The Saybrook Colony was first settled at Saybrook Point adjacent to the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound in late 1635. This was not part of the Colony of Connecticut originally, and encompassed an area that today includes the towns of Old Saybrook, Old Lyme, Lyme, a small section of East Lyme, Essex, Deep River, Chester, and Westbrook. It became part of Connecticut in the mid-1640s, and by early 1648, had been divided into formal quarters. One of these sections was Potapoug Quarter and included what now are the towns of Essex, Deep River, and Chester, with their villages of Centerbrook, Ivoryton, and Winthrop.
Initially, it might be assumed that 1648 was therefore the settlement date of Essex, but that depends upon what is defined as settlement. If this term means not only a small number of families living in a place, but also a measurable amount of economic activity, this date would have to be 1664. That was the year that the small ship “Diligence” took some cargo from Essex to Barbados in the West Indies, a first for the area. The fact remains that there was a relatively small population in Essex until the first quarter of the 18th century. In 1722, the Connecticut Colonial Court allowed the establishment of the Second Ecclesiastical Society in Center Sayebrooke. This was in recognition of the fact that there were now enough residents to support a Congregational Church. In 1727, there were at least 136 adult members of this church, which represented the gross majority of the population of Potapoug Quarter. Add an appropriate number of children and it can be seen that a population of only 300 would be about the correct figure. Previously, all residents had to attend church at the First Ecclesiastical Society at Saybrook Point, a rather long distance away, considering the travel conditions then. Center Sayebrooke later was renamed Centerbrook, and is the middle village in the three village town of Essex, which also includes Essex Village and Ivoryton.
Centerbrook became the home of this church, because that village was the “center” of Potapoug at the time. It is a fertile agricultural section, featuring Scotch Plains (the Mud River Basin along Route #153) and Lynde Plains, which parallel Main Street along the banks of the Falls River. Centerbrook is also the site of the highest waterfall on the Falls River. This is a stream that bisects the town from west to east, and has often been referred to as the lifeline of Essex. Over the years, starting in 1689, it has had eight dams built across it, to provide power for various enterprises. The dams built in 1700 in Centerbrook powered a sawmill, gristmill, trip hammer shop, and iron works, and all were within 100 yards of the church, built in 1724. This church was renovated in 1757, and replaced by the current building in 1790. It remains the oldest extant church structure in Middlesex County. The first minister of the Centerbrook Congregational Church was Reverend Abraham Nott, who served from 1723 to 1756. He was undoubtedly the most powerful and influential person in Essex (which was named Potapoug until 1852) during this period, as farming and religion dominated the local culture. It has often been said that “one constant in the world is change,” however, and by the time of the Revolutionary War, the rise of Essex Village was proof of this statement.
The area of Essex called Essex Village was originally named Potapoug Point. It bordered the Connecticut River, and part of it was a peninsula with two large coves on either side. Main Street on the “point” was not laid out until 1748, and up to that time only a few people resided here. However, with the outbreak of the War of the Revolution, a dramatic cultural and demographic switch occurred in town. Captain Uriah Hayden was commissioned by the Colony of Connecticut to build the “Oliver Cromwell,” the largest ship ever constructed in the Connecticut River Valley, and the first ship to be built and financed by the Colony. Captain Hayden lived on the waterfront at the foot of Main Street and literally built this vessel in his side yard. This established Essex Village as a place to build the wooden sailing ships required by our new nation for trade. The protected coves and the short distance from Long Island Sound were important geographical features. Between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, over 600 vessels of various types were produced here. Essex Village expanded greatly, eclipsing Centerbrook as the center. Two ropewalks were built, to accommodate the needs of the shipping industry for rope, as shipyards emerged along the shorelines. Essex was unusual, for it was an area where artisans were able to flourish and become entrepreneurs. These were people who had highly defined skills and put them to work in their own businesses. This was in contrast to some northern parts of the Connecticut River Valley, where so-called “River Gods” flourished. They were the landed gentry with direct connections to the Congregational Church, thereby dominating their (primarily) agricultural sub-cultures. Actually, Essex could be referred to as one of the places where the capitalist system really got started. Ships produced here were completed in a pre-industrial manner, for no two vessels were alike. Each was designed for its particular use and custom built. This is in direct contrast to the subsequent factory system, which emphasized interchangeable parts.
