On July 6, 1899, a sixty-eight-year-old widow living in Cleveland, Ohio, purchased a composition book. Later that day, on its initial page, she wrote: “This day I bought this book that I may jot down some of the events and surroundings of my early life in Connecticut, that I may give to my children some knowledge of my early home and of the relatives who were so dear to me.” The writer’s name was Augusta Hoyt Adams. She had been born in Bethel on February 14, 1831, and lived most of her early life on the northern end of Grassy Plain Street. Her life began when Andrew Jackson was serving as our nation’s seventh president, and she would live to see William Howard Taft become our twenty-seventh. Her memoir entitled “Reminiscences of My Old Connecticut Home” provides a wealth of information regarding the people and events of her time that might have otherwise been lost to history. Here, for the first time, portions of Adams’ narrative are publicly shared, just as she recorded them, using her original language, spelling, and grammar. Commentary has been added to better clarify and explain the original content.
Born Augusta Hoyt, the writer was the daughter of Starr Hoyt (1804-1849) and Sally Maria Nichols (1808-1881). Her birth took place in the longtime family home on Sunset Hill Road in the Wolfpits school district. A short time after her birth, her father sold the homestead to his older brother Joshua Hoyt (1801-1891) and moved his family from the Wolfpits district to Grassy Plain to engage in the hatting business with his younger brother Giles Milton Hoyt (1812-1890). The family’s home still exists at 36 Grassy Plain Street, located just north of Whitney Road. During Augusta Hoyt’s youth, Grassy Plain was part of Danbury. Bethel would be set off as a separate town in 1855, but the Grassy Plain district would not accompany it until 1869. Fleetwood Avenue, Grassy Plain Terrace, Willow Street, and Whitney Road did not yet exist during Adams’ time.
“Of course, as I was the baby of the family, I have now no recollection of our removal to Grassy Plain. My father’s brother, Giles Milton Hoyt, who was eight years younger than my father, was already settled in Grassy Plain as a manufacturer of hats. My father and he formed the partnership of S. & G.M. Hoyt.” (The Hoyt hat factory stood on the west side of Grassy Plain Street, near the south corner of Mansfield Street.)
“This lovely village in its green nest was one long street lying on the Danbury road. At the north end the road divided like a fork and you could reach Danbury by the left tine of the fork by a hilly road called “Coalpit hillway,” or by a more level road on the right. We usually chose the left, as the view from Coalpit hill was most extended and beautiful. The British had ascended the hill when they attacked the town. Danbury lay in the peaceful valley, spreading up the sides of the hill around.”
The Bethel portion of the “Coalpit hillway” or Coalpit Hill Road was later renamed Mansfield Street for Ralph Mansfield (1822-1915), who emigrated from Ireland in 1847, became a hatter, and lived on the street for most of his life. The right tine of the fork is the northernmost part of Grassy Plain Street that changes its name to South Street at the Danbury border. During Adams’ lifetime, nearly every hill and valley had been cleared of trees, providing almost panoramic views that no longer exist today. The aforementioned British attack on Danbury took place on April 26, 1777.
Aunt Laura and Uncle Aaron Nichols
“At the fork division between the roads there stood on a slight elevation a large old fashioned colonial house shaded by a magnificent elm tree in front. Here my aunt Laura Nichols lived with her husband, Aaron Nichols, who was brother to my grandfather, Philip Nichols. My uncle Giles had some time before married aunt Laura’s daughter, Jane Nichols, a gentle, lovely woman with soft brown eyes and beautiful dark hair. Aunt Laura was aunt to P.T. Barnum, who finally became the great showman of America. He and his family were often at her house, and his daughter Caroline, afterwards Mrs. David Thompson of Bridgeport, was one of my girl friends. I once staid a week with her in her father’s elegant residence named Iranisteen, in Bridgeport.” (More specifically, Laura Taylor Nichols was the sister of Barnum’s mother, Irena Taylor Barnum. The true name of Barnum’s home in Bridgeport was Iranistan.)
“My uncle Aaron died not long after we removed to Grassy Plain, and Aunt Laura lived in the old house until her death which occurred many years after. My grandmother Nichols, my mother’s mother, lived just beyond on the right hand road to Danbury. The house was large and old fashioned, shaded by noble trees. The old fashioned roof sloped almost to the ground in the rear as it stood with wide frontage to the street, the front door in the middle. How well I remember the low-ceiled parlor with its corner cup-board holding her clean, bright jellies, the large kitchen and big fireplace.”
