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Southbury History

Southbury History by Joyce Hornbecker

Excerpts from the "Southbury Tid-Bits of History" by Joyce Hornbecker. 

The recorded history of our town dates back to 1673. During that time period the lives of the colonists were centered and controlled by the church.  Some differed with the church’s ways relative to church membership, baptism and the discipline of church members. So to ease the dissension that it was creating, in 1670, Governor Winthrop gave permission for Rev. Zechariah Walker, pastor of the insurgent group, to take fifteen (15) families to establish the plantation of Pomperaug in the new lands. On May 9, 1672, Gov Winthrop asked the General Court of the Colony of Connecticut to grant the inhabitants of Stratford, the liberty to erect a plantation at Pomperaug.

The first purchase from the Pootatuck Indians was dated April 26, 1673. In preparation for their move to a new settlement, a code of laws for their government was needed. That year, Fundamental Orders for the Pomperaug Plantation were enacted including how the land would be divided, and the operating taxing procedures which included accommodations for the minister.

Also, a truly New England feature in this document that “learning might not be neglected to the children”. They thought the church should be accompanied by the school house. The Woodbury settlers paid great attention to the education of youth and the founding of schools from the very first settlement of the town. It is believed that they were much more determined to provide education for their children than many other towns in the Colony or in New England.

So, religious differences prompted fifteen families to come up the Pootatuck (Housatonic) River from Stratford on rafts and canoes in May, 1673. They spent their first night in Woodbury and the second night under a white oak tree on Crook Horn Road, by the former Berry Farm, now known as Settlers Park, in what is now known as Southbury. This section is still known as White Oak and there is a monument marker denoting the spot of the first encampment.

The land was purchased from the Pootatuck Indians, but they always reserved the right to hunt on the land that they sold. Often the sale price would include material items that the settlers had, for example 160 pounds, four shirts and one gun. The settlers had a very peaceful co-existence with the Pootatuck Indians. Eventually, more than 450 people came north from Stratford to settle in the area then called Woodbury. The settlement then comprised of the present towns of Woodbury, Southbury, Roxbury, Bethlehem, most of Washington, the Quassapaug section of Middlebury and a portion of Oxford west of Eight Mile Brook.

There was one ecclesiastical society and one church supported and attended by all. However, difficulties of regular travel to Woodbury from the ever-growing settlement resulted in the formation of new ecclesiastical societies and the eventual building of new churches. Southbury, with South Britain, became the Second Ecclesiastical Society in 1731 and in 1766 South Britain was permitted to establish its own society.

The settlers began to erect homes, close together for security purposes and even a grist mill was built. On May 28, 1706, the inhabitants of the town made the sixth or confirmatory purchase. This covered all former grants and purchases and a considerable tract together with a piece of land eighty rods in width, from Steep Rock in Washington, to the mouth of the Shepaug on the west side of the river. The Pootatucks retained a large tract of land called the Pootatuck Reservation. This reservation called the Purchase, contained their principal village on the Pootatuck River (now known as the Housatonic River/Lake Zoar). Bent of the River was part of the property boundary description in the deed and the source of the name given to the bounding property by Althea and Howard Clark who willed it to the Audubon Society which retained the name for this site.

Our Southbury forefathers bought and scrupulously paid by treaty for every acre acquired from the Indians. However, the Indians retained hunting privileges and lacked any concept of private ownership of land. The title of ownership of land vested in the tribe which had conquered it and they were selling the white man the privilege to enjoy it too. Thus, some purchases were bargained over and over again. The Kettletown area was purchased three times, once for a copper kettle, thus the name Kettletown.

Shadrack Osborne operated a military commissary for the colony on what is now known as Main Street North near the churches, and issued provisions to many troops passing through town. During the Revolutionary War years and after the capture of Danbury, Shadrack Osborne as head of the commissary, hid hundreds of barrels of pork in a hollow, located about 1 mile southeast of the UCC church and that area is still called "Pork Hollow". In 1781, General Count de Rochambeau and his French troops marched through Southbury to join General Washington and it is said that some camped in the White Oak section.

Bullet Hill School was built and named for a hill near it used for firing practice during the Revolutionary War. It was said that bullets were melted down in a fireplace at the school to be used again, and that women cast bullets for the army. Recent research conducted by Dorothy Manville of Southbury, seems to indicate that the first class was held in December, 1769. It is listed as the oldest public school building in continuous use in the United States as it was in continuous use until 1941 when the consolidated school, now known as Gainfield School, was built.

In 1900, Ira Hawkins took over the manufacturing company, known as the Hawkins Company, and he was a generous owner who supported local projects, including the library. After the Mitchell family donated land on the corner of South Britain Road (now Rt 172) and Library Road, the South Britain Library building was built in 1904 at a cost of $746. This is still a non-profit association project, not town-sponsored, and it served as the town's only public source of reading material until 1969, when the Southbury Library on Main Street South was built (today the location of Parks and Recreation and the Senior Center).

In 1798, a part of the Kettletown area, near Eight Mile Brook was given to Oxford. In 1808, the white oak tree on Crook Horn Road, where the first settlers camped, fell and Shadrack Osborne saved a piece of it which is now housed in the Old Town Hall as part of the Southbury Historical Society's exhibits. The Wakeley Plow Shop and foundry was built on Bullet Hill Brook in 1820 by the Hines family, but Charles Wakeley operated it to make plows which were very popular at that time/

Southbury was basically an agricultural town in the 1800's but because it has many rivers, brooks and streams, they provided abundent water power and a means for many ways to create items to sell. The South Britain section, early on, became the industrial section of the Pomperaug Plantation with Southford running a close second. Southbury's Main Street, now the location of many businesses was residential at this time period. Items manufactured in town during the 1800's included hats, buttons, brads, shears, knives, silver spoons, thimbles, hoop skirts and bustles; we had tanneries, clothiers, grist mills, saw mills, cider mills, two forges for fabricating of iron.  But guess what we had the most of - whiskey distilleries abounded! There was also a three-story carpet yarn mill built by Burton Canfield and a satinet factory run by Ira and Anson Bradley which made cotton and wool to look like satin.  This factory remained in business until 1865 and was destroyed by a fire. They produced uniforms for the Union Army during the Civil War.

Woodbury, Southbury, Bethlehem, Roxbury and the western half of Middlebury, the Quassapaug District, were all considered Woodbury until 1787. A resolution by the General Assembly held "the 2nd Thrusday of May, 1787," resolved "that the inhabitants of said Woodbury that live within the limits of the Societies of Southbury and South Britain and that part of the Society of Oxford that is within said town of Woodbury, be and they are hereby incorporated into a separate and distinct town by the name of Southbury..."  The first Town Meeting took place at 2 PM June 20, 1787, with Edward Hinman, moderator and Increase Moseley, town clerk.