The very success of shipbuilding locally led to one of the great disasters in the history of Connecticut. Due to the embargo instigated by President Jefferson and the following British blockade of the river during the War of 1812, ships were not being sold. In Essex, it was not the cargo hauled by the vessels that was so important, but the sale of the vessel itself. They were the primary medium of trade. In retaliation to the blockade, privateers were being built in Essex. These ships were designed to prey upon slow moving British merchantmen, and bring captured spoils back to port for resale. The British spied on the Essex shipyards, saw what they were accomplishing in terms of building privateers, and early in the morning of April 8, 1814, attacked Potapoug Point. They destroyed 28 ships worth about $200,000.00 (a veritable fortune at the time), and inflicted a massive defeat on the Americans. It remains one of the great financial losses of that conflict.
By the middle of the 19th century, very large ships were being produced by the Essex yards. For example, the “Middlesex” which was launched in 1851 displaced over 1,400 tons, and the 1,118 ton “Irene” was built the same year. Essex had as many as six “yards” producing during peak periods, the most prominent of which was operated by the Hayden family. Notably, Essex had a population up to the Civil War that was predominantly English, featuring names such as Clark, Pratt, Post, Hayden, Starkey, Lord, and Bushnell. A characteristic of the next great change in town was a diversification in terms of the cultural make-up of the populace, as well as another movement of the center of the town.
As this next cultural phase was about to start, a significant geographical change took place in Essex. In reality, the name Essex had never been applied until 1820, when the Potapoug Point area became the Essex Borough of Saybrook. In 1852, the State Legislature approved the formation of a new town, further dividing the original Saybrook Colony. This was called Old Saybrook and it included the current town of Old Saybrook and Essex Borough. This combination lasted only two years when Essex Borough was split from Old Saybrook, and the separate town of Essex was formed. This was essentially the Essex Village of today and was quite small geographically, basically including land east of the Middlesex Turnpike (Route #154). In 1859, Centerbrook and West Centerbrook (Ivoryton by the early 1880s) were added to form the current 12 square mile town.
Samuel Merritt Comstock was born in the West Centerbrook part of town in 1809. He became a very influential person in our town’s history and was responsible for making Ivoryton an ivory and piano parts center of the United States. He founded Comstock, Cheney & Co. with his partner George A. Cheney in 1862. This firm became the most important social and economic factor in the lower valley. As a result of the continuing business success of Comstock, Cheney & Co., more employees were required. The area towns could not meet this demand, so, as with many places in the eastern part of the United States, this need was filled by immigrants from southern Europe. Many Polish and Italian people came to Ivoryton between 1890 and World War I, and most became associated with this company. Ivoryton developed a culture where the factory and the village were intertwined. Comstock, Cheney & Co. built what is now the Ivoryton Playhouse as a factory meeting hall, built a beautiful grammar school for the community in 1900, helped build the Ivoryton Library, and erected a great number of housing units for its employees. The village of Ivoryton paid approximately 60% of the property taxes collected in Essex from the end of the 19th century up to World War II.
The advent of radio as a new form of home entertainment, and the start of the Great Depression in 1930, spelled trouble for the piano industry. Comstock, Cheney & Co. combined with its main competitor, Pratt, Read & Co. from the neighboring town of Deep River, in order to survive. Although this new company was located in Ivoryton, it took the Pratt, Read & Co. name. During World War II, gliders were produced for the U. S. government at this factory, and for a few years after the war, the 15 year “pent-up” demand (the depression and the war) for piano keyboards and actions kept this factory busy. By the end of the 1950s however, Pratt, Read & Co. was forced to move a great deal of its production to a facility it opened in the town of Central, South Carolina. Unfortunately, this was a pattern being repeated throughout New England. Diversification of its product line occurred in the 1960s as Pratt, Read & Co. went into the manufacture of golf clubs, plastics, and furniture.
There were other prominent factories located in Essex. E. E. Dickinson Co. was the most important producer of witch hazel (and associated items) in the country, the Verplex Company manufactured fine lampshades, and the Connecticut Valley Manufacturing Co. was a large producer of drill bits. Tiley, Pratt & Company made wire goods in a small shop on Dennison Road during the last quarter of the 19th century, but expanded to a new factory on Middlesex Turnpike shortly after 1900, where bicycle and automobile spokes were manufactured. Tiley, Pratt also produced a few automobiles in the first decade of the 20th century, aptly named the “Tiley.” The Verplex Company took over the Tiley, Pratt building after 1935. The Connecticut Valley Railroad put its line through Centerbrook in 1870 and set up passenger and freight terminals there. This fostered the growth of a small industrial complex, which included the E. E. Dickinson Co. distillery and bottling/storage facilities. Within the past half-century all these local factories have closed their doors, but the railroad has been saved by becoming a tourist attraction. World War II essentially marked the end of the cultural movement to the Ivoryton section of Essex that had started around the time of the Civil War, but another change was commencing in Essex.
