The Thomas Hawley House (c.1755)
Along the Stepney Heritage Trail is the Thomas Hawley House (c.1755) located at 514 Purdy Hill Road. It is one of two properties in Monroe listed on the National Registry of Historic Properties.
The Thomas Hawley house is a rare survivor from the earliest era of Stepney’s settlement. It is also a reminder that until the mid-1900s most Monroe residents made their living by farming.
Modern Monroe was originally the northern part of Stratford, which had been settled in 1639. In the early 1700s descendants of Stratford’s original settlers, Thomas Hawley among them, carved farms out of the wilderness acres in the north end of town. Hawley was 21 when he built this large house, in the traditional “saltbox” style, around 1755. Thomas Hawley was a grandson of Joseph Hawley, one of the original settlers of Stratford, who purchased most of the present town of Monroe from the Paugusset Indians in 1671. Thomas was born at the old family homestead in Stratford Center.
In 1761, 48 men from north Stratford, including Thomas Hawley, submitted a petition to the Connecticut General Court for permission to form their own religious parish. The nearest meetinghouse, as Congregationalists called their house of worship, was more than three miles away. This made it difficult for residents of north Stratford to comply with the Connecticut law requiring everyone to attend all-day worship services on the Sabbath.
The Connecticut General Court granted their request, and in 1762 created the New Stratford Ecclesiastical Society. In 1823 this society became the Town of Monroe.
Thomas Hawley played a role on the home front in the war for American independence. He served on the Committee of Inspection appointed in 1776 to “keep watch and ward” in Stratford, of which Monroe was then still part, and which bordered the vulnerable Long Island coast.
Records show that as late as 1800 Thomas Hawley owned two slaves. Slavery had existed on a small scale in Connecticut since the 1600s, but never took root and flourished here as it did in the South. By 1800 the vast majority of the state’s black residents were free. They had been manumitted (or freed) by their owners, bought their own freedom, or been liberated by a law designed to gradually eliminate slavery in Connecticut. By 1810 Thomas Hawley no longer owned slaves.
Thomas Hawley died in 1817 at the age of 83, leaving nearly 150 acres of land. An inventory of Thomas Hawley’s estate at the time of his death shows a house valued at $160.00, a slave house at $10.00, and a barn at $130.00. David Hawley was the beneficiary of his father’s estate. His descendants lived in his house for another century. In the 1920’s, F. William Behrens, mayor of Bridgeport from 1923 to 1929 purchased the Thomas Hawley house as a summer home.
Today the Hawley House is one of Monroe’s outstanding historic structures and a classic example of an 18th-century Connecticut saltbox.
The Abiel Beers House (c.1745)
Our second stop, along the Stepney Heritage Trail is the Abiel Beers house located at 65 Old Newtown Road and owned by Mary and James Donnelly.
Approximately ten years before the Thomas Hawley house was built Abiel Beers came to Stepney to farm and build a home. This homestead is a reminder that until the early 1900s most Monroe residents farmed for a living.
Modern Monroe was originally the northern part of Stratford, Connecticut, which was settled in 1639. In the early 1700s descendants of Stratford’s original settlers, Abiel Beers among them, carved farms out of the wilderness acres in the north end of town. Beers built this one-and-one-half story house around 1745.
In 1761, Abiel Beers and his son Nathaniel were among 48 men who submitted a petition to the Connecticut General Court permission to form their own religious parish. The nearest meetinghouse, as Congregationalists called their house of worship, was three miles away, making it difficult for residents of north Stratford to comply with the Connecticut law requiring everyone to attend all-day worship services on the Sabbath.
The Connecticut General Court granted their request, and in 1762 created the New Stratford Ecclesiastical Society. In 1823 this society became the Town of Monroe.
Abiel Beers was nearly 80 when he died in New Stratford in 1778. Abiel’s son Nathaniel spent the rest of his life in Monroe as well. But two other sons followed their father’s example in seeking their fortunes far from home. By 1775 Ebenezer Beers had moved to the town of Washington in northwestern Connecticut. Abiel Beers, Jr. had settled in New York State by 1794. The brothers were part of the exodus of men and women seeking fresh opportunity that caused Monroe’s population to stagnate, then decline until the advent of the Housatonic railroad in 1840.
The Beers house is placed among open rocky fields that surround the property. The House is a single story vernacular structure, meaning a structure without any specific stylistic attributes, though still typical of its time and place. The five bay façade is balanced around a central entry and the chimney is placed centrally along the ridge. The windows are all 12/8 double-hung sash with plain trim. The house is sheathed in wood shingles and rests upon a fieldstone foundation, created from fieldstone found on the site from clearing the fields. Fieldstone foundations were common among many of the dwellings that were built in Stepney in the 1800’s.
The Abiel Beers house, a pre-revolutionary dwelling is one and one-half stories high and was typical of the type of residential dwellings found through out Stepney in the 1800’s. The house and the roof is sheathed and roofed with natural shingles.
The Stepney Depot (c.1850)
You can almost hear the stationmaster shouting “All aboard!” as you drive by the Stepney Depot located at 54 Maple Drive and owned by Joseph Cavoto, Jr. the third stop along the Stepney trail.
One of the most important events in Monroe’s history was the opening in 1840 of the Housatonic Railroad through Stepney. This new mode of transportation changed the community radically.
The Housatonic Railroad carried passengers and freight between Bridgeport and New Milford at speeds previously unimaginable. It took around half an hour to travel by train from Bridgeport to Monroe, a fraction of the time required to make the same trip via the turnpike. Train fare from Bridgeport to Monroe was 37 cents, as compared to 10 cents or more in tolls to drive a horse and wagon along the turnpike.
The railroad was the wave of the future. Before 1850 the Housatonic Railroad built its first depot in Monroe at Lower Stepney, then known as Leavenworth Mills when Capt. Andrew Leavenworth owned the depot and the surrounds mills. This proved a major shot in the arm for the surrounding neighborhood. The Stepney Depot became the key terminal in Stepney for the delivery of raw materials and labor to the region. Local businesses, including saw, grain, and plaster mills, and the manufacture of carriages and shirts, flourished as rail access made it easier to secure supplies and get finished products to market. In 1849 Stepney got its own post office and a new name: Stepney Depot.
When generations of cultivation left Monroe’s land depleted, farmers could turn their acres into pasture for dairy cattle, because the train quickly transported milk to markets in cities such as Bridgeport. Local residents could take the train to Bridgeport or even New York to shop or on business. At the same time, urbanites seeking relief from the heat and grit of the city increasingly rode the train to rural Monroe. These city dwellers spent part of their summers as boarders in the homes of local farmers, who welcomed the extra income.
The Stephen French store and post office at 39 Maple Street was the location for decades of the Stepney Depot post office and of the Housatonic Railroad station agent. This area around the depot and store was nicknamed “Times Square” after the famous intersection in New York City.
The Andrew Barnum Curtiss House at 27 Maple Street was one of the largest residences in town; supposedly it was purchased from Sears-Roebuck and shipped to the Stepney Depot in pieces.
The railroad was the key component of transportation in Monroe for nearly a century. By the mid-1940s, the automobile rendered train travel obsolete.
Today the Stepney Depot is used for a private commercial venture, and hopefully with the completion of the rails-to-trails path, will serve as a historical landmark and a reminder of a mode of transportation that brought great change and economic growth to Monroe.
