Shad Derby festival on the town green, 1986. WHS collections 2013.1.12.1.
Windsor, Connecticut’s first English settlement, is located north of Hartford where the Farmington and Connecticut Rivers join. With a population of 29,044 according to the 2010 census, Windsor today is an attractive suburban town invested in its “first town” status and known for its growing corporate sector, diverse population, and the Loomis Chaffee School.
Land and water shaped Windsor’s settlement patterns from its earliest years. For the local River Indians, the Connecticut and Farmington Rivers were transportation corridors to the interior fur trade, also providing fish for sustenance and fertile floodplains for seasonal agriculture. The River Indians existed between two stronger warring groups, the Pequot and Mohawk Nations who exacted regular tributes from them in exchange for an uneasy peace. In 1631, River Indians journeyed north to English settlements at Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth, inviting English settlement in the Connecticut valley with descriptions of fertile lands and abundant wildlife. Their hope with such an alliance was to strengthen defenses in their area (DeForest, pp. 73-75).
First English Settlement stone monument. From a postcard in the WHS collections, 2014.1.16.
There was little interest from the English in Massachusetts until 1633, when word reached them that the Dutch had established a trading post in what is now Hartford. Now, the pressure was on to establish an English outpost on the Connecticut River, a major transportation artery with headwaters far to the north, providing access to promising fur trade. A party of Plymouth settlers under the leadership of William Holmes sailed upriver past the Dutch fort in Hartford, arriving on September 26, 1633 to establish a trading post just south of where the Farmington River joins the Connecticut (Stiles, p. 25). Within the next two years, two other groups of settlers would arrive, the first from Dorchester, Massachusetts and the second, a group that had just migrated from England under the auspices of Lord Saltonstall.
By 1635, English groups had established plantations or towns at Dorchester (renamed Windsor), Newtowne (renamed Hartford) and Watertowne (renamed Wethersfield). In April of 1636, representatives from the three towns held a court in Hartford, an alliance that would evolve into the Colony of Connecticut. One year later, that same court authorized an “offensive war” against the Pequot under the command of Captain John Mason of Windsor. In Windsor, a palisade was hastily erected for protection. Settlers within the palisaded area temporarily gave up their home lots to accommodate families moving in from outside the Palisado. The quick and brutal engagement between the River Town and Pequot forces under the command of Captain Mason resulted in decimation of the Pequot peoples. Windsor’s palisade was gone by 1640 although reference to it remains to this day in Windsor’s Palisado Green.
Plan of the Palisado (enlarged by Jabez H. Hayden, courtesy of the publishers of “The Memorial History of Hartford County”, as printed in Henry Stiles History and Genealogies of Ancient Windsor)
The early town of Windsor was distinguished from neighboring towns by its size. The first land distribution in Windsor was 16,000 acres distributed to 92 settling families. By contrast, Hartford distributed 5,000 acres to 120 residents (Bissell, p. 25). With such a large geographic area, it was inevitable that settlers far from the center of town would eventually petition to form their own townships as they struggled with mandatory church attendance and centralized civic duties. Simsbury was the first of Windsor’s “daughter towns“, splitting from Windsor in 1670. Coventry, the southern portions of Enfield and Suffield, Tolland, Litchfield, Harwinton, Morris, Bolton, Vernon, Torrington, East Windsor, South Windsor, Ellington, Barkhamstead, Granby and East Granby, Colebrook, Manchester’s north side, Bloomfield, and Windsor Locks, the last township to split from Windsor in 1854, were all located on lands granted at one time to Windsor (Howard, pp 23-25).
Windsor was a homogeneous and socially cohesive community in the seventeenth and early part of the eighteenth century. Large land grants were subdivided to meet the needs of the second and third generations; of the 289 marriages in Windsor in its first fifty years, 74% were those where both parties had been born in Windsor (Bissell, 139).
This map shows Windsor’s various daughter, granddaughter, adopted daughter, and step-daughter towns. The shaded areas show the land originally within Windsor’s boundaries (dotted lines separate slices of towns originally from Windsor). Map by Homer W. Scott (edited for clarity by Michelle Tom), courtesy of the DFAW.
Almost 1,000 acres of Windsor’s land was fertile meadowland, supplying valuable feed for livestock in the earliest years of English settlement, then agricultural products.
By virtue of its location on the Connecticut River, Windsor functioned as a vital port. Merchants on both sides of the river shipped timber products, brick, livestock, wheat, tobacco and other produce to supply plantations in the West Indies, importing sugar, molasses, salt, and British manufactured textiles, ceramics, hardware and glass on return trips. Windsor’s Hooker and Chaffee mercantile firm maintained a store and packing houses right off Windsor’s Palisado Green. Small scale shipbuilding took place at the mouth of the Scantic River in what is now South Windsor, Warehouse Point in what is now East Windsor, and along the Farmington from as far upriver as today’s village of Poquonock (Stiles p. 428-9).
