History of Essex, CT
In the beginning: The Nehantic Indians were the first people to live in this area. The land was rich with wild life – beavers, otters, deer, hawks, ospreys and bald eagles populated the wooded area along the river. The soil was fertile and the waters were full of fish and crabs. An English surveying committee designated this section of the Saybrook Colony as a perfect spot for a new settlement. The area that was laid out in 1648 was called Potapoug Quarter and it encompassed the town of Essex as we know it today, plus Deep River and parts of Winthrop and Chester. Initially, it was a very small community. Only three families, the Pratts, Hides, and Lays, owned the land along the river. A village began to emerge around 1664 but it was not until 1722, when the General Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut granted Potapoug Quarter permission to form a Congregational Church, that a real town was formed. It was located in what was then referred to as Center Saye Brook but is now known as Centerbrook. The choice of this location was important because it contained two rich agricultural areas – Scotch Plains, lying along the Mud River basin and following the present Route 153 to Westbrook; and Lynde Plains, located in the flat area south of the Falls River between the present Ivoryton and Centerbrook villages.
The area that we refer to as Essex remained the Potapoug Quarter of Saybrook until 1854 when the state legislature split off Essex Village to become the Town of Essex. Centerbrook (including the present day Ivoryton) was added five years later. With a population today of only 6,500, Essex lies along the Connecticut River, just five miles North of its mouth in Old Saybrook, where the River meets Long Island Sound. It consists of three villages, Centerbrook, Essex, and Ivoryton, each with its own Post Office and zip code, but all part of the same government and school system. The history of the Town is really the story of the three villages and the shifting sands of fortune that allowed each its period of prominence.
The creation of Potapoug Parish and the building in 1720 of its Congregational Church was a tremendous improvement for the settlers who previously had to travel from as far away as Chester to attend services in Saybrook. The first structure was a modest meeting house that served until 1790 when it was replaced by the present church. As the community grew, a Town Hall, a town pound, and a poorhouse were added. The formation of an iron works, along with a saw mill and gristmill on the Falls River contributed to the commercial economy of the Village.
By the middle of the 18th century, however, the focus was already moving to Potapoug Point, or Essex Village as we know it, where shipbuilding was beginning to offer an alternate occupation to farming. With each generation of large families, the farms would be divided into smaller and smaller holdings. Young men would have to acquire additional acreage or learn a trade such as shipbuilding, blacksmithing, coopering, or other skills to supplement their farm income.
Although the shift of the Town Center from Centerbrook to the “Point” occurred over a period of time, the building of the ship “Oliver Cromwell” in 1775/76 by Captain Uriah Hayden could be considered the defining event. The Point, a peninsula extending out into the Connecticut River, created coves on either side that provided sheltered waters to build and launch vessels. The Oliver Cromwell was the first ship commissioned and financed by the Colony of Connecticut and the largest one launched in the river valley up to that time.
The Haydens were also influential in moving the Episcopal Church that had been located in Centerbrook, to Pound Hill (now Prospect St.) and thus bringing it closer to the early commercial center of Essex Village at Champlin Square. By the mid-18th century, this intersection of West Ave., Prospect Street, and So. Main Street was the heart of the Potapoug settlement and boasted seven stores, the Pratt Smithy, and the largest retail outlet and money-lending establishment in the lower valley.
1835 Barber engraving of Essex Village shows rope walk near the water, Hills Academy and churches above
Within twenty years, many stores began to locate closer to the River and the shipyards. A major feature of this period was the rope walk, which ran from the present Talbots store to three-quarters of the way down Main St. When a new and longer rope walk was built about 200 feet to the north, new streets (now Pratt Street and North Main Street) were added and Main Street was re-located slightly to the south, resulting in the present Essex Square.
Essex Square before the movie theatre (now Talbots) was built
The lovely houses along Main Street were built in the early 1800s for the shipyard people who wanted to be close to their places of business.
Hard Times Ahead
The embargo that President Jefferson passed, followed by the British blockade of the Connecticut River during the War of 1812, impacted the shipbuilding industry of the town. The leading boat builders were converting their merchant ships into privateers in the hope of bringing home some of the spoils of war, but this act backfired. On the morning of April 8, 1814, 137 British marines and sailors, under the command of Captain Robert Coote, raided Potapoug Point and destroyed 28 ships with a value of $200,000.
After the war, the Village continued to grow. Schools, banks, and churches made it a desirable place to build a home. But by the middle of the 19th century, the sun was already setting on Essex Village as the center of business. The wooden sailing ships were being replaced by steam boats and iron-clad vessels. The town had prospered on the single industry that now was obsolete. Essex Village fell into a long period of financial decline as the business shifted, once again, to the Village of Ivoryton (or West Centre Brook as it was know at that time).
