A Brief History of Newtown

by Dan Cruson

The Newtown Flagpole

There is no more precious landmark in Newtown that its flagpole. Anyone who doubts this only has to review the furor which surrounded the recent attempt of the Department of Transportation to remove it from the intersection where it has stood for over 130 years. This pole has become a symbol of Newtown and has even found its way onto the seal emblazoned on the sides of our police cars. It has also become famous across the state. All directions for places in the center of Fairfield County begin "at the flagpole in the middle of the street" But why would any town put a 100 foot steel flagpole in the middle of one of the county's busiest intersections?

Colonial New England had a penchant for putting large structures, such as meeting houses in the middle of their main streets. Newtown was no exception. From the time that it was first laid out in 1709 until 1792, the Congregational meeting house stood in the middle of the Church Hill Rd, West St., Main St. intersection, where the flagpole presently stands. In this position it dominated the village, which was fitting for the town's most important building. By being in the middle of the intersection, it was also located on town common land and therefore did not deprive one of the town's proprietors of a section of his house lot.

Even after the building was moved in 1792 to make room for the new Episcopal church, the meeting house was only moved westward few yards to stand in the center of West Street where it continues today. The Episcopal church was then placed in the middle of Church Hill Road, directly across from the meeting house. There it too stood until 1870 when the new stone church was erected just to the south and the old wooden church was dismantled.

A church in the middle of the street is understandably strange. A flag pole, on the other hand, does not appear to have the same justification for its intrusive placement in the middle of the town's major traffic flow. The reason for its placement has its origins in the very history of flag display. Although personal banners or flags had been used since the Middle Ages, national flags only begin to be used as the concept of the nation and the emotion of nationalism emerged in 18th century Europe. For the United States, the familiar stares and stripes was adopted in June of 1777 by the Continental Congress and was subsequently flown as a battle pennant. Public display of the flag developed slowly in the late 18th century but became a virtual passion in the 19th century, as American nationalism grew and developed into the patriotism of the early 20th century. In this 19th century atmosphere, public display of the flag demanded the most prominent place in the town, and for Newtown the intersection at the center of the village is such a spot.

There is no information concerning the public display of the American flag in early post-Revolutionary Newtown. The earliest memory of a public flagpole was that of Newtown's Historian, Ezra Johnson, who remembered that in his childhood a flagpole, or liberty pole as he called it, stood in front of the tavern of Ziba Blackman at the head of Main Street. (This is now the Hillbrow house owned by the Mulligans at #74 Main Street) Since Johnson could just remember the pole it must have existed in his early childhood, in the late 1830's or early 1840's. There appears to be no other public pole in Newtown until the first of the modern sequence of poles was erected in 1876. That was the year of the nation's centennial celebration and a number of the town's leading men had gotten together to determine how best to celebrate this event. A liberty pole was decided upon and a subscription was circulated which drew 43 contributors. A list of these original patrons of the pole has been preserved in a document that was unearthed in the Charles Henry Peck collections by his executor Arthur Treat Nettleton and subsequently published in The Newtown Bee in 1910. Together 43 men contributed $107.50. Unfortunately the complete cost of obtaining and erecting the pole was $131. 65. The $24.15 deficit was made up by Charles Henry Peck himself.

There is no description of this first pole but from the subscription list we know that there were separate expenses for the centennial pole and the top mast. This indicates that it was a two part pole joined like a ship's mast to increase its height. A strong family tradition maintains that Lawrence Mitchell's Grandfather, Wallace H. Mitchell, cut the pole in the Shady Rest area of town and then dragged it to Main Street with several yoke of Oxen. This tradition also maintains that the main and top shafts were square hewn. Unfortunately no one thought to record how high it stood. From reference to later poles, however, we can infer that it was considerably lower than 100 feet, the height of the present pole.