The Stepney Depot is a single story vernacular structure with a pyramidal hipped roof. The roof has a wide overhang and exposed brackets that would have help to provide shelter from the elements while passengers awaited the arrival of the train. The large modern garage door on the west side of the building was added to accommodate commercial vehicles with the train tracks located along the backside of the depot. The windows are of two sizes — the larger being 2/2 double hung sash and the smaller of the two being rectangular casements divided into three window lites. The Stepney depot is sheathed in clapboards painted a vintage barn red. The Town of Monroe Public Works Department’s equipment depot abuts the Stepney Depot. The railroad tracks ran between the depot and the public works property and connecting to the entrance of Great Hollow Lake Park.
As you travel along Maple Drive, take a look at one of Stepney’s remaining transportation landmarks.
Stephen French General Store and Post Office (c.1840)
Less than a decade after the first train steamed into Monroe in 1840, the community of Stepney had grown so dramatically it merited its own post office. Post offices then were located in private homes or stores. The Stephen French General store located at 39 Maple Drive, was the third post office in Monroe and had the advantage of being close to the new train depot at what was originally called Leavenworth Mills.
In 1885 Democrat Grover Cleveland was elected president, and local farmer and Democrat Stephen French was appointed postmaster. French bought the general store from the man he replaced as postmaster. The installation of telegraph service in the store two years earlier had made it the community’s transportation and communication nerve center.
In 1888 the Housatonic Railroad appointed Stephen French station agent — but he lost the postmaster’s position when Cleveland lost his bid for re-election. Four years later the political winds shifted yet again. Cleveland won a second term as president, and Stephen French got his postmaster’s job back. The Stephen French store also provided groceries and dry goods to the community, and Stephen French’s brother, William French, operated a livery stable located behind the post office where townspeople could rent a horse and buggy.
Today, the general store and livery stable have been converted to apartments. The two-story porch balustrades and arches have been removed and the replaced, however some of the original doors still exist.
Andrew Barnum Curtiss House (1892)
Next door to the Stephen French Post Office stands the enormous Andrew Barnum Curtiss House located at 27 Maple Drive, which dominates this section of Maple Drive just as it did when it was first built. It reflects the influence exerted upon the neighborhood by the Curtiss family, first Barnum Curtiss, who operated a plaster, saw and gristmill here in the 1800s and later, his son Andrew.
Andrew Barnum Curtiss built this elaborate 6,000-square-foot, two-and-a-half-story Queen Anne-style house in 1892. His father had died the year before, leaving Andrew in charge of the family milling business, one of nineteenth-century Monroe’s most important industries.
Mills had been operating since the mid-1700s in this section of Stepney. They ran by water power produced from damming the Pequonnock River. Andrew Curtiss’s father, Barnum Curtiss, arrived in Stepney in 1840 — the same year as the railroad that would make the locale so convenient for industry. Maple Drive is part of what for much of the 1800s was known as the village of Stepney (that name later came to be applied to the community center farther north on Main Street, sometimes also known as Birdsey’s Plain or Upper Stepney).
Barnum Curtiss became a partner in Leavenworth Mills, an existing milling operation. Leavenworth Mills today is known as lower Stepney. Within a few years, he owned the entire firm including saw, grist, and plaster mills, and a general store. He replaced the old buildings and equipment with modern facilities. In 1865, Andrew Barnum Curtiss, age 20, joined his father in the family enterprise.
Andrew Barnum Curtiss built his grand new house in sight of the mills that generated his wealth. His home was one of the finest mansions in Monroe, for which it was nicknamed “Times Square” after the famous crossroads in New York City. Andrew Curtiss chose the nickname because he commuted to New York City via the train, which he caught at the Stepney Depot a short distance from his house. This house was supposedly purchased from Sears-Roebuck and shipped to the Stepney Depot in pieces.
Architecturally the Andrew Barnum Curtis house is fine example of a Victorian Queen Anne style house. The plan of the house is extremely irregular with a number of round and extending bays topped with pointed turrets or pediment gables. Windows of a variety of shapes and sizes are used and include stained glass. The entry is located beneath a grand wrap-around porch supported with elaborately turned columns. The Queen Anne (1880-1810) style of architecture was immensely popular at the end of the nineteenth century. Queen Anne-style houses are characterized by steeply pitched roofs, asymmetrical massing, complex building plans, a dominant front-facing gable, patterned shingles, cutaway bay windows, towers, and partial, full-width, or wrap-around porches. Earlier examples frequently utilized spindle work or “Eastlake” decoration, ornamental half-timbering and patterned masonry.
The Ira Penfield House and Carriage Factory (c.1760)
Just across Route 25 from the Andrew Barnum Curtiss House stands the Penfield Homestead, circa 1760, located at 59 Crescent Place and owned by Jason and Jessie Gariepy.
This was the home of Ira Penfield, who for many years helped run the carriage factory founded by his father, William. Built in the eighteenth century, it was originally a “saltbox” house with a center fieldstone chimney. This chimney is one of three of its kind still remaining in Monroe. The chimney is unique in that it serves five fireplaces and a beehive oven located throughout the first and second stories to the house. Stone steps built into the upper portion of the chimney leads to the homes attic. A hipped roof was added to the front façade early in the nineteenth century. The building had a ballroom and probably served as an inn early in its history. A barn was erected on the site about 1800 and still remains today with all of its original openings.
Ira Penfield was working in the family carriage business by 1860. In 1862 he enlisted as a Union soldier. Captured at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May 1863, and held prisoner at Libby Prison, he was paroled (traded for a southern soldier) two weeks later. Ira Penfield lived to be 94. His grave can be found in the Birdsey’s Plain/Stepney cemetery located at 28 Pepper Street.
Sometime after Ira’s return from the war, he added a wing to the Penfield house for a private academy. Many parents were increasingly unhappy with the education offered by the public or “common” schools. Those who could afford it often sent their children to the private boarding schools springing up around the state.
These academies were often located in rural communities that touted the benefits of fresh air and the pleasant country environment. In Monroe, which a writer in 1835 noted was “generally considered unusually healthy,” at least five private schools were established between 1828 and 1884. They attracted students from outside Connecticut and even from abroad.
Located down the road from the Ira Penfield House, at the northern intersection of Crescent Place and Main Street stood the Penfield carriage factory. This location was one of Monroe’s largest nineteenth-century industrial sites. William Penfield built his factory on the Bridgeport-Newtown Turnpike (today Route 25). Many of the wagons, coaches, and carriages he manufactured rolled down the turnpike to Bridgeport. There they were loaded aboard vessels and many were shipped south for sale to wealthy planters.
Construction of the Housatonic Railroad and the Stepney Depot, not far from the Penfield factory in 1840, made receiving supplies and shipping carriages to Bridgeport even faster and cheaper. The Penfield firm flourished. By 1860 the factory produced 50 carriages valued at a total of $15,000 — a small fortune in that era.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 cut off the Southern market for carriages. But the firm, now William Penfield & Son, remained busy turning out a new product: gun carriages for the Union armies.
The Penfield factory was still making carriages as late as 1880. But along with Monroe’s other manufacturing enterprises it inevitably fell victim to the competition of the more modern factories that sprang up in burgeoning cities during the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Today the Ira Penfield Homestead is a private residence and no longer is being used as a private academy and while the carriage factory no longer remains at the end of Crescent Place, these properties remain Stepney landmarks as an example of Stepney’s military and personal involvement in the Civil War. For more information about Ira Penfield and his Civil War experience contact Nancy Zorena at the Monroe Historical Society that has in its possession numerous copies of letters Ira wrote to his wife while serving the country during the Civil War.
