
The Antediluvians were all very sober
For they had no Wine, and they brew’d no October;
All wicked, bad Livers, on Mischief still thinking,
For there can’t be good Living when there is not good Drinking.
Around 1745, Benjamin Franklin penned these draft lines of a song on the virtues of drinking. “October” refers to hard apple cider – in that month the apple orchards growing on every farm began to drop their fruit, and farmers carted them to the local mill to process them into cider.
The work, A Treatise on Cyder-Making, is an anonymously authored guide to perfecting the drink’s production, with an introductory essay by an English connoisseur on his favorite varieties of apples.
The art of cyder-making was quite sophisticated in some circles. In 1769, the early Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, of which Franklin was president, enumerated among that distinguished group’s investigative goals, “what improvements may be made in the art of fermentation, making of wine, cyder, vinegar, &c.”
While artisans and philosophers quibbled over the details of process and profitability, the basics of brewing were widespread as folk knowledge. In The compleat housewife: or, Accomplish’d gentlewoman’s companion, printed in 1742 in Williamsburg, Virginia, a no-nonsense approach to cider is presented among the “several hundred of the most approved receipts” contained therein:
PULL your Fruit before ’tis too ripe, and let it lie but one or two Days to have one good Sweat; your Apples must be Pippins, Pearmains, or Harveys, (if you mix Winter and Summer Fruit together ’tis never good;) grind your Apples and press it, and when your Fruit is all press’d, put it immediately into a Hogshead where it may have some Room to work; but no Vent, but a little Hole near the Hoops, but close bung’d; put 3 or 4 Pounds of Raisins into a Hogshead, and two Pounds of Sugar, it will make it work better; often racking it off is the best Way to fine it, and always rack it into small Vessels, keeping them close bung’d, and only a small Vent-hole; if it should work after racking, put into your Vessel some Raisins for it to feed on, and bottle it in March.
Cider was the refreshment of choice for the colonists, who believed that drinking in moderation was good for body and spirit. In England, where polluted waterways made drinking water risky, people had come to drink beer and cider to quench their thirst. The early settlers continued the custom, despite the clean springs of the countryside, and industrial pollution soon justified the habit.
It would be more than a hundred years before the town of West Hartford was incorporated, encompassing the area known as the West Division of Hartford, in 1854. But in the meantime, the living and the drinking were good. The people raised horses, cattle, pigs and sheep, and grew the corn they learned to cultivate from the Indians and the flax and hemp that made them less reliant on English imports. In the sloping upland west of the meadows where their animals grazed and their crops grew, they grew lots of apples, and brewed lots of cider.
While the colonists ate their fair share of fresh apples, the fruit’s real utility lay in processing and preserving it. When turned into cider, apples could be used for a variety of purposes, like making vinegar and molasses.
Fermentation and the basics of cider production were common knowledge, but producing exceptional cider could be a profitable enterprise. For both the commercial and home brewer, the first step was always to crush and press the fruit. While most farmers in the West Division had apple orchards, not everyone had their own cider mill.
A cider mill consists of the mill, for crushing the fruit, and a press, for squeezing the juice from the mash.
In the West Division of Hartford in the eighteenth century, the cider mill was an important social hub for the farmers and craftsmen in the colony. Neighbors and family hauled their apple harvests to the mill, in wagons or sleighs, along with their own produce or goods for trading.
On the north side of town, near present-day Still Rd, a cider mill was operated by a man named Jonathan Cadwell in the last decades of the colonial era. After his death, the business was run by Cadwell’s nephew Zacheus Butler, and continued by Butler’s son Jonathan through the middle of the nineteenth century. Account books belonging to this business are found in the Butler Collection at the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society. They provide a unique window into the rural economy of the West Division.
Everyone with apples had need of a mill, and the owner profited as a middleman.
Every autumn, there was a rush to make cider before winter.
We do not know exactly when Jonathan Cadwell began his cider business, but on “Desember” ye 6th, 1754, he started using the earliest of the account books in the museum collections.