The American Revolution and naval politics of the post-revolutionary period disrupted Windsor’s shipping and trade. Closer to home, a draw-bridge completed over the Connecticut River in 1810 just downriver of Windsor in Hartford also damaged Windsor’s shipping interests, facilitating Hartford’s ascendance to economic powerhouse of the region. Windsor, however, would soon play a significant role in maintaining the region’s economic viability.
In 1824, in response to the state-chartered Farmington Canal which gave the New Haven- Northampton transportation corridor a competitive advantage over the Connecticut River towns, the Hartford-based Connecticut River Company was formed. Its purpose was to finance the building of a canal around the Enfield rapids north of Windsor. Irish laborers arrived to build the canal bed and Catholic masses began to be held in 1827 – the first regular masses in the area. The canal opened amidst much acclaim on November 11, 1829 (Stiles 508). For fifteen years, scows carried goods around the rapids; two small sternwheelers, the Agawam and the Phoenix, carried passengers between Hartford and Springfield. By the end of 1844, the canal was effectively eclipsed by the Hartford and Springfield Railroad with connections to New Haven, (and from New Haven to New York by steamer) Worcester, and Boston.
The Windsor Locks Canal was no longer an effective transportation artery, but it contributed power for a number of industries that had begun to grow up on its banks, including paper mills, thread mills, a rolling mill, and a foundry. This area in the Pine Meadows section of Windsor and small manufactories in the Poquonock section of town on the Farmington River drew more Irish immigrants to the area. In 1830, Irish comprised one percent of Windsor’s population. By 1850, residents of Irish descent made up 13% of Windsor’s population and by 1860, almost 20%.
Tunxis Mill and employees, c1895. WHS collections 2000.30.157, courtesy of Julius Rusavage.
By mid-19th century, Windsor had developed five smaller village centers, each with its own distinctive character. Wilson, Windsor Center, and Hayden Station were railroad stops. Poquonock was the industrial section of town on the Farmington River with wool, paper, and cotton mills and Rainbow, a smaller industrial village on the Farmington with a number of small paper mills. Irish, Polish, and Lithuanian immigrants brought new religions, languages, customs, and foods to Windsor’s industrial villages. But Windsor was never known as an industrial center.
Products of the land would continue to play a major role in Windsor’s economy. Windsor’s soils were rich in clay deposits. By the mid-19th century, close to forty brickyards were operating in town (Howard, 230). The markets for Windsor brick included rapidly industrializing urban centers throughout Connecticut. Growing urban populations in Hartford also needed dairy and market products that Windsor’s fertile soils continued to produce well into the twentieth century. Jane Zukowski Cranick recalled, “I remember moving to Wilson in January of 1929. (…) It was a small community of German and Polish immigrants who made a living by farming. (…) They all took their produce to market in Hartford in the early morning hours. I would wake up and hear the horse and wagon, with lanterns aglow, on their long trek into the city” (Storytellers I, p. 52).
The sandy loam of Windsor’s soils was perfect for tobacco growing. Starting in 1640, a mere seven years after town settlement, tobacco seed imported into Connecticut from Virginia was used to grow tobacco in Windsor (Howard, 221). The first shade-grown tobacco produced in this country was grown under cheesecloth tents in the village of Poquonock, starting in 1900 (Howard, 222). The tents blocked direct sunlight and increased humidity, thus approximating the optimal growing conditions of the plants’ native Sumatra.
World War I and the tight immigration restrictions following it reduced the stream of European immigrants into Windsor. Tobacco growers shepherding the growth of an expanding industry began to recruit college students, including young African-Americans from Virginia to Georgia for summer work.
With World War II came further labor restrictions and tobacco growers looked to the West Indies for help, recruiting hundreds of West Indian men during the war. Local high school students, college men and women, and beginning in 1947, Puerto Rican men worked seasonally in Windsor’s tobacco fields and sheds. Many of the West Indian and Puerto Rican migrants eventually settled in the area (Johnson).
Sewing and hanging tobacco leaves to dry. WHS collections 2011.1.89.
The twentieth century was a time of rapid growth for Windsor. Starting in 1895, electric trolleys connected the town with the cities of Hartford and Springfield, making it possible for Windsor residents to commute to work in these cities.
Between 1920 and 1930, Windsor’s population increased 47 percent, to 8,290 residents. Of these, 9.3% were of Lithuanian descent, 6.5% were Polish, 5.8% were of English/Scottish extraction and 5.6% were French/Canadians. African-Americans comprised 2.6% of Windsor’s population. While 78.4% of Windsor residents at that time were native-born whites, only 42.2% of Windsor’s residents had a grandparent native to Windsor; the town’s population was diversifying in unprecedented ways (Suburbanization p.27).
