It is not every day that a small town receives a visit from the state governor. Therefore Wednesday, June 17, 1903, was a reason for pride and celebration in Bethel. Buildings were festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, and smiling citizens lined Center Street waving flags and handkerchiefs. Others cheered from open upper-story windows as Connecticut’s sixtieth chief executive passed through the heart of town in his shiny black barouche drawn by two meticulously groomed white horses. Seventy marchers preceded the governor from The Putnam Phalanx, an impressive military-like group representing the state’s most illustrious reminder of its Revolutionary War heritage, led by fourteen members of its drum corps. The half-dozen other carriages in the small cavalcade contained a collection of political luminaries of varying levels from Bethel, Redding, and Danbury, who nodded and waved to their constituents as all good politicians do. Have no doubt: this would be a day that many of the town’s inhabitants would long remember.
The day marked the 128th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The indisputable American hero of that battle was the dauntless General Israel Putnam of Connecticut, credited with uttering the directive, “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” to his men during the famous encounter between British and American forces on the heights overlooking Boston. Putnam and his troops would later spend the exceedingly harsh winter of 1778 to 1779 in an area that straddled the border between Redding and Bethel. In 1887, the place where “Old Put” and his men had camped became the nucleus of what would eventually be a 183-acre state park. Governor Abiram Chamberlain was invited to celebrate this Bunker Hill anniversary at the park named in Putnam’s honor. Chamberlain, who had only taken office the previous January, arrived from Hartford by special train with a large entourage that reached the Bethel station at 11:30 AM. The august contingent assembled at the station grounds and marched east along Center Street (today’s Greenwood Avenue) toward Fountain Place (today’s P.T. Barnum Square). Riding in the same carriage with the governor was Dr. William C. Wile of Danbury, John H. Jennings of Southport, President of the Putnam Park Commission, and the governor’s executive secretary. At Fountain Place, a rambunctious group of schoolchildren with their faces carefully scrubbed, hair neatly combed, and nattily fitted out in their Sunday best, anxiously fidgeted as they waited to pay tribute to the new governor. The students were closely chaperoned by their somewhat apprehensive teachers and overseen by the board of education’s imposing Chairman to ensure that a semblance of order prevailed.
The Governor Addresses the Schoolchildren of Bethel
Upon reaching the small triangular park dominated by the elaborate bronze fountain donated to the town in 1881 by Bethel’s P.T. Barnum, the governor’s carriage stopped for a brief ceremony. The Danbury News reported the proceedings in the following way. “In the Fountain Park the teachers and school children of the town, 260 from the Center school, 200 from Grassy Plain and about 75 from the high school, were grouped, many of them carrying flags. As the procession approached the Fountain the children sang the national hymn, America. The line of march was halted as the governor’s carriage reached the Fountain and the governor arose and was greeted by the children. Miss Ida Evans on behalf of the High school presented him with a handsome bouquet of yellow daisies tied with white ribbons. Two little girls from the Center school, Hazel Durant and Abbie Carter presented a beautiful basket of red, white and blue flowers, and the Grassy Plain school through Misses Helen Raymond and Ruth Ferry gave a large bunch of white roses.”
“The Governor received them all with thanks and then said: ‘This is an unexpected pleasure to-day, I thank you for these beautiful flowers and for your patriotism. You are gathered here to-day to celebrate one of the greatest events in the history of your country, and to honor the memory of men who made such an occasion as this possible for us and for you children. This is a pretty village, and these are pretty children that stand before me, and I am sure you will all make good men and women. This group of children is one of the most beautiful sights in the world to me. Thanking you all again, I will say good-bye’.”
The students who represented three of Bethel’s schools that day can be found in the 1900 U.S. Census. (The schools of the outlying districts of Elmwood, Wolpits, Plumtrees, and Stony Hill seemed to have been left out of the proceedings due to their substantial distance from the town’s center.) Ida Evans, who represented the high school, would have been sixteen years old and lived on Hoyt’s Hill Road. Center School was represented by Hazel Durant, who would have been thirteen years old and lived at 10 Grand Street. (Her father, Granville A. Durant, was the town’s tax collector and the Secretary and Treasurer of the Putnam Park Commission.) Center School’s other representative was Abbie Carter, seven years of age and a resident of 12 High Street. In searching for the Grassy Plain students, we find that Helen Raymond was only five years old and lived at 1 Farnam Hill Road while her schoolmate Ruth Ferry was six years of age and lived at 10 High Street. Greeting the Governor must have been a memorable experience for every student present and undoubtedly helped enliven one of the few remaining days in the academic school year.
