Hills Academy in Essex CT


Hills Academy

Hills Academy

Built in Essex in 1832 as a school for local and later boarding students, Hills Academy is now home to the Essex Historical Society. Purchased in 1955 by the newly formed Society, it served as meeting place, museum, and collection archives. With a matching grant from the Connecticut Historical Commission in 2001, the first floor was restored to its original appearance and continues as meeting and exhibit space. The collection of artifacts, photographs, and archival records that preserve the history of Essex is housed on the second floor. A dedicated group of volunteers, dubbed the Archival Angels, works year-round on accessioning, cataloging, and researching the additions to the collection.

Open: Tuesday and Thursday 9:30 - 12:00 PM
For more information please or call 860-767-0681.

Arrangements for additional onsite research can be made by appointment with at least three weeks notice of confirming email or phone call.

In the Beginning

Essex, settled in the early 17th century as the Potapaug parish of Saybrook, had grown and prospered enough by 1830 to incorporate into the Borough of Essex and to require secondary school education for its children. Seventeen prominent citizens of Essex purchased 75 shares of stock at $25 per share, thus raising funds for the establishment of a school. They petitioned the State Legislature for incorporation and were granted a charter by the General Assembly in 1833.

Shad Fishery and The New School

Shad Fish

Shad Fish - Shad Fishing has been an important industry on the Connecticut River for centuries.

With a building site on Prospect St., carved from the land of John Pratt, whose house still stands around the corner on West Ave. (and is now the Pratt House Museum, also owned by the Essex Historical Society), the incorporators were ready to build their academy. A letter in the Society’s archives, dated September 24, 1831, from Captain Gideon Parker to his son, who was studying in Mobile, Alabama, comments that “We are about building our academy at Essex on Pound Hill [earlier name for Prospect St.] – expect to have it fit for operation April next, perhaps not so soon but $1200 is subscribed and I have no doubt we shall have one.” This enthusiasm for the project led many of the prosperous ship builders and captains, successful merchants, lawyers and public servants to support it in their lifetime but also to leave bequests in their wills to provide funds for its continued operation. Joseph Hill, one of the wealthiest men in the Town, bequeathed one-half the profit from a meadow and from a shad fishery to pay the “bills for schooling children belonging to Pettipaug [Potapaug parish] that are unable to pay” and the remainder to be applied to teacher salaries and for wood or other fuel.

Readin', writin' and 'rithmatic

Hills Academy Classroom

Second floor classroom in Hills Academy, c. 1900

From its opening in 1832 until 1848, the school was run by trustees and they kept the fees modest: English,$3.25 per semester; for Chemistry, Philosophy and Astronomy, $3.75; for French, $4.25; for Latin, Greek and higher branches of Mathematics, $4.75. There were additional fees for classes in music, painting, and other foreign languages. By 1848, prices had only risen by 25 cents per course. In that same year, when the trustees decided to lease the school to Lucius Lyon, a condition of the lease was that the rates must remain the same throughout the ten-year lease period. A four-story building was built next door to the Academy, on the site of the present Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, to serve as a seminary for boarding students. The school admitted females and in 1846, before the male boarding students arrived, 34 boys and 47 girls were enrolled. There is no indication of an entrance exam requirement and there does not appear to have been any strong religious affiliation in the founding or operation of the school.

Early Yankee Preservation

Hills Academy and Pettipaug House

Postcard, c.1900, showing Hills Academy and Pettipaug House (Seminary converted to hotel)

Peak years for the school were 1848 to 1874.  In the mid 1870’s, the seminary was sold and converted to a hotel, known initially as the Pettipaug House.  The Academy building was leased to the Town of Essex for additional classroom space when needed.  In 1903, the owners gave the building and ¼ acre of land to the Town and it was used intermittently as an elementary school until 1930 when the Town leased the building to The Improved Order of Red Men.  It became known as Red Men’s Hall during that period until its purchase in 1955 by the Essex Historical Society.