“The Old Taverns Are Closed Now and the Old Gates Are Down”:

Rural Connecticut Villages in the Age of the Dying Small Town, 1860-1920

Jamie H. Eves

When J. R. Cole published his popular History of Tolland County, Connecticut in 1888, he chose as his theme the rise of factory towns and the decline of rural villages in the late 1800s. It seemed like a logical interpretation. While the coming of factories and railroads had brought increased growth and prosperity to the county’s industrial centers, its rural communities appeared to have withered and declined. Cole cited the example of a village that once had been “a place of some manufacturing and other interests” (it had boasted a small gristmill and sawmill) “but since the building of the railroad” through another town “business has declined.” Nearby, a second village had suffered the same fate. It “was formerly a business center,” Cole wrote, “being on the old stage route of the Providence and Hartford turnpike road, also the Hartford and Boston road, but the old taverns are closed now and the old gates are down.” But a closer look shows that villages and village life in Connecticut were in fact more resilient than Cole – and many others – thought.

The conclusion that rural villages were declining was not confined to Connecticut. Throughout the eastern United States, popular magazines and newspapers bemoaned what was termed the “dying small town problem.” In the long-settled states of New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, rural population peaked around 1860, and then commenced a long decline that lasted until about 1920, when America’s so-called “small town renaissance” began.

The causes of the problem seemed clear. Several factors – years of overfarming that robbed the soil of its fertility, scourges of insect pests, and the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist forms of agriculture that had begun shortly after the American Revolution – had combined to greatly reduce the number of farm jobs and push people out of rural areas. At the same time, a countervailing increase in industrial employment had pulled thousands of rural people to the beckoning cities and factory towns. And the advent of the railroad made it easier for those who did remain in rural areas to shop in the cities and large towns, where they could find greater selection and lower prices. All of these factors put unbearable pressure on village merchants and artisans. Unable to compete with the larger stores and shops of the cities, many gave up, closed their establishments, and joined the exodus to the city. To get a better idea of what was happening in Connecticut, I decided to conduct a case study of village life in the Shetucket River Valley in northeastern Connecticut from 1860 to 1920, the Age of the Dying Small Town. What I found surprised me. 

A typical Connecticut region, the Shetucket Valley consisted of sixteen towns. Six (Windham, Stafford, Mansfield, Sprague, Willington, and Coventry) were fairly large factory towns. The other ten (Franklin, Scotland, Andover, Columbia, Chaplin, Hampton, Ashford, Eastford, Union, and Tolland) were small farm towns. Several railroads provided transportation.

Between 1860 and 1920 the Valley’s population increased 40 percent, from 22,925 to 32,039. But growth occurred only in four towns, all with factories. Windham grew by 228 percent, Stafford by 59 percent, Mansfield by 19 percent, and Willington by 3 percent. In contrast, all ten of the farm towns lost population. Union declined by 65 percent, Eastford by 51 percent, Chaplin by 51 percent, Hampton by 49 percent, Scotland by 46 percent, Ashford by 45 percent, Franklin by 24 percent, Tolland by 21 percent, and Columbia by 15 percent. Altogether, the Valley’s “urban” population grew by 87 percent (from 13,811 to 25,864), but its “rural” population decreased by 32 percent (from 8,177 to 6,175).

Outside of the manufacturing centers, two-thirds of the population lived spread out on scattered family farms. The other third clustered into approximately sixty villages, ranging in size from Westford (47 persons in 1880) to Staffordville (1,041 persons in 1880). These villages had formed around what geographers call central-place functions: stores, shops, gristmills, hotels, churches, schools, post offices, taverns, and other attractive features that draw people to come to a place. In the 1830s a resident of Ashford village described it as containing “a meeting house, an academy, two taverns, [and] a cluster of neat dwellings.” According to the historical geographer Joseph Wood, most Connecticut villages originated not during colonial times, but shortly after the American Revolution, as rural marketplaces sprang up during the Market Revolution – ironically, the very event that late nineteenth-century commentators believed had caused their downfall. Accordingly, most of the villages’ central-place functions were economic rather than social or political. For example, Chaplin village, in addition to 30 dwellings, a church, a school, and a post office, had three general stores, a jeweler’s shop, a tavern, a small hat manufactory, and a cobbler’s shop – seven economic central-place functions to only three social-political functions.

Despite the decline in rural population, the number of villages in the Shetucket Valley increased between 1860 and 1920. I compared county maps and atlases published in 1856-69 with United States Geological Survey (USGS) maps compiled in 1890-91 and 1942-43, and found that the Valley had 49 villages in 1856-69, 58 in 1890-91, and 66 in 1942-43. Only four villages vanished entirely. The overwhelming majority survived into the twentieth century.

Moreover, village population remained surprisingly steady between 1860 and 1920, despite the decline in overall rural population. The United States Census did not record population statistics for villages in any year except 1880, so precise data was not available. But an approximation could be made by counting the number of buildings shown on the county and USGS maps. The average was 13 buildings per village in 1856-69, 12 in 1890-91, and 18 in 1942-43, indicating that the villages neither grew nor shrank. However, different villages experienced different patterns. Some declined between 1856-69 and 1890-91, but rebounded between 1890-91 and 1942-43; these included Willington Center (18 buildings in 1869, 12 in 1890-91, and 30 in 1942-43), Warrenville (13-12-16), West Stafford (42-34-44), and Union village (15-13-14). But other patterns existed, too, including Mansfield City (8-8-8), North Ashford (11-8-5), Mansfield Four Corners (14-21-26), Scotland (29-29-32), and Atwoodville (13-6-6). But overall, only a few villages declined sharply. Most held their own. Apparently, it was the dispersed farm neighborhoods that lost population, not the villages.

