ESSEX HISTORICAL SOCIETY
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Town History

IN THE BEGINNING

The Nehantic Indians were the first people to live in the area now known as Essex, CT. 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.

THREE VILLAGES

1874 Map of Essex, Connecticut

1874 Map of Essex, Connecticut

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.

CENTERBROOK

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.

ESSEX

Essex Town Square, year??

Essex Town Square, c.1900

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 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 Richard 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).

IVORYTON

1897 Ivoryton Baseball Team

1897 Ivoryton Baseball Team

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.

Behrens & Bushnell Automobiles & Bicycles Main Street, Main Street, Ivoryton 1906

Behrens & Bushnell Automobiles & Bicycles Main Street, Main Street, Ivoryton 1906

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.