A Mirror Reflecting Easton’s Past, as well as a Window into its Future – 1916

In November of 1914, the Reverend Herbert H. Hines came to preach and minister the flock of the Congregational Church of Easton while still a divinity student at Yale. The church had a long history of using interim student ministers supplied by Yale throughout much of the 19th century and into the early 20th. What had once been the only church in the parish of North Fairfield when it was established in 1762 was then one of several denominations with edifices and worshippers within the town of Easton.

As the farming population of Easton had dwindled during the latter half of the 19th century, so had the fortunes of its founding church. A former Easton resident wrote this in a letter to the church shortly after Hines had arrived: “I passed through Easton yesterday for the first time in years. It is sad to see the church and school in such decay. It used to be such a flourishing center.” One of Hines’ goals was then to determine why. To accomplish that he would need to know more about the community he was then serving.

1915, This was dead center of the 16 square mile map created by the Reverend Herbert Hines for his essay on the parish of the Congregational Church of Easton. The Staples Academy Building is at the right. View looking south on Westport Road at the intersection with Center Road

As part of his preparation for a full-time ministry, young Hines would be required to write a dissertation to complete the degree he would receive in 1917. In 1916, he began the task of compiling one of the most complete lists of local residents, their religions, occupations, national origins, and living conditions that anyone had ever undertaken in our small community.

To offer some comparisons to Easton’s social and demographic state in 1916, the Reverend Hines cited a religious study on Easton’s population compiled in 1888 by J. H. Freeman done for the Connecticut Bible Society. Freeman’s work covered 985 of the approximate 1,000 residents of the day, so it was largely inclusive and complete. He recorded 285 households broken down thusly by religion: eighty-seven Methodists, sixty-three Baptists, fifty-six Congregationalists, thirty-nine Episcopalians, ten Roman Catholics, three Universalists, and one Lutheran. There were an additional twenty-five families who listed “no preference.” Among those listed with no preference were likely those who would have felt persecuted had they revealed that they were either Jewish or Catholic, with members of both denominations being ostracized by the mostly Anglo-Saxon protestant population that made up most of New England during that era. Alongside of one of those names was a comment written in the margin, “Thinks she is better than Christians.” Bigotry was very much alive and thriving in the late 19th century.

The Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, and Episcopalian families all had established places of worship within the town, with the Methodists having two active churches in that year. Members of the other denominations had the choice to travel to other communities or to avail themselves of church services that were somewhat different than their own. There is little doubt that at least some went without any type of formal religious worship or counsel.

254 of the 285 Easton heads of households claimed American heritage, followed by sixteen originally born in Germany, nine from Ireland, four from England, and two from France. That meant that only thirty-one households were headed by immigrants in 1888, a little less than eleven percent, a truly remarkable number that late in the 19th century.

As 2022 begins, the Historical Society of Easton will embark upon a new series of Courier articles highlighting the changes in Easton that began in the last years of the 19th century when old names of Easton residents began to disappear in decennial census reports and new names with a distinctly Eastern European flair began to replace them. What you will notice in Hines’ 1916 report is a dramatic change in demographics from only twenty-eight years earlier. After reaching an all-time low population numbering in the mid-900’s in 1900, Easton began to slowly grow and flourish throughout the first quarter of the 20th century as many Eastern Europeans with a tremendously strong work ethic and a dogged determination to succeed took advantage of the low real estate prices of Easton’s abandoned farms.

Part of Easton’s population and economic decline after the Civil War was the result of poor soil and rocky land that made the production of saleable crops less than profitable. But the productivity of tillable land hadn’t changed a great deal since the late 1600’s when settlers from Fairfield first began migrating north to farm the Long Lots lands awarded to them and their families around the beginning of the 18th century.

What had changed was the decline in manufacturing within the town itself. Hines got it wrong when he claimed in his report that there had been over 500 manufacturers of shoes in Easton prior to 1860. With less than half that many households and a peak population of somewhere a little over 1,400 in 1850, that would have been an unattainable figure under any circumstance. However, the shoe industry had been an important part of Easton’s early economy, perhaps employing more than 200 men, women, and children during the peak years prior to 1870.

Prior to 1870, there were several small shoe & boot making operations such as this one in Easton. Most employed between two and ten men, women, or children during the months when many farmers sat mostly idle between growing seasons.

Like many other early manufacturing jobs in towns such as Easton, production of boots and shoes, or parts there-of, had been a part-time, seasonal occupation. It provided families who had consistently struggled to make ends meet enough extra income to survive. When the shoe industry turned to communities such as Bridgeport to supply year-round labor in larger factories, those jobs in Easton slowly disappeared.

