By Nora Howard
Avon Town Historian
Avon was incorporated in 1830, a blink of time away. Two hundred million years ago or so, dinosaurs with daunting names walked here: Coelophysis, Anchisaurus, Eubrontes. Four million years ago, a shallow sea covered Connecticut, and mountains as grand as the Alps rose up. Time blew the mountains away bit by bit, and rivers carried their pieces to places like Avon, located low and central. Over eons this sediment hardened into sandstone and shale. Then came fiery lava and grinding earth which twisted itself into the steep cliffs of Talcott Mountain.
For the next two million years, glaciers came and went. Thick ice buried Avon at least four times, rubbing the rocks raw and leaving boulders from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. It was enough to make a river go crazy. The Farmington River, which once flowed south, cranked into reverse and burst into the Connecticut River at Tariffville Gorge.
And then, that part of the show was over. Twenty-five thousand years ago, after the ice left, mastodons moved in. About 10,000 years ago, the area was settled by the River Indians. This confederation of local tribes sold their land to the English, and the Town of Farmington was established in 1645.
Out from Farmington came Stephen Hart, the first settler to own land in what is today Avon, called then the “land att Nod.” In 1750, the land of Nod broke off from Farmington when the General Assembly established it as the separate parish of Northington. With this, the Society of Northington took control of its religious affairs, called its first pastor (Rev. Ebenezer Booge) in 1751, and built its very own meetinghouse.
These were fine improvements to life in Northington. There were about 160 residents then, who wrote that they had “reason to hope, with the blessing of God on our labors, [that] we shall be well able to support the Gospel among ourselves for the future....”
The questions of where to put the new meetinghouse, however, caused great local concern. At the time, most homes were located east of the Farmington River in the Waterville Road vicinity. Accordingly, the Hartford County Court said the meetinghouse must be there. Twenty-two inhabitants living west of the river signed a petition claiming hardship at crossing the river to attend church. The Court didn’t budge, and the first meetinghouse went up in 1754. The site was located at the end of today’s Reverknolls, off of Route 10.
Northington’s population in the west grew, and there was no bridge to get to church until 1763. Even then, ice and floods destroyed that bridge and at least five others over the next few decades.
Time and population growth - and a suspicious meetinghouse fire in 1817, resolved the one-meetinghouse problem. With the development of Lovely Street and Whortleberry Hill to the west, power shifted west. Every voice counted for the vote to build a new meetinghouse in what is today West Avon. By a vote of 44 to 37, a new meetinghouse went up in 1818 (today the West Avon Congregational Church on Country Club Road). The Northington Society from east of the river built their own new meetinghouse the next year (today the Avon Congregational Church on West Main Street).
With the meetinghouse issue at rest - if not exactly at peace - it was time to make the parish into a town. A book published in 1820 highlighted the area’s natural beauty: Remarks Made on a Short Tour between Hartford and Quebec in the Autumn of 1819. Its author was Benjamin Silliman, a Yale College professor of Chemistry and Natural History. Inside were engravings based on Daniel Wadsworth’s drawings, including two spectacular views of Avon Mountain and the Wadsworth estate.
The parish’s business outlook looked rosy with the completion in 1828 of the Farmington Canal, a 36-foot wide highway of water linking Avon to Northampton, to Long Island Sound, and to New York City. On December 22, 1828, Northington residents voted 59 to 44 to incorporate and to petition the Connecticut General Assembly to become a town. The vote was 59 in favor and 44 opposed. With this vote, Avon agreed to sever ties with Farmington, its mother town. The General Assembly finally approved the petition on May 5, 1830, granting that Northington parish “is hereby incorporated into a distinct town, by the name of Avon…” The voters met seven weeks later at the West Avon Congregational Church on June 21, 1830 to organize their government. At this meeting, they had elections for moderator, selectmen, town clerk, treasurer, constables, grand jurors, tythingmen, fence viewers, keykeeepers, sealers of weights and measures, assessors, a board of relief, and a committee to sell highways and remove nuisances. Town and electors’ meeting alternated between the West Avon Congregational Church and the Avon Congregational Church from 1839 until 1891, when the town built its first town hall.
Why the name Avon? The accepted version is that the name came from the Avon River in England. “Avon” had been in use here as early as 1753, when church marriage records began to record the bridge or groom’s residence as “Avon” or “Northington.”
