By REV. JOHN McLEAN
Published in the Connecticut Quarterly
April, May and June, 1895
Why Simsbury? There is much in a name notwithstanding Shakespearean philosophy. New York, Chicago, Boston. Could they have become great cities had they been blanketed with the name Simsbury? Some authentic historical reason for exchanging the musical Indian name Massaco for colorless Simsbury would make it more endurable, but the search-light of the historian reveals but conflicting guesses. The name of a place, however, with which we have no acquaintance, is but an abstraction. Knowing it, it becomes concrete, and the frame-work and background of a series of pictures and impressions. Though the name, Simsbury, be without suggestiveness to the strange ear, to those who have watched the seasons come and go, from her quiet homes, and to the passer-by, whose soul is touched by the beautiful, this name will turn many exquisite pages, in memory's album.
Simsbury is a mine of that wealth of which the man may possess most who has greatest capacity to receive. The great charm of the place is variety. It has some attractive features for almost every taste. Those who love mountain scenery may wander along the granite hills on the west or the trap ledges on the east. They may climb the " Pinnacle, " and look down on pretty Lake " Bijou," lying like a pearl in emerald setting, or to the cedar-fringed summit of Mt. Philip, towering nearly a thousand feet above the river-ribboned meadows of Massaco. From this far famed " royal view" may be traced the old drift-" kames" by the deep green of the pines which clothe their sterile summits. Far to the north and west, Tom, Holyoke, and distant Greylock salute you through the purple haze. In the west arises that wild tumult of hills, which conceal in their bosom the grand old towns of Litchfield and Norfolk.
If the more quiet scenery of a river valley affords greater pleasure - search out and feast upon the unsung beauties of the Farmington, a stream which would have ravished the soul of Wordsworth or David Gray. For miles the road follows the river where the waters flash to the eye their fresco of overarching elms, with background of blue sky and fleecy cloud, and where river-bank on the one hand and hedge-row on the other, seem to compete, in wild luxuriance of flowers, grasses, and tangles of clematis and woodbine. Northward the stream winds through welltilled meadows, where the projecting coves are almost concealed beneath a thin garment of peltate leaves, and starry lilies. At length, turning sharply eastward its tortured waters plunge wildly over the rocks of the mountain pass.
For some, the forests have peculiar charm. There are many drives through the wooded belt, running north by south nearly through the center of the township. These give cool, refreshing shelter which the fierce heat of the summer sun can scarcely penetrate, where toiling, weary brutes, and men who are not brutes, breathe gratitude. Masses of ferns, and banks of soft cool moss tempt the passer-by to recline in dreamy reverie and listen to the monotone of the wind, playing upon its mighty sylvan organ.
Simsbury offers rich enjoyment to any student who delights in reading the long story of creation,-for nowhere on the face of the earth can more formations, distinct in character, be found within the limit of a few hours' walk. Here granite, trap, sandstone and the erratic rocks chant their tragic epics for those who " have ears to hear." Not less of interest will here be found for the botanist. From showery April, when that sweet gift of the glacier smiles its greeting from beneath the leaves,- to chill November, when the deep fringed gentian seems to chide the trees for putting off their summer robes so soon, broad flower-besprinkled meadows, deep orchidhiding woods, hedge-row, marsh, mountain cliff and glen will reward the patient seeker after Flora's gems.
Some, believing that " the proper study of mankind is man," would search the fading pages of history. No tragic scene of the world's great drama has been enacted here. The history of Simsbury is the story of a sturdy, selfdependent, God-fearing, home-loving people, who spared neither blood, nor fortune when the " drum beat" sounded to that great struggle for independence, or that more terrible death grapple with the dark demon of sin, whose voice of wild satiric laughter had ever mingled its discords with our " anthems of the free." Armed with such preparation as the " destrict school " and village lyccum afforded, her "Miltons" and "village Hamptons" have not all remained "mute and inglorious." Simsbury has given to the National Army, able officers; to Congress, wise statesmen; to the Executive, a Comptroller, a Secretary of the Treasury, and a distinguished foreign minister; to our Colleges, two President; to the Episcopal Church, a Bishop; to Missouri, a Governor; to New Fork City, merchant princes, and to the professions prominent members.