Two weeks later, he recorded credit for John Hoskins’ labor to haul a worm tub from Hartford. A worm tub is an apparatus used in distilling strong liquor, and they used it to distill cider brandy.
Cider brandy was a local competitor to rum imported from the West Indies. By 1749, Jonathan Cadwell was licensed to sell brandy in larger amounts, by the barrel.
By 1767, the shop was also selling rum.
But cider production was the mainstay of the business.
Those farmers whose cider didn’t last the year, or who favored Jonathan Cadwell’s brew, bought “cydr” at retail year-round.
Besides the cider he brewed and the brandy he distilled, Jonathan Cadwell and his family sold other things they grew and produced on their farm, including candles, butter, cheese, beef, veal, mutton, tallow and suit, turnips, onions, Indian corn, flax, and wool.
He traded with merchants, many on ships in port returning from trading missions, for imports like wine, rum, tea, and chocolate, and for fabrics and fastenings for clothing.
Most farmers paid for the use of the mill and press to process their apples with “country pay,” their own produce, rather than silver money or bills of credit issued by the colony. The shop naturally filled with whatever grew in the fertile soil of their farms.
Some of his patrons worked on the farm at odd jobs, making hay or plowing corn, to pay off their tabs.
There were many jobs to be done. In 1755, Jonathan records owing a patron for killing a cow for him.
On quiet days or when a customer was running the mill with his own horses or oxen, the proprietor might lease out his team to transport friends to town, or farther, to New Haven or Rhode Island.
Sometimes he charged by the mile.
At other times the team hauled wood down from Avon mountain, or helped in clearing the highways.
Jonathan Cadwell and the Butlers also sold livestock, which was pastured in adjoining meadows. The owner records charging his patrons for the grass in his lot, and rates for each head of livestock pastured each week.
Sometimes he let out credit for “Bull Service”, thereby increasing his own herds through the bounty of his apple business.
He also took in boarders, some of whom offered their own services, like shoeing horses, at the shop.
In his book he listed all the days these workers were absent, mostly for elections or militia training.
Most of the West Division residents were farmers, but some were artisans. The account books record credit for Moses Cadwell weaving cloth.
And for Simeon Grimes making shoes.
The cider mill proprietors also seem to have acted as de facto local bankers. Orders from patrons to pay a third party some amount on the customer’s account were pinned into the account book pages.
The accounts record loaning cash on credit as well as receiving it for payment. As early as 1762, Jonathan Cadwell took payment in dollars – probably Spanish silver dollars, which circulated widely in the colonies – valued at 6 shillings in his book.
The accounts also include transactions of Continental dollars, cash of the “new emission”, and certificates of credit from the state.
In 1797, a U.S. dollar was also valued at 6 shillings.
To adapt to the dearth of coins in the colony during the eighteenth century, the colonial government collected taxes from farmers at the “country rate,” which prescribed that if not in money, the amount could be paid with the fruits of the harvest. In Jonathan Cadwell’s account book, he records a debt of 5 shillings for 2 bushels of “Ingon corn for the town” in 1757.
Jonathan Cadwell’s estate inventory, taken by his nephew at his death in 1769, suggests an idea of his lifestyle near the close of the colonial era. He dressed in leather breeches and black stockings, with a coat made of blue serge twill, a checked shirt, and a black vest. If the weather was warmer, he wore striped linen breeches instead of leather. For winter, he had a beaver hat, a great coat, and woolen shirts and stockings. For accessories, he had a silk handkerchief, gold cuff links, and a pair of silver “bow’d” spectacles.
Jonathan was a communicant in the 4th Church of Christ of Hartford, which later became the Congregational Church of West Hartford. In his estate inventory, among his books are a large Bible, a Communicant’s Companion, and a psalm book.
His parents were founding members of the congregation at its inception in 1712, and in 1722 his son was baptized there. But the son did not survive childhood, and in 1740 Jonathan’s wife also perished.
