I remember when I would ride my bike with my friend Dennis up to Bee Bee Dairy for an ice cream cone. We’d hurry out and ride our bikes up to the Norwichtown Green and sit back next to a tree at the eastside and eat the cone slowly, yet the shirts would get spotted with large drops of melted ice cream.
We’d look about the Green and talk about the houses, without the foggiest idea what we were looking at. Arriving home after following the back roads through Mohegan Park, I’d ask Mary, one of our landlords, to give me some information on its history.
Mary had been the secretary to the Treasurer of Norwich and she knew her history. She provided a booklet called “Notes on Persons and Places in the Ancient Town of Norwich, Connecticut,” made for the 250th anniversary of the town and city in 1909. It was quite informative.
In the year 1659 a group of 35 English settlers came and relocated from Saybrook and began a new chapter in their life. The group leader was Major John Mason, who purchased land from the Sachem of the Mohegan Tribe, Uncas.
There was a deed for the nine-mile square of Norwich, but it was lost. There is a copy with the terms and signatures of the participants I found in a textbook years ago.
The Norwichtown Green is about 1.75 acres of lush green grass with various trees gracing the edges of the land. At the time of the Revolutionary War there was a Liberty Pole which served as an information area for the citizens of Norwich where one could hear or read important news. There is one very impressive building across from the Green called the First Congregational Church that now graces the northwest corner area today.
This white painted church is the fifth one to be built in that area. The first meeting house was built in 1660 at the base of the Meeting House Rocks, the origin of its name.
The second meeting house was built by the carpenter John Elderkin, at the edge of the rock cliff overlooking the Green in 1695 above the location of the first meeting house.
In the year 1713, a new building was erected still on the top of the ledge. A fourth church building was built back at the base of the rock cliff in 1753.
Finally, a fifth church was built following a fire that destroyed the fourth church. This fifth church building was paid for by scription (donation) and a lottery, a common way of raising funds in colonial time and a process that has carried over into the 21st century.
One small fact I found interesting is that this church had a pump organ that was powered by a stream that went under the church and was harnessed by a small waterwheel which supplied the power to the bellows. This was just another creative example of Yankee ingenuity.
The houses and industry that surrounded the Green demonstrated the colonists’ fortitude to survive and flourish.
Of the 37 structures listed at the time of the Revolutionary War, only 14 remain. The whipping post, jail, courthouse and black powder house were not included in the total razed.
Now, the whipping post is an interesting item to have on a town green. But we must remember that it is a part of the early settlers’ religion. In the book “Annals of America,” under Connecticut Blue Laws of 1650 there were some interesting examples of the Puritan outlook on life such as:
“If any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.” Exodus 22.18 or “If any man have a stubborn or rebellious son, of sufficient understanding and years, viz. sixteen years of age, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother… such a son shall be put to death.” — Deuteronomy 21:20-21.
Many more laws of their theocracy ended with Puritans putting someone to death. These type of laws fell into disuse by the early years of the 18th century.
One house of interest on Elm Avenue is that of Sylvanus Jones. This dwelling is called a Connecticut saltbox, which consisted of a large single room built originally with a huge fireplace which could accommodate three- to four-foot logs. This type of construction came about due to the shape of the commonly used wooden box container which salt came in.
This process was a cheaper way to build a house and have the ability to allow easy add-on construction. The original main room served as a bedroom for the parents, with children sleeping on a platform found on the rafters above. As the family grew larger, added rooms would be attached to the back with a sloping roof, making the house look like a ‘lean-to.’
There are other examples just off the Green for you to view and enjoy.
A few doors west of the Joneses’ house you will notice the two-story home of Azariah Lathrop. This house has the classical design of a hipped roof building, which will shed rain and snow due to the steep roof angle of the four sides.
The peak of the roof is found at the point where the sides come together as they slant down to the walls of the upper most floor. There are usually two variations, one with a steep slant and the second with a gentle slant to the roof.
Another building found just off the Green is Lord Tavern, located next to McDonald’s on the corner of New London Turnpike and Town Street. Eleazer Lord Jr., the proprietor, served many lawyers who attended when court was in session.
This Colonial-style building faced north and was labeled the Compass House. The courthouse, no longer standing, stood on the corner on the Green side at the junction of Elm Street and Town Street, across the street from the Norwich Board of Education’s main office (the former John Mason School). The courthouse was moved to Church Street later.
The second building of interest in that area is that of Diah Manning’s grey house located at the corner of Olde Cemetery Lane. It has been empty for many years and seems to fulfill the idea of a guardian for the Ancient Burial Ground found at the end of the short lane.
Jesse Brown’s Tavern is located two buildings east of the First Congregational Church. The long building was a wayside for family buggies and inter-town and city coaches. It also served as a tavern. Many people ate meals there, and it was proclaimed to have excellent cuisine.
It is known that President John Adams and his wife Abigail Adams were served a meal there. Many others of note enjoyed eating there such as Samuel Huntington. This wayside/tavern changed hands a few times and was finally given to the United Workers as a foundling home for poor children in Norwich. It is called Rock Nook.
For your information, please notice the beautiful hanging wall picture to the left of the entrance to the Norwich City Clerk’s Office in Norwich City Hall. This picture of the Norwichtown Green was painted by the renowned artist Thomas Nast, who worked in New York where he drew many political cartoons on corruption in New York City and industrial concerns.
Also, please check out the various sources found on the internet on Norwich. You may be surprised at what you see.
There is a wonderful information center on the Green which will add to an experience that drifts back through the centuries of old Norwich Town and the City of Norwich. Please take the time to explore the wonders of our city. It’s well worth the time and effort.
Bill Shannon is a retired Norwich Public Schools teacher and a lifelong resident of Norwich.