Simsbury was the second town of the Tunxis Valley to invite the English settler. In 1643, John Griffin and Michael Humphrey came from Windsor and commenced the manufacture of tar. A certain Indian, Manahannoose, " did wittingly kindle a fire" which proved disastrous to their enterprise. The Court decreed, that " in default of payment of five hundred string of wampum," he should " serve or be shipped in exchange for neagcrs." He seems to have escaped this penalty by giving the injured tar-makers a deed of 'Massaco. The township has several times been divided. East Granby, (where old 'New-ate prison is located), Granby, North Canton and Canton having, in great Dart, been formed from its original territory.
Simsbury is located northwest of Hartford, in the northern part of that valley rent from the broad Connecticut by the convulsions following the Jurassic epoch. Scattered over its area, are numerous small villages, the one known as Simsbury being near the center. These are, with two or three exceptions, arranged along the streets running north and south on either side of the river. North, on the cast side of the river, is located the once thriving village of Tariff ville. Desolating fires, with a series of other mis fortunes, have checked its prosperity. The "long road," of its misfortunes, now seems to have reached its " turning." It is won derfully picturesque in its surroundings, and the scenery attracts maDy to the " Bartlett Tower," located on a mountain near by. From Tariffville southward the drive commands the most charming river and meadow scenery. Where the old Windsor road descends the mountain is a little hamlet known as "Terry's plain." Fair and delectable indeed must have seemed the virgin face of Massaco as seen first from this mountain crest, and one cannot wonder that Griffin and Humphrey ( the " Caleb " and " Joshua " sent to spy out the land) resolved to settle here, notwithstanding the "Anakim."
About two miles of road, mostly along the river bank brings us to East Weatogue, a pretty, restful hamlet. The morning sun is late in driving away the mountain shadows, but the wide westward vista lengthens out the day with glowing sunsets. Here the Hartford road winds over the mountain. From the summit of the last steep descent, the song of turbulent waters will fall upon the ear. Would you enjoy one of the daintiest bits of scenery; swing down the deep ravine and follow the laughing cascades through the gloom of the rock-walled canon.
In this village stands the oldest house of the township, known as the "Bacon Place" or "Ft. George." Built in 1717, though somewhat bowed with age, its massive timbers yield but slowly to the ravages of time. Tradition tells of wild scenes here in the old days of warfare. There also is located that fine example of colonial architecture, the " Humphrey Place," at present occupied by the lineal descendants of that Michael Humphrey who with John Griffin first invaded the primeval forests of Massaco.
On the opposite side of the river lies the sister village, West Weatogue, in former days the business center of the place. The " old inhabitant " still boasts of those halcyon times. here was the village store, and the school where John Slater was, by vote of the town, authorized " to teach the youths to read, write, cypher and say the rules of arathmetack," and here another teacher of great local fame taught grammar by machinery. With growth of business in another part of the town, the star of her prosperity set, but only to rise again with increased splendor. Her prophet no longer chants hi, Jeremiads from her ruins. The " spirit of the renaissance " is sweeping over her, everywhere transforming the unsightly into the beautiful. Old farm houses burst from the chrysalis into towered mansions. An artistic granite fountain,-"in memoriam"of the beloved physician, Dr. White,-ornaments her pretty green. Even the old school house, has put off her simple gown and come out in a brand new suit, with a " Romanesque " flounce.
Separated from Weatogue by the loveliest of drives through the fragrant pines is Bushy Hill. A bushy hill no longer. Her ill-kept farms, where men often failed in the struggle with nature because of the heavy tribute paid " King Alcohol," have come into the possession of the Rev. D. Stuart Dodge, the Messrs Arthur, Norman, and Walter Phelps Dodge, the sons and grandson of the late William E. Dodge of New York; and her hills, commanding a wide circle of exquisite scenery, are being crowned with stately mansions. Bushy hill is honored by the association of distinguished names. In her humble farmhouses were born Anson G. Phelps the successful man of business and philanthropist, and John J. Phelps, the merchant prince. His son the eminent statesman and diplomat, William Walter Phelps, spent here many days of his childhood and youth.