The Stepney Schoolhouse (c. 1830)
As we leave lower Stepney and travel up the Bridgeport-Newtown Turnpike today known as Main Street to the intersection of Old Newtown Road is the Stepney School House circa 1830, one of two schoolhouses still standing in Stepney, located at 142 Main Street and owned by Susan Oberstadt.
The small, simple district schoolhouse was the cornerstone of public education in Connecticut from the colonial era into the twentieth century. By 1850 Monroe was divided into seven school districts; Stepney, East Village, Birdsey’s Plain, Cutler’s Farm, Centre, Elm Street and Walker’s Farm each with its own building. The Stepney one-room schoolhouse was built around 1830, when Monroe’s population had grown to about 1,500.
District schoolhouses usually consisted of just one room. They were sparsely furnished, for taxpayers spent as little as possible on them. Students, ranging in age from near toddlers to late teens, were all taught by one teacher who had no special training as a teacher. Equipment was basic, and students often had to supply their own books and slates to write on. A fireplace or single stove heated the building in winter. Water had to be drawn from a well, and many schools even lacked outhouses. Sometime during its history the Stepney schoolhouse was lucky enough to get a double outhouse – one side for girls, the other for boys. If you look closely from the Dutchess Restaurant parking lot you will see the outhouse still standing today.
In 1872, 26 students were enrolled in the Stepney School. However, the number present on any given day could vary, depending on how badly a boy or girl was needed to work at home or how much importance their parents put on formal education. The state didn’t make school attendance compulsory until the late 1800s.
Students were taught the “three R’s” - “Reading, ’Riting, and ’Rithmetic,” along with some history, geography, or science. Whatever they learned at the district schoolhouse was all the formal education many students ever received.
Towns had been divided into school districts primarily because children had to walk to school. By 1935 Monroe had paved roads and buses transported students from any part of town in a matter of minutes. That year the seven local school districts were “consolidated.” Thereafter, all Monroe children from first through eighth grades attended the new Monroe Consolidated School, today the Monroe Elementary School.
In 1935, all of Monroe’s district schoolhouses were auctioned off to private individuals. Six still stand; five have been transformed like this one, into private residences. A second schoolhouse, the Birdsey’s Plain Schoolhouse still stands in Upper Stepney and is located at 37 Hattertown Road. It was a two-room structure built around the same time as the Stepney schoolhouse, in the Greek Revival style.
Architecturally, the Stepney Schoolhouse is a one and one-half story, three bay, gabled-roofed house resting on a stone foundation. It is a wood framed, clapboard structure. The fenestration is 6/6 with simple window surrounds. Despite its conversion to a dwelling, it retains its essential shape and vernacular form of an early 19th century school. A combined “girls” and “boys” outhouse is located at the south side of the building.
The Booth House (c. 1912) and Barns
Within a short walking distance from the Stepney Schoolhouse traveling along Purdy Hill Road to One Old Newtown Road you will find the Booth House with two of a small number of remaining barns in Stepney. The house and barns are owned and have been restored by Barbara and Russell Hartz.
According to the 1867 Beers Atlas this property was owned by H. Hawley, a relative of Thomas Hawley, who’s circa 1755 saltbox home stands across the street from the Booth House. The land on which the Booth House and barns were built probably belonged to the Hawley homestead.
Five acres were purchased from the Hawley homestead in the mid-1800s. The original dwelling was built into the side of a hill and consisted of one room approximately sixteen by sixteen feet in area with a sleeping loft above and a basement with its own entrance below. This separate entrance indicates that the basement was probably used for animals and earlier possibly as slave quarters. The structure is of post and beam construction with floor joists made from tree logs.
David Booth would eventually purchase and farm the property. The Booth family was common farmers raising chickens, a few diary cows and growing “truck” gardens. A truck garden was planted to grow seasonal fruits and vegetables that would be “trucked” to market.
In 1907, the farm would be handed down to Carrie Booth, daughter of David Booth who married Nicholas Winblad, according to their son Edward Winblad. In 1912, the one room house was expanded to the size of the home we see today. Purdy Hill Road, tall fieldstone walls and the west branch of the Pequonnock River border the house and barns.
In 1984, Barbara and Russell Hartz purchased the property from Edward Winblad as a result of their search to find a restoration project and a barn to house Russell’s furniture restoration business. Russell has been restoring historic properties for many years beginning in Ohio and later here in Monroe when a job opportunity for Barbara brought them to Connecticut. The Booth House has been meticulously restored along with the barns containing a piece of Americana — billboard advertising.
If a barn stood on a main road or near a railroad, farmers could get a free paint job or earn extra cash by renting the sides of their barns for advertising. “Farmers were frugal in those days, yet still needed to paint their barns to keep them up. The merchants saw the sides of these barns as an opportunity to advertise their wares to the people traveling along Route 25. They both got what they wanted — the farmers, a free paint job and the stores, almost free advertising,” Hartz said. The barns billboard advertising was restored with the help of Christopher Naples, a Stratford fine arts restorer, and faux finishing painter Michael Dzujna of Shelton. At one time travelers along Route 25 could see the sides of these barns; today trees and buildings now obscure the view.
The cow barn sign reads: “Go To G-H-Bennet, Boots, Shoes & Rubbers, 367 Main Street, Bridgeport.” In 1892, the Bennett shoe store was in operation and advertised shoes for $2.75, with higher prices for heavy or cork soles. Heavy rubber slip-ons to protect shoes, along with traveling trunks and rubber rain gear were sold at the store.
The sign on the hay barn reads; “Our Clothiers! Foster, Besse & Co., 317 Main Street, Bridgeport.” John E. Foster of Bridgeport and Lyman W. Besse of West Virginia opened a men’s and boy’s clothing store on Main Street, Bridgeport in 1877. Foster’s uncle, John R. Foster, had started one of the first chain clothing stores in America in 1857. The Bridgeport store relocated to 956 Main Street in 1902. The 17,000-square-foot dry goods store would flourish, selling work and sports clothing, hats, pocketknives and other men’s apparel.
At the peak of its success, the Foster-Besse Company had 41 stores in cities from Maine to Missouri. The store operated until 1948, when the last surviving son, Edward L. Foster, died.
Russell Hartz is partial to old barns. “These barns go by the wayside if you don’t use them. They are an important part of our history and are vanishing rapidly across the country.” said Hartz. And use the barns he did. For years many pieces of furniture were given new life with Russell’s refinishing expertise in these barns. “This farm would not appeal to the wealthy, this is a poor mans farm. We wanted to restore a poor mans farm because they are every bit as important as plantation farms, for it’s the common or poor man who has been largely responsible for the building of America,” Hartz added.
The Booth House and farm today is well cared for, on a tour of the property you will find Barbara’s vegetable and flower garden bursting with the colors of zinnias, morning glories, sunflowers, and gladiolas along side zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, blueberries and asparagus. Meadows that once were used for haying now are surrounded by mature varieties of evergreens. Evergreen trees that were once decorated as Christmas trees and later planted along the perimeter of the property have grown to tall heights. Native huckleberry, quince, crabapple, pear, primrose, trumpet vines and ring ferns along with a small marsh can be found throughout the property. A rose garden planted by Carrie Booth Winblad still blooms in early summer. The west branch of the Pequonnock River runs through the property and a small dam can still be seen that was built by Edward Winblad, to create a swimming hole in the early 1900s.
