Canton, CT

By Hon. William Edgar Simonds
Published in the Connecticut Quarterly
July, August and September, 1895


In 1630 a group of English families under the pastoral charge of Rev. Mr. Warham came over the seas to this new western world. For six years they abode at the place which was thereafter called Dorchester and which is now part of Boston. Then in the spring of 1636 they traveled through a hundred miles of the solemn forest shadows and settled in Windsor, where the waters of the Tunxis blend with those of the noble Connecticut.

They were not slow to discover that the Tunxis was alive with salmon and that the "Falls," near the Tarifftville of to—day, was the place of all others to take them. Sailing in canoes, on the smooth stretch of still water above that picturesque gorge, they found a broad open savannah on the west bank, with certain fruitful vine growing there in wild luxuriance. Hopmeadow they named it on the instant, and Hopmeadow it remains to—day in the local vernacular, along with Terry’s Plain, Weatauge, Westover’s, Salmon Brook, and Turkey Hills ; Hazel Meadow and Meadow Plain are little known outside the old records. The Indian name of the region thereabout was Massacoe, and tribe of gentle Indians of that name held here their peaceful sway. A dweller in Simsbury street has within late years named his place " Massacoe Farm " as all who pass on the railway may plainly see.

Back of the savannah were great ranges of stately primeval pines, and straightway John Griffin, trader at Windsor, began to utilize them in the making of tar, pitch, turpentine, and candlewood; no small business this, for as late as 1728 a thrifty minister, the Rev. Timothy Woodbridge, sent five tons of turpentine to New York at a single shipment.

In 1648 Mannahooese, one of the Massacoes, kindled a fire which accidentally burned up some of Griffin's combustible goods; Griffin haled him to Court at Windsor and the gentle Massacocs made haste to ransom him by a conveyance of all the Massacoe lands, " all the land from the foot of the hills on both sides of the river up to the brook that is called Nod Meadow." Needless to say that the General Court subsequently confirmed this shameful transaction.

Simsbury was incorporated as a town in 1670 "to runn from Farmington bounds to northward tenn miles; and from Windsor bounds on the east, to runn westward tenn miles," a tract of land including the Canton of to-day; and for the next one hundred and thirty-six years the history of Simsbury was also the history of Canton.

Six years later, Sunday, March 26, 1676, the cohorts of Philip, King of the Pequots, burned to the ground the forty dwellings the Simsbury settlers had slowly and painfully erected during the quarter-century that just passed, the occupants having fled to Windsor and to Hartford the day before. Before labeling this deed as an inexcusable atrocity it is just as well to re-read, with the eyes of the red man, the series of Indian events in New England which began with the ravaging of Block Island by the whites in 1655 ; and it may possibly happen that we may come to look at Philip's final stand in behalf of his race as a supreme effort of pure patriotism on the part of one of the great men of the earth, ending with undying glory in the smoke and flame of the great " Swamp Fight" at Narragansett.

The next year after the incorporation of Simsbury, in May, 1671, it was voted, "to locate a meeting house at Hopmeadow," but it required thirteen years of controversy over the site-which was changed again and again-to get that meeting-house built. Finally the freemen met, and thirty-three of them signed an agreement which was placed on the public records beginning as follows

"May ye 7th, 1683. Whereas there has been a difference arising amongst us, concerning ye setling the place of ye meeting house ; that a settled peace may be obtained amongst us, to ye Glory of God, and the comfort of ourselves and ours, we whose names are unwritten do so agree and appoint as soon as may be comfortably obtained a day solemnly to meet together, in a solemn manner to cast lots for ye place where ye meeting-house shall stand."

The neat day `'the lot that came forth was for ye west side of ye river," and there the meeting-house was built. The Rev. Dudley Woodbridge was ordained here November lo, 1697. The beef used on that occasion cost three cents a pound, the venison two cents, and the rum four and half pence a gill. In process of time the first meeting-house was found too small for the growing community, and in 125 an agitation began for the erection of a new one, whereupon the old fight broke out anew and with tremendous virulence. This quarrel, like the first one, lasted thirteen years, and was finally settled by the division of the town into three ecclesiastical societies; it estranged friends and separated families; at one time the ministerial association suspended the administration of the Lord’s Supper, and for three years the General Assembly refused to appoint any justices of the peace for the town.

