Hawley Family Letters Discovered – Avon History Treasure Trove: 1798-1828

In June 2019, the Avon Free Public Library History Room received a box containing treasures of Avon history. Local Hawley historians were on hand to open the box and marvel at the contents, including Terri Wilson, president of the Avon Historical Society; Nora Howard, town historian; Marjorie Bender, Jeannie Parker, historians of West Avon Congregational Church; Dick Rulon, superintendent of the West Avon Cemetery; Tina Panik, Reference & Adult Services Manager and other staff of the Avon Free Public Library.

How did this come about? A few weeks earlier, Trudy Hawley at the Hawley Society received a phone call from a man in Ohio, asking if she wanted approximately 60 letters about the Hawley family of Avon, CT. She said of course – and he promptly sent them to her. Trudy knew that Avon, CT historians had been researching the Hawley family and the life of Rev. Rufus Hawley, pastor of Northington (original name for Avon prior to 1830) from 1769-1817. She felt the best repository for the collection was the Avon Free Public Library’s History Room.

The well-written letters were from between 1798-1828, all to Timothy Hawley (b. 1771- d. 1828). Timothy, the son of Rev. Hawley, had moved from Northington to Ohio. He received many letters from his brothers in Northington and in New Haven, and from Rev. Hawley.

According to Nora Howard, who wrote the biography of Rev. Rufus Hawley [Catch’d on Fire: the Journals of Rufus Hawley, 2011], the discovery of these letters was an unexpected and wonderful surprise. In the 11 years of research for the book about Rev. Hawley, she never saw even one letter he wrote. Said Mrs. Howard, "This collection is outstanding, and I am so grateful for all the people who preserved these letters for 200 years, and then helped them make their way back to Avon. They will add important details to our understanding of Avon’s early history.

Somehow, Timothy Hawley and his descendants had kept the letters safe. Then, the anonymous donor from Ohio, who had no knowledge of how his family had acquired the letters, took the time to find the Hawley Society and box up the letters.

A key part of this story was that Trudy Hawley wanted the letters to go back to Avon. When the letters arrived at the library, they received an enthusiastic welcome from a team that never thought they would see such a sight!

The letters have been professionally archived in the History Room by volunteer Heddy Panik. Transcribing the letters are Marj Bender of the West Avon Congregational Church (Rev. Hawley’s church) and Nora Howard. The letters describe daily life, slavery, people, courtship, conflicts, schools, religion, financial problems, whether or not to move to Ohio, illness and death, the Farmington Canal, and more.

Of particular interest, said Mrs. Howard, was a short passage that barely stood out in one letter but that was critically important. "The people wanted desperately to replace the old meetinghouse. They voted to build a new meetinghouse in 1808, but the financially devastating effects of the Embargo of 1807 kicked in and completely stalled the plans for ten years. Without the Embargo, an international event that effected Northington, I wonder what would have happened with today’s West Avon Congregational Church (1818) and the Avon Congregational Church (1819).

In another letter to Ohio, Rev. Hawley begged his son to send his children, Rev. Hawley’s grandchildren, to live in Northington. They had just lost their mother, and Rev. Hawley feared for what would become of them in Ohio. Three young boys duly arrived in Northington, and before long Rev. Hawley wrote back to Ohio in 1809 that their play, noise and vexation was trouble. The letters and transcriptions will be available online at the library’s website at a future date.

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