And then you encounter two magnificent trees, a sugar maple and a Norwegian spruce tree. “Many people have said I should cut down this big old sugar maple tree, it’s probably worth more than the house. If I laid a saw on it my wife would kill me!” said Hartz. “These trees are here to stay as long as we are living or they fall down on their own.” Hartz added.
Russell pointed out that farmers would plant evergreen trees on the North and West sides of their houses to serve as windbreaks from the cold winds and on the South and East sides plant deciduous trees for summer shade and in the winter, when the leaves were gone, the sun would help heat the house. And that’s what was done at the Booth house.
Architecturally the Booth house is a two-story farmhouse sitting on a fieldstone foundation. The chimney is located centrally along the ridgeline. All windows are 6/6 double hung sashes with plain trim; the doorway is trimmed simply with the same molding. A shed roof porch spans the façade and west side of the house. Simple turned columns support the shed roof. A balustrade, also with turned columns is located the length of the porch. The house was originally sheathed in clapboard but today is covered with cedar shingles. The original front door has been moved to a west side door location. The interior beams are exposed and are pegged, post and beam construction. A chicken coop located to the right of the house has been converted to a tool shed.
The two barns are typical of small barns found throughout Stepney during the nineteenth century. The barns are sheathed with vertical siding. The original window and door openings still remain. Fieldstones found on the property are used for foundations. The floor joists are made from tree logs and supported by hand hewed and pegged columns. The original roofs were wood shakes and have been replaced with architectural grade asphalt shingles.
The Booth House and barns today are reminders of the Stepney farmer’s ingenuity with a unique approach to preservation by bartering advertising space for barn maintenance. And thanks to Russell and Barbara Hartz for their desire to restore the house and keeping the barns in use.
Bridgeport and Newtown Turnpike (1801), Monroe and Newtown Turnpike (1833)
From earliest settlement, building and maintaining the dirt roads that connected different parts of town and one town to the next was a never-ending chore. That responsibility usually fell on the shoulders of each town’s citizens.
But following the American Revolution, the rapidly growing new nation needed better roads than local efforts could provide. The solution was turnpikes - roads built and maintained by private corporations that made a profit by charging travelers a fee at tollhouses.
The word “turnpike” came from the custom of positioning a wooden pole, or pike, across the road as a barrier. Once a traveler paid the toll, the pike was turned aside to allow him to continue on his way.
The Connecticut General Assembly authorized dozens of turnpikes, including in 1801, the Bridgeport and Newtown Turnpike that ran through western Monroe. The new, improved highway linked Monroe to the outside world as never before, and quickly became the spine of commerce in the town. That led to a concentration of population along its length.
The shorter Monroe and Newtown Turnpike was chartered and constructed in 1833. It ran from ”the dwelling house of Levi Edwards Esquire” of Birdsey’s Plain, Monroe, “to the store of Messrs. Beard and Morgan in Newtown and then to the Bethel Meeting House in the town of Danbury.” This highway following the route of modern Hattertown Road allowed travelers to continue from Stepney up to Newtown, Bethel and onto Danbury. The point at which it intersected with the Bridgeport and Newtown Turnpike (modern-day Route 25) developed into the village of Birdsey’s Plain.
Birdsey’s Plain was named after Joseph Birdsey, an early settler, in approximately 1780. By the 1860s the neighborhood boasted several stores, a post office, two new churches, many shops making boots and shoes, and an abundance of fine new houses. The 19th and 20th century shopping center for Western Monroe and the hub of Birdsey’s Plain was the Burritt/Burr Hawley’s Store. Built around 1850, it was the grandest store in all Monroe and for miles around. Mark Twain often visited the store and enjoyed telling tales around the potbelly stove. Farmers would gather their teams to bring milk to the milk station: to buy feed, hay and grain. The only motor-driven grain mill in town was located at the rear of the store. Birdsey’s Plain has also been commonly called “Upper Stepney” since the late 19th century.
Farther south on the Bridgeport and Newtown Turnpike developed the village of Stepney also known in the early 1800’s as Leavenworth Mills and as ”Lower Stepney” since the late 19th century. Stepney got a major boost with the arrival in 1840 of a transportation mode even better than the turnpike: the Housatonic Railroad, which built its first depot in Monroe in Stepney before 1850. Stepney subsequently became the site of some of Monroe’s dominant industries of the nineteenth century, including mills and carriage and shirt factories.
The Bridgeport and Newtown Turnpike and the Monroe and Newtown Turnpike remained in existence until 1886. At this time the turnpike charters were dissolved and the citizens led by Solon B. Wales of Monroe, raised contributions that the State of Connecticut met with double matching funds to convert the turnpikes into free public roads. Today the Bridgeport and Newtown Turnpike is Route 25, also known as Main Street and the Monroe and Newtown Turnpike is Hattertown Road.
Several old toll stations were scattered along the “pike” roads in Monroe. Abandoned at the close of the 19th Century, some became residences while others were torn down. One of the original Monroe and Newtown Turnpike tollhouses still remains and is located at 126 Hattertown Road. The building has been converted to a single-family dwelling and has recently undergone an extensive restoration. This tollhouse was built circa 1835 and is a one and one-half story clapboarded structure that sits on a fieldstone foundation and includes a wood shingle roof with a chimney centered along the ridgeline. The windows are 6/6 double hung sash with plain trim. The toll taker may have used the building as a residence as compensation for collecting tolls from travelers enroute to Newtown and beyond. A barn is located to the right of the tollhouse situated on a high fieldstone foundation, indicating the barn may have been used for stables and storage for a carriage. Down the road from the tollhouse and located at 37 Hattertown Road is the Birdsey’s Plain School, which was Monroe’s largest schoolhouse, and has also been converted to a residence. Located at the beginning of the Monroe and Newtown Turnpike at 9 Hattertown Road is the former Methodist Church Parsonage. Many historic homes still line the turnpike today while most of the farms that once bordered the turnpike have become housing developments.
The Stepney Green (1817)
At the Intersection of the Bridgeport and Newtown Turnpike Monroe and Newtown Turnpike is located the Stepney Green. The Stepney Green, the heart of historic Stepney, was used for militia drills beginning in the 1700s. In 1817 it was officially purchased for $140 to serve as a place of parade for the Birdsey’s Plain Rifle Company.
Monroe already had one green at Monroe Center established in 1784 with land donated by Captain Joseph Moss and Nehemiah DeForest that was the “centre” for the New Stratford Society in the eastern part of town. But as Stepney grew in size and importance during the nineteenth century this parade ground became Monroe’s second town green.
One of the most tumultuous events in Monroe history occurred on the Stepney Green. Ironically, it started as a peace rally.
Four months after the Confederate bombing of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, signaling the beginning of hostilities in the Civil War, some Northerners (and Southerners) known as the “Copperheads” still clung to the hope that all-out war could be avoided. On August 24, 1861, a large crowd gathered on the Stepney Green to rally for peace. The peace rally attracted like-minded citizens from Easton, Newtown, and Bridgeport to raise a “peace flag.”
