Early Milford



From The Connecticut Magazine
Vol. V. No. 3 March, 1899

By M. Louise Greene

ONE hundred and fifty years earlier,another traveller, a pioneer in the wilderness, had noticed the picturesque cascade, and his keen eye had marked its utility, with the result that, a year later, in March, 1640, the Second General Court of Milford agreed with the first William Fowler "that he should build a mill and have her runfling by thelast of September ;" and further that if the town thought proper, it should take the building off the miller's hands at a valuation of £180. To encourage him, he was given thirty acres of land or "Mill Lot" Eastfield, rate free during his life and also the "perpetual use of the Stream." This mill, the first in New Haven Colony, was duly completed. It was a grist mill, but soon there was added to it a saw-mill. So valued was this property, that after a freshet in 1645, the town empowered its owner to go through the village and to call upon each man for one day's labor in repairing damages, and to do this whenever such help was necessary. The town fixed the miller's rates at three quarts out of each bushel of grain.

For over two centuries and a half the water turned the mill-wheels of successive generations as each William Fowler in turn to the ninth generation of him who first chained the stream, measured the grist or told the tale. Stage-coach gave way to railway while the old mill still held its own. Each building became in time the "old mill" until the fifth and last, built about 1884 and Closed some ten years later. With its long, slender hooks making immense Roman "V's" upon its western end, with its "Ye Fowler's Mills Established in ye year 1639," above the door, it stands an ancient landmark, (it was the oldest business house of its kind in the country), by right of long existence demanding that the road make a sweeping curtsy in passing. Looming upon the traveller, who is about to cross the stream, it is almost an integral part of the new Memorial Bridge. In very truth, a part of that historic sentiment which built the bridge and which speaks from every stone. This memorial was the united effort of town and people. For the construction of the bridge proper, Milford town voted $3,000. The tower and inscriptive ornament are gifts from descendants, (whether Milfordites or not), of the settlers whose lives are thus commemorated.

The stone bridge is simple in design, its broad copings surmounted with rough hewn blocks of granite, bearing the names of the first settlers. There are ten blocks on the south and twenty on the north coping. At each end of the former is a stone four feet wide by five and a half high. Two inscriptions, on their curved and polished surfaces, recite briefly the services of the colony's first guides. One is dedicated to Thomas Tibbals, who led the people along the tortuous Indian trail from New Haven to Wepowagee, and is "in consideration of his helpfulness at the first coming to Milford to show the first corners the place." The second is in memory of the Reverend Peter Prudden;

"First Pastor in Milford
Obit 1656,
The Voice of one crying in the
Wilderness, Prepare Ye
The way of the Lord, make His Paths Straight.

The text is that of his first sermon preached in New Haven Colony, and in New Haven, on the afternoon of April 18, 1638, beneath the branches of a big oak tree which stood near the present northeast corner of George and College streets. Along the southern coping runs the inscription "God sifted a whole nation that He might send choice grain into the wilderness."

The glory of the bridge, architecturally, is the round tower at the northwest end, with roof of Spanish tile, with ancient lantern, and buttress trending northward, ye old mill-wheel at its foot, making for the wayfarer an attractive seat. This old stone is reputed to be the one, which the first William Fowler hewed roughly from a near-by quarry and made to serve him until a better stone could be obtained. On the buttress, in rising order, are graven the fundamental virtues of society; Law, Order, Morality, Liberty, Charity. This stone Work frames the inscriptive tablet to Governor Treat,—of whom more hereAfter, -- While at the northeastern end of the bridge there is a second seat formed by the stone reading:


FROM 1742 TO 1750.

Returning to the tower, we find below the lantern two inscriptions by the Wepowage Lodge, one commemorating that Indian tribe whom the first settlers of Milford found so friendly, and the other bearing their chieftain, Ansantuwoe's mark, while over the key-stone of the arch above the door leading into the tower, and also the arches of the bridge beneath which flows the Wepowaug river, ideal Indian heads stand out in high relief. On the oaken door, sunk within the portal of the tower, is an ancient knocker from the house upon whose porch, in 1740, Whitefield preached that memorable address which later caused secession from the First Society and the formation of Plymouth Church. Above this door are the wrought iron figures 1639, the date of the settlement of Milford.