Fortunately, there is a photographic record of Governor Chamberlain’s visit. One photo shows the Governor delivering his brief remarks from his carriage while still holding the flowers given to him by the schoolchildren just moments before. Also seen in the carriage to the right of the governor is Dr. Wile of Danbury. Standing just to the right of the carriage is the Rev. Henry L. Slack of the Bethel Congregational Church. The photo was taken from a spot on Greenwood Avenue near the front of P.T. Barnum Square. Many of the buildings seen in the background have survived to the present day, including the one seen just behind the carriage, which was built in 1887 and is today 120 Greenwood Avenue (Bethel Fitness, Gym & Studio). Two other photos survive that are similar to one another but possess slight differences. Both show the schoolchildren assembled with their teachers in front of the Barnum Fountain as they await the Governor’s arrival. In the lower-left of each photo, one can see teachers carrying the flowers that were about to be presented to the governor. The students are seen holding their small American flags, which had only 44 stars in 1903. Behind the children can be seen three different structures. Looking left to right, the first was the shoe store of Austin B. Lockwood, who sold footwear to the local populace for forty-one years from 1865 to 1906. This same building now houses the Occasions dress shop. The second business is the Seymour Cash Grocery. La Zingara Ristorante occupies this site today. The third building shown is a hat factory that operated under the auspices of David Higson & Company from 1899 and 1905. This structure burned in 1913 and was replaced by one that presently contains Victoria’s Wood Fired Pizza, Boost Bowls, Thrifty Hippy, and Beyond the Flea Dog Grooming. In the bottom left portion of each photo can be seen a rail of the Danbury-Bethel Street Railway, an electric trolley system that operated from 1895 to 1926.
Following his short comments to the students and citizens assembled at Fountain Place, the Governor and company then “proceeded up the street to the foot of Hoyt’s Hill where members of the Phalanx took carryalls for the park. There were six open carriages filled with the Governor and his staff and the members of the park commission, and Senator W.P. Bailey. Carryalls followed with representatives of Danbury, Bethel, and Redding, and the mayor of Danbury and the borough officials of Bethel.”
Events at Putnam Memorial Park
The long procession of carriages traveled over Hoyt’s Hill and turned south toward the Bethel-Redding line. Upon the governor’s arrival at the gates of the park, a seventeen-gun salute was fired. An article from the Hartford Courant of the following day included an account of events that followed. “The entrance to Putnam Memorial Park was reached about 1 o’clock, the Phalanx disembarked and escorted the long line of carriages, buses, carryalls and other conveyances and the tour of the park was made, entering through the block house gates. The procession passed by the old renewed fortifications, the historic cannon, the Putnam monument and the lowdown stone breastworks, and there were many expressions of admiration of the sagacity of General Putnam in choosing that wild ideal spot, now converted into a beautiful park, to play hide and seek with the red-coats. There was the largest gathering of people ever seen in the park, fully 2,000 people being there from all parts of the State.” (The Newtown Bee placed the size of the crowd at 1,500.)
Following the somewhat taxing trek around the park, a luncheon and formal ceremony were held at the pavilion, with Dr. William C. Wile acting as master of ceremonies. “A prayer was offered by Rev. Rockwell Harmon Potter, Chaplain of the Phalanx, and all fell to, quickly disposing of the good things the ladies of Bethel had provided.” (The Newtown Bee said, “a bountiful collation had been prepared mostly by the ladies of Redding.”)
With the celebrants now revitalized by their late afternoon meal, the Putnam Phalanx drum corps played “Hail to the Chief” in the governor’s honor, and the formal program began. John H. Jennings, President of the Putnam Camp Commission, led off by delivering the welcoming address. In speaking of the historical significance of the day, he told how the Battle of Bunker Hill had taken place when America was but an infant. He added that now, “That infant has become the giant of the age, whose power for justice and right is felt round the world.” Next, Governor Chamberlain gave a brief speech in which he offered his thanks for the warm reception and exceptional turnout. “He also spoke of the educating influences on occasions of like nature to the day’s proceedings, their stimulating influence for patriotism, and expressed his pride in the State, the finest country in the world and which had therein some of the most beautiful ladies, some of whom were present.” The third speaker was Major Charles B. Andrus, the commander of the Putnam Phalanx who provided a short history of his organization, pledged its loyalty to both the state and nation, and praised Governor Chamberlain and President Theodore Roosevelt for their leadership. Three other speakers followed, all complimenting the governor and commending the crowd for its patriotism. The speeches were interspersed with additional anthems provided by the Phalanx drum corps that included “Yankee Doodle”, “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean”, and “America”.