The rally had barely begun when a sizable number of ruffians, along with Union soldiers home on furlough, arrived by train from Bridgeport to break up the gathering. The scene on the green deteriorated into chaos. Although both sides were reportedly armed, a bloody tragedy was somehow avoided with many protesters fleeing up into Birdsey’s Hill what today is Hubbell drive and Aquarion Water Company property.
The ruffians pulled down the peace flag and hoisted the American flag, then proceeded to hold their own rally on the Stepney Green in support of the Union and the war effort. Speakers included entertainment impresario P.T. Barnum and sewing machine inventor Elias Howe, Jr., who both had led the armed contingent from Bridgeport. They claimed peace meetings were in reality demonstrations in support of the secession of the Southern states.
The interlopers headed back to Bridgeport that same day, where they destroyed the presses and office of the peace supporting Bridgeport Farmer, a popular newspaper. In the wake of the forceful break-up of the Stepney peace rally; similar events planned in other towns were cancelled. This peace rally was the single most significant U.S. Civil war event in Monroe’s history.
The 19th century development of the Stepney and Birdsey’s Plain (Upper Stepney) area of Monroe was largely brought about by two things: the layout of the Bridgeport and New town Turnpike (1801) and the construction of the Housatonic railroad, which open in 1840. Because of these transportation developments Birdsey’s Plain grew into a bustling commercial and community center. Here were located two churches, Monroe’s largest general store, cobbler shops, tinsmiths, and a number of large, stylish new homes. A Methodist Church was built on the Pepper Street side of the Green in 1839, and a Baptist church on the Main Street side in 1848. Charles B. Wheeler owned a home at 440 Main Street and was a boot and shoemaker. The house located at One Pepper Street at the northern tip of the green originally was the Wheeler shoe factory where in 1851 Charles Wheeler began manufacturing boots and shoes for himself and the United States Army during the Civil War. In 1794 Noah and James Burr, Jr. donated land for the Birdsey’s Plain Cemetery which is located next to the Methodist Meetinghouse known today as Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Chapel. Buried here are more than 40 men who helped direct the course of American history through military service in crucial conflicts. Among their number are five veterans of the Revolutionary War, six veterans of the War of 1812, and 31 veterans of the Civil War. At the southern end of the green stands the Osborn/Corning House c. 1810, one of two Federal half-houses still standing in Stepney (the other is the Charles B. Wheeler house at the north end of the green). The Osborn and Corning families were some of the earliest families to settle Stepney. No longer standing today across from the green at the corner of Route 25 and Easton Road was Burrit/Burr Hawley’ store. Built around 1850, it was a hub for milk wagons and for the sale of hardware and household goods.
The Stepney Green and the surrounding area experienced its own succession of sometimes confusing name changes. The origin of the name Stepney is uncertain but appears in land records by the 1730’s. The area where the Stepney Depot and the Barnum Curtis House and other businesses were located on Maple Drive was originally called Stepney. The area around the Stepney Green was originally known as Birdsey’s Plain. Birdsey’s Plain was named after Joseph Birdsey, an early settler, approximately 1780. For some unknown reason, in the late 1800s Birdsey’s Plain came to be known also as Upper Stepney. The area to the south of Upper Stepney bordering the Town of Trumbull was renamed Lower Stepney to distinguish itself. The name Birdsey’s Plain eventually faded from use. Today the community defined by the intersection of Routes 25 and 59, Hattertown Road, and the green, originally known as Birdsey’s Plain and later Upper Stepney, is simply called Stepney. The name Lower Stepney for the southern section of Route 25 has fallen out of use. Thus Stepney today embraces both population centers.
The Stepney Green also serves as the trailhead marker with the construction of an information kiosk. The kiosk includes interpretive panels with historical text, maps, a timeline and pictures of the individual sites.
Methodist Meetinghouse (1839) And The Burritt Home (c. 1836)
Two centuries ago “religious diversity” had a very narrow definition in Connecticut. Congregationalism, the theological successor to Puritanism, was the state’s established tax-supported religion. The only other faiths Connecticut grudgingly tolerated were Protestant denominations, like the Episcopalians and Baptists who had established churches before the American Revolution.
Methodism came to Connecticut and Monroe in the 1790s. In 1811 the first Methodist church in Monroe was built in the East Village section. In 1818 a new state constitution stripped Congregationalism of its special status. Other denominations subsequently gained large numbers of new members. Before long Monroe needed a second Methodist church. The logical location was Birdsey’s Plain, later known as Upper Stepney. Birdsey’s Plain, at the intersection of two new turnpikes, was fast becoming Monroe’s commercial center.
In 1839 the Stepney Methodist Church, designed in the popular Greek revival style, was built at 15 Pepper Street. A decade later local Baptists constructed a church on Main Street that was a near duplicate of the Methodist Church directly across the road. The two buildings became known as the “twin churches.”
Methodists worshiped in the Pepper Street building for 134 years. In 1973 members joined the East Village Methodist Society to form the United Methodist Church, which built a new home on Cutler’s Farm Road. But the Stepney Methodist Church building would play an additional role in the expansion of religious diversity in town.
Roman Catholics first came to Monroe in the mid-1800s, but they had to worship in Trumbull or elsewhere. In 1973 the Orthodox Roman Catholic Movement acquired the former Stepney Methodist Church. It was transformed into Our Lady of the Rosary Chapel, where the traditional Latin Mass still is celebrated under the direction of Bishop McKenna and the Dominican Sisters.
Architecturally the Methodist church is a Greek-revival style structure with four bays facing the Street. The entrance is articulated with two engaged columns flanked by Doric corner pilasters. The main face is flushboarded, while the sides are covered with clapboards. The paired recessed entries have their own simple pediments, and the fenestration, with Queen Anne style stained glass, is quite simple. A simple gable articulated as a severe, stripped classical pediment tops the main facade.
The entire building rests on a high granite cut-stone basement. There is a large shed-roofed wing at the rear of the building. The church is approximately 38 by 50 feet in size. At one time there was a steeple that would have matched the steeple found on the Stepney Baptist Church located directly across the green. The steeple was removed in the 1960’s due to deterioration. A simple cross now stands in its place. The church is an excellent example of its style and it has retained most of the essential components that make up a quintessential Greek Revival Church.
The house immediately north of the church dates from about 1836 and is the Isaac Burritt Home. In 1800, Isaac Burritt built a general store located across the Green at the intersection of the Bridgeport/Monroe turnpike (Route 25) and the Monroe/Newtown turnpike (Hattertown Road). The store was purchased by Burr Hawley and would continue in operation into the twentieth century. In 1839, the Burritt home was sold and became the Stepney Methodist Church Parsonage. It would remain the Methodist Parsonage until 1972 when the Methodist Church closed and sold to the Orthodox Roman Catholic Movement. It now serves as a convent for the order of the Dominican Sister’s of Our Lady of the Rosary Chapel.
Architecturally it is a simple three-bay, two-story Greek revival style structure, resting on a stone and brick foundation. Its wraparound porch has received modern posts and a new balustrade. The horizontal window in the gable end has been replaced, 1/1 windows are trimmed with simple surrounds, as well as half-height sidelights flanking the modern entry door. Although altered over time the building has retained its essential massing and a few details.