In 1830, Avon had 1,025 residents, two Congregational meetinghouses, the Baptist Church, the Farmington Canal, a bustling Canal Warehouse, Francis Woodford’s three story hotel across the road from Obadiah Gillet’s Tally Ho Tavern and Inn, and the Talcott Mountain Turnpike from Hartford to Avon, New Hartford, and on to Albany. With this Albany Turnpike and the busy canal, Avon was at a dynamic crossroads.
Just six years later, in 1836, Avon was among the towns included in Connecticut Historical Collections, John Barber’s sumptuous book about Connecticut’s history. Barber described Avon as “for the most part a level and fertile tract of land in the valley of the Farmington River, between two mountainous ridges on the east and west.”
John Barber got that one right. Avon was fertile. Families thrived on dairy, poultry, and tobacco farms, notably the Alsop, Buckland, Colton, Delbon, Distin, Stone, Strong, Thompson, Watson, Westerman and Viti farms.
Avon blossomed with the coming of energetic and talented men and women from Italy, Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Germany. They worked at the impressive yet volatile Climax Fuse factory (later named Ensign-Bickford), farmed, and operated shops. Education advanced even within the constraints of one-room schoolhouses. Pleasures and problems brought by the automobile continue today.
Avon’s past is present. The 1778 First Company Horse Guards still operates. The Town converted the former Ensign-Bickford Company fuse factory buildings into offices and workshops. Life in early Avon is frozen in the remarkable diaries of Reverend Rufus Hawley, covering 1767-1812, and the journals and notebooks of Frank Hadsell, covering 1845-1942. Frank and his brother Clinton, both photographers, left behind hundreds of glass plate negatives taken about 1889-1919, when Avon’s population was just over 1,000.
People and places of special interest include the Heublein Tower overlooking Avon, a familiar landmark. It was there that Republicans asked General Dwight Eisenhower to run for president. The innovative Avon Old Farms School for boys opened in 1927, planned and financed by Theodate Pope Riddle, an architect with personal flair and firm convictions about design. She first employed stonemasons from the English
Cotswolds, and then skilled Italian immigrants who had built Ensign-Bickford’s stone buildings.
In Avon’s landscape are reminders of the Farmington Canal, the railroad, and Albany Turnpike (Route 44). The Avon Historical Society operates the restored Pine Grove Schoolhouse, the Living Museum, and the Derrin House, a circa 1810 farmhouse.
In 1950, Avon’s population was projected to soon pass 5,000. Town officials adopted a development plan in 1954. Avon’s Home Rule Charter, was adopted in 1959 and amended in 1962, 1969, 1975, 1980 and 1998. On July 1, 1981, the revised Charter provided for a Town Manager, Town Council, Board of Finance and Town Meeting. Today Avon’s population is estimated at 17,000.
On November 11, 1996, the Town and the Gildo T. Consolini Post 3272, Veterans of Foreign Wars, dedicated the Avon Veterans Memorial on the Town Green. In the Mexican War (1846-1848), three Avon men served, and one was lost. During the Civil War (1861-1865), Avon sent off a heart breaking sum of 98 men to fight when the whole population of the town was only 1,059. Twenty-five soldiers did not return. For the First World War (1917-1918), Avon contributed 77 men, thankfully loosing none. For the Second World War, 300 men and women from Avon served, with losses numbering 13. In the Korean War (1950-1955) 51 from Avon served, with no losses. In Vietnam (1961-1975), among the 153 men and women served, there was one death and one man Missing in Action. In the Gulf War, (1990-1994), 32 men and women served with no losses.
Avon reached a milestone in 2005, celebrating 175 years since its incorporation in 1830. Its history is preserved, maintained and collected by the work of the Avon Historical Society and the Avon Free Public Library’s Marian Hunter History Room. It is hoped that the reading of this brief essay will heighten appreciation for our history.
Acknowledgements: This essay draws upon four sources: Avon, Connecticut, by Mary-Frances MacKie (1988). Farmington by Christopher Bickford (1982) Avon, by Nora Howard (2000) and an essay by Nora Howard published in the Avon Telephone Directory, 2005-2006 which is sponsored by the Avon Police Association.
In 1969 what was left of the original 1798 collection was donated to the Library by the Wilcox family. It is kept in the Marian Hunter History Room.
