Most of us have had occasion to visit the Town Hall at the corner of Center & Morehouse Roads. Have you ever wondered about the history of the building or what preceded the present edifice? Neither the location nor the structure appears to fit the typical Norman Rockwell image of a quaint New England town house.
In a Rockwell painting of the quintessential New England town there is likely to be a town green, with some sort of memorial to the local warriors who served their country, surrounded by a large white Congregational Church, several large homes that date back to the colonial era, and an old town hall where the early residents met to discuss laws and schools. While many neighboring Connecticut towns have all those elements at their core, Easton has nothing so well defined.
As most town residents already know, Easton was once part of Fairfield. It was officially recognized as the Parish of North Fairfield in 1762, and in 1787, the parish joined the Norfield Parish to the west to become the town of Weston.
Unlike most area towns, early Weston never enjoyed a cohesive, unified local government. The physical barriers and political divisions of the two former parishes kept the town divided. There was no physical center of political, religious, or social activities. Most of the early town meetings were held in the old parish of North Fairfield, often at the Congregational Church on Center Road. But there was no town owned meeting house or official town hall.
At a town meeting held in December of 1791, a committee of twelve men was formed – six each from the old parishes of Norfield and North Fairfield. Their task was to decide if and where a town center would be established and to come up with a plan to build a town hall. The new town hall would then become the central meeting place where all town business would be conducted. The plan was to build the structure “without any expense to the town by way of a tax, but the Town House to be built wholly by subscription.”
The committee couldn’t come to a mutual agreement, and no action was ever taken to establish either a town center or build a town hall.
In 1845, the state legislature recognized a petition from the men of the old Norfield Parish and voted to separate the town of Weston into two new towns. The former Parish of North Fairfield became today’s Easton.
Neither town immediately tackled the issue of establishing a town center or building a town hall. Weston finally set about erecting their first town hall behind the Norfield Congregational Church in 1883. Easton’s town hall would follow fifty-four years later.
But why no building until 1937? Ninety-two years with no formal seat of local government? Blame it on the frugal nature of Easton’s native farmers. Even by the time the town voted to approve the construction of its very first town hall, the only full-time employees of the Town of Easton were the schoolteachers, the town nurse, and the chief of police. The town clerk, and tax collector were part-time occupations that were paid through a percentage of the fees and taxes collected. The selectmen who oversaw town spending for roads and schools were also part-timers. First Selectman, Erwin P. Edwards made a whopping $125 per annum, with the Second Selectman, George A. Marsh, and Third Selectman, Philip G. Wilkens, pulled in $100 and $75 respectively, while Town Treasurer, Arthur Wheeler, was paid $300. Wheeler charged the town $4 per month rent for the office he used in his home. The highest paid salaried town employee in 1937 was the Chief of Police, Ed Knight, and he took home all of $875. Easton’s lone patrolman was Martin Ohradan who worked limited hours and only when needed. For the entire year, the town paid him only $41.70.
Town business had been conducted from either the homes or businesses of the various elected officials since the Parish of North Fairfield first gained its independence from Fairfield back in 1787. By the early 1900’s taxpayers were paying small monthly rents to office holders such as the tax collector and the town clerk. In turn, those officials kept the records pertaining to their position in a safe or file cabinet within their home or business. Not an ideal situation, but it had worked for over 150 years.
While it is difficult to determine the exact impetus that finally convinced the town’s residents a town hall was needed, it might go back to a fire at the home of Tax Collector Fred Silliman several years earlier. While the records he kept in his house were spared, the town elders finally came to the recognition that perhaps a permanent, fire-proof home for tax records, land transfer deeds, and other important town documents was needed.
As an added incentive – and it was a very large incentive at that – two generous private benefactors stepped forward to commit a total of $32,500 to the town hall building fund. Judge John F. MacLane contributed $17,500, with businessman Gustavus A. Pfeiffer added another $15,000. According to the 1938 Annual Town Report, the entire building cost $40,180.47 and in the end, the net cost to the taxpayers of Easton ran just under $7,500.
Frederick Dixon of Bridgeport was hired to design the new building. He was tasked with making it harmonize with the recently completed Samuel Staples School that sat on Morehouse Road to the rear. No doubt another attractive incentive for the taxpayers was the fact that the town already owned the land as part of the school property. The main building measured 48 feet in width and 37 feet in depth with a 10-foot wide wing on either side. Two stories in height, the upper floor consisted of separate offices for the town clerk, the tax assessor, the town doctor and nurse, and a combined office for the selectman, assessor, finance board and treasurer. There was also a fire-proof vault for town records. The rear half of that floor consisted of one large courtroom that could eventually be divided into future offices. The lower level of the building held something completely new to Easton, a library! But, also on that level were two holding cells for prisoners – remember, Easton had one full-time police officer, with no office, but they now had a place to accommodate two prisoners!!!
The library was perhaps the single biggest benefit the townspeople received when the new town hall was finished. Books were acquired mostly through donations and by the middle of 1938, the library had a collection of 1850 volumes that were loaned out a total of 6,021 times during the first year of operation. The town’s appropriation of funds dedicated to running the operation was a paltry $150 for the entire year.
While the building has greatly expanded over the ensuing years, with the library first finding additional space in one of the new additions before finally getting its own separate building, the one and only Easton town hall is still in use and maintains a look that is congruous with its original design.