Without a railroad to facilitate shipping in an ever-increasing industrialized society, other small manufacturing operations such as the Jennings Brothers’ Japanware factory in the Aspetuck Valley also moved away or folded completely.

With the loss of income, many families that had long worked marginal farming operations were forced to move on, leaving some smaller, less productive lands abandoned and available at bargain basement prices to anyone willing and able to work them.

What Hines’ 1916 report so brilliantly highlights is the beginning influx of Eastern Europeans eager to take on the challenge of farming lands that weren’t that much different than the farms they had left behind in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. As political and economic conditions in parts of Europe continued to deteriorate, people hungry for better opportunities and personal freedom headed west across the Atlantic, with many of them ending up in rural Connecticut farming communities such as Easton.

To accomplish his complete social survey of the area surrounding his parish, in May and June of 1916, Hines elicited the aid of members of the church Sunday Evening Club. They came up with a questionnaire and then created a map that extended two miles in every direction using the church as the center point. The territory they would be surveying stretched approximately from Flat Rock & Beers Road to the south, Freeborn Hill to the west, Silver Hill Road to the North and the Trumbull town line to the east. They then proceeded to canvas all the inhabitants within those boundaries, only adding members of their own congregation who traveled to church from outside those boundaries.

1915. The Congregational Church. The automobiles shown here belonged mostly to state delegates attending the dedication ceremony of the new Grange Hall that sat just to the left of this photo.

In all, the survey encompassed sixteen square miles of land and covered about half of Easton’s then current population, or about 535 inhabitants living in approximately 150 homes. The area covered probably didn’t represent a true cross section of the general population of Easton since with the exception of lower Sport Hill Road, most of the town’s longest established families, and the ones with the greatest concentration of wealth, lived within those sixteen square miles. Additionally, the religious affiliations may be somewhat skewed since the two houses of worship lying within the boundaries laid out by Hines were the Congregational and Jesse Lee Methodist churches. Families tended to choose their residences at least partially based on the proximity to the church they attended. Even as late as 1916, there were only twenty-two motorized vehicles registered within that area, so the ability to get to and from church was somewhat akin to the importance of having a school nearby for the children to attend – travel and transportation were limited. Most residents walked to their destinations.

In Hines’ 1916 survey, Lutherans then outnumbered the Congregationalists by three, thirty to twenty-seven, that despite the fact that the Congregational church was at the absolute center of Hines’ map and that no dedicated Lutheran church existed within the town of Easton’s boarders. Catholics then numbered seventeen, almost double the number in the 1888 survey that covered the entire town, not just half of it. Three homes claimed Judaism as their religion. In this half-town survey, there were then twenty-eight families that claimed “no preference” when it came to religion – nineteen percent of the total population surveyed – a somewhat difficult figure to accept in an era where religion was at the core of family life. Like the previous survey in 1888, there were likely at least several Jewish and Catholic families who declined to elaborate their religious beliefs out fear of being ostracized by members of the community.

Hines then narrowed his social survey to just the sixty families that either attended his church or claimed no religious preference. That included 214 full time Easton residents and an additional 35 who resided in town during the summer months. Of those, nineteen were not yet citizens of the United States. Beginning in 1906, becoming a naturalized U. S. citizen began with the filing of a declaration of intention, which recorded the applicant’s oath to the clerk of the court that it was his or her intention to become a citizen of the United States, to reside permanently therein, and to renounce all allegiances to other nations. Within a period of two to seven years after filing that declaration, the applicant could then petition the court for citizenship, presenting at that time the affidavits of two witnesses with personal knowledge of the applicant, stating that the applicant had resided in the United States for at least five years and possessed a good moral character. Unless a subsequent investigation found cause to deny the application, the applicant would be approved by the court and then take an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and laws after which the judge would grant the applicant a certificate of citizenship. It was that simple!

Of the people residing within the Congregational parish, 163 of them claimed to have been born within the borders of the United States, but unlike the 1888 Freeman survey when only four other western European countries were listed as birthplaces for the entire population of Easton, Hines’ survey showed eighteen people who were born in Hungary, seventeen from Austria, and one each from Russia and Italy residing just within the sixty-home area surrounding the Congregational parish. That translated into an immigration population of nearly twenty-five percent of the immediate neighborhood as opposed to an average of only about fourteen percent in all New England. Clearly, immigration from the countries of eastern Europe was growing rapidly in rural Easton.