From the bridge one can reconstruct the early time. Topographically, one will omit the houses close to the river on either side. That ground was open. So too was the lower part of Broad street to the harbor, and on this vacant ground the train band manoeuvred six times a year.* The river also was open to the sound, and vessels swung at anchor at Fowler's little dock but a short distance below the mill. Mr. William Fowler's home lot and mill extended seven acres and three rods. Next to him, moving northward along the river, came the Rev. Peter Prudden's house lot (40) of the same dimensions. Later, in 1700, this house was fortified to resist any attack, because of the increasing unfriendliness of the Indians. At the southeast corner of the pastor's garden, on a clear day, could be dimly seen the low mounds of those whom death, as early even as 1744, claimed, when a little son of William East's passed away on June 18th and thus began in the little town the long muster roll of centuries. For over a hundred years there was but one meeting house, and that a few rods south of the present First Church. It was a queer, box-like structure thirty feet square, with a roof like a huge candle extinguisher, surmounted by a belfry from which the bell-rope hung down into the middle aisle. From the guard seats within, the watch could look across the river, past Sachem's Island just below the present Episcopal Church, or from the doorway they could sweep the horizon, could scan the harbor, the mills, the New Haven road (sixteen rods wide), or could follow the line of palisades, and watch the two bridges, the meeting-house bridge and Fowler's, now replaced by this memorial to the pluck and character of him and his associates. During troubled periods, sentries were maintained on each of the four sides of the meeting-house, and the train-band went heavily armed to church.

A few rods west of the meeting-house stood the country tavern from 1644 until about 1828. It was first kept by Henry Tomlinson and later it was owned by the Bryans, and kept for a long term of years by them. It was here that General Washington stopped on his New England tour of 1789. In his journal are frequent complaints of the poverty of the inns with which he met. Tradition says that at this, then Clark's inn, disappointed in his supper of boiled meat and potatoes, he called for a bowl of bread and milk, which was set before him with a broken pewter spoon. Upon remonstrance, his host declared the house had no other. Thereupon, His Excellency gave the servant two shillings with the command to go to the minister's and borrow a silver spoon.

By the bridge below the miller, (42), was the home of Thomas Lawrence, with but one acre of ground; while diagonally across the river to the southwest, the smallest allotment of all, (24) only three rods, held a little lean-to house with rent oak shingles, its small square windows divided into many diamonds by leaded glass. Here the light burned latest in the village. Here lived one of the most honored men in the little settlement, Jasper Gunn, sealer of weights and measures, "equal to the standard used at New Haven, which was brought from the Bay "—feared by every dishonest merchant and trader; Jasper Gunn, teacher, more or less dreaded by boys and girls in those days of harsh discipline; Jasper Gunn, physician, known as far as Hartford and revered among the villagers. Among the memorial blocks upon the bridge is one bearing his name and that of his faithful consort, Sarah.

From the bridge in the farther western distance, s m ok e from chimneys showed the whereabouts of the twelve families settled on either side of West End Brook. The nearest chimney, that of Widow Martha Beard, (54) to whom, for her courage in continuing on into the wilderness with her three sons and three daughters after the death of her husband at sea on the passage over, the town made a liberal grant of land both at the original allotment and later divisions. Her eldest son James died unmarried, and his was the first estate administered upon in Milford. Her son Jeremy died without issue. John rose to be captain. Her daughters married well. "Ensign John Stream, obit 1685. Martha Beard his wife" and "Martha Beard (widow)" is the lettering of one of the blocks on the south coping. The Beard home lot included the land on Broad street from "Charles A. Tomlinson's corner to the large elm in John G. North's place."

From the bridge the eye could follow the palisades, so thickly set that a Man
could not squeeze between them, enclosing about a mile of country, and bounding on the west the home lots of the settlers on the further side of West End Brook. In 1645-46 the Indians came up to this palisade daring the white men to come out and taunting them that they were "shut up all one as pigs." Among the West End villagers, was William Roberts (57) whose grave is marked by the oldest legible stone in the present cemetery. There, too, was Deacon George Clark Sr., (65 )carpenter,t and Farmer George Clark, In 1700 the house the deacon built was, like Mr. Prudden's, a fort of refuge. But before that time, the deacon had built himself another house outside the palisades. For the courage thus displayed, the town made him a grant of forty acres of land in Westfield. This house, known as the Clark or Pond house, was long occupied by the late Mr. Nathan G. Pond, historian and genealogist, who made of it a very mine of colonial treasures. The hipped roof of the house was added in recent years.