He made a fresh start, and in December of 1740 was married for a second time, to Bethiah Butler. In November, they announced their intentions to marry in the church. This draft manuscript of the announcement is one of the oldest in the collection.
Jonathan and Bethiah had no children, but took in Jonathan’s nephew, John, who lived with his new wife Joanna in Jonathan’s south chamber. He helped out at the shop, taking his uncle’s team of oxen on day jobs to mow fields or haul wood.
Joanna likely milked cows, made cheese and cider, cooked for their patrons, and spun thread of the wool sheared from their sheep. In September of 1759, Joanna and John had twin baby girls, but they tragically died two months later. The next June, John also died, at the age of 26, perhaps a casualty of the French and Indian War. He is buried in the Old Center Cemetery. A distinct handwriting in the account books between 1759 and 1760 is probably his.
After John’s death, Jonathan Cadwell decided to leave his estate to his other nephew, Zacheus Butler, who went by Zach (or Zack, or Zac – spelling was fluid then.). In 1763, Zacheus married the widow, Joanna. They inherited the business from Jonathan, and would run it throughout the Revolutionary period.
Jonathan left them his household property, including two great chairs, six chairs around the cherry-wood table, and a crown chair for lounging. For the table they had three pewter serving plates and six place settings, plus a tea table with six teacups and saucers.
Drinks were doled out in a quart decanter, two pint size decanters, and one at a pint and a half. They had two tumblers and six punch bowls. The kitchen was outfitted with brass utensils including a skillet, ladle, skimmer, and tongs, as well as iron pots and pans.
We can get some idea of Zacheus’ wardrobe a few years later from an accounting between him and a tailor, Cotton Murray, dated 1774. The tailor made him a pair of buckskin breeches and a coat and vest, which he paid for with 78 pounds of cheese, 8 1/2 pounds of pork fat, and 7 3/4 pounds of butter, plus 7 shillings and a penny in cash.
During the war, cider was an important provision for soldiers. One of the early acts of the new state government, in 1777, was to prohibit the distillation of cider brandy, out of concern that its manufacture would make ordinary hard cider scarce and expensive. At the same time, the government began licensing distillers of gin, or Geneva.
Among the shop records is a 1783 bill for dinner and drinks. David Little had a rum toddy and a glass of gin, and John Spencer had a gin toddy.
But despite the wartime prohibition, cider brandy remained popular. In July of 1797, Jonathan Butler paid tax duties to operate his still for a month.
In August of that year, he records serving brandy a gill at a time. A gill is about 4 oz., and was likely enjoyed on the spot.
In 1800, he received a printed license to distill more domestic liquor.
Although official charges were in dollars and cents, for several years Jonathan Butler recorded values in sterling in his account book, and exchanged dollars at a rate of six shillings each.
By 1823, he regularly used U.S. dollars for accounting.
As the country moved west in the first half of the nineteenth century, apples and cider preceded them in the wave of orchards planted by Jonathan Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. Hailing from Massachusetts, Chapman traveled west to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, planting apple nurseries along the way and selling the young trees to the frontier settlers. He made a living of it and became one of the first American folk legends.
Like many Connecticut natives in the early nineteenth century, three of Jonathan Butler’s children left home to go west, and we will feature their stories in future blog posts. With the new postal system and steam boat lines, staying in touch was easier than ever, and hundreds of their letters are preserved in the Butler collection.
In their letters, they asked their father about his business, and how much cider he made for the year. And they brought their Connecticut taste for cider with them: one had a brewery in Ohio, another made cider on a farm in New York, and the third shipped “choice old boiled” cider, from a family friend producing it in Indiana, by steam boat to Michigan territory.
The cider mill and still run by Jonathan Cadwell and later by Zacheus and Jonathan Butler is long gone, but stored in the museum, the records that survive tell its story. We hope you enjoyed it. Let us know what you think in the comments, and stay tuned for more of Webster’s West Hartford history.