When the tract of land that would become the township of Norfolk was divided into fifty-three rights of four hundred acres each and offered for sale by the Colony of Connecticut in 1738, few buyers were interested. The Green Woods, a dense hemlock forest riddled with swamps and rock ledge, did not appeal to prospective settlers who had to make a living from the land. It took six years for the first of the original proprietors, as the buyers of these rights were called, to settle in Norfolk. In 1744 Cornelius Brown built his log dwelling just east of the Norfolk-North Canaan town line, probably choosing that location for its proximity to the relatively well-established community of Canaan. Although settlement was slow, by 1758 with forty-three families in residence the community was sizeable enough to petition the General Assembly for town privileges. On October 12, 1758, Norfolk was incorporated, and the business of civic life began in earnest.
In one of the first actions the town took following its incorporation, villagers voted to build a meeting house and hire a preacher. The meeting house was raised in 1759, its location chosen near the geographical center of all the settlements, carefully calculated and measured. In 1760 the Church of Christ was gathered, and the following year Ammi Ruhamah Robbins accepted the call. The small wooden church, painted peach-blow pink, was not fully completed for ten years. By the end of Rev. Robbins’ pastorate in 1813, it had become too small for the growing population of Norfolk, and a more commodious and elegant church building was built, designed by master builder and noted church architect David Hoadley, which overlooks the Green today.
Education was an early priority for the residents of Norfolk. Town leaders voted in 1767 to cover the expense if ten or more families would set up an approved school. Given Norfolk’s widely scattered settlement, this was intended to encourage the building of neighborhood schools; later the required number of families was reduced to three. The district school system eventually grew to include eleven grammar schools, each managed by a local school committee. Schoolhouses were simple one-room structures with a wood stove providing heat. The district schools served a varying number of children, and teachers were usually boarded in neighboring homes. The West Norfolk Schoolhouse, now a private residence, opened in 1839. After an addition was built in 1900, it was the only two-room schoolhouse in the outlying districts. Also still standing as private residences are the South Norfolk School; the East Middle District School, known as Pond Hill School; and the Crissey District School. The North Middle School has been restored as the Little Red Schoolhouse. Foundations remain of the Norton District School, sometimes called the Curtiss Family School; the South Middle School; the Pond District School; and the North Norfolk District School.
The most populated of the school districts, the Center District required the construction of increasingly larger facilities. The original schoolhouse built on the east side of the Green in 1777 was replaced in 1819 with a building known as the Schoolhouse and Conference Room just south of the Church of Christ. In 1886 a four-room schoolhouse was built on Shepard Road. When it became too small, a two-story brick building was built just south and east of the Catholic Church. Center School was demolished following the opening of Botelle Elementary School in 1970. A commemorative fountain is all that remains.
For those going beyond grammar school, the Norfolk Academy, now the Norfolk Historical Museum, was built on the east side of the Green in 1840. The first floor of this building also functioned as the Town Hall. In 1884 the Robbins School, a private secondary school, was founded in memory of Norfolk’s first pastor, Ammi Ruhamah Robbins. Located on the site of the original Robbins Parsonage, it closed its doors in 1912. The former headmaster’s residence and schoolhouse are now private dwellings.
Although the Church of Christ initially served the needs of the entire community, it was not long before other religious groups began to make an appearance. An Episcopal Society was organized as early as 1786 with five members. Served by itinerant missionaries who faced difficult travel to the isolated town, the congregation remained small, and it was not until 1885 that regular services were held. The erection of the Church of the Transfiguration, a summer chapel on Mills Way, followed in 1894.
Baptists had been active in the north part of town since the First Baptist Society was organized in 1812 with members from Colebrook, Canaan, New Marlboro, and Norfolk. In 1876 they built the North Norfolk Chapel in the northwest corner of the township.
The first Catholic mass was held in Norfolk in 1836 following the arrival of the Ryan family who established a woolen mill in town. The handful of Catholics worshiped in the Ryan home and in the woolen mill until 1859 when the Church of the Immaculate Conception was built. By then Roman Catholics numbered 18% of the town population. The adjacent rectory was constructed only after Norfolk became an independent parish in 1889. As Catholicism flourished, the church was enlarged and transformed in 1924 by architect Alfredo Taylor.