The people from West End Brook came across from West Town street to River street by a foot path to the meeting house, maintained with converient stiles. “The stiles,” the records say, “to be maintained by bro: Nicholas Camp at West End, and by bro: Thomas Baker at the meeting-house (for the outside stiles;) and for the inner fences, each man shall maintain his stile in the most convenient place; and the passage over Little Dreadful swamp in John Fletcher’s (12) lot shall be by a long log hewed on the upper side." It is to be remembered that at this time there was much common land,* where each man’s initials on a post stood for his share of the four foot ten inch fence which he was required to keep in repair. If notified of a break he was to repair it within sixteen hours under penalty of five shillings. The gates to these enclosures were kept by individuals whom the town paid in grants of land, rate free during such keeping. It was rather necessary that fences should be in good repair if only for the reason that for a century, the town kept a flock of from 7000 to 1500 sheep. These were pastured more or less at large, and though they were in the care of shepherds hired to watch them, sheep, then as now, had a way of stampeding. The profits arising
from the flock went to meet the town’s expenses. Hogs abounded in such numbers that in 1657 the Milford people petitioned the General Court of. New Haven Jurisdiction to consider some method of limiting the number.

From the bridge, was seen the roof of the common-house where now the chimneys of Baldwin’s straw shop rise. At the settlement the people had come over the hills from New Haven, driving their cattle before them, while they sent their goods and the materials for their common house around by sloop. Within the year separate homes were built, but at first they must have shared the commonhouse, and, doubtless, beneath its roof were held the earliest public meetings.

At the First General Meeting, November 20, 1639, they met to organize themselves into a theocratic republic, and it was

“Voted that they would guide themselves in all their doings by the written Word of God, till such time as a body of laws should be established.”

“That five men should be chosen for judges in all civil affairs, to try all causes between man and man; and as a court to punish any offenses and misdemeanor.” (This Court was known as the Particular Court.)

“That the persons invested with magistracy should have power to call a general court (or town meeting) whenever they might see cause or the public good require.”

“Voted that they should hold particular courts once in six weeks, wherein should be tried such causes as might be brought before them, they to examine witnesses upon oath as need should occur.”

“Voted and agreed that according to the sum of money which each person paid toward the public charge, in such proportion should he receive or be repaid by lands, and that all planters who might come after, should pay their share equally for some other public use.”

The judges chosen were William Fowler, Edmund Tapp, Zachariah Whitman, John Astwood and Richard Miles— to hold office to the following October — and to pass upon the admission of inhabitants and the division of lands. These five men with the addition of Rev. Peter Prudden, Thomas Buckingham and Thomas Welch constituted the seven pillars of the original Milford church, organized August 22, 7640, at New Haven.

Of these seven names, all but Astwood’s occur among the memorial blocks. Richard Miles later moved to New Haven. His Milford lands became the property of his son Samuel, to whom Milfordites, with the exception of the David and Mary Carrington Miles branch (coming from another son of Richard’s, Capt. John), trace their descent.

On February 12, 1639, three of these men, William Fowler, Edmund Tapp and Zachariah Whitman together with Benjamin Fenn and Alexander Bryan—(names also memorialized)— bought of the land lying between the East River and the Housatonic, the sea with the island south and the two-mile Indian path to Pangusset or Derby. The deed was taken in trust for the body of fifty-four planters, and in consideration of “ 6 coats, 10 blankets, 1 kettle, 12 hatchets, 12 hoes, 2 dozen knives and a dozen small glasses” (mirrors) was solemnly confirmed by Ansantaway’s passing over to the white men a piece of turf wherein he set a twig to symbolize his surrendering of the soil and all that grew thereon. Various purchases extended the town’s limits far beyond the present boundaries. The sale of territory to help piece out the surrounding towns reduced its dimensions to the present triangle of about six miles.