Long-range planning for a new library began in 1971. By the mid-1970's, conditions were ripe for the beginning of a boom in the town's population growth, in fact leading the communities in the Farmington River Valley with a growth rate of 34 percent. In 1974 the population was approximately 9, 400. Annual circulation in 1973 reached 49, 500 items.
During this period, the issue of governance was addressed by the Board. Should the library remain privately owned or become a town department? If it remained privately owned, how would it be financed when private monies were no longer adequate or as available as they once were?
These issues were resolved and a formal agreement was signed on November 20, 1978 between the Town of Avon and the Board of Directors of the Avon Free Public Library, Inc. The library became a town department while retaining its identity as a private institution. Because the town recognized the importance of library services to the quality of life of its residents, it agreed to assume almost all of the funding for the library, with the exception of some contributions from the State, or donations from private citizens. Budgets were drawn up by the library Board and Director, and submitted to the town's Board of Finance for approval.
The site of the current Avon Free Public Library building was purchased in 1973 with funds raised by the Trustees. The new location on Country Club Road was chosen because it is close to the geographical center of Avon, and within walking distance of the Avon Middle and High Schools. The library building itself was built with town funds.
With the occupation of the new library in 1982, the square footage devoted to the provision of library services in Avon increased from 4,681 square feet to 13,500 square feet, an increase of 188%. In the first five years of the new library, circulation steadily increased, the book collection grew, and the library increased the number of magazine subscriptions. The Alsop Community Room was used by local organizations for their meetings and by the Friends of the Avon Library for many special programs.
It was after the library had been at its new address for about five years when changes in the information world began to make an impact. The Library joined CircCess, the automated circulation network of the Capitol Region's libraries. New formats such as video cassettes, books on cassettes and compact discs were added to the collection and locations had to be found to display these new items.
A building boom in the mid-80's in Avon brought an influx of new residents whose information needs had a definite impact on the library. New part-time staff were hired to help provide the expanded services. The number of children's programs tripled. A part-time reference librarian was hired to help patrons with their information needs.
Circulation increased by 50% from 1988 to 1992, or 126,680 to 220,886 items. Over 50% of Avon residents had current library cards at that time and that average remains constant. The library published the first edition of the "Avon Business Directory" in 1995.
The Town Council directed the Library Board and staff to assess the building needs and recommend priorities. Three thousand square feet on the second floor had been left unfinished when the building was built in 1982, so attention was paid to that space as well as the need for a reconfiguration of existing space. In 1997, a renovation was completed with changes to the building reflecting the following priorities: a dedicated children's program room, quiet study room and computer lab, quiet study room for adults, computer workstations for both children and adults with Internet and Word access, a redesigned technical services area, improved accessibility to the library in order to comply with new requirements of the American Disability Act, and upgraded wiring to allow high speed Internet access. The library had a brighter look, helped by the introduction of a new color scheme, carpet, furnishings and paint.
Business continued to boom at the Avon Library. There were waiting lists for storytimes, and large and enthusiastic audiences for adult programs such as the popular Sunday afternoon music series and "Time for Ideas" book discussion groups. Residents became quite accustomed to Sunday hours, a service initiated in 1997. "Technology Transfer," a computer instruction program where young adults are the teachers, did a great deal to dispel the apprehension many adults had with the new technology. Some days, the Internet workstations were filled within minutes of when the library opened.
The 1997 renovations eased the critical areas, but could not address everything. For example, at the time of the renovation, space for the collection was considered adequate. However, projections made at that time estimated that space for books would be critical in 2000. The shelves are overcrowded and space is at a premium. Parking spaces are often at a premium, too, especially on days when storytimes are being held and the community room is being used by a local organization. Once a patron gets into the library there is often no place to sit. Library visits per capita in Avon are currently 11. 6. Current standards recommend that libraries provide 5 user seats for every 1,000 people; the library presently has a total of 76.
The Town of Avon has enjoyed a surge in population growth, indicated by an increase in the number of housing starts in the past 3 years. Avon Schools face an unanticipated growth in numbers of school-age children, particularly in the middle school. While Avon residents are shifting the way they use the public library by taking advantage of remote access when they can, they continue to look to the library as a community center, the only Town department which offers services to all ages, a place where things are happening.