The house owned by Aaron and Laura Nichols faced Grassy Plain Street but occupied property that is now designated as 5 Mansfield Street. The old residence was razed sometime in the late 19th century. Adams’ grandmother, Elizabeth Starr Nichols (1787-1873), and her husband, Aaron Nichols (1779-1837), lived in a saltbox-style house on the west side of Grassy Plain Street near the Danbury line. The house would later be designated as 9 Grassy Plain Street and survived until 1961 before being demolished. The property that once encompassed the home is now part of The Villages at Timber Oak condominium complex.
The Armstrong Family
Adams next describes her friendship with a young African-American girl named Mary Jane Armstrong, whose family lived on Mansfield Street. The account uses the language of the time yet provides a unique insight into how the Armstrong family made ends meet despite prevailing racial prejudice. Records related to the family are somewhat scarce. Still, interestingly, military documents indicate that Mary Jane’s brother, William H. Armstrong, joined what was then known as “The Connecticut 29th Colored Regiment” and fought in the Civil War. He died in 1891 at the age of 73, and his grave in Danbury’s Wooster Cemetery possesses a veteran’s headstone. Sadly, the following passage ends with a traumatic memory of a tragedy that occurred at the Armstrong home.
“A little ways from aunt Laura’s, on the Coalpit Hill Road, stood a small unpainted house where lived a colored man named William Armstrong, or “Black Bill,” as he was called. He was the professional whitewasher of the village and could act as a barber in an emergency. He had a daughter Mary Jane, a few years older than myself and a devoted friend. Cookies and root beer were made in their house and sold to any chance customers. She once invited me to take tea with her, and my sister Mariette always laughed when she recalled the fact that I went to the window and called loudly to a neighbor’s boy, ‘Douglas Morrow, won’t you tell Mary Jane Armstrong that I can’t go there to tea tonight because mother won’t let me.’ In the home of those kind colored people a most sorrowful event occurred which threw a dark shadow over our family circle.”
“My father and mother had driven in their own carriage - making a journey of forty miles - to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to visit my father’s brother, Selleck Osborn Hoyt. My grandmother Nichols took charge of the household. My beautiful little sister Abbie, aged four years, upon coming home from school went home with Mary Jane to play. Her golden curls were tossed in the wind, her brown shining eyes were full of fun. A kettle of boiling beer stood in the yard and my little sister fell backwards into the hot fluid. She was brought home and lived thirty hours. She did not suffer as one would expect. The doctor said the burn was too deep, far below the skin. A messenger was sent for my parents, who hastened home. I shall never forget the scene when they came into the house. My mother threw herself upon the cradle where the little one lay lifeless, embracing her until she fainted away. Young as I was, I was impressed with my father’s Christian spirit as he walked the room with tears flowing down his cheeks, saying, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.’ I think this occurred in 1840.” (Records show that the actual date of Abigail Hoyt’s death was July 16, 1842. Sadly, Starr Hoyt and his wife, Sally, had two other daughters, Mary Eliza and Julia Cross, who both died before the age of two.)
Peter and Altana Barnum
Augusta Hoyt Adams had many memorable neighbors as a young girl, but Peter Barnum and his wife, Altana Starr Barnum, were among the most endearing. The couple lived in a saltbox-style house that was already a century old during Adams’ childhood. The structure still survives and has been incorporated as part of the Gentle Dental dentistry office at 27 Grassy Plain Street. The house had come down through the Starr family, having passed from Josiah Starr (1717-1795) to his son Eliakim Starr (1749-1825) and then to his daughter Altana Starr Barnum (1788-1867). Altana’s husband, Peter Barnum (1784-1873), was the younger brother of P.T. Barnum’s father, Philo.
