On the occasion of the Windsor Historical Society’s 100th anniversary, I was tasked with learning a bit more about some of the first donations that the Society received. This two-part article is an attempt to tell the story of the donors whose contributions became the foundation of WHS’s collections.

Hoadley bookplate

“Gift of Charles J. Hoadley and George E. Hoadley” bookplate. WHS collections 1921.1.

If you pull a random book off the shelf in the Windsor Historical Society’s library, there is a very good chance that it will include a bookplate identifying it as having come from the collection of Charles and George Hoadley. It’s a rather grand bookplate, so far as bookplates go. The family’s crest, replete with heraldic symbolism, leans up against a large rock, and is overshadowed by the still-standing Charter Oak. If you are the kind of person who is interested in old bookplates, you would be interested to learn that the original was engraved in 1902 by William Fowler Hopson, a veritable rock star in the world of bookplate engraving.

If you become so engrossed in this bookplate that you stare at it for a while to see what other histories were embossed within it, the next questions become: Who are Charles and George Hoadley, and why have they gifted this book to the Windsor Historical Society? The beginning of an answer to these questions was pretty easy to suss out.

When George E. Hoadley died in 1922, his will included a $5,000 bequest to the Windsor Historical Society; additionally, his gifts of books and ephemera (including a carefully preserved sprig cutting purportedly salvaged from the Charter Oak) formed the foundation for the collections that the Society still preserves and collects. As described by Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, Volume 24, George “had an exceeding fondness for the numerous and varied literary and antiquarian treasures that had been gathered by both his brother Charles and himself.” This explanation, coupled with the knowledge that the Hoadley brothers were descendants of the Owen family of Windsor founders, might suffice as a tidy explanation for how our hypothetical volume ended up on the shelves.

Sprig from the Charter Oak

Sprig from the Charter Oak. WHS collections 1921.1, gift of Charles and George Hoadley.

But when you’re an archival researcher who is married to an archivist, sometimes more questions come up over dinner. In my case, I got curious about Charles. Who was he, and why did he share a bookplate with his brother? Charles was Connecticut’s second state librarian and, within obscurist circles, most well-known for editing The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut. Charles was a bit tricky to research because, unlike the rest of his family, he spelled his surname as “Hoadly,” probably because that was an older spelling. He died in 1900, two years before the commissioning of the bookplate.

It was easy to imagine George as so heartbroken over the death of his brother that he spent the last 22 years of his own life making donations and bequests to the organizations and causes his brother held dear: historical and antiquarian societies, as well as his two-time alma mater, Trinity College. This vision of perpetual mourning was slightly obscured by a small detail within Collections, Volume 24: George built a new home in West Hartford during his “later life.”

George (left) and Charles (right) Hoadley

Left: George Hoadley portrait. WHS collections 2021.1.14. | Right: Charles Hoadley portrait courtesy of the Acorn Club

Census records tell a lot of stories. In the case of Charles, they tell us that the elder brother lived in the family home with George and a middle brother Francis at 78 Ann Street in Hartford for his entire life. Their brother Frederic, a soldier for the Confederacy, was killed in 1863, and their sister Harriet married and left the family home. We don’t know a lot about their father, William Henry, who died of dysentery in 1849. A biography of Charles published by the Acorn Club (an organization devoted to the publication of books about Connecticut history) after his death extols the virtues of Charles and George’s grandfather, but only allots a couple of sentences to William:

“His son, William Henry Hoadley, was born in Guildford in 1800. He married Harriet Louisa Hillyer, and their eldest son was Charles Jeremy Hoadley.”

It is clear that William’s accomplishments were not considered to be in line with other Hoadley relations. After his death, published legal notices listed him as “an insolvent debtor.” There may have been financial issues in the decade that followed William’s death, as the house was listed for rent in 1859, however, Charles and George’s mother Harriet lived until she was 92 and was able to leave them just under $20,000 worth of shares in insurance companies, which she probably inherited from her brother.

The area of Hartford where the Hoadley house stood has since been taken over by the XL Center and tangles of highway, but the old maps reveal that it was between Church and Chapel Streets. A “To Rent” advertisement describes the house as “containing eleven rooms, with modern improvement.” Contemporaneous early-20th century images of Asylum Street, just a few blocks from the house, show dilapidated buildings and suggest that the neighborhood was becoming increasingly commercial.

In 1901, Francis, a clerk, sold his younger brother his share in the house and, presumably, George then sold the property. Shortly after, both George and Francis moved to the newly constructed 242 Fern Street in West Hartford. We’re left to wonder what makes a 63-year-old man suddenly relocate generations of possessions from an 11-room house in the city to an estate with seven master bedrooms, six fireplaces, and a solarium. The house wasn’t George’s only splurge. In 1910, for just under $30,000, he built and dedicated the Jeremiah Hoadley Bridge in Bushnell Park.

My narrative of a heartbroken brother explained bequests and literary donations; my speculation on a shifting neighborhood explained a move (if not an estate), but based on what I knew of the Hoadleys, a bridge was pretty hard to reconcile.

Somewhere between the death  of their “insolvent debtor” father in 1849 and 1910, the remaining members of the Hoadley family had become quite wealthy. George was the primary recipient of Charles’ estate, which totaled about $250,000. This had to have come from more than just his annual salary. In 1901, Charles’ successor as Connecticut State Librarian earned approximately $3,600.

Along with his rapidly transformed financial habits, the newspaper archives also reveal a shift in George’s lifestyle. Prior to Charles’ death in 1900, George was mentioned in the Hartford Courant only a handful of times and never with any great detail. After 1900, George’s number of mentions skyrocketed. To judge by the newspaper coverage, he wasn’t just buying houses and bridges; George was also displaying and donating antiquarian treasures all over Hartford.

This marked shift from a private citizen to a public historian begs narration. It was easy to imagine the 11 rooms of the Ann Street house as bursting at the seams with Charles’ collections. It was just as easy to imagine George’s resentment growing as his brother gained more notoriety and wealth. It was also easy to imagine that George’s own scholarly ambitions were overshadowed by his erudite brother. And it was easy to imagine why he would have gone on a spending spree after his brother’s death.

But this didn’t sit right with me. The bookplate, after all, bound the names of the two brothers together. The news coverage about  George very frequently referenced Charles and presented the brothers as collaborators, the collection as shared. In December of 1911, George submitted a letter to the editor in which he corrected an assertion that “Miss Skinner” was the state’s longest serving public employee. He offers the name of the true longest serving employee and then adds, “my brother, Charles L. [sic] Hoadley was State Librarian from 1855 to 1900, forty-five years.” You don’t write to the newspaper to correct the record about someone whose legacy you are trying to destroy—you do it for someone whose legacy you are building. Charles, it seems, had lived a life of relative quiet, and George’s philanthropy apparently sought to bring his brother’s accomplishments more into the public eye.

To be continued in Part II

By Anne C. Wheeler, Associate professor of composition/rhetoric, chair of the Department of Literature, Writing, and Journalism at Springfield College, 2021

CHS plaque honoring George Hoadley's request

Plaque in honor of George Hoadley’s bequest to the Connecticut Historical Society, displayed in their lobby. Photo by Michelle Tom.

George E. Hoadley letter to the editor, December 2, 1916. Courtesy of the Hartford Courant.