1840 marked the beginning of Methodist worship in Norfolk. The church, built on North Street in 1841, was a mission church served by a circuit minister until about 1900 when it acquired its own pastor. Methodist services were also held at Pond Hill and North Norfolk. Sunday afternoon church services were held on the steps of the Aetna Silk Mill for families who lived on what was known as Patmos Island, the site of several factories. Financial difficulties brought an end to Methodist worship in Norfolk, and in 1918 the congregation merged with that of the Church of Christ. The church is now a private residence.
The growth of both the Catholic and Methodist congregations in the second half of the nineteenth century reflects the rise of industry in Norfolk. The early settlers of Norfolk had established a saw mill (1750) and a grist mill (1757) to provide for the necessities of shelter and food. Both were located at Buttermilk Falls. Tanneries were built to convert hides into leather. The Blackberry River provided a source of power enhanced by water wheels and dams. Settlers in outlying areas took advantage of the many brooks running through the Norfolk hills to build their own mills and tanneries. Scattered throughout town are the foundations of several saw mills and tanneries.
The region was rich in ore, and ample forests provided fuel for the iron industry. In 1770 an iron works was established near the foot of Buttermilk Falls. Blacksmiths produced horseshoes, parts for farm implements, hardware, nails, and other essential tools for building. Legend has it that Norfolk iron was used to manufacture some of the links of the chain that was stretched across the Hudson River near White Plains in an unsuccessful attempt to thwart advancing British troops during the Revolutionary War. Decades later, when the War of 1812 threatened the young republic, Hanchett’s Iron Works on the shore of Lake Wangum manufactured anchors for the United States Navy.
The plentiful supply of water power primarily along the Blackberry River allowed industry to flourish, and by the mid-nineteenth century Norfolk was in its heyday as a manufacturing town. Dams were built along the river, and water wheels were installed to harness that power. Initially, most industries were small and individually owned: the Ryan brothers manufactured shears and operated a woolen factory; Jonathan Kilbourn’s carding machine produced rolls of wool; and in West Norfolk, Captain John Dewell built the Stone Shop to produce grass and grain scythes. West Norfolk became an industrial hub of sorts, as several large tanneries and an iron works were located there. Another sizable tannery, the S. D. Northway Manufacturing Company, operated in South Norfolk. The foundation of the old mill wheel is visible today. Among the many items manufactured in Norfolk were wooden bowls and dishes, cheese boxes, clocks and clock plates, scythes, shears, planters’ hoes, and axles.
As the century progressed, local men organized and financed large companies employing a workforce that increasingly brought immigrant families to Norfolk. Boarding houses were established to accommodate the workers. The Ryan brothers built a large boarding house, later known as Sunset Lodge, now a private residence on Aetna Lane. The foundations of the Ryan Brothers factory, built in 1850, can still be seen on the south side of the Blackberry River. This site was later occupied by the Aetna Silk Company, organized in 1878, manufacturing silk thread. The Lawrence Machine Company was situated nearby. It occupied the Long Stone Shop, built in 1854. The complex included a foundry and a 42-foot diameter iron water wheel, reported to be the second largest water wheel in the country at the time. The foundations of both the Long Stone Shop and the water wheel can be found today. The plant later housed the Connecticut Arms Company, which produced Springfield rifle muskets for the United States Army during the Civil War. The E.G. Lawrence Iron Works and Stevens Hoe Factory, formerly a silk mill, were located on Patmos Island, a strip of land surrounded by man-made water channels, just west of the Long Stone Shop.
The Norfolk Manufacturing Company was founded in 1852 for the manufacture of cotton warp, knitting cotton, and warping twine. Its factory, known as the Stone Mill, with its iron water wheel was later sold to the Norfolk Hosiery Company whose founder, Edward E. Kilbourn, invented an automatic knitting machine that revolutionized the manufacture of underwear and hosiery. The factory still stands as part of what was more recently the General Electric Plant. With additional investors and the purchase of a mill in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the company expanded to become the Norfolk and New Brunswick Hosiery Company, at one time a giant in the manufacture of knitted garments, and Norfolk’s largest industrial concern.