“Across the road from our house in an old fashioned house with a great stone chimney in the centre and its roof sloping down behind within a few feet of the ground, lived Deacon Peter Barnum, a deacon in our church. He and his wife Altana, whom we named aunt Ally, were a primitive New England couple. He was a small farmer who ploughed and sowed his few acres for his family support. Probably at no time did his income exceed three hundred dollars, but he managed to raise a family of two sons and two daughters. He was very deaf, but he read and meditated on many things. The chief book that claimed his attention and influenced his life, was the Bible. He had a habit while ploughing of talking to himself, and we have often been amused by hearing him break out into laughter on such occasions.”
“Aunt Ally was the gentlest and most domestic of women. She was neat to a fault and her house was immaculate. Her own hands carried on most of the work. No stove ever entered her large kitchen. She was shy as a girl, yet a woman of strong and kindly character. The large old fashioned fireplace with its crane and kettles hung over the fire, I remember, and I can see her form painfully bent as she swung them to and fro. The large stone oven beside the fireplace baked her snow-white bread, and her home butter was always sweet. Her cooking would have suited an epicure in its delicacy.”
Uncle Giles Milton Hoyt
“Uncle Giles’ home adjoined our own in Grassy Plain. How well I remember the children, Richmond, Eveline, Granville, Mary Eliza and Will.”
Giles (pronounced “Jiles”), Milton Hoyt, lived at 34 Grassy Plain Street. He operated his hat factory in Grassy Plain until 1874 and then moved his establishment to Danbury. His business endeavors proved prosperous, and he was considered a popular and influential citizen. As early as 1857, he was chosen to represent Danbury in the Connecticut General Assembly.
The Starr Family
“Next to Uncle Giles’, in a large, unpainted, blindness, old fashioned house, lived Zadoc Starr, or “uncle Zaid,” as we called him. (In the 19th century, window shutters were often called blinds.) This house gave place to a more modern one at a later date. Mr. Hugh Starr, his son, lived in the wing on this side. A daughter, Mrs. Flora Schoonmaker, lived with her daughter Kate upstairs. This house was my favorite resort for pure social enjoyment.”
Much of the former Starr property is now designated as 30 Grassy Plain Street. Willow Street and the Grassy Plain Plaza have also been created within its old boundaries. Zadock Starr (1768-1861) had inherited half of the family’s original house from his father, Captain Thomas Starr (1720-1806). Captain Starr’s bravery had made him a local hero during the American Revolution. A History of the Starr Family published in 1879 states: “When the British burned Danbury April 27, 1777, he was one of the citizen soldiers who rallied to the defence of the town, and was struck down by a British officer with his cutlass, making a terrible wound across the head, taking the scalp and part of the face, and left for dead at the foot of Liberty street. He was taken up by his friends and tenderly cared for, but never entirely recovered from the effects of his wound, and carried the frightful scar to his grave.” Captain Thomas Starr and his wife, Mary Sherman Starr, are buried in “The Old Burying Ground,” located adjacent to the First Congregational Church of Bethel at 46 Main Street. Captain Starr’s daughter, Jerusha, married Philip Wheeler and is mentioned in the following excerpt.
The Wheeler Family
“Nearly across the way was a small old fashioned house with a sloping front roof. Here lived our milliners, the exponents of art in our village. For many years they satisfied our sense of the beautiful. I well remember the joy I felt in my white Tuscan bonnet trimmed with pink satin bands held in place by satin buttons. Miss Mary was the chief artist. She was fleshy and comfortable, as also her sister, Miss Jerusha, while their mother, Mrs. Jerusha Wheeler, was clad only in enough mortal mould to completely protect the spirit within. What a delight it was to go in and see their glass cases of hats, and their flowers and rolls of ribbon!”
“Miss Mary made a happy marriage at fifty, and no milliner ever presumed to take their places.”
The house occupied by the Wheeler family was located at 39 Grassy Plain Street. Jerusha Starr Wheeler was the widow of Philip Wheeler, whom she had married in 1783. They may have built their house about that time. P.T. Barnum boarded with the family following his father’s death in 1826 and worked in a general store across the street. It was in the Wheeler’s house that he was introduced to his first wife, Charity Hallett. Barnum wrote of the Wheeler family in the first edition of his autobiography.
“There were other neighbors, but I cannot write about them all. I remember uncle ‘Nees Taylor” - the abbreviation of Ebenezer. He sat in his dooryard under a wide-spreading butternut under his low-roofed eaves. I see him now with his long white locks, the old patriarch that he was. Ah me! If he were living now he would be about 150 years old. This silent majority! They have all moved on and where are they? They lived and loved and suffered and passed away to make room for others.”