Broad Street Green. WHS collections 2008.41.24.
Village centers in Windsor, particularly the Wilson, Windsor Center, and Poquonock areas became more demographically differentiated. Skilled and unskilled workers from Hartford increasingly populated Wilson, the section closest to Hartford; business and white-collar workers populated Windsor Center, and farmers populated Poquonock. (Suburbanization 53).
Newcomers were interested in modern conveniences: electricity, sidewalks, modern schools. Conveniences like these cost money; many Windsor natives and farmers were alarmed at escalating costs for public services and feared they would destroy Windsor’s historic charms. In the 1930s one older resident protested to the local newspapers.
“Unnecessary expenditures are made continually. Take, for instance, the… expense for [street] lighting. We do not need to have such illumination at night. I remember when we went out carrying kerosene lanterns and we got along very well indeed without cost to anybody but those who used the lanterns. Plenty of light is furnished by the automobiles.…We were satisfied without a Public Library or street sprinkling or fire hydrants. The modern contraptions seem only invented for the purpose of spending money and increasing taxes” (Suburbanization 136).
By 1929, Windsor had joined the Metropolitan District Commission; indoor plumbing, electricity, paved roads, automobiles, and air transport (Bradley International Airport opened in Windsor Locks in 1946) would become the norm in the next two decades.
The town’s next period of explosive growth occurred in the 1950s. In 1950, Windsor’s population stood at 11,833. A decade later, it had climbed to 19,467 residents. Interstate I-91 reached Windsor in 1956; the highway, and Windsor’s proximity to Bradley International Airport attracted residential and commercial development.
By now, truck farming and agriculture in Windsor had been largely replaced by the large-scale agricultural operations in the nation’s Midwest. With the Surgeon General’s 1964 Report on Smoking and Health, tobacco farming in Windsor would begin its decline.
What the town did have in abundance was land in its northwest quadrant formerly devoted to farming. At the same time, corporations in congested and expensive cities were looking for attractive locations near transportation hubs for relocation and expansion opportunities.
Throughout the 1950s, Town Manager Bob Weiss worked tirelessly to bring new corporations to Windsor land now zoned for light industry and corporate use. By 1960, New York City’s Combustion Engineering‘s center for nuclear research was thriving and 400 employees had been relocated to the Windsor area. Commercial development along Cottage Grove and Day Hill Roads continues into the 21st century.
Simulator room in Combustion Engineering. WHS collections 2010.64.17.
In the past fifty years, Windsor’s population has continued to diversify. Increasing numbers of people moving from Hartford to the suburbs were members of minority groups. Windsor’s African-American population increased more than tenfold between 1970 and 2000, reaching about 27% of the town’s population. That year, median income for Windsor’s black households was larger than for its white households. Windsor residents of Hispanic descent make up 5% of the population, with Asians comprising another 3%.
Windsor today is a town rich in history. It is a town that has experienced economic transformation in the past century, and enormous demographic transformation in the past few decades. While not immune from the tensions change brings, Windsor is strong in its sense of communities and continues to work towards community-building.
Bissell, Linda. “Friends, Family and Neighbors: Social Interaction in Seventeenth-Century Windsor, Connecticut.” Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1973.
De Forest, John W. History of the Indians of Connecticut. Hartford: Wm Jas. Hamersley, 1851.
Hinckley, Marcia Dort. “‘We just went on with it.’ The Black Experience in Windsor, Connecticut 1790-1950.” Masters of Arts Thesis, Trinity College, 1991.
Howard, Daniel. A New History of Old Windsor. Windsor Locks, CT: The Journal Press, 1935.
Johnson, Fay Clarke. Soldiers of the Soil. New York: Vantage Press, Inc., 1995.
Stiles, Henry R., M.D. The History and Genealogies of Ancient Windsor; including East Windsor, South Windsor, Bloomfield, Windsor Locks, and Ellington. 1635-1891. 2nd ed. Vol. I. Hartford, CT: Case. Lockwood & Brainard Company, 1892. Reprint Rockport, ME: Picton Press, 1999.
Thistlewaite, Frank. Dorset Pilgrims: The Story of West Country Pilgrims Who Went to New England in the 17th Century. 1989. 2d American ed., Interlaken, NY: Heart of the Lakes, 1995.
Whetten, N.L. and E.C. Devereux, Jr. “Windsor: A Highly Developed Agricultural Area.” Studies of Suburbanization in Connecticut. Agricultural Experiment Station. Bulletin 212. Department of Sociology. Connecticut State College. Storrs, October 1936.