This bitter trouble was the occasion of the establishment, in 1736, of the Episcopal parish of St. Andrew’s, whose church building is near the railway at the place long called Scotland and now known as North Bloomfield ; its first rector was the Rev. William Gibbs, who has left behind him a sainted memory but he fed four British soldiers who came his way a little before the Revolution and was taken to the Hartford jail therefor, bound upon the back of a horse; he was over sixty years old, and he slipped from his scat and turned so that his head nearly dragged upon the ground; through carelessness or ugliness he was allowed to remain there so long that he became insane and died in that condition in 1777.

This same quarrel over the building of the second meeting—house in Simsbury was the occasion of the settlement of West Simsbury, now Canton, which began in 1737. Before that date two places in that general locality had taken the names they bear to-day. "Cherry’s Brook" and "Cherry Pond," the latter of which has given the name to Cherry Park. These two places were so called from an Indian chief "Waquaheag" who lived thereabout, but who occasionally appeared in Hopemeadow and was there familiarly known as "Old Cherry," probably on accotlflt of his fondness for cherry rum. The first burying-ground within the present town limits is near the Canton Center railway station ; it is in a fair state of preservation, and it is to be hoped that at no distant date it may be re-adopted for the use of all the town, for which it has both historical and topographical fitness.

The oldest house now standing in Cantor. is the so-called "Page Place," midway between Collinsville and Canton Village, built in 1747 by Benjamin Dyer, schoolmate of Benjamin Franklin. Tie next oldest, neighbor of the former, and the home of the writer, was built in 1756 by Thomas Dyer, son of the aforesaid Benjamin and grandfather of Thomas Dyer, afterward mayor of Chicago ; it has descended from the original Builder through an unbroken line of the ladies of the family to the present owner, who is of the same gentle persuasion. Its beams, as hard as iron, its floors put down with oaken pins, and its latch-bolts wrought by a skillful blacksmith and adorned with little brass knobs of the shape and size of a pigeon’s egg, all attest its antiquity.

The people of West Simsbury held religious services from 1741 onward, the beginning of the Sunday session being announced by the beat of the drum an ecclesiastical society was erected here in 1750, and the first meeting-house was built in 1763. In that year the society bought a pewter tankard and used it in the communion service; it is in existence to—day and bears this inscription: "Tankard used in the Communion service of the society who built the first meeting-house at West Simsbury in the year 1763. Rev. Gideon Mills, Pastor." The tankard had a lid ; and each communicant drank from the top.

The pews were deep square boxes and the pulpit was high in the air. No fire was had, summer or winter, but the well-to-do brought foot-stoves. A committee to seat the people iii the order of their social rank was chosen by vote; likewise a member to "tune the psalm" which lie did with a pitchpipe or a tuning-fork and a prolonged " do—o—o," in which the people joined before attacking the first verse. The attendants gathered during the noon—spell at a building hard by called the "ciderhouse," because it always held a barrel of cider free to all. Here they roasted the sausages they had brought with them, and with these and the doughnuts and the cider they fortified themselves against the afternoon freeze. Those who did not walk to church came on horseback, generally upon a pillion. Darius Moses owned the first wagon, one of the lumber-box variety, but lie did not dare to ride to church in it for a long time, because the community thought it frivolous. Later on the singing was led by a violin, base—viol and clarionet, and the music for a long time was of a higher order than was common else where. Down to a revival in 1783 this church lived tinder the Half-Way Convenant, which allowed church membership and infant baptism to certain of the unregenerate who acknowledged the covenant.

The Rev. Jeremiah Hallock preached for this church from 1785 to his death in 1826, and the Rev. Jairus Burt, from 1826 to his death in 1857. Both were strong men; they made their lasting impress upon the people; and it is doubtless due in some substantial measure to them that Canton has continuously produced a race of men among whom character has been the chiefest of earthly possessions.

Canton was formally set off from Simsbury and incorporated as a town in 1806, the name—meaning a "division of territory" —being suggested by Ephraim Mills. The town is about eight miles long, north and south, by four miles wide east and west, and has a population of some 2,500 souls.