The Milford men came in two bodies, those of 1639 and those of 1645. Most of them were from the English counties of Essex, Hereford and York. There were fifty-four heads of families or approximately two hundred settlers. Some came from New Haven, others from Wethersfield, following Rev. Peter Prudden who had ministered there between the formation of his own church at New Haven, August 22, 1639, and his ordination as pastor of the Milford church, April 18, 1640, after which Mr. Prudden took up his residence in Milford.

The second mill built in the town (1675), the first fulling-mill, was also visible from the bridge. It was near the meeting-house, and was built by Major Treat, later Governor Treat, Lieutenant Fowler, son of William Fowler, and Thomas Hayes. It was a fulling and saw-mill. Thirty years later, a grist-mill, near by, was added, with two sett of stone, one for English and the other for Indian grain, and “a good boult, so yt men, if they wish, may boult ye own flour.” The saw-mill gave place in 1836 to the woolen factory of Townsend, Dickinson & Co. In 1689, a second fulling mill was built on Beaver River. This in turn gave way to a flour mill from about 1783 to 1828. Cloth was not commonly sheared or pressed until after the Revolution. A kind of worsted stuff, known as everlasting, sheepskin or buckskin were used for breeches.

Commerce early went far afield from Fowler’s dock. As the river filled up, vessels moored farther and farther down the stream. The names of Bryan and Came suggest that of their partner. William East. Ensign Alexander Bryan as early as 1640 sent a vessel to Boston laden with furs to exchange for goods needed by the planters, either for themselves or for trade with the Indians. In ten years, trade increased to require a warehouse or store 6o X 20 feet. For it the town granted him land on the west Corner of Broad street and Dock or Bryan lane, at the foot of which he built, in the Same year, his own wharf. In 1655 Richard Bryan built opposite his father’s, a Warehouse of about half the size. Sergeant William East had another between Richard’s and the house of Miles Merwin, tanner. In 1675, the three men owned two brigs for West Indian commerce and a sloop for coasting-trade. In Boston, Ensign Bryan’s notes of hand passed current as freely as do our bank-bills to-day. A fourth store-house was built in 1685 by Nicholas Camp in the West End. Staves, cattle, horses, beef, pork, flour, and corn were exported in exchange for rum, molasses and European goods. In 1714, Samuel, son of Deacon Clarke, bought Richard Bryan’s warehouse and land (2r. 13 ft. x 31 1/2 ft. wide) on the east side of the highway for £ 6.

Shipbuilding, in the old yard a few rods below the mill (Fowler’s) had already begun. Bethuel Langstaff had built in 1690 a brig of 150 tons for Alexander Bryan; another in 1695 for Boston parties. The “Sea-Flower” for Richard Bryan was launched in 1717. The “Isabella,” an East Indian, sold in New York in 1818, was the last built at Milford. During the period of the industry, coasters and an occasional merchantman, were built for shippers of Milford, New York and Boston. Most of these were built at the town yards though a few were constructed at Wheeler’s Farms on the Housatonic.

Milford commerce did not last quite two centuries. It crashed with the big failure of Miles, Strong and Miles, in 1821. Among her early traders and merchants was John Maitbee, 1670; Mungo Nesbitt, enrolled a citizen and given the freedom of the town in 1696; Edward Allen, shipbuilder and importer, 1700. There were also the two great merchants of French extraction, Peter Pierett, who built the town wharf in 1730; and Louis Lyron, 1640. (The stones in the old cemetery record their virtues and attest their wealth.) In the middle of the last century, trade with Holland was carried on by John Gibbs. In its closing years, a wharf was built at the Gulf by the firm of Charles Pond & Co., large shippers.

But a short way up the street from the Memorial Bridge, one comes yet again face to face with reminders of the earlier time, pleasantly woven with memories of the letters Cadmus gave, of other lands and other days, commingling with the mighty interest of the pressing time. As the “Taylor Library” greets the eye one recalls the old English song:
“Oh, for a book and a shadie nooke Eyther in door or out,
With the green leaves whispering overhead Or the street cryes all about,
Where I maie reade all at my ease Both of the newe and old,
For a jolly goode hooke wherein to looke Is better to me than golde.
Photo's from this artical

The Memorial Bridge

The Bridge Tower and Mill

The First Meeting House

Along the River

The First Congregational and Plymouth Churches

First Congregational Church

Accross the Bridge

8) Map of Milford in 1646

clear gif

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