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the first two-and-a-half centuries

by Dr. Estelle F. Feinstein
Professor of History, Emeritus
University of Connecticut – Stamford

Transcript of speech delivered at The Ferguson Library, Wednesday, May 5, 1999 on the occasion of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of consolidation of the City and Town Governments of Stamford.

Co-sponsored by Friends of the Ferguson Library and The Stamford Historical Society.

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A long time ago the poet Homer suggested that it was a wise child who knew his own father. Similarly it is a wise citizen who knows his own community. The information that follows attempts to point out critical factors that shaped the community of Stamford from its founding as a town in 1641 to the establishment of the City 252 years later in 1893.

Over the past three-and-a-half centuries, Stamford, CT has evolved from Puritan village to manufacturing town to research center to - at present - home base for major corporations. Through all the shifts, however, it has remained tied to two regional cultures. Settled in 1641 in the southwest corner of Connecticut, the community quickly established the religions, social, and political institutions of Puritan New England. Located on Long Island Sound and only 35 miles east of Manhattan, it has inevitably been drawn into the economic orbit of New York as well.

A bitter quarrel, cause unknown, within the Church of Christ in Wethersfield, precipitated the founding of Stamford. On October 19, 1640 the dissenters organized the Wethersfield Company and resolved to move, as a body, west along the Long Island shore to the banks of the Rippowam River. The land, originally about 128 square miles, had been purchased from local Indian tribes by Nathaniel Turner, an agent of the New Haven Colony, and New Haven was eager to sell it to fellow Puritans.

In the summer of 1641, 28 would-be planters and their wives and families and at least two “Negro servants” began building a meeting-house and their own homes on high ground above the harbor. At first they tried to transfer to the new world the semi-collective open-field system of farming that they had been familiar with in England. But the availability of land and the urge for privatization crippled the effort. By 1700 almost all the acres were in individuals hands. By that date too, Stamford had ceded territory in the north to the towns of Bedford and Pound Ridge in the Province of New York and was reduced to 80 square miles. Ultimately the formation of New Canaan in 1801 and Darien in 1820 reduced Stamford to its present size of almost 40 square miles.

All the settlers had previously participated in the establishment of the basic religious and political institutions that made a Puritan community. The Congregational Church, as The Church of Christ was popularly known, was easily transplanted… (They had brought a minister with them.) Other denominations were barred. Even the Church of England did not secure a foothold until 1742.

Political decisions and setting the mill rate were made at the annual town meeting, a gathering of the adult male planters. Special meetings were called when necessary. Between meetings civic affairs were left in the hands of an elected Board of Selectmen, but, by law and in practice, the First Selectman was clearly “primus inter pares”. A large number of minor offices were also filled at the annual meetings. The system endured for over 300 years.

For the first two centuries the economy was based on agriculture. Farmers grew potatoes, wheat, rye, corn, and oats and engaged in stock-breeding, fishing, and oystering. New York City was the primary market though a few local vessels sailed as far as the West Indies. A variety of skilled artisans and mills supplied community needs. Prior to the Civil War two manufacturing corporations dealt in the national market. They were the Stamford Mfg. Company, which produced dyes and licorice paste, and the Charles H. Phillips Company, eventually best known for its production of Milk of Magnesia.

The impact of the Revolutionary War was doubled-edged. On the one hand there were problems with over 100 Loyalists, mainly Anglicans, and with “skinners” and pirates. The skinners, from Westchester County, stole food, firewood, and whatever was portable for sale to the British. The pirates, secure in their hiding places in the many inlets and coves of the Sound, harassed shipping. On the other hand, Stamford gained a stronger voice in the governing of Connecticut than it had ever known. The voice belonged to Abraham Davenport, the wealthiest and most influential local figure, who sat on the Council of Safety of the State of Connecticut and was part of the inner circle of Governor Jonathan Trumbull.

In the late 1840s two events presaged the entry of Stamford into the emerging industrial economy of the United States. One was the decision in 1848 by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad to schedule Stamford as a regular station stop. The other was the arrival of hundreds of impoverished Irish refugees fleeing the potato famines of 1845-1848. Their presence brought willing hands and increased the town population from 3500 (in round numbers) in 1840 to 7200 in 1860, an increase of 100% in two decades. Stamford was utterly unprepared for this non-Yankee, non-Protestant influx. The newcomers confronted a severe lack of housing, jobs and schools and aroused a violent wave of anti-Catholicism. Branded drunkards and street brawlers, they were blamed for higher crime and delinquency rates and for the spread of dreaded diseases. In the 1850s William T. Minor of Stamford was chosen Governor on the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” ticket. The Irish-Americans, though poor, responded by building and supporting their own churches and schools and gained good will by volunteering for the Union cause in record numbers.