During the course of the nineteenth century, Norfolk’s rich forests were tapped for industry. Hemlock stands were felled to provide bark for the local tanneries. Broad swaths of woodland were cleared, and the lumber produced charcoal to smelt iron ore. Some wooded areas still bear traces of the circular hearths where piles of lumber had smoldered. By the late-nineteenth century, vistas had been opened that no longer exist today, while much of the forestland had been reduced to burned-over scrub and brush. Through the careful stewardship and sustainable forest management of such properties as the Great Mountain Forest, the Green Woods have regenerated, and timber harvesting is once more an economically-viable business.
The Black history of a town is often an unwritten one. Theron Crissey, however, devoted a chapter of his book to Norfolk’s African Americans, featuring several residents of excellent character and worth. Among them is James Mars, a deacon of the Talcott Street Congregational Church in Hartford, whose 1864 autobiography about his early days of slavery in Norfolk went through 11 editions. While his story is well-known, others have been forgotten.
Norfolk’s Black population grew from 28 residents in 1800 to a high of 72 in 1860. Their story unfolds in small pieces: through birth and death records, property transactions, district maps, cemetery stones, school records and census data. Dolphin Freedom bought three acres of land on the Canaan Mountain road in 1792 and leased a lot on the Village Green for 20 pounds and one peppercorn annually. Solomon Freeman, Harry Hines, and Samuel Smith all owned farms in the 19th century. Most Black men at that time worked either as farm laborers or day laborers.
With the demise of farming at the turn of the 20th century, the Black population declined as many left to look for work in cities. The growth of the summer resort provided employment as maids, cooks, housekeepers, and coachmen, often at one of the hotels. William Bailey was a stone mason, a lucrative profession during the residential building boom. His children appear in a number of Marie Kendall’s photographs. Other photographs portray the children of William and Emma Rice. In 1900 the seven Rice children were among the twelve students enrolled at the North Middle School on Ashpohtag Road making it a predominantly Black school.
Although Connecticut did not abolish slavery until 1848, Norfolk played an important role in the fight for equal rights: from Jupiter and Fanny Mars’ flight to freedom to the formation of the Norfolk Anti-Slavery Society and the operation of the Underground Railroad; from Reverend Joseph Eldridge’s daring 1861 sermon Does the Bible Sanction Slavery to the painting of John Brown commissioned by Robbins Battell. During the Civil War, six Norfolk men served in the 29th Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Colored Infantry. Chauncey Crossley and Edward Hines joined the 54th Massachusetts, the first Black regiment to be organized after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Its courageous assault on Fort Wagner led by Commander Robert Gould Shaw was memorialized in the 1989 movie Glory. Edward died in the assault. He was just 18 years old.
Download this printable brochure of the Norfolk’s Black History Exhibit (PDF).
An 1828 census recorded that 191 of 232 families in Norfolk lived on farms. Many operated saw mills and grist mills to supplement income. Some were even more enterprising. In South Norfolk, about two dozen families raised mulberry trees on their farms, harvesting silk from silk worms. Sheep provided wool for domestic industry. Butter and cheese were made in great quantity and were an important source of income to farmers whose land was not suitable for cultivation. In 1844 Auren Roys wrote in A BriefHistory of the Town of Norfolk that an average of 200,000 pounds of cheese was made in Norfolk annually, shipped to market in locally-made cheese casks. Dairy farming remained a thriving enterprise in Norfolk well into the twentieth century. Breezy Hill Farm on Winchester Road, Bruey Farm, and Mapleside Farm operated by the Spaulding brothers on Litchfield Road were among the many farms that delivered fresh bottled milk and cream. The Town Farm was established in the nineteenth century to provide food and shelter for Norfolk’s indigent population.