“These old places are some of them yet standing, and Grassy Plain is still to my eye beautiful. In the very lower part of the street tasteful modern homes have sprung up, and the drives are beautiful.”
Ebenezer Taylor was born in 1763 and died on September 2, 1855, at 92. His house stood near the present site of Sycamore at 282 Greenwood Avenue.
The Starr Hoyt Home and Is Surroundings
“Our house was a pleasant, roomy, two-story building. The yard had a row of fine maples on the border line. Rose bushes, lilacs, and one large plum tree produced its golden eggs. My father was proud of this fruit. Our rear yard had a row of willows that made a beautiful shade. There were several locust trees also. The yard sloped to the garden, and the garden again to the large pasture lot behind, with its apple trees.”
“A clear brook ran across the road north of the house. A bridge crossed it at the roadway. Here in the cool, dark water we used to watch the minnows darting back and forth.”
The brook mentioned here flows from west to east beneath Grassy Plain Street, a short distance south of Mansfield Street. It was traditionally known as “Muddy Brook” but is not labeled on most modern maps. Today’s bridge crossing the brook has barriers and fencing on either side, making it difficult to notice the tributary’s existence. It can be seen more clearly from the parking area that adjoins the north side of the House of Yoshida restaurant.
Viewing 19th Century Hatters at Work
“I used to like to go in and see the men who worked for my father, manufacturing hats. The building was across the street just beyond the bridge. The process was more extended than in these days of machinery. It would be interesting to compare the differences in operations. I remember seeing them whipping the fur with a long straight bow with a catgut string. Many girls were employed. They whipped by hand all the leathers that still line men’s hats around the head. So rapidly and beautifully was this done with the needle, holding the morocco across the fingers, that it was pleasant to see.”
The hat factory operated by Giles and Starr Hoyt was situated near the southwest corner of Grassy Plain Street and Mansfield Street until it was destroyed by fire in the late 19th century. The Bethel Historical Society possesses an example of an authentic hatter’s bow like the one described by Adams. The seven-foot-long wooden device resembled a large violin bow and was suspended from the ceiling with a cord. The bow had a length of tightly stretched catgut that ran from one end to the other on its lower side. By snapping the taut catgut close to a pile of loose beaver fur, a vibration was created that caused the jagged edges of the individual hairs of fur to begin to interlock. This process was one of the initial steps in transforming fur into felt. Women were traditionally employed as trimmers who performed all of the tasks required for finishing off a rough hat body. Trimmers used their sewing skills to attach bands made from ribbon to the outside of hats and install leather sweatbands on the inside. At this time, sweatbands were made from morocco, a fine leather made of goatskins tanned with sumac.
In the next portion of her memoirs, Adams recalls attending the schoolhouse that served the Grassy Plain district. Several different buildings saw service during the 1800s, but the one she recalls is most likely the small building that appears on an 1856 map of Bethel. The school sat near the northwest corner of Greenwood Avenue and Blackman Avenue. It occupied land donated by Daniel Hickok in October of 1833. The school building was probably constructed shortly after that.
“The district schoolhouse about a half mile below our house was the place where our education began.”
“It was a square building with a square iron stove in the centre. An iron rod ran across the building from side to side, considerably above the stove, supposedly to be solely for holding the sides of the building together. The boys found another use for it. They began at the end by standing on a desk, laying hold of the rod with both hands and working themselves along to the other side of the room. I have known girls to attempt the same feat, but cannot remember the results.”
“A sloping desk ran all around the room, fastened against the wall. These desks were adorned with cuts of all shapes and sizes, especially letters, cut deep into the boards. A bench ran all around the room in front of the desk. It was made of the half of a split log with each leg fastened in at an angle. How often on a soft, bright June day, when the bees were buzzing about the windows, have I sat on my bench, my arms leaning on the desk, and looked upon the distant blue hills with a great longing. I could see three miles off the old fashioned church we attended, standing on the steep hill. (The Hoyt family attended the Danbury Baptist Church that was at that time located on Deer Hill Avenue.) It seemed a shame to be shut in while nature seemed to ring her freedom in my very face.”