Birdsey’s Plain / Stepney Cemetery (1794)
Next door to the Methodist Meetinghouse is the Birdsey’s Plain/Stepney Cemetery located at 25 Pepper Street. In the Birdsey’s Plain/Stepney Cemetery lie nearly 1,400 men, women, and children. Each life constitutes a footnote, a page, or a chapter in the story of Stepney’s development as a community. This cemetery was established with a gift of land by Noah and James Burr, Jr. in 1794, and subsequently enlarged in 1813 and 1844. The earliest death date on a surviving tombstone is that for Nathaniel W. Knapp who died in 1797.
Many individuals associated with sites on the Stepney Heritage Trail are interred here. They include industrialists William Penfield, Ira Penfield, Barnum Curtiss (with three of his four wives!) and Andrew Barnum Curtiss; merchant Burr Hawley; postmasters Harriet Platt and Stephen French; pioneer settler Thomas Hawley; and James Burr whose sons donated this land for a burial ground.
Buried here are more than 40 men who helped direct the course of American history through military service in crucial conflicts. Among their number are five veterans of the Revolutionary War, six veterans of the War of 1812, and 31 veterans of the Civil War.
Some of the more notable people who are buried in this cemetery include: Captain Allen Corning born in 1760 and died in 1842 at 82 years. He was a Revolutionary War Soldier who crossed the Delaware River with George Washington and was present at the surrender of Lord Cornwallis. Luzon Nichols was born in 1779 and died in 1850. He was named for the Duc de Luzon who led French troops through Monroe during the American Revolution on their way to Yorktown to help the colonists defeat the British. The residents were so appreciative and some named their newborns in Duc de Luzon’s honor. Captain Hanford Hull was born in 1860 and died in 1892 at 86 years. He was a captain in Stepney’s local militia. He built many of the homes around the Stepney Green. Ira Penfield was born in 1835 and died in 1930 at 94 years. He fought at the Battle of Chancellorsville and was taken prisoner. The Monroe Historical Society has in its archives numerous copies of heartfelt letters that he wrote to his wife while serving the country during the Civil War. Ira Penfield and his wife and children lived in Stepney on Crescent Place. He taught at a private school in his home.
Vera Hubbell Blakeman was born 1894 and died in 1952. She was the wife of DT Blakeman. Hubbell Drive in Stepney is named for her. Vera was a teacher in the East Village Barn Hill School. She and her class are depicted on the cover of Images of America - Monroe, published by Arcadia Publishing Company. Irma Nichols was born in 1899 and died in 1971. She was the daughter of CF and ML Nichols. Irma was a charter member of the Monroe Historical Society, a life member of the Stepney Baptist Church, graduated from Mount Holyoke College, and worked for 25 years as an office manager of the Newtown Bee. Steven Hayes was born in 1847 and died in 1933. He lived in Stepney and was First Selectman of the Town of Monroe. He was known as a great storyteller and would often tell entertaining stories at the Burritt Hawley Store. His daughter Mabel Nichols said that he especially enjoyed telling stories about Hanna Cranna, the witch of Monroe. The cemetery has been the location of numerous sightings of an unknown spirit called the ”White Lady”. Stepney residents Ed and Larraine Warren, America’s Top Ghost Hunters, have documented this spirit.
Other individuals such as Deacon James Hawley, 1809-1853; Andrew Northrop, 1814-1883; Elihu Beardsley, 1777-1844; Salty Beers, 1833-1861; Betsey Peck, 1815-1899; David Burr, 1776-1819; Hiriam Leavenworth, 1760-1853; Jerusha E. Wakeley, 1821-1869; Eloisa Curtis Botsford, 1793-1859; Truman Hubbell, 1828-1850; Rebecca Winton, 1767-1816; and Mary Cole, 1790-1867 all represent families who made Stepney their home. For it is in Stepney that these people chose to establish businesses, gather to protest the Civil War, manufacture goods in support of the war, serve in World Wars, farm the land, worship and bury generations of family members.
Physically the Birdsey’s Plain/Stepney Cemetery is a 3.1-acre burial ground. Most of the memorial stones are carved of granite. There is a great variety in the designs utilized for the monuments including obelisks and tall columns with urns at their tops. The cemetery has a single lane “U” shaped road for vehicular access to the rear. There are two entrances and one exit located along Pepper Street. The cemetery boundaries are marked by stonewalls and original black ironwork fences and gates, typical of the nineteenth century and ear
Last of the Federal half houses in Stepney - The Osborn/Corning House (c 1810) and The Charles B. Wheeler House (c 1850)
Serving as anchor buildings to the Stepney Green, stand the Osborn / Corning House to the south and the Charles B. Wheeler House to the north. These houses are the last two Federal half houses remaining in Stepney. The Osborn / Corning House built circa 1810 located at 418 Main Street. A dwelling has been on this site since the 1760’s. The Osborn and Corning families were some of the earliest families to settle Birdsey’s Plain / Stepney. The main section of the structure is one of the oldest abutting the Green. It was built or rebuilt shortly after the construction of the Bridgeport / Newtown Turnpike in 1801. This house first appears on the 1823 map of the area; it was a typical 19th century private family dwelling for the Osborn and Corning families during most of its history. It became commercial property in the later part of the 20th century. The structure is slated to be demolished or moved in 2009 as part of the proposed Connecticut Department of Transportation Highway Project # 84102: Route 25 intersection improvements.
The house is a four-bay Federal half house style structure with a two bay southern wing and a one-story addition at the rear. Federal half houses were built beginning in 1790 and as late as 1840. The floor plan was designed so that additional sections could be easily added to the left or right of original structure. Distinguishing features of a federal half house are its offset main entrance and two or three windows to the right or left of the entrance along with a central chimney. Interior stairs leading to a second floor are located at the entrance and are secured to an outside wall. A central fireplace could include as many as three fireplaces (one for each of the first floor rooms) and a beehive oven.
The Osborn / Corning house rests on a stone foundation, all of the windows have been replaced and connecting sheds and wings have received storefront windows for the display of merchandise. The best-preserved element is the entry on Main Street, added in the Greek Revival Period (1820-1870). This entrance has prominent chamfered, Tuscan-capitaled, pilasters flanking three-quarter sidelights resting on paneled bases, framing the central door. A metal trellis obscures the view of the Greek revival horizontal cornice and along with the shed entrance roof would have been added in the 20th century.
Anchoring the Northern end of the Stepney Green is located the Charles B. Wheeler House and built circa 1850. According to the 1867 Beers Atlas, Charles B. Wheeler owned a home at 440 Main Street. Charles B. Wheeler, born in Easton in 1821, trained as a boot and shoemaker. Wheeler moved to “Upper Stepney” as the area was then known, in 1850, and “in 1851 began to manufacture for himself and during our great civil war manufactured boots and shoes for the United State Army, and had in his employ about seventy-five men,” reports Hurd in the History of Fairfield County. “He is still engaged in the boot-and-shoe trade” in 1881. The house located at One Pepper Street next to the Wheeler House originally was the Wheeler shoe factory. Today the Wheeler house has been converted to commercial use.
Architecturally, the house is a three-bay, two and one-half story, Federal half house. It originally had a side-hall plan. The building was gutted and remodeled in 1988 but still retains the interior chimney and a fireplace. Like the Osborn / Corning house it rests on a stone foundation and all fenestration has been replaced and enlarged for office and commercial use. It has retained its entry, which consists of paired fluted pilasters, framing the doorway and its three quarter sidelights. A horizontal transom tops the doorway. The metal trellis, storm door and portico would have been added in the 20th century and is not indicative of Federal half house architecture.
Stepney Baptist Church (c.1848)
Two centuries ago “religious diversity” had a very narrow definition in Connecticut. Congregationalism, the theological successor to Puritanism, was the state’s established tax-supported religion. The only other faiths Connecticut grudgingly tolerated were Protestant denominations, like the Episcopalians and Baptists who established churches before the American Revolution.
Lower Stepney was the location of Monroe’s first Baptist church, built in 1793 on land given by Samuel Waklee on Judd Road. In 1818 a new state constitution stripped Congregationalism of its special status. Other denominations subsequently gained large numbers of new members. Between 1800 and 1848 the number of Baptist churches in Connecticut almost doubled, and the number of members nearly quadrupled. A second Baptist congregation was established in Monroe.
In the 1840s the two Monroe societies merged and set about building a new house of worship. The logical location was Birdsey’s Plain, later known as Upper Stepney, which, thanks to two new turnpikes that intersected there, was fast becoming Monroe’s commercial center.
In 1848 the Stepney Baptist Church was built on what was then known as the Monroe and Bridgeport Turnpike. The new house of worship was built in the popular Greek revival style, using some materials from the original 1793 church. According to local histories, the construction of this church was begun on 1841 and completed just prior to the formation of a congregation from the unification of the Stepney Baptist Society and the Monroe Baptist Society in 1848. The Methodist church built in 1839 almost directly opposite on Pepper Street originally looked very much like the Baptist Church. It was, in fact, a near duplicate of the Stepney Methodist Church (today Our Lady of the Rosary Chapel). The two buildings became known as the “twin churches.” Baptists continue to worship in the church they built more than 150 years ago.
Different persons gave lumber, timber or their labor and under the supervision of Hanford Hull, a noted jointer, this building was erected. The Reverend Asa Bronson of the Stratford Baptist Church delivered the dedication sermon.
The Monroe Baptist Society and the Stepney Baptist Church held their first meeting on February 29, 1848. Reverend James Mallory commenced his labors as the first pastor. In 1855 extensive repairs were made and a new addition to the church was completed. The choir was moved from the rear gallery to the front of the church. After alterations were made to the steeple, the bell was hauled up into the belfry where it was used to call the faithful to worship until it broke from its moorings and fell on the rafters in 1964. This bell now rests on a stonework structure at the south side of the church, and was dedicated to the memory of two prominent church members, Charles F. Nichols and Louis W. Fuller. In 1901, discussion began on the possibility of a Baptistery to be constructed in the church. This was not completed and put into use until 1909.
In 1912 an Estey Reed Organ was purchased with funds raised by church members and partly by a grant from Andrew Carnegie. William J. Nichols headed up the fund drive and also played the reed organ until 1917. His niece, Bertha Fuller, replaced Mr. Nichols in that year and continued to play for services for 49 years.
In 1947 the wood burning stoves were removed and an oil-fired furnace was installed. During this conversion Stepney Baptist united with their Methodist friends across the Green for worship.
In 1950 the interior of the sanctuary was completely renovated and redecorated, doors were re-hung, carpets installed, and extensive storm damage to the steeple repaired.
Architecturally the Stepney Baptist church is a two story Greek Revival-style church set with the gable end facing the street and has four bays articulated as a pilastered Doric distyle in antis¹ structure with flanking Doric corner pilasters. The main facade is flushboarded, while the sides are covered with clapboard. Recently the entire church has been covered with vinyl siding.
The paired recessed entries have their own simple pediments, and are topped by stained glass windows. A simple gable articulated as a severe, stripped classical pediment tops the main facade. This, in turn, is topped by a two-tier steeple, the upper level of which is articulated with corner pilasters and tipped by gothic finials. The side facades are punctuated by two stories of trabeated windows (constructed with horizontal beams) with stained glass.
The entire building rests on a granite cut-stone basement. The basement is used as meeting rooms. It is a well-preserved example of the Greek revival style church in Connecticut. It is virtually identical to the church across the Stepney Green, a rare occurrence that points to a high probability that these buildings share a common builder. The church property consists of 1.2 acre shared by the parsonage (419 Main Street) the Beulah Beck Building (423 Main Street) and the modern youth center (427 Main Street originally a branch of the Connecticut National Bank, the first Bank in Monroe).
¹ Distyle in antis: having two columns in front; - said of a temple, portico, or the like, between two antae - pilasters forming the end of a projecting lateral wall, as in some Greek temples, and constituting one boundary of the portico.
The Connecticut National Bank (c.1959)
Situated to the north of the Stepney Baptist Church at 427 Main Street is the original site of the home of Hanford Hull, who constructed most of the Victorian and Italianate homes, located around the Stepney Green. Two examples of Hanford Hull’s work still stand today, they include Browns Monument Works and Shear Magic Hair Salon located to the south of the green.
The Hanford Hull home that stood on this site was demolished in the early 1950’s to make way for Monroe’s first bank, a branch of the Connecticut National bank that was constructed and opened in 1959. The bank’s first manager, Charles Wade, was kidnapped at gunpoint from his Church street home, and his wife were held hostage on April 22, 1963 during a robbery. According to an April 23, 1963 Bridgeport Post newspaper article Patrick J. O’Shea, a 37-year-old Fairfield television and appliance repairman arrived at Charles Wade’s home after 7:30 a.m. and rang the bell, getting Mr. Wade out of bed and then showed him a revolver. He then ordered Mr. Wade into the kitchen and discussed with him the time he left for work, and the time the bank and bank vault opened. He then took Mr. Wade to the cellar where he disconnected the telephone wires and they returned to the kitchen. O’ Shea plugged a bomb into a kitchen socket set to detonate at 9:15 am. and then ordered Mr. Wade at gunpoint into his car. Mr. Wade’s wife was still in bed at the time and would later find the bomb and unplugged it from the wall socket shortly after her husband had left the house. The gunman and Mr. Wade drove the car to the Connecticut National Bank Monroe branch in Stepney, parked the car in the rear parking lot of the bank, and entered the bank from the rear door. Four tellers, Richard H. Roth, Mrs. S. Earl Harper, Mrs. Charles Kovac and Mrs. Robert Nichols, all of Monroe, were ordered to fill canvas bags with bills from the cash drawers in the amount of $65,285. The tellers were then ordered into the restroom. The restroom was left unlocked.
The holdup man ordered Mr. Wade to carry the moneybags to the car and to return to the bank and then fled in the bank manager’s car, driving north on Route 25. The bank manager immediately reentered the bank and turned in an ADT alarm to police headquarters. The bank manager’s car was later found abandoned in a wooded area off Hiram’s Hill road in Trumbull. Patrick O’Shea had parked a blue panel truck on Autumn Drive prior to the holdup to be used as a get-a-way vehicle and walked over five miles to the Wade’s home on Church Street. Before leaving the truck O’Shea put on make-up consisting of orange lipstick and white tape on his right cheek and flesh colored tape on his left cheek.
Patrolman Robert Wesche was on patrol on Route 25 when the alarm was radioed to all cars. Authorities also checked local stores to determine whether materials used in making the three-pound bomb had been purchased recently. Several men with criminal records “along similar lines” as the bank hold up were questioned regarding the robbery. The bomb was an elongated piece of pipe, seven inches long and three quarters of an inch in diameter, filled with sand and black gun powder, and attached to an electric stove type timing device. Police said the bomb was capable of exploding.
