Glastonbury Town History

townIn 1636, thirty families from Pyaug (Wethersfield) were settled in Naubuc Farms, a tract of land belonging to Wethersfield on the eastern bank of the Connecticut River bought from the Native American Chief, Sowheag, for 12 yards of trading cloth. The Native Americans of Glastonbury were members of Algonkian-speaking tribes. They lived in clans of approximately100 individuals and each group was ruled by a sachem or chief. Clans took names from features of the land where they were centered. Naubucs lived in the plains to the east, the flat area at the north end of town. Nayaugs lived near the Noisy Water at the mouth of Roaring Brook. Wongonks lived at the Bend in the River behind today’s Town Hall, where the Connecticut River turned in the 1600s. The tribes were peaceful and farmed the land. In the summer, clans lived along the river in longhouses. In winter, they moved to the hills and lived in south- or west-facing caves. In 1672, Wethersfield and Hartford were granted permission by the General Court to extend the boundary line of Naubuc Farms 5 miles to the East, purchasing the land from the natives, forming Eastbury. 

By 1690, residents of Naubuc Farms had gained permission from the General Court to become a separate town and, in 1693, Glastonbury came into existence. The ties have not been completely broken: the oldest continuously operating ferry in the United States still runs between South Glastonbury and Rocky Hill, also then a part of Wethersfield, as it did as far back as 1655. 

During the Revolution, Glassenbury was home to George Stocking’s gunpowder factory, one of few gunpowder factories supplying George Washington’s troops. After his death in an explosion his wife Eunice continued operating the mill until the end of the war. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Glastenbury was a shipbuilding town, located between the Connecticut River, oak forests and reliable waterpower. The three main shipyards launched a total of 273 ships of record, for use in the West Indies Trade and coastal rivers of North America. The needs of these shipyards were filled by sawmills, charcoal kilns, and forges that created ship’s anchors as large as 3900 pounds. During this time approximately 1785 the Town changed its name to Glastenbury. It would change one final time in 1870 when the Town voted and took the name of Glastonbury. There are only two towns named Glastonbury, Glastonbury England and Glastonbury U.S.A. 

As shipbuilding was ending, the early industrial beginning continued. The J.B. Williams Soap Factory started in 1840 in James B. Williams’ drugstore in Manchester, where he experimented with chemical formulas for shaving soap. When he had produced a formula that satisfied him, he moved his business to Glastenbury. Two years later, he was joined by his brother, William Stuart Williams. They formed what is believed to be the first commercial soap manufacturing business in the world. Although shaving soap was their first product, they also made ink and shoe and stove blacking. Products made by the J.B.Williams Company included Aqua Velva and Williams ‘Lectric Shave. Over time, J.B. Williams expanded to Montreal (around 1922), England, and Argentina. When the business was sold in 1957, ten former employees organized Glastonbury Toiletries and continued operation into the 1970’s. Remaining parts of the complex are currently the Soap Factory Condominiums and the Glastonbury Board of Education office. 

During the World Wars, Glastonbury factories supplied leather and woolen goods to the military of Belgium, France, Great Britain, Italy, and the United States. Bert Harriman, founder of Harriman Motors, established the first factory in Connecticut built specifically for the manufacture of airplanes. The building still stands on Main Street in South Glastonbury. Our town has also been home to feldspar mines and mills, granite quarries, cotton mills, paper mills, and the first producer of Britania Ware, or German Silver, in the United States. 

Also an agricultural town, J.H. Hale Orchards began in Glastenbury in 1866 when John Howard Hale and his brother, George, recognized that their grandfather’s seven peach trees did not suffer from the same difficulties other peach trees did in northern climates. The brothers developed those seven trees into orchards in Glastonbury, as well as Seymour, Connecticut. Known as the Peach King, a special spur of the local trolley stopped at the Hale packing house each evening, and by morning, Hale peaches were sold in New York City and across the country, under the slogan, “UC Top, UC all.” The Hale brothers were the first to grade their fruit. George married and moved to Georgia to expand the peach industry. By 1915, there were 1200 acres in two states. 

In 1948, the Saglio Brothers formed Arbor Acres and produced a chicken that was awarded the title “Chicken of Tomorrow” by A&P Food Stores. They were among the first to use genetic engineering to develop chickens that were meatier, matured more quickly, and laid more eggs. By 1958, Arbor Acres had gone world wide: 50% of all chickens consumed in the world were from Arbor Acres breeding stock. 

Progressive from early in her history, Glassenbury ended importation of new slaves in the 1780’s, ten years before slavery became illegal in the State of Connecticut. Her first library was founded in 1803. Her first hospital was formed shortly after the Revolution to combat and treat small pox. 

During the Revolutionary War, part of the sophomore and junior classes of Yale University was moved to homes in Glassenbury, in case of a lack of food in the city, or attack on New Haven Harbor. Noah Webster was one of the students who were moved to town. Later, he taught here in one of Glassenbury’s 10 one room school houses. 

The Smith Sisters, staunch abolitionists and supports of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, from Glastonbury stimulated change in Connecticut and the nation. The five Smith sisters and their parents, Zephaniah Hollister Smith (1759-1836) and Hannah Hadassah Hickok Smith (1767-1850), were an extraordinary and prosperous Glastonbury family. They lived at 1625 Main Street, and owned land that extended to the Connecticut River. Today the home is designated a National Landmark by the Dept. of Interior of U.S. government. 

Glastