In this modern world, we take our mobility for granted. But only a hundred and thirty so years ago – barely a minute or so in the overall life of humanity on our planet, our grandparents and great grandparents had a multitude of obstacles to consider before going practically anywhere.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine gave me a beautiful red glass with the hand painted name of Arthur Wheeler written on the face of it. Arthur was the longest serving treasurer of the town of Easton and the proprietor of Highland Place, a once beautiful Queen Anne styled complex that sat on Sport Hill Road at the corner of Old Oak. On the back of that same glass in similar cursive writing were the words “Danbury Fair 1891.” That would have been when Arthur was only 4 years of age.

Commemorative 1891 Danbury Fair hand painted glass.

Like most of these columns, I seldom begin my week knowing what I will write about. It’s usually some small thing that triggers my interest, and this week was no exception. That small glass and how it would have come to Easton made me think about how daunting a trip of much more than five or six miles from home would have been in the late 19th century.

Today, it would take about 45 minutes to drive to the Danbury Mall that now sits on the site of the original fairgrounds. An easy day trip, even some forty-plus years ago when the final Danbury Fair was held. But let’s go back to 1891 and consider what it would have been like for a family to travel from Easton to Danbury and back again. What would such an adventure have entailed?

Arthur was the only son of Ellis and Louise Wheeler. Ellis was the builder of carriages, with his shop located in the Narrows Section of Easton (the current site of the Easton Reservoir). He would have certainly had a fine carriage at his disposal to take his wife and only child to the great state fair at Danbury in the autumn of 1891, but just think about the enormity of such a trip by horse and wagon. The average speed of a single horse drawn carriage would have been somewhere between four and five miles per hour. At a distance of just over twenty miles, that trip would have taken over four hours in each direction. And that is assuming fair weather and decent road surface conditions. All in the open air, jouncing along in carriage pulled by a horse.

Today, we often plan our excursions based upon the weather forecast. In 1891, the prognostication of the next day’s weather would have meant looking skyward in the evening towards the setting sun. Should the sky appear red, there would have been a good chance that the upcoming weather would be fair. “Red sky at night – sailors’ delight,” while not quite as reliable as Doppler radar, was about as accurate a forecast as one was going to get. Traveling in the rain for even part of the journey back then would have been miserable, but our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of knowing what the weather was going to be like twenty-four or thirty-six hours in the future.

Despite its relatively close proximity in today’s world, a trip by a horse drawn carriage to Danbury that would have included an outing to such an all-encompassing event as the state fair would have, at the very least, turned out to be a two or even three day affair.

The more likely means of transportation would have been by rail. Prior to the present Easton Reservoir’s construction in the mid-1920’s, there would have been a road going north through the Narrows that followed the Mill River. The Wheeler family could have made the journey to Stepney Depot, where they could catch a train, in a little less than an hour’s time. For a four-year old child, this would have been both a wonderful adventure as well as one of the earliest memories he could hold onto for the rest of his life.

Stepney Depot late 1800’s.

Ellis Wheeler would have had two options. He could have driven his own horse and carriage and then boarded the horse for the day at a stable close to the railroad depot while the family traveled to Danbury and back, or he could have engaged a livery service that would have taken the family to Stepney and then retrieved them when their return train was scheduled to arrive. There were more than a few older farmers who had transitioned into the Uber drivers of their day by the late 19th century. Train travel required passengers to get to and from the station, and a livery service made the most sense. However, prior to the telephone, livery service to the station would have required making arrangements a day or more in advance.

It is certainly possible that the railroads would have run special trains during fair week. In the event they did, and the Wheelers would have been lucky enough to get a seat on one, the trip from Stepney Depot to the fairgrounds may have been a direct one. However, under normal circumstances, the family would have most likely had to change trains at Hawleyville Junction in Newtown. In 1891, Connecticut was crisscrossed with multiple train tracks, maintained by multiple carriers.

The Danbury Fair maintained its own stop on the New York and New England line. Fairgoers were deposited just a few yards from one of the entrances to the venue. If the Wheelers had made all the correct connections, they would have arrived at the fair well before noon.

Danbury Fair in 1884

A state fair in 1891 would have been a very big event. It wasn’t dominated by multiple mechanical rides, although most venues would have included a traditional merry-go-round. The original premise of most fairs was to showcase agricultural achievements – bountiful crops featuring gigantic gourds and fabulous tomatoes, prize winning bulls, and incredibly fat hogs. Horse racing was a favorite even if wagering money wasn’t allowed. But as time wore on, most fairs featured multiple vendors selling everything from snake oil elixir to “genuine” native American moccasins manufactured in the Bronx. A trip to the fair was a fun outing, but unless you lived close by, it was also a challenge to make it there and back home on the same day.

Hand-painted glass with Arthur Wheeler’s name.

So, when I look at that special red glass from 1891, I don’t just see a trinket purchased to commemorate an event. I see a great adventure for a small boy from Easton. An adventure that meant so much to young Arthur Wheeler that he held onto that glass for the next eighty-three years. I am certain he didn’t cherish that glass as much as he did the memory of his great trip to the fair. And part of that adventure was just gettin’ there! So, the next time an unusual antique catches your eye, try to imagine why someone else found it important enough to save it for all those years.

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By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books