In the early days the largest number of houses was near the center of the town and came to be called Canton Center, but the most important highway in the old town of Simsbury, sometime the Albany Turnpike, with the Litchfield Turnpike branching off at "Suffrage" ran from east to west across the southern part of the present town of Canton; on it at "Suffrage" (now Canton Village) was established in 1798, the first post-office in the town of Simsbury; and, as a part of the Litchfleld Turnpike, there was built across the Tunxis (now Farmington) river, the first town bridge in Simisbury, a mile north of the present Collinsville.

This was a famous old highway, enlivened by many a stage-coach drawn by four or six horses, and made musical by the merry winding of the drivers’ horns. At Suffrage, at the forking of the two turnpikes, there stood for more than a century, the famous Hosford Tavern around which hangs a grewsome story. During the Revolution, a French paymaster left Hartford for Saratoga, with his stout saddle-bags filled with gold for the payment of the French officers in the American army. He was traced to this tavern for a night’s rest and no further. The inn-keeper always avowed that lie departed safe and sound, but it was probably heavenward, for no evidence of lateral travel was ever found, and a discovery made after the tavern burred down a few years ago tends toward a belief in his murder. This incident endowed the highway with the legend of a ghastly phantom, a headless horseman to be met at night in a neighboring pass where the trees shadow the road so completely that no sunlight penetrates even at midday.

Near the south line of the town, Captain Fred Humphrey built a grist-mill in 1805, a saw—mill in 1815, and within a few years afterwards four houses were to be found thereabout, including the not altogether reputable "Tim Casa Tavern." In 1826 three young men, Samuel W. Collins, his brother David C. Collins, and their cousin, William Wells, came out from Hartford, bought the two mills with a few surrounding acres of land and began the manufacture of axes, each of the partners putting five thousand dollars into the enterprise. At that time no factory in the world made and sold axes as a business, and this undertaking was one of great audacity. Axes had been made by by blacksmiths upon single orders and when an order was executed the purchaser had to spend half a day in grinding an edge upon his ugly looking tool. From the first Collins & Co. put axes upon the market with an edge scarcely less keen then that of a razor and with side surfaces polished like a mirror. Not long before his death, Samuel W. Collins wrote out certain historical memoranda which the following are extracts:

"1828.— - Contracted with Oliver Couch to take his four-horse stage off the Albany Turnpike and run through Collinsville to Farmington and Hartford, and so got a post—office established at Collinsville. Built the first trip-hammer shop, etc. Commenced drawing axe-patterns, and making broad axes with trip hammers. Each man tempered his own, forging and tempering eight axes per day.

"1829.—- Built the first shop ever used for Lehigh coal fires. This was the first use of hard coal for this purpose in America.

"1830’ put up an office building, a part of which was used as the only school for the children, as a public hall, and until 1836 the only church.

"1832.— Sold Sampson & Tisdale, of New York, thirty thousand dollars worth of axes - being the largest sale made at that time to any one firm. E. K. Root commenced work for us, and invented useful labor-saving machinery; he became our superintendent; and afterwards in 1849, went on to the Colt Fire - Arms Manufactory, of which company he succeeded, after the death of Col. Colt, to the presidency."

From this insignificant beginning, a few men, making each eight axes per day, the business has grown in nearly seventy years into a stock company with an invested capital of one million, with a large surplus, employing 600 men, producing 4,500 axes and tools per day, besides a large number of steel plows and wrenches. The annual consumption of anthracite and other coal is m 11,000 tons; of charcoal, 30,000 bushels; of steel, 1,100 tons; of iron, 5,000 tons; and of grindstones alone 6oo tons, which is literally ground away in powder.

The original partnership of Collins & Company became The Collins Company of to—day; Samuel  Watkinson Collins was succeeded in the presidency by E. B. Watkinson, he by William Jackson Wood now deceased, Edward Hale Scars, who holds the reins with a masterly hand to—day.