About two miles westward, where the road from the granite mountains enters the valley between twin frowning ledges of intrusive trap, nestles the little village of West Simsbury, or "The harms," a place lying at the threshold of the most charming and unique scenery.
About two miles north of Weatogue is the central village, which takes the township name, Simsbury. It is built along a terrace, between the wooded bluff and the river meadows. Entering from the Bushy hill or Farms road, you will pass the old Mill which still grinds the grists, and takes the toll, as in days of yore. A little down the stream stands the old distillery. It is now many years since barefoot lads and lassies, with tin pails and pennies, descended the winding path, and climbed the stile to get " a mess of emptin's," as yeast was called.
The road describes a half circle at the foot of the hill, where stands the Congregational Church, a building of classic proportions, and of a simple chaste style which harmonized with the age and worship of its time. Admire its exterior. Do not enter until a mistake of a few years since be remedied, and the sober Purl tan meeting-house be dis robed of its gaudy attire. Northward for nearly a mile the street extends, straight as an arrow, broad, sentinelled by magnificent elms and sycamores. The accompany ing views will give hints of its beauty. Aside from the many fine modern houses arc many places of historic interest.
The Amos R. Eno mansion stands on a finely shaded eminence, overlooking the valley. Built by the Hon. Elisha Phelps,--the father of Mrs. Eno, --the recent changes in the building seem rather to emphasize its oldtime dignity and atmosphere of hospitality. Here for nearly a half century, the queenly hostess won the love of high and low; and the farmer iad of fourscore years ago,-having fought life's battle in the great metropolis, and won not only "great riches," but that "good name" honored and respected by all,-has come here for quiet and rest in his declining years.
Simsbury numbers among her most valuable institutions, " The Free Library," a gift from Mr. Eno. to his birth-place. The building is designed in harmony with its surroundings, and, within and without, is a fine expression of colonial architecture. The library, nourished by a liberal fund, removes from the youth of Simsbury any barrier from culture.
In the center of the village, where was once the church-yard is the Cemetery. For two and a quarter centuries, groups of people, with sad eyes, and aching hearts, have climbed this beautiful hillside, to lay away the tenement of some beloved soul. Whether the earth were covered with snow or violets, in sunshine and storm, the sad burial words have been spoken, but when the trembling voice strikes the brighter strain, " I am the resurrection and the life," the restful beauty of the scene seems to turn the thought from the "city of the dead," to that city whose Builder and Maker is He who giveth and taketh away. The limit of this paper forbids tarrying among the quaint headstones and quainter inscriptions. Passing the little group of stores, the old Ensign homestead stands on the left, with its lilac bushes and cinnamon roses, and nearly opposite the Jeffrey O. Phelps mansion, built in 1771, in colonial days the famous "Phelps Tavern,'". Now take off your hat and make obeisance to the monarch of the street,-King Ulmus. I can never consciously pass under this tree without a feeling of reverence. 1t combines, more than any other I have ever seen, great size, symmetry, grace, impressiveness of strength and character. Beautiful as it is clothed in its summer robe,-it is even more impressive when the lofty arches of its giant arms are thrown against the face of the moon or the clear blue of the winter sky.
The " Dr. Barber house " was built in 1762, and soon came into the possession of Major Elihu Humphrey, an ancestor of its late occupant. When Lexington roused the land, the Major gathered his company on the green before this house,-on the eve before their departure to Boston,-and here the tearful farewells were said to wives and mothers. To the shelter of this roof the wounded warrior was brought to breathe away his ebbing life.
Under the pine-covered bluff,-facing meadow and mountain is the McLean Seminary, a school founded and named in honor of the Rev. Allen McLean, for fifty-two years the beloved pastor of the Congregational Church.
The "Elizur Eno House," located in that continuation of the street called Westover plain, is the oldest but one in the town, built about 1750. It is a fine old structure, reposing under a mammoth elm of great age and beauty. Here at one time were quartered some French officers. A duarrel arising at dinner, one threw the carving knife, which missing his antagonist, buried itself in the casing, where the gash can now be seen. I have given but a glimpse of this fair valley and its traditions. Would you see more? Study for yourself the tapestry of its meadows, the frescoes of its skies, the pictures on its mountain walls, and the resting-place of its children, with the names engraven there.
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