The Civil War did absorb community energies. Three years after hostilities ceased, however, Stamford plunged into the industrial economy. In 1868 Linus Yale, Jr., an inventor, and Henry T. Towne, the highly educated son of a wealthy engineer, formed a partnership to produce Yale's newly-patented pin tumbler lock and slim, flat key. They selected Stamford as their base because of its proximity to New York, its accessibility via land (railroad) or via water (a canal and the Sound) and its large labor pool. Although Yale died suddenly at the end of 1868, Towne went ahead with their plans. The business succeeded quickly and expanded rapidly. Eventually the Yale & Towne building complex spread over 25 acres south of the railroad station. Beginning with 30 workers in 1869, the corporation employed 1,000 men and women by 1892 in a town with a total population of 16,000.

Yale & Towne was by far the largest but not the only corporation that found Stamford attractive. A range of entrepreneurs took advantage of the availability of public water supply, electric power, and telegraph connections. The nearness of New York City, the 80 trains departing daily on the New Haven line, and the electrification of a comprehensive trolley system were other assets. Various light industries manufactured, among other products, steam rock drills, wallpaper, bicycles, bearings, speedometers, and typewriters.

As economic opportunities multiplied, so did the population. Stamford reached 15,700 in 1890 and 19,000 in 1900. Census data showed that a high percentage of the demographic increase was based on immigration. Between 1900 and 1910 native-born whites of native-born parents rose from 8,000 to 10,000. However the number of foreign-born and first-generation whites rose from 10,600 to 18,000. Of these 4,400 hailed from Ireland, 2,900 from Italy and 2,000 (mostly Jews) from Russia. Smaller contingents arrived from Germany, Austria, Greece, Poland, and other parts of Europe. “Cultural diversity” flourished as migrants steadily urged their cousins and compatriots to follow. The Excelsior Hardware Company even set up whole departments by languages. (Non-whites played a small role prior to the Great Depression. Blacks increased from 275 in 1900 to 343 in 1910, and Asians totaled only 27 in both decennial years.)

Inevitably as population and problems multiplies, attention shifted to Stamford's venerable form of government. The old guard, who dominated the town meeting system, could not cope with the challenges raised by the sheer numbers and needs of the newcomers. One of the worst problems was the outbreak of deadly epidemics among children in an area called “Dublin” and in other ethnic enclaves. During the years 1889 to 1899 Stamford had the dubious distinction of leading Connecticut in death from typhoid, diphtheria, and scarlet fever. Fatalities were especially high among Irish-Americans living in downtown tenements next to a stagnant pool of water formed by the damming of an old canal.

Long before 1890 the inadequacy of the town meeting was evident. As early as 1830 business interests had persuaded the General Assembly to approve the creation of the “Borough of Stamford” to serve the core area around Atlantic Square. Initially it covered only three-quarters of a square mile and 633 inhabitants. It was later expanded to one-and-a-half square miles. The function of the Borough was to deal with fires, streets, and similar matters of peculiar interest to the merchants and residents. The administration was placed in the hands of an elected Board of Warden and Burgesses. Borough meetings were poorly attended and desultory although the Borough could and did levy a separate tax. The Warden and Burgesses were effectively in charge.

As Stamford became increasingly urbanized, the need for a governing body larger than the Borough but smaller than the town became increasingly obvious. The issue provoked impassioned debate and a number of proposed City Charters. In 1893 the Stamford electorate and the Connecticut General Assembly finally agreed on a charter for the new entity, The City of Stamford. The City area comprised the southern fifth of Stamford - i.e. all the territory south of Bull's Head with the exception of Glenbrook in the east and a corresponding area in the west. But residents of the City equaled four-fifth of the community's population. They continued to be full residents of the town and paid taxes to both governments. The City, itself, was divided into four wards, which were carefully drawn to assure control by the Irish of a least one ward... A Common Council of nine members was set up - two from each ward and one chosen at large. For the first time Stamford had a Mayor. However the Charter gave the Mayor few or no veto, appointment, and operational powers, and the position fell into the “weak” mayor category. Moreover the dual government structure was inherently awkward at best and unworkable at worst. Yet, surprisingly, the clumsy mechanism endured until 1949, a period of 56 years. Clearly the year 1893 marked the end of an era - the completion of the first two-and-a-half centuries of the community of Stamford, Connecticut.

Advocate staff file photo 1999 - go here for 11/2002 obituary from The Advocate
© The Advocate
Dr. Feinstein was honored by receiving the 1999 Homer D. Babbidge Jr. Award in recognition of her life-long contribution to Connecticut History.

Dr. Feinstein died on September 3, 2002 at age 78. Obituary from the Stamford Advocate A remembrance by Ron Marcus

Dr. Feinstein's book Stamford in the Gilded Age is available in our bookstore at the Stamford Historical Society.