“The ceiling above and around the room seemed to bear marks of an industrial if not a bloody conflict. Spit balls adhered to them in every direction - well chewed paper balls.”
“We carried our dinners with us, so we had ample time to cultivate gymnastics of any kind. Oh, how good that dinner tasted. Older people become hungry, but the hunger is incomparable to the clear, perfect taste of a child when cold potatoes give delight.” (In the 19th century, the afternoon meal that we now call lunch was often called dinner, and the evening meal was known as supper.)
Adams next recalls how corporal punishment was still very much a part of education during her childhood. The old song “School Days” speaks of “Reading, and ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic, Taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick.” Here we see how that hickory stick was often applied across the palms of young scholars who were judged to be lacking in discipline. The teacher Adams mentions was Andrew Leavenworth Benedict (1822-1900).
“I remember the master calling us up after some offence; ‘hold out your hand.’ Then we showed what stuff we were made of. It was beautiful to see how boldly and unshrinkingly some boys stretched out the right hands, palm upward, but how one’s nerves quivered when wails of anguish rose on the air.”
“My sister Elizabeth was more often caught in this way than I. We had a teacher, Mr. Andrew Benedict, who was a fleshy man and very good natured. As I had never been punished by him I began to take liberties and was much astonished one day when I was ordered up to the platform to receive the reward of my deeds.”
Adams recalled members of the Seelye family who were generally viewed as leading figures in the community. The younger members went on to become important educators in the wider world. Seth Seelye served as Bethel’s earliest first selectman, and his home later became the original portion of the Bethel Public Library that is still in use today. He built the store that today contains spaces designated as 190 and 194 Greenwood Avenue, now occupied by Bethel Glass and Shower Door Company and Nicky’s Haircutters.
“The district committee who were to visit the schools and hire the teachers, struck us with awe. Deacon Seth Seelye was one of these. He was the father of Julius Seelye, afterwards President of Amherst College, and Clark Laurens Seelye, President of Smith. Deacon Seelye lived a few rods south in a colonial house with high pillars. He had a small store across the way, where his sons aided him as clerks. We used to go there to buy our slate pencils, and pens, for we used quill pens that the master mended for us. Deacon Seelye visited our school one day and promised a New Testament to each one who should learn to repeat the 139th Psalm. I received my plain bound leather Testament, with many others. I have always thanked him, for the Psalm is one of the things I have never forgotten.”
“The last day of school was a great day. Oranges were distributed and ‘pieces were spoken,’ some with great dramatic fire, unless the speaker was too much scared.”
Her Father’s New Enterprise
Adams tells of how in 1848, her father, Starr Hoyt, decided to give up the hatting business and begin a boys’ boarding school. The new school building was located diagonally across the road from the hat factory he had previously co-owned with his brother. Many of the students of the school seem to have boarded in the nearby Hoyt family home. A branch of the Union Savings Bank currently occupies the school’s former site at 24 Grassy Plain Street.
“When I was seventeen years old my father made a change in his business that was very pleasant for us. He established a Boys’ Boarding School to prepare them for college. The house was enlarged and conveniences added. I had just left the Academy in Danbury and he relied upon me as his main assistant in the class-room. My sister Elizabeth taught piano music, my sister Mariette was one of the pupils in the school, my brother Howard, age sixteen, was also a pupil.”
“This business suited my father, for he was fond of books and had cultivated his mind by large reading. He commanded the confidence of people who entrusted their boys and girls to his care. It was a safe and sheltered place for such a school, free from the temptation that exists in large towns. My sisters and myself gave all our time willingly to teaching, caring for the boys or amusing them in the long winter evenings. We were young enough to thoroughly enjoy reading and games with them.”
“Our pupils were mostly from New York City and Bridgeport. We had many children of ministers, and all belonged to a good class of society.”
“My father was very successful in his school and our finances improved. We country girls and my brother were often helped by the society of cultivated people who came to see their boys and enjoy our quiet country home.”
Another Family Tragedy
“My father had relied upon me to teach the higher branches, so called, Latin, algebra, geometry, etc., and now the whole care of the school-room settled upon my shoulders, for his death occurred while the school was in session. He was not well for several weeks during the summer and seemed averse to staying in the school-room. A severe swelling of the knee almost crippled him and I spent many days alone in the school-room. Chills and a fever set in in September.”