Yet, most villages did lose at least part of their economic central-place functions. It was possible to measure such losses in 15 villages by counting the number of retail establishments, hotels, boardinghouses, artisans’ shops, sawmills, gristmills, doctors, and lawyers listed in business directories published between 1861 and 1890. (Wider data was unavailable.) I found that the total number of retail establishments in the 15 villages decreased from 25 to 21, artisans’ shops from 21 to 16, and sawmills and gristmills from 19 to 18. However, hotels and boardinghouses increased from 6 to 7, and doctors and lawyers from 5 to 7. Overall, there was a 10% decline in economic central-place functions.

Villages located close to factory towns suffered more than those further away. For example, Windham Center was only three miles from the bustling borough of Willimatic, home of the American Thread Company. In 1836 Windham Center had had six stores, two churches, a bank, and about 60 dwellings, but in 1892 it was nearly devoid of business. As one versifying villager explained: “Old ‘Center, helpless in her lean extreme, / Must move, or die – or radiate up the stream. / She chose the last, to please the civil whim / That stints the heart to feed the biggest limb. / Her churches knocked at Willimantic doors; / Her offices, fire companies, and stores / Went the same way; the taverns marched in rank, / And last of all went Windham County Bank.”

Still, most villages survived the Age of the Dying Small Town. Some found new economic functions. In the first half of the nineteenth century, village stores, shops, and taverns had catered almost exclusively to the local farm population. But by the 1890s, when rural population was in decline, the railroads were bringing in new customers – summer vacationers. For example, in the 1880s vacationers had begun coming to Mashapaug village in Union to enjoy the refreshing waters of Mashapaug Lake. As a result, a tourist hotel opened there in 1887, followed by another in 1890, and finally a third in 1912. North Windham began to attract vacationers when Stafford House opened in the 1890s. South Windham acquired a tourist hotel. Vacationers stayed in private homes, too, as when Mrs. Gamaliel Gay of New York City boarded with Emily Parkhurst in Scotland village in 1892. A summer boarder wrote of Spring Hill village in Mansfield in 1892, “When, my friends, you are tired of city life, just come and spend a week on Spring Hill, and I can assure you that you will go back to your work feeling a hundred percent.” Picnickers came by rail from New London for day trips in bucolic Scotland village. Even in Windham Center decline was partially offset by vacationers. “In recent years,” commented one observer in 1892, the village “has caught a new life from the receding tide of the congested cities, and today is growing in popularity as a summer resort.” According to the USGS maps, hundreds of lakeside cottages sprang up near Columbia, Andover, and Eastford villages in the early 1900s.

Other villages replaced economic central-place functions with new social central-place functions. Many village churches expanded and rebuilt even as the rural population declined. And new churches appeared in the villages of Howard’s Valley, South Chaplin, South Windham, Chestnut Hill, Warrenville, Ashford, Mashapaug, North Windham, and Westford. Erected in 1873, the new Mashapaug Methodist Church had 48 members in 1891, enjoying its maximum membership at the very time Americans were bemoaning the dying small town. Neither did it cause the old Congregational Church in nearby Union village to lose members. Membership in the Union Congregational Church actually increased, from 7.4 percent of the town’s population in 1880 to 16.3 percent in 1930. The church rebuilt and enlarged its village meeting house.

Many towns erected libraries. Union village, Windham Center, Andover village, Chaplin village, and Columbia village all opened new public libraries in the waning years of the nineteenth century. In a significant symbolic gesture, the Union library was erected on the very spot where the village’s commercial block, which had burned in 1881 and not been replaced, once stood. The number of village post offices also increased between 1856 and 1911.

Villagers also erected a spate of Civil War monuments on their greens. In 1901 Union placed a cannon, some cannon balls, and a bronze tablet honoring its Civil War dead on the village green. Significantly, the gesture came thirty-six years after the war, but at the very time that villagers wanted to reaffirm their green as an important central place. The old commercial block was gone, but the village now had a vital new central-place function – to hold the town’s most visible symbol of its history as a united community. By 1901 the transformation of Union village was complete. With a new public library, an expanded church, and a revitalized green with a new Civil War monument, the village had assumed the shape that would define it into the twenty-first century.

The same kind of transformation occurred in Windham Center. When the town of Windham decided to throw a celebration for its bicentennial in 1892, town fathers opted to hold it in the factory borough of Willimantic, where most of the people lived. Irate residents of Windham Center groused that the event should have been held on their green instead. When it turned out that few people in Willimantic cared much about the bicentennial and town leaders voted to cancel it, the residents of Windham Center took over the project, moved it to their green, and enjoyed a smashing success. They decorated the green with patriotic bunting, orated eloquently about local history and rural values, and displayed historical relics. Approximately 2,000 onlookers participated. Like Union village, Windham Center had lost its commercial functions. But like Union, its villagers had transformed it into a social central place.

Connecticut’s villages did not vanish in the Age of the Dying Small Town. Rather, they survived because rural people still needed them. No longer economic hubs, they metamorphosed into social central places. Sturdy brick-and-stone libraries took the place of the stores and shops that had closed. Churches and social halls expanded. Civil War monuments and revitalized greens proclaimed the villagers’ determination not to fade away, but to endure. When the small town renaissance began after 1920, it did so in villages that had already learned how to survive.