When the afternoon’s events were completed, the honored guests boarded their horse-drawn carriages once more to make the return trip over Hoyt’s Hill to the Bethel train station at Depot Place. Once there, the Governor’s special train took them to Danbury, and later that evening, the Putnam Phalanx held their annual banquet at the Armory on Danbury’s Library Place. The day’s afternoon edition of The Danbury News stated that “At the conclusion of the dinner the Phalanx will be escorted to the White street station. The special train to convey the party back to Hartford will leave at 8 o’clock.”
At no time during the extended 1903 celebration of Bunker Hill Day was it mentioned that the battle being commemorated was actually a military defeat for the American colonies. In June of 1775, colonial forces had placed cannons on the high ground overlooking Boston Harbor. From there, they planned to fire down upon British ships in the water below in the hopes of forcing the king’s troops to abandon the city. Quickly perceiving the apparent threat, the British determined to remove it by capturing the fortified position on the hill that was held by roughly 1,200 colonists. Assembling their own force of 2,200 soldiers, the redcoats, marching shoulder-to-shoulder in perfect rows, stormed the Americans’ hastily-dug earthen fortification (actually situated atop Breed’s Hill, not the adjacent Bunker Hill). The British ranks assaulted the rise three separate times before driving off the colonists. In doing so, they suffered twice as many casualties as their opponents. General Putnam had shouted, “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” knowing his forces had only a minimal amount of gunpowder for their muskets. In essence, he instructed his men to make sure that each and every shot hit its mark. As the redcoats approached the American lines in their third assault, the colonists’ precious supply of gunpowder finally gave out, and they were forced to take to their heels. Writers of American history have traditionally portrayed this battle as a symbolic victory supplying the rationalization that despite their retreat, raw recruits had stood their ground against the most formidable fighting force in the world. They had shown that if the King refused to address America’s grievances, the British would be forced to pay an exceptionally heavy price. Evidence of public speakers at the park conveniently leaving out the specifics of who actually won and who lost in this military encounter can certainly be understood. In the jingoistic political climate of 1903 dominated by the former “Rough Rider,” President Theodore Roosevelt, suggesting that Americans had ever lost a battle would probably have seemed like absolute heresy.
Nonetheless, the story of Governor Abiram Chamberlain’s visit to Bethel and Putnam Park tells us a great deal about the tremendous degree of patriotism possessed by our forebears at the dawn of the 20th century and of the great pride they took in the accomplishments of their own predecessors. It also illustrates the considerable effort made to ensure that none would forget the pre-eminent historical events of the past. Let us hope that these admirable traits have been handed down to those of us alive today and will, in turn, be passed from this generation to the next.
An Impressive Assemblage of Dignitaries Was Present
Governor Chamberlain was undoubtedly an individual of accomplishment. Still, some of those that welcomed him on that sunny spring day were even more impressive in their individual achievements. Here is some additional background on the most prominent participants in the 1903 Bunker Hill Day festivities.
Governor Abiram Chamberlain was born in Colebrook, Litchfield County, Connecticut, on December 7, 1837, and attended the Williston Seminary in Easthampton, Massachusetts, where he studied civil engineering. He spent most of his career in banking, becoming cashier of the Home National Bank of Meriden, Vice-President of the Meriden Savings Bank, and eventually President of the Home National Bank. Entering politics, Chamberlain served on the Meriden City Council and then in the General Assembly. In 1900 he was elected to serve as the Comptroller for the State. In September of 1902, he received the Republican gubernatorial nomination and won election to office the following November. As governor, Chamberlain is remembered for calling out the National Guard to subdue violence related to a trolley strike in Waterbury in February of 1903 and for signing legislation that created the Connecticut State Police force. Chamberlain served only one term as governor from 1903 to 1905 and then returned to business practices in Meriden. He died on May 15, 1911, and is buried in the Walnut Grove Cemetery in Meriden. At the time of his death, the Meriden Daily Journal described him as “the state’s friendliest governor.”