Transportation was critical to the success of both farming and industry. By 1800 the Greenwoods Turnpike (now Route 44) had been completed and became the principal route between the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers for travel and trade.Merchant Joseph Battell strategically placed his store on the turnpike and made a fortune selling thousands of pounds of cheese across the eastern seaboard. His stately residence known as Whitehouse overlooks the Village Green. Taverns also sprang up along the turnpike to service the needs of travelers. Among the many taverns in Norfolk, three were located at stagecoach stops on the Greenwoods Turnpike: the widow Wilcox operated a tavern at the junction of Greenwoods Road and Laurel Way, once the business center of town known as Beech Flats; the Pettibone Tavern faced the Village Green; and the Lawrence Tavern was found at the corner of Greenwoods Road and Mill Street. The Lawrence Tavern also housed the post office where mail was delivered twice weekly. All three taverns still stand and are private residences.
The railroad arrived in Norfolk in 1871. In an effort to boost industry and prevent Norfolk from becoming an abandoned mill town, Egbert T. Butler, then president of the Norfolk Bank, proposed building a railroad through the hill towns of northwest Connecticut. Unlike the north-south rails, an east-west route across the state would have to be circuitous and often at steep grade, two factors that had made its construction seem impractical. Butler paid for a survey to be done and applied for a charter for the Connecticut Western Railroad Company; this was granted by the Connecticut State Legislature in 1866. Ground was broken in Winsted in October of 1869. The route to Norfolk brought the line through the Grantville hamlet in the southeast part of town and then north along Litchfield Road to the town center where engineers had set the easiest, and least expensive, route across the Village Green. Thanks to the efforts of the Reverend Joseph Eldridge, an alternate route to the east was selected sparing the Village Green an intrusion that would have destroyed it. Beyond the village center, the tracks wound around Haystack and Bald Mountains, passed through a rocky gorge blasted from the hillside known as Stoney Lonesome, and skirted the precipitous side of Ragged Mountain on the way to East Canaan. A celebration was held on the Village Green in September of 1871 shortly before the last rail was spiked.
The original station in the village center was a simple wooden structure. In 1898 a new station was constructed of native granite. A sign in brass letters read Norfolk, the Highest Railroad Station in Connecticut. Two years later another station was built at what was in fact the highest elevation reached by the railroad. Situated a mile south of the Green on Litchfield Road just before the Winchester Road turn-off, it was appropriately called the Summit Station. It later burned down. The train also made a stop in Grantville and near Ashpohtag Road in West Norfolk. Known for most of its existence as the Central New England, the railroad was never financially successful and ceased to run through Norfolk in 1938.
While the railroad did not prevent the demise of industry in Norfolk, it did bring an influx of vacationers enticed by company booklets describing the attractive scenery of the Litchfield Hills. This steady stream of summer visitors changed the character of the town, and by the end of the nineteenth century Norfolk had become a fashionable summer resort celebrated for its pure mountain air and fresh spring water. Large hostelries were built. The Stevens House, later known as the Norfolk Inn, opened in 1874 with fifty-seven guest rooms. Many people would spend the entire summer at the Hillhurst Hotel on Laurel Way, some returning year after year. Boarding houses were a popular alternative to the large hotels. Miss Louise Rowland was the proprietor of Fairlawn on Maple Avenue, and Cora Brown operated Crissey Place at the south end of the Village Green. Although the hotels are gone, the two boarding houses are now private residences.
Norfolk’s appeal only increased with the building of the Eldridge Gymnasium in 1892, the opening of the Norfolk Downs Golf Links in 1897, and the building of a country club in 1916. Carl and Ellen Battell Stoeckel founded the Norfolk Music Festival, attracting thousands of concert-goers to the Music Shed in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Special trains brought visitors to the Norfolk Agricultural Fair and Horse Show, an annual three-day event held at the fairgrounds on Mountain Road. Swimming at Tobey Pond and carriage rides to the lodge at Lake Wangum on Canaan Mountain or to Tipping Rock near the Norfolk-North Goshen town line were other popular activities. Sportsmen came for the hunting and fishing opportunities. Many vacationers stayed on, calling upon architectural firms to design country houses. Some built camps bordering Doolittle Lake. Three state parks were established helping to ensure the preservation of the town’s rural beauty: Ellen Battell Stoeckel sold her property on Haystack Mountain to the state, building a stone lookout tower and a roadway for access; the White Memorial Foundation created Campbell Falls State Park Reserve in 1923; and Dr. and Mrs. Frederic Dennis gave their 240-acre estate known as Dennis Hill to the state in 1935.