This next cultural movement concerned not only the closing of the large factories in Essex, but came about with the improvement of travel conditions in our country. The Interstate Highway System made it easier for people to move about. Combine this with the enormous growth (and popularization) of pleasure boating and Essex Village became once again a marine focal point. The fact that so many fine older homes remained from the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the greater Essex Point area was testament to a lack of commercial demand for property here since 1860. These older structures have been renovated and Essex Village has become a combination of residential, retail, and tourist places. The selection of the town as “the Best Small Town in America” in a 1994 book, has also encouraged a change in the demographics of Essex.
Essex is really a “child of three rivers,” the Connecticut, the Falls, and the Mud. These three waterways have played vital roles in the evolution of Essex, at different times, due to the demands of agriculture, pre-industrialization, or industrialization. These rivers have also been the source of chaos, due to flooding and other severe weather conditions. The Connecticut River flood of 1936 was the greatest locally in recorded history for that body of water, and literally inundated the waterfront properties in Essex. The Falls River suffered a “500 year” flood in early June 1982 when up to 15″ of rain fell in Essex in a short period of time. The flooding was terrible, but got immeasurably worse, when a dam that was built for the Comstock, Cheney & Co. in 1872 on Bushy Hill in Ivoryton, burst. The mile long pond backed up by this structure roared into the Falls River basin, causing enormous damage. All of the old water-power dams along this river were either weakened or destroyed. The September 1938 hurricane also caused havoc in Essex and the valley. It came after days of rain, resulting in many trees being uprooted due to the high winds and softened earth, and many pleasure craft in Essex Harbor were destroyed. A similar storm with even higher velocity winds occurred in September 1815, but with a far smaller population and fewer structures, was not as disastrous.
It is often asked if any “famous” people resided in town. This is an interesting question, for there were many locally famous individuals, such as the already discussed Uriah Hayden and Samuel Comstock. However, dealing with those that may have been significant nationally or internationally, we have had a few. Judge Samuel Ingham who resided on Main Street and practiced law here during a great deal of the 19th century, ran for Governor of Connecticut on four occasions and served a few terms in the United States Congress. In the 20th century, Essex was the home of Connecticut Governor Chester Bowles. He was head of the Office of Price Administration during World War II, served as a Representative to Congress, and was later American Ambassador to India. Mr. Bowles also was a founder of the advertising firm of Benton and Bowles. Currently, former Governor and United States Senator (both Connecticut positions) Lowell Weicker resides in Essex. Frank Lloyd Wright was the son of an itinerant minister, and allegedly his family lived in town for a few months around 1870. Famous CBS newscaster Charles Kuralt had a home on Dennison Road for many years, while Meade Minnegrode, an author who wrote the lyrics for the “Whiffenpoof Song” while a student at Yale, lived on both Little Point Street and West Avenue. Carolus Huska, a local artist and picture frame carver, designed the famous General Electric Company symbol, for which he was supposedly paid $25.
Essex is unique in certain ways, due mostly to the described shifting of the cultural focus of the town over the past 300 years. This shift has resulted in three Congregational Churches, two Episcopal Churches, two libraries (both private institutions, but partially town supported), and most interestingly, Essex has three zip codes, with three post offices. This seeming duplication (and tripling) of functions has taken place in a town with a current population of slightly more than 6,500 persons, which is the historical high.
The town today is losing many of the hallmarks of the past. In many ways, it is becoming one town, rather than three villages. There is no question that it has become primarily residential. Over 80% of current property tax income originates from this source, while this figure was under 50% not long ago. There is still industry however, as many sharply focused smaller manufacturers have located here, primarily in the Centerbrook Industrial Park. This industrial area is adjacent to an abandoned airfield, once known as Doane’s Airport. Howard Hughes landed here a few times in the 1930s, when he was visiting one of Old Saybrook’s most famous residents, Katherine Hepburn. Essex will continue to focus and refocus, a current example being the commercial growth around Bokum Corners at the intersection of Route #153 and Bokum Road. However, as Essex continues to change it maintains an eye on the past, for it does not want to forget its heritage.