With the coming of the Railroad and the waning of the wooden ship era, the spotlight was moving to Ivoryton Village. Known originally as West Centerbrook, this area was sparsely settled well into the 1800s, with only about a dozen homesteads and farms. The two men responsible for the growth of Ivoryton were Samuel Merritt Comstock, born in 1809, and George A. Cheney, who was twenty years younger. After an early partnership to produce screwdrivers and ivory goods, Comstock set out on his own to manufacture ivory products. Earlier in the century, a machine invented by Deacon Phineas Pratt of Essex, enabled the cutting of ivory for combs and other fine items. Comstock continued to refine the process and eventually concentrated on the manufacture of ivory piano keys and piano actions. As the business grew, Comstock imported more workers and set up two dormitories to house them. From this early start, his plan for providing a community of buildings and services for his workers took shape.
Joined in 1862 by George A. Cheney, an ivory importer and salesman, the company became known as Comstock, Cheney & Co. When Comstock died in 1878, George Cheney headed the company and it was during his tenure (1878-1900) that the company began building workers housing for a workforce that would grow to more than 700. Comstock’s dream of a paternalistic company town took shape as they built a grammar school, a library, a community hall (now the Ivoryton Playhouse), a general store, a dormitory-hotel, and a Wheel Club for bicycle fans.
Rose General Store, previously Walt's Butcher Shop and Grocery. Currently the location of Gather, an antique/consignment/gift/art/amazing shop.
The business prospered during the Victorian age when almost every household had a piano. In addition to the ivory keys, they manufactured the actions for all the well known piano manufacturers such as Steinway, Chickering, and others. The Great Depression, coupled with the introduction of radio, seriously impacted their business. In 1936, Comstock, Cheney & Co. merged with Pratt, Read & Co. of Deep River and the combined company kept the name of Pratt, Read & Co.
The 1954 U.S. Government ban on ivory importation and the big flood of 1982 that washed away the dams on the Falls River and caused tremendous damage to the facilities, coupled with changes in home entertainment, and competition from foreign piano manufacturers, all came together in the 1980s to bring an end to the Industry that made Ivoryton the most prosperous of the three Villages of Essex.
Industrial and Commercial Growth
In addition to the ship building and ivory industries described above, the following businesses played important roles in the history of Essex:
Behrens and Bushnell
This company began at the turn of the 20th century as a bicycle shop in an Ivoryton barn and grew into an automobile dealership and repair shop. Advertising in local papers in 1904 shows that they sold three models of Oldsmobiles—The Runabout, The Touring Runabout and the Light Tonneau. In the fall of 1904, Behrens and Bushnell also became an agent for Indian motorcycles manufactured in Springfield, Massachusetts. Over the years they sold other car brands—Buick, Cadillac, Orient, Winton, Elmore, Knox and Pope-Hartford, The company continued in the automobile and repair business under the Behrens and Bushnell name until the 1970s when it became a Jeep and Mazda dealership under new owners who closed the business recently.
The Connecticut Valley Manufacturing Company
Thanks to the dam on the Falls River in Centerbrook, a gristmill and sawmill existed in the area which later became the Connecticut Valley Manufacturing Company (often referred to as the “bit factory”) which made drill bits from 1876 to 1969. A fire in 1895 destroyed the original wooden factory buildings and the company rebuilt the handsome brick building that is now occupied by Centerbrook Architects.
The site of the Dauntless Shipyard on the west shore of the Connecticut River has been well-known since the Revolutionary War. It was in 1917 that the property was organized as a yacht yard to include building, storing, repairing, painting and engine works. This large enterprise continues the Essex boating tradition.
Dickinson Witch Hazel
The Industrial Revolution, which brought an end to the ship-building business, spawned more businesses. Rev. Thomas N. Dickinson along with partners, who later left the business, began wholesale production of witch hazel. In 1897, his son Edward Everett Dickinson took over the business and the Dickinson Witch Hazel brand became known nationwide and beyond. By the 1930s the company was supplying the largest part of all the witch hazel used in the country by households and cosmetic companies alike.
The Essex Wood Turning Co.
In the late 1800s, the Essex Wood Turning Co. was making furniture novelties of, as they advertised, “turned and twist” moldings. Their 1899 catalog announces “We have a corps of skillful mechanics who have grown up with us and are masters of their business. We have the largest, best equipped wood turning factory in the world.” The Novelty Lane company catalog showed a large variety of Victorian-style stools, umbrella stands, music racks, tables, flower stands, easels, tea chairs and library tables all designed with distinctive wood-turned twist moldings.
Verplex Company, the largest producer of quality lampshades, was a family business run after World War II by Richard F. Schneller. It employed over 200 people during its heyday. Many of the products were designed in Essex and produced in Italy. In 1970, Verplex was sold to U.S. Industries and the Essex facility was eventually closed.
Businesses Large and Small Thrive Here
Many, many businesses, large and small, have thrived in Essex. Some, like the Griswold Inn, have survived for hundreds of years, continuing to grow and change. The Pratt Smithy was an important business in Essex through 9 successive generations. The Essex National Bank and the Saybrook Bank of Essex were early contenders in the business history of Essex—representing the effect shipbuilding had on the area. Today Essex has become a destination for tourists – with The Ivoryton Playhouse, the Connecticut River Museum, the Essex Boat Works, the Essex Steam Train, gift shops and restaurants catering to their needs.