It would not be until the spring of the following year that O’Shea would be caught in Norwalk after robbing the Huntington branch of the City Savings Bank and would confess to the Monroe robbery. He would later reenact the robbery with Monroe, Connecticut State Police and FBI agents. The money stolen from the Monroe Branch of Connecticut National was buried on a small wooded lot off Tunxis Hill road cutoff, near Cedarhurst lane, Fairfield just a couple of blocks away from O’Shea’s home at 1265 Black Rock Turnpike. Patrick O’Shea would often frequent the site always at night to replenish his pockets. He last visited the location in October of 1963 when he took a final $6,000 and departed for Texas.
The Connecticut National Bank branch provided banking services for the townspeople of Monroe for over a decade. When it decided to close this branch, they offered the property for consideration to the Stepney Baptist church. With funds left to the church by a deceased life long member, Beulah Beck, and with the approval of the congregation, the property was purchased and named the Beulah Beck Youth Center. In addition, this site afforded more parking for church services. The building still retains the original bank vault, and one of the oldest original signs for the Stepney Baptist Church hangs preserved inside.
Architecturally, the building is a one and one-half story, colonial style cape with 6/6 windows. Each window includes non-operational shutters. The center entrance is typical of this type of commercial structure. The building is sheathed with clapboard.
The Birdsey’s Plain Schoolhouse (c.1830)
Located north of the Stepney Green at 37 Hattertown Road is the Birdsey’s Plain Schoolhouse owned by Leo and Jody Poisson. This schoolhouse was one of seven schoolhouses throughout Monroe. The construction in 1801 of the Bridgeport and Newtown Turnpike (modern-day Route 25) and in 1833 of the Monroe and Newtown Turnpike (modern-day Hattertown Road) spurred development where the roads intersected. This area was called Birdsey’s Plain, after Joseph Birdsey, who settled in the area around 1780. Many schoolhouses were located in and around populated centers of commerce and near intersections of major carriage routes since many of the children walked to school. The Monroe and Newtown Turnpike was later named Hattertown Road since the road led to the village of “Hattertown” in Newtown where hatting was the chief industry in the 19th Century.
The small, simple district schoolhouse was the cornerstone of public education in Connecticut from the colonial era into the twentieth century. By 1850 Monroe was divided into seven school districts, each with its own building. The Birdsey’s Plain schoolhouse was built around 1830, when Monroe’s population had grown to about 1,500.
District schoolhouses usually consisted of just one room. The Birdsey’s Plain schoolhouse, designed in the Greek Revival style, had two rooms. This may have been to accommodate the growing population of the community of Birdsey’s Plain.
In 1872, 61 students were enrolled in the Birdsey’s Plain school. However, the number present on any given day could vary, depending on how badly a boy or girl was needed to work at home or how much importance their parents put on formal education. The state didn’t make school attendance compulsory until the late 1800s.
Students were taught the “three R’s” - “Reading, ’Riting, and ’Rithmetic,” along with some history, geography, or science. Whatever they learned at the district schoolhouse was all the formal education many students ever received.
Towns had been divided into school districts primarily because children had to walk to school. By 1935 Monroe had stone paved roads upon which buses transported students from any part of town in a matter of minutes. That year the seven local school districts were “consolidated.” Thereafter, Monroe children from first through eighth grades attended the new Monroe Consolidated School, today the Monroe Elementary School.
All of Monroe’s district schoolhouses were auctioned off to private individuals. Six still stand; five have been transformed like this one, into private residences. The Birdseys Plain schoolhouse, built in Greek Revival style, was a two-room structure built around the same time as the Stepney schoolhouse.
Architecturally, the Birdsey’s Schoolhouse is a one and one-half story, gabled-roofed dwelling resting on a stone foundation. It is a wood framed, clapboard structure. The original fenestration would have been 6/6 with simple window surrounds. Despite its conversion to a dwelling, it retains its essential shape and vernacular form of an early 19th century school.
The Stepney Fire House #1 (c.1916)
As you leave the Stepney Green and travel south on Main Street, located at 88 Main Street, is the Stepney Volunteer Fire House #1. In 1916, 45 men and women formed the Stepney Volunteer Fire Company. It was the first volunteer fire company in Monroe. That same year the Stepney Company built its own firehouse. It housed the group’s first fire truck, purchased as used equipment from a Bridgeport fire-fighting company, with money raised by holding annual “Karnivals” behind the firehouse.
The original building, expanded and updated, continues to serve as headquarters for the oldest of the three volunteer fire companies in Monroe that include Stevenson and Monroe Volunteer Fire Companies. The Stepney Fire Company is located approximately 10 miles north of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The response area consists of 26 square miles and a population of over 20,000. The Company operates from two stations using four engines, a truck, a heavy rescue, a squad and a chief’s vehicle. Stepney Fire House #1 includes Engine 101, Truck 100, Rescue 120 and Squad 130. The fire company’s primary coverage area includes the Stepney, Stevenson and Monroe Center sections of Monroe. The company also provides coverage to the Towns of Trumbull, Easton, Newtown and Shelton on a mutual aide basis. The Stepney Volunteer Fire Company is dedicated to protecting the lives and property of the residents of the Town of Monroe and is under the direction of a single Fire Chief. According to the company’s website ( www.Stepneyfire.com ) the firemen responded to 485 calls in 2005.
The station includes social quarters, meeting hall, weight room, entertainment room and four truck bays. In the event of a town wide emergency, the station is designed and designated as an emergency shelter. It also serves as a dispatch center for fire control operations.
Volunteers have and continue to play an important role in the development of Stepney and Monroe. The Volunteer Fire Companies in Monroe are fine examples of dedicated citizens giving of their time and service to the community.
Burr Hawley General Store 435 Main Street
The area known as Birdsey’s Plain was the perfect location for a general store in the mid-1800s. Two turnpikes intersected here, and the Stepney Green and new Baptist and Methodist churches made the area a hub of community life. There was an inn and a number of tradesmen’s shops, shoemakers in particular. Handsome homes were going up as well.
Isaac Burritt had a very successful general store on this site by 1850. Burr Hawley who was in his twenties decided to branch out from farming into storekeeping and bought this store and homestead. He rebuilt the store in 1870, and soon had an occupied full time running the store that was the largest in Monroe for over 40 years.
The Burr Hawley store was a three-story emporium that offered just about anything a shopper could want in the late 1800s. It was organized somewhat like a modern “superstore.” On the first floor were located the staples of everyday life, including food, lumber, nails, and feed for livestock. Women’s clothing, yard goods and other domestic supplies were on the second floor. On the third was a grainery, connected with the grain mill that operated at the rear of the store. Local dairy farmers also brought their milk to the Burr Hawley store for sale each day. The most well known celebrity to gather round the potbelly stove to share yarns, or tales, was Mark Twain.
The Burr Hawley general store served generations of Monroe shoppers. This store, established before the Civil War, continued in operation into the twentieth century. The store and Georgian homestead were torn down in the late 1950s.
Later this site would become home to the Monroe Lumber Company, the Monroe Super Market and today is a shopping center called Stepney Crossing which includes Peoples Bank, Brooks Pharmacy, Blockbuster, Last Drop Cafe, Pepperidge Farms Outlet, and Sennin Restaurant.