While most of the parish population owned their own homes, a total of ten out of the sixty homes were rented by their occupants. Most farmed the land they lived on, but twenty-four residents out of the 214 surveyed in the immediate parish worked out of town, while an additional twenty were employed locally as helpers and wage earners. The largest farm was two-hundred acres in size, four more were larger than one-hundred, fourteen more eclipsed fifty, while the average spread was forty-six acres in size.

In addition to breaking down the demographics of the parish, Hines had the foresight and wisdom to record many of the things we take for granted today but have little knowledge of when they first became popular and to what extent our ancestors may have used them in the early days of their existence.

Few homes had much in the way of modern conveniences in 1916 Easton. Of the fifty-three homes that responded to that part of Hines’ survey, only one reported to be fully electrified. Only two had central heat supplied by either a wood or coal burning furnace, and only one dwelling reported an indoor bathroom. There was but one reported vacuum cleaner, but three homes had victrolas to provide musical entertainment. Two homes had acetylene powered electric light plants while two more reported gasoline powered engines that could either run a washing machine or power a water pump. There were three homes that produced hot water – likely in conjunction with a furnace or a kerosene fired stove. A few reported some form of running water. But out of fifty-three homes located in the heart of Easton, thirty-seven reported no modern conveniences at all. That amounted to just under seventy percent of the occupied homes offering very little difference in lifestyle than they had a hundred years earlier.

A bright note was that most of the populace within the parish was literate. All but five of the reporting homes contained at least some books, with one homeowner boasting a library of some five hundred volumes. All but one home reported receiving either a newspaper(s) or magazine(s) on a regular basis. In all twenty-seven different periodicals were being received and read by area residents.

1916 was before the advent of either home radios or television sets. Entertainment was provided in many dwellings by the playing of musical instruments. While thirty homes had reported no musical instruments, there were seventeen pianos within the parish as well as nine organs, seven violins, three accordions, several wind instruments, and a single guitar.

Of the twenty-two automobiles reported, seventeen of them were Fords. Henry Ford’s introduction of the first moving assembly line in December 1913 had made a tremendous impact in the personal transportation industry, initially lowering the price of a reliable mass-produced car to well under $900. What had taken twelve hours to assemble prior to the moving line, then took only one hour and thirty-three minutes to build. A new Model-T left the line every three minutes. Due to efficiency and high production numbers that better amortized the cost of fixed operations, by 1916, the base Model T-series runabouts started as low as $345, making them affordable to most Americans.

Hines’ report concluded that the general health of area residents was good. The oldest resident was listed as being eighty-five years of age. An interesting note was his mention of infantile paralysis (polio) for the first time in any written document I have thus far seen regarding Easton. A few scattered cases were the results of visiting children from New York City who carried the disease to Easton during the summer months in violation of the quarantine laws that should have kept them in the city. As a result, Sunday School classes were temporarily halted, and safety measures put in place.

The new Easton Grange building after its completion in 1915. That’s Center Road in the foreground.

Hines reports glowingly about the success of the Easton Grange in attracting members – 150 adult men and women in a town of about 1,000 total population in 1916. “The grange lives to help farmers educationally, socially, financially, and morally. It offers benefits to needy patrons, such as supplying a team of horses to replace one killed, giving of financial aid, or labor or other means of brotherly kindness. There is no doubt that in its limited sphere, the grange has the opportunity to be the most influential organization of the community.” High praise from a pastor whose church should possess the same benevolent characteristics but was likely falling short in his estimation.

While Hines doesn’t get into specifics, it is interesting to read his final assessment regarding the grange that sat about sixty feet to the west of the Church on Center Road in 1916: “The grange has illustrated to us splendidly the fact that people of the same town can get together fraternally under one roof and forget their prejudices in a common interest. It is a modern disgrace that our churches can’t go so far.”

I would like to extend our great appreciation to the Congregational Church, and more specifically to its learned and dedicated church historian, Jonathon Stock for sharing the Reverend Hines essay, A New England Country Parish, Its Background, History and Romance. A History of the North Fairfield Congregational Parish of Easton, Connecticut with the Historical Society of Easton.

If you would like to share some of the stories of your immigrant ancestors in Easton between the late 19th to the middle of the 20th century, please contact us at: hsectresearch@gmail.com. We need clear photos that include names and dates to go along with stories of hardship, success, persecution, community contributions, and virtually anything else you are willing to share with us. Easton is what it is today largely because of the hard-working immigrants who came to town and called it their home. Help us tell their stories!!!