“One day my brother drove our new grey horse into town that I might take my French lesson of Dr. Booth, and also a drawing lesson. On the way home the horse ran away, threw us out and turned the wagon over. Someone passing along the road on Coalpit Hill drove me home. I found my father worse and soon Dr. Ezra P. Bennet, our attached family physician, pronounced his disease a bad case of typhus fever. I remember those beautiful golden September days when the leaves were falling and he lay in the old bedroom with its small fireplace, struggling for life.” (Typhus is a bacterial disease spread by lice or fleas.)
“He grew worse daily. After nine days, on that last night mother and all of us slept upstairs, or lay down to sleep while he lay in a comatose condition, in care of the watcher and our good Doctor Bennett. In the night we heard the doctor go out, and mount his horse and go home. In a little while my father quietly passed away. The date was September 18, 1849.”
“How lonely the home, the school-room where I was obliged to take not only my own but my father’s place! I carried his old fashioned silver watch to regulate the work of the school-room.”
“I knelt in prayer at the opening of the school exercises. I was so frightened at the sound of my own voice that I hardly knew what I said, but I know how deeply I felt our need.”
“The school was continued during the two years following; mother was the business manager and went to New York occasionally to attend to its interests. How we used to watch for her return with her vivid descriptions of those she had met and the scenes of city life. A Presbyterian minister was secured as head of the school in father’s place, and afterwards Theodore Sears, lately from Amherst College and later a law student in Albany. He became my brother-in-law by marriage with my oldest sister Elizabeth. He was ambitious and brilliant, had a very fine presence, and was remarkably successful in controlling the boys.”
“My mother did well financially with the school during its continuance, but it was thought best to close it and sell the place (1853). We removed to Danbury into a building new and convenient, belonging to my uncle David Nichols. The old house we left in Grassy Plain, is still standing in good condition after forty-four years. I visited it two years ago last summer.” (Adams left the Danbury area in 1855 and wrote her memoir in 1899; thus, a period of forty-four years had passed.)
Life After Bethel
Two years after moving to Danbury, Augusta Hoyt married the Reverend Seymour Webster Adams, a Baptist minister from Cleveland, Ohio. He was a widower twice over and sixteen years her senior. The couple settled in Cleveland and eventually had three daughters and one son. The Rev. Adams was a prominent figure in Cleveland, where he had served since 1846, and the family was considered part of the city’s social elite. During the Civil War, Rev. Adams volunteered to serve as a chaplain at the Harwood Hospital in Washington D.C. His service was of short duration as a result of contracting an intestinal illness. Records indicate that Adams enlisted on June 7, 1864, was discharged on July 6, and died on September 27. Six months later, his widow gave birth to a son named Seymour Webster Adams Jr., in honor of his deceased father. In 1866 friends arranged to publish a small book entitled “Memoir of the Life of Rev. Seymour Webster Adams” as a tribute to the Baptist minister’s long service to his congregation in Cleveland.
The minister’s devoted widow would outlive her husband by forty-five years. During this time, she raised her children, engaged in missionary work, and became a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She also seems to have paid at least one sentimental visit to her old home in Grassy Plain in 1897. Following her death on October 12, 1909, at 78, Adams’ children made arrangements to have their father’s body transferred from its original burial plot in Cleveland’s Erie Street Cemetery to the park-like setting of the Lakeview Cemetery so that both parents might be interred together.
During the last ten years of her life, Augusta Hoyt Adams never succeeded in completing her memoir. Her account ends even before reaching the time of her marriage. The hand-written manuscript was later transcribed and amounts to a total of eighty-five typed pages.
Despite the work’s unfinished state, Adams’ written memories open a window on a way of life long gone and intimately paint an image of a world vastly different from our own. She would now scarcely recognize the neighborhood in which she was raised, so great has been its transformation. While perhaps inspiring nostalgia for a simpler time, her reminiscence also demonstrates the truth of an observation first made by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “There is nothing permanent except change.”
Tremendous gratitude is expressed to Betsy Shenk for providing a copy of “Reminiscences of My Old Connecticut Home” many years ago.
Great appreciation is also extended to the Bethel Historical Society for the use of photographs from its collection.