Tales of Two Cities
Welcome to your bi-weekly newsletter from Connecticut Explored with the latest stories, the newest Grating the Nutmeg podcast, programs and exhibitions from our partners to see/watch this month, and more!
Winter 2021-2022 / In Their Own Words
Voices from the past—an aspiring gold miner, a 6-year-old girl at sea, a fugitive from slavery, a Patriot at war, a Pequot son, a New Woman artist—all are featured in the Winter 2021-2022 issue. They speak their truth and will transport you back in time!
P.T. Barnum Builds a City
Some of us are lucky enough to build a house at some point in our lives. P.T. Barnum, the legendary showman and entrepreneur, built a city. “Go big, or go home” seems like an apt, if anachronistic, phrase to apply here.
At the age of 41, the already fabulously wealthy Barnum was bored—or as Bruce Hawley, board member of the Barnum Museum and distant cousin of P.T. Barnum, explains in his story in the Winter 2021-2022 issue—“to ward off the ‘temptation to rust in the repose which affluence induces,’ [Barnum] turned his attention to developing a new city on about 225 acres of land on the east side of the Pequonnock River in East Bridgeport.”
Barnum asserted that he wasn’t in it purely for the money. In his autobiography, he wrote:
“I had made a large fortune and was anxious to be released from the harassing cares of active business. But I could not be idle, and if I could be instrumental in giving value to land comparatively worthless, if I could by the judicious investment of a portion of my capital open the way for new industries and new homes, I should be of service to my fellow men and find grateful employment for my energies and time.”
Leaving aside his value judgement of the land—the ancestral home of the Paugussett—as worthless unless factories and homes covered it, he soon became, by his own admission, a man obsessed. There were highs, there were lows—including one very expensive blind spot that soon bankrupted him. Read the full story in the Winter 2021-2022 issue with your print subscription, or receive the full story with a CTExplored/Inbox PREMIUM subscription, just $30 a year.
Two Tales of A City
In the State Historian’s column, Walt Woodward writes about two Connecticans who, “seeking a better life in the American West,” both end up in the frontier settlement of Durant, Iowa in the 1850s. One was Yale-educated John S. Whittlesey of Bethel who took the pulpit of Durant’s congregational church. Little is known about the other, “J.C.” Why we know about them at all is because Woodward unearthed and shares letters written by them and published in The Hartford Courant.
Whittlesey gushed about Durant, as Woodward notes. “For land-strapped Connecticans who had struggled for generations to raise families on small plots of nearly exhausted soil, Whittlesey sang a siren song. ‘I see on every side the plow turning up the black, rich, soil which for centuries has lain undisturbed,’ he wrote. …
‘The beauty and grandeur of the vast rolling prairies … are beyond all description. … Every where there is deep black soil, every foot of it as rich as a Wethersfield onion garden, and richer, if the size of the onions is any test.’”
J.C. on the other hand, wrote a cautionary tale of land speculation, crop failures, and polluted air thick with the fumes of burning of coal—the only source of energy in the treeless landscape. How could two people have such opposing perspectives? Read the full story in the Winter 2021-2022 issue with your print subscription, or with a CTExplored/Inbox PREMIUM subscription, just $30 a year.
The Latest from Grating the Nutmeg
Episode 133. P.T. Barnum Builds a City
Is there a sucker born every minute? That saying is attributed to one of Connecticut’s most famous residents: circus showman P. T. Barnum. Barnum made and lost several fortunes, helped to create the American circus, exhibited a phony mermaid cobbled together from a monkey and a fish, and he loved Bridgeport! Mary Donohue, Assistant Publisher of Connecticut Explored, finds out more from her guest Bruce Hawley, author of “P. T. Barnum Builds a City” in the Winter 2021 issue. Hawley is a board member the Barnum Museum Foundation, the Circus Historical Society, and the Circus Fans Association of America—and a distant cousin of P.T. Barnum.
This episode received support from the State Historic Preservation Office of the Department of Economic and Community Development with funds from the Community Investment Act of the State of Connecticut.
Programs and Exhibitions to Enjoy This Month
Youth Fantasy Literature Explored
Magic, Mayhem, and Maturity: The Growth of Youth Fantasy Literature is on view through February 5 at Pequot Library in Southport. Drawing on materials from the library’s Children’s Historical Collection and the modern circulating collection, this special exhibition examines the emergence and evolution of youth fantasy literature from 19th century fairy tales to stories of today. Open to the public during library browsing hours.
Pequot Library, Pequotlibrary.org
Connecticut History Day (CHD) seeks judges for the 2022 contest season! Join other community volunteers who share a love of history and education to judge student projects based on this year’s theme, “Debate & Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, and Consequences.” CHD is a program for middle- and high-school students. Meet outstanding Connecticut students, share your talents and knowledge with your community, and have fun! No experience necessary. CHD staff will provide training and assistance. Visit HistoryDayCT.org/Judges for more information.
The Sea Connects Us
Panels featuring stories of maritime history from a diverse perspective were installed throughout the grounds of Mystic Seaport Museum last summer. The Sea Connects Us exhibition, part of the museum’s Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion effort, explains how African American and Indigenous people were harmed by colonization and slavery, but also how they persevered and contributed significantly to maritime history.
Mystic Seaport Museum, Mysticseaport.org
Olive’s Prom Dress on View
In 1936 18-year-old Olive Lord went to Rockville to purchase lace from the mill where it was sold by the pound. With the light green lace she bought, she made a dress for Lebanon’s Lyman Memorial High School prom. Her dress was sewn by machine with hand finishing and lined with pink silk. The dress and Lord’s photograph are among the artifacts included in Made in Lebanon at the Lebanon Historical Society Museum, open year-round.
Lebanon Historical Society Museum, HistoryofLebanon.org
Take a Winter Garden Walk
In 1907 renowned architect Cass Gilbert and his family purchased the Resseguie Hotel—the building now known as Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center—as a summer vacation home. KTM&HC offers a self-guided walking tour, “Gilberts in the Garden.” Interpretive signage placed throughout the four-acre site allows visitors to learn about the Gilberts’ contributions to the landscape and compare historic photographs with present-day views. Available seven days a week, dawn to dusk. Visit keelertavernmuseum.org/visit to learn more.
Stories we love from back issues to read now.
“Tom Thumb and the Age of Celebrity,” Spring 2015
“Bridgeport Votes for a Change,” Fall 2021, about the city’s Socialist mayor Jasper McLevy
“City, Country, Town: Connecticut Landmarks,” Summer 2010
Receive full texts of stories with a CTExplored/Inbox PREMIUM subscription, just $30 a year.