The Master of Ceremonies
Dr. William Conrad Wile was born in Pleasant Valley, Dutchess County, New York, on January 23, 1847. He attended the College Hill School in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 1862, at the astounding age of fifteen, he enlisted in Company G of the 150th New York Regiment and served for the remainder of the Civil War. He was in the Battle of Gettysburg and accompanied General William Tecumseh Sherman on his famous “March to the Sea” in late 1864. After the war, he began studying medicine, first privately in Pleasant Valley, New York, and later at the University of New York, where he graduated in 1870. He would subsequently take up practice in Danbury, Connecticut, where he organized the Danbury Medical Association. He was active in many different medical societies and, for a time, was vice-president of the American Medical Association. In 1881 he began publishing the New England Medical Monthly, a publication he continued to oversee as editor until 1902. He also served as a surgeon at Danbury Hospital and for both the Danbury & Norwalk and the New York & New England railways. Between 1895 and 1897, he built a stately fifteen-room Shingle Style house surrounded by a vast estate located on Danbury’s Southern Boulevard. He called it “Tarrywile,” with the name meaning “Stay awhile” but with the latter portion of the label also being a play on his last name. The estate included the main house, carriage house, gatehouse, and Japanese gardens complete with bridges, viewing pavilions, and reflecting pools filled with carp. In 1900 he employed a gardener newly arrived from Japan to tend the grounds. He and his wife inhabited these elegant surroundings that possessed a commanding view of Danbury’s center until selling the property in 1910. Dr. Wile died on February 1, 1913, just six days following the death of his second wife, Hattie Adele Loomis Wile. Today their former home is owned by the City of Danbury and serves as a wedding venue and public park.
The Chairman of the Board of Education
Reverend Henry Levi Slack was born in Plymouth, Vermont, on August 30, 1847. After attending common schools in Bridgewater, Vermont, he enrolled at the Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, New Hampshire. In 1872 he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College and in 1875 was awarded a Master of Arts degree from that same institution. Slack next served for two years as the principal of Springfield High School in Vermont. During the 1874-75 school year, he took a post-graduate course in Greek and Philosophy at Harvard University. The following academic year, he entered the Yale Theological School and received a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1877. In October of that same year, he was ordained and appointed to serve as pastor of the Congregational Church in Chester, Vermont, where he remained for the next six years. In 1883 he accepted a call from the First Congregational Church of Bethel. He was installed on May 22 of that year and served as the church’s pastor for twenty-two years. He also joined the Bethel Board of Education in 1884 and served as its chairman for the next twenty-one years. The Rev. Slack died on March 25, 1905, at the age of 57, and is buried in the Center Cemetery on South Street. In 2009, the Rev. Slack’s grandson, Robert Lincoln McNeil Jr. (1915-2010), donated $5 million to the Yale Divinity School to create a deanship named in honor of his grandfather. McNeil was born in Bethel on July 13, 1915, during a family trip to visit his maternal grandmother, Fannie Slack, who lived at 25 South Street. Among his other accomplishments, McNeil was responsible for the commercial development and introduction of the pain reliever Tylenol.
The Reminder of the Revolution
The Putnam Phalanx was a military-like ceremonial guard first formed in 1858. ( A phalanx is defined as a body of troops in close formation.) It was not a fighting unit and functioned more like a social club with patriotic ideals. Its members chose to adopt Israel Putnam as their role model and dressed in the uniforms of Continental soldiers, donning bright blue jackets with white trim, brass buttons, and gold-fringed epaulets. Their attire also included black breeches and shiny black riding boots, topped off with tricorn hats adorned with colorful plumes. When marching in formation at patriotic events and parades they carried colonial-era muskets and wore long military-style swords. The unit formed a drum corps to accompany them and designed their own flag bearing an image of General Israel Putnam emblazoned with the motto “He dared to lead where any dared to follow,” an assessment of the general that was written by Timothy Dwight, a chaplain who briefly served with Putnam’s army.
According to their constitution, they strove "to provide a medium for patriotic expression, by perpetuating the ceremonies, customs and traditions of patriots in arms at the time of the American Revolution, by commemorating the events and heroes of that period; by encouraging patriotism among the people, to the end that domestic tranquility be insured and provisions made for the common defense."
During its existence, the Putnam Phalanx participated in ceremonies held at Bunker Hill (1859), Mount Vernon (1860), the tomb of Israel Putnam in Brooklyn, Connecticut (1860), and at the dedication of a monument to Putnam in that same town in 1888. They likewise attended the dedication ceremony of a statue of Putnam at Bushnell Park in Hartford (1874). They were present for ceremonies marking the one-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Concord (1875) and attended the Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia (1876). In 1877 the Phalanx participated in a Centennial celebration marking the Battle of Bennington. Wherever they went, their presence was met with great enthusiasm, and the press often heralded them as being the crowd favorite. When the unit arrived in Bethel in 1903, they were commanded by Major Charles Bostwick Andrus (1847-1936) of Hartford, who had been elected the group’s sixteenth leader in 1900. The Phalanx would later merge with the Connecticut National Guard in 1931 before eventually becoming defunct.