The Congregational Church in Collinsville was organized with thirty three members June 25, 1832, "By Rev. Dr. Hawes, of Hartford; Rev. Mr. McLean of Simsbury Rev. Mr. Burt, of Canton, and the Stated Supply.’’ Joel Hawes, Allan McLean and Jaitus Burt — what a trio ! The Rev. Joel Hawes ordained pastor of the First Church in Hartford in 1818 and remained until his death in 1867; the Rev. Allan McLean was ordained pastor of the church of Simsbury in 1809 and remained such until his death in 1861: the Rev. Jairus Burt was ordained pastor of the church in Canton Center remained such until his death in 1857. Together they waged war against the cider—brandy distilleries to be found on every farm, at a time when common hospitality demanded the maintenance in every household of a sideboard filled with liquors free to all, and they shot out winged arrows against the institution of human slavery at a time when the Cost of doing it was the loss of pew-renters by the score. They did other things, not of the church militant, lovely and lovable, over which the writer fain would linger. Chaucer knew just such a man as was each of these when he wrote:

"He waytede after no pompe and reverence,
But Christes lore, and his apostle twelve,
He taught, but first he folwade in himself."

The Rev. Charles B. McLean, son of Allan, was ordained pastor of the church in Collinsville in 1844; the writer grew from childhood to manhood under his teachings; his every sermon was a classic in style and in spirit a beatitude; tenderness and reverence not to be expressed exhaled from every thought of him.

The first name of Collinsville was South Canton and it took it's present name against the wish and desire of Samuel W. Collins. That village - now lapping over into Burlington and Avon—lies upon the two sides of the Farmington river between two mountain ranges, each of which offers a most engaging view of the settlement below. Rose Terry had her chamber eyrie upon one of these mountain sides. As she looked from her window she saw the village of the living at her feet and straight across, high up on the opposing mountain side, the village of the dead. And she wrote these lines with truth as well as grace:

"Over the river, on the hill,
Lieth a village, white and still
All around it the forest trees
Shiver, and whisper in the breeze;
Over it sailing shadows go,
Of soaring hawk and screaming crow;
And mountain grasses low amid sweet,
Grow in the middle of every street.

Over the river, under time hill,
Another village lieth still,
There I see in the cloudy night,
Twinkling stars of household light,
Fires that gleam from the smithy’s door,
Mists that curl on the river’s shore;
And in the road no grasses grow,
For the wheels that hasten to and fro."

The town has seven school districts; the Collinsville district maintains a graded school of six departments, with hundreds of pupils, the finality of which is a high school of which George W. Flint is principal. The high school graduates small classes yearly, but the graduates go to the various colleges and are never "winged" on their entrance examinations.

Canton is not a showy town, but is emphatically one of substance. It is not in pressing need of the going reforms. Years ago the question of the sale of intoxicating liquors was taken out of politics and now it is not possible to drum up signatures enoughf to try on the question of license or no license in town meeting. Vote buying was never an industry there of any magnitude and to—day it is not an appreciable factor in any election. Canton has raised and sent out sonic useful and sturdy sons; Owen Brown, descendant of Peter Brown, who came over in the Mayflower, and father of John Brown the Martyr, was born there in 1771 ; he moved first to Torrington, Conn., where John was born, and then to Ohio, where he helped to build up the Western Reserve College, but when a negro applied for admission, and the trustees refused to take him in, Brown withdrew his support and helped to build up Oberlin. John Brown was a familiar sight in the streets of Collinsville after the troubles in Kansas and until his sacrifice at Harper's Ferry; he had made there the pikes he used in his raid on slavery.

Canton sent out the Rev. Henian Humphrey to be president of Amherst College, the Rev. Hector Humphrey to be professor at Trinity and afterwards President of St, Johns College at Annapolis, Rev. Dr. Selah Merrill to be archaeologist of the American Palestine Palestine Society, Solon Humphreys to be one of the chief builders of the Pacific railways, Merrill J. Mills to be Mayor of Detroit, Thomas Dyer to be Mayor of Chicago, and so on and so forth. Patriotism, stout and rugged as her hills, is native to the soil ; in the French and Indian wars front 1744 to 1763, Canton furnished twenty volunteers of whome eight died at Louisburg and Havana; to the War of the Revolution she sent nearly eighty soldiers; in the French war of 1798 she had Oliver and George Humphrey on board the U. S. frigate Constitution in the action with the French 74—gun ship La Vengeance; to the war of 1812 she gave fifty men, and to the defence of the Union in 1861-5, at a time when her population was not more than two thousand, site contributed two hundred and eight of her citizens. "Deeds not words" has been the motto by which her people have lived and died Nevertheless a great deal that is interesting remains to be said.


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