The location of the pole in the middle of the intersection is a logical extension of the committee's desire to place this centennial reminder in the most prominent place in the village, and there is no place that better dominates the village than this intersection. In the days of slower, horse drawn traffic, this position dominated without being a traffic hazard and so the traditional flagpole-in -the-road was born. Before the placement of the modern steel pole in 1950 there was a succession of three wooden poles which stood in the intersection. The first one deteriorated as the typical New England weather took its toll on the exposed wood. Until recently it was not known when the original pole was replaced, but a news item in the April 1 1892 issue of The Newtown Bee has cleared up the matter. "Lawrence Mitchell has been at work on a new flagpole for the Street. It is in three pieces, the old top mast being used and it is 114 feet long, it is said." (The Street or Newtown Street is the original designation of Main Street.) Apparently the old top mast was not usable and so the pole was reduced to two rather than three sections. This also reduced its height to about 60 or 70 feet high.

The determination of its approximate height comes from a bit of detective work. A small booklet of souvenir photos had been taken by Edward Hubble in the mid 1890's. The forth or fifth photo in the booklet was a shot of the Congregational meeting house with a flagpole standing in front. Since the third pole was erected in 1914, this had to be the second pole. A quick measurement of the pole's image against the meeting house, compared with some modern photos of the 100 foot pole against the same meeting house has given the estimate of its height. The circumstances surrounding the second pole's financing, are still obscure but we do know that the main shaft of the pole was cut locally in the wood lot of Senator William N. Northrop, who donated it for a replacement. It is not known if the top mast came from the same location but it was these shafts of wood that Lawrence Mitchell was working on when the Bee made note of his efforts. The second pole took quite a beating before it was replaced in 1914. By the time of the town's bicentennial celebration in 1905, the pole was apparently leaning to one side. In preparation for that celebration, The Men's Literary and Social Club of Newtown Street (Known more simply as the Men's club) in whose hands the bicentennial planning had been placed, arranged a set of guy wires to hold the pole in its proper upright position. This was an important part of the celebration planning since the parade and many other celebratory activities were to take place around the flagpole intersection.

A year after the bicentennial, the pole was struck by lightening. In the words of The Newtown Bee report, "In the hard shower of Tuesday afternoon, the upper mast of the fine flag pole in the Street was struck by lightening and badly shattered. Large splinters from the pole were scattered all about the Street, and the flag, which was up at the time of the storm, was badly burned." Once again the Men's Club, which was rapidly becoming the custodian of the flagpole, circulated a subscription paper to raise enough money to replace the damaged mast. Within a short time, the money had been raised, the new top mast was purchased from one of the ship yards of Mystic, Connecticut, and it was placed in position.

Within six years of this repair, however, the whole pole came crashing down onto the road. At 2:00 in the morning of February 28, 1912, a heavy wind came up and the pole snapped off about 15 feet from the base. It was a fortunate accident in that the pole fell to the north and therefore landed almost entirely in the roadbed rather than on the meeting house and due to the early hour there was no traffic or pedestrians to be hit. The broken pole was cut off below the 15 foot break point and the stump remained for two years while the Men's Club and town fathers decided what to do about its replacement.

The debate was not a simple one. Beginning as early as 1910, the members of the Men's club had discussed whether or not the pole should be moved to the head of Main Street, on the small monument green, near where Ezra Johnson remembered that the earliest pole had been placed. (The Soldiers and Sailors Monument would not be put there until 1931.) The reason for this discussion has not survived but it probably centered around the growing popularity of the automobile for which the pole was a traffic hazard. In the wake of the second flagpole's destruction in 1912, this debate was quickly resolved in favor of maintaining the original position. Subscription papers were then circulated to raise money for the replacement pole, half of which had been collected by September of that year. The Flagpole's fate took a turn away from the intersection in September of 1913 when the State Highway Commissioner issued an edict that since the Main Street was a State Road and the flagpole was a traffic hazard, it must be removed to some other spot in the Village. This was greeted in town in much the same way as the more recent attempts of the Department of Transportation to move the flagpole, and popular sentiment grew to a point that forced the Commissioner to relent by early 1914. He inform the town officials that they could do as they thought best with the replacement pole.

July 4th, 1914, saw the culmination of all the Men's Club's efforts. Early in the morning of June 29th, the much talked about flagpole arrived at the Newtown Depot on Church Hill Road after having been ordered from Corbitt and Company of New York who, in turn, had arranged to have it cut in Oregon and shipped to Newtown by rail. By that same afternoon it had been dragged up to the intersection with Main Street where the main portion was placed upright in a hole located about two feet to the south of the present flagpole. The top mast, surmounted by a gilt ball, was then added to the main mast raising the total height of the pole to a dizzying 100 feet. That Saturday, July 4th at 9:00 AM there was a grand celebration and flag raising. Selectman William Johnson raised the flag while Rev. George Sinnot, the pastor of St. Rose, gave a short address. The Sandy Hook band then played several selections to the delight of the 250 people who had turned out for the festivities.

Thus Newtown's landmark flagpole slipped into the quiet everyday life of the town to be all but ignored for the next 30 years. In October of 1947, however, the now old wooden flagpole was again in need of maintenance. The previous year, as a plan was being developed to beautify the area around the base of the pole, spots of deterioration in the wood near that base were noticed and brought to the attention of the State Highway authorities who referred the matter back to the town's officials. The 1947 repairs consisted of stabilizing the pole temporarily with a 75 foot crane, while the dirt and pavement around the base was dug away to a depth of about four feet. From this depth to the ground surface, a bed of concrete was prepared. A three eights inch thick steel collar, eight feet tall and built in two halves, was then placed around the base of pole where the deteriorating wood had appeared and then welded together into one continuous band of steel. This collar was then sunk down about three feet into the concrete base and the four inch gap between this collar and the wooden shaft was filled with concrete. In this way the entire base of the pole to a height of four feet above the ground and a depth of four feet below the ground was encased in concrete and steel. Thus the flagpole was expected to last another quarter of a century. It barely lasted for three years.

By late 1949, the lower portion of the top mast was so badly rotted that at least three feet of the mast bottom was going to have to be cut off. Several bids averaging $475 each, were received, but the First Selectman, A. Fenn Dickenson felt that this price was too high to pay for what would only be a temporary measure to repair a deteriorating flagpole. In reaction to this, plans were made to replace the ailing wooden flag pole with a more substantial one made of steel. Rather that the two piece construction that had characterized former poles, this was to be one continuous pole reaching up 100 feet. At the beginning of the week which ended on January 20,1950, preparations were begun as the old pole was dismantled and a hole twelve feet deep and seven feet in diameter was dug in the pavement of the intersection, just north of the previous pole. Into this hole a galvanized steel cylinder 21 inches in diameter was lower to a depth of 11 feet and concrete was poured around the steel to firmly secure it in place.

Into this cylinder the new steel pole was lowered on Monday, January 23rd. That morning the 100 foot pole had been delivered to the intersection by Leake and Nelson of Bridgeport. It came in two sections which were then welded together on the ground and swung into position by a gigantic crane. This pole was 16 inches in diameter at the base which left a gap of about three and a half inches between the flagpole and the surrounding cylinder. This gap was filled with sand so that the pole could be easily removed if future repairs had to be made.

The modern flagpole cost the town $2900, just ten times as much as the pole it replaced. It was suggested that some of this expense could be defrayed by selling segments of the third pole to the public. This action was never taken, but one cross section of the lower mast with a bronze plaque identifying and authenticating it, was given to Arthur Treat Nettleton, the president of the Newtown Savings Bank. This he later gave to the Cyrenius H. Booth Library where it is now on display in the genealogy room. The remainder of the lower mast was put into storage in the town garage on Church Hill Rd. until 1952 when the Hawleyville Volunteer Fire company was looking for just such a pole on which to mount its siren. The pole still stands in front of the Hawleyville Fire House. The top mast was removed and stood for several years in the S.A.C. athletic fields in Sandy Hook.

The steel flagpole has been in place for the past forty four years with little deterioration, even after having been hit by an automobile in 1979 which was traveling at an estimated speed of 55 miles an hour late one night. The injury sustained by the flagpole was a minor dent. The car was demolished. Such resilience is due to its weight of two and a half tons and to it being buried to a depth of 11 feet below Main Street. And so the saga of "the flagpole in the middle of the Street," comes to the present day having survived modern high speed traffic and the threats of the Department of Transportation in 1880 to forcibly remove it to the side of the road. This last threat was disarmed in 1981 by state legislation introduced by then Representative Mae Schmidle, which prohibited the removal of the landmark. It is stronger than it has ever been and is now protected by state legislation. By all indications this symbol of Newtown and direction landmark for the state's motorists will last another 82 years when we will celebrate its bicentennial and the nation's tercentenary.