Summer was not the only recreational season in Norfolk. In the 1930’s the town became known as the winter sports center of Connecticut. Following the 1932 Olympics held in Lake Placid, the newly-formed Norfolk Winter Sports Association sponsored an annual ski-jump competition, which drew some of the nation’s best skiers to compete on the natural slope jump carved out of the side of Canaan Mountain.
By 1900 Norfolk had an unusual number of public services that made it an especially attractive place to call home. It was one of the first towns in Connecticut to have telephone (1894) and electrical service (1897). In 1896 the water system was installed, piping fresh water from Lake Wangum to the center of town, and in 1899 a public sewer system was completed. The town center had been enhanced with the construction of an attractive railroad station. A Village Hall was built in 1883 and provided commercial space as well as a theater upstairs. With the completion of the Royal Arcanum building in 1904, housing the newly-founded Norfolk Volunteer Fire Department, and of the Hardware Store in 1906, it was reported in the local press that Norfolk could boast one of the finest business districts of a town of its size in Connecticut.
The Royal Arcanum building is one of more than 50 buildings and houses built in the early years of the twentieth century that were designed by architect Alfredo Samuel Guido Taylor, who arrived in Norfolk just as the town entered its heyday as a popular summer resort. Of the many architects who worked in Norfolk, no one left a greater imprint on this small village than he, and his work in Norfolk has been designated a Thematic Group on the National Register of Historic Places. Along with residential commissions and commercial projects, Taylor designed the Norfolk Country Club, the Dennis Pavilion, the Norfolk Downs Shelter, the remodeling of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, and in 1921 the War Memorial on the small triangle of green opposite the Catholic Church. Other monuments built to honor Norfolk’s sons and daughters who gave their lives for their country are the Revolutionary War Memorial near Buttermilk Falls and the Soldiers Monument, erected in 1868 on the Village Green.
When Frederic Dennis wrote his book The Norfolk Village Green in 1917, he hoped that it would inspire future generations to preserve the beauty of what had become a magnificent visual centerpiece of the town and the epitome of the classic New England green: a broad expanse of grass shaded by majestic trees and dotted with monuments over which soared the elegant white steeple of a historic church.
The Green had been the center of communal life and a place of gathering since the town was founded. Although the triangle that was to become the Green had been cleared of the original growth of hemlock and maple, plowed and leveled, and planted with elms as early as 1788, it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that it began to take on its distinctive appearance. When the town voted in 1849 to enclose the Green with a fence, those who had been accustomed to driving their vehicles across it objected. In compromise, the north was fenced and the south left open. The following year William Rice, principal of the Norfolk Academy, began a program of tree planting that included one of every species of tree native to Norfolk. In the late-nineteenth century winding footpaths, rustic twig furniture, and covered gateways gave the Green a particular charm as townsfolk gathered for mid-summer concerts and Fourth of July fireworks. A new library, built in 1888 through the generosity of Isabella Eldridge, and Battell Chapel, erected by the Battell family in memory of Joseph and Sarah Battell, provided an attractive backdrop. At the southern tip of the triangle, Battell Fountain, carved in granite and designed by Stanford White with bronze work by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was the gift of the Eldridge sisters whose house and gardens faced the Green. The Village Green is now the center of the Norfolk Historic District.
After the Eldridge sisters died, their cousin Ellen Battell Stoeckel remodeled their home as a community center known as Battell House. In her will she provided for the creation of a trust that would enable music, art, and literary offerings to be carried on under the auspices of Yale University on her property. Following Ellen’s death in 1939, Alfredo Taylor was engaged to transform the bucolic Stoeckel estate into a campus for the Norfolk Music School of Yale University. This evolved into the Yale Summer School of Music and Art where the arts continue to flourish today.
Norfolk’s rich historic resources provide testimony to the town’s vibrant past and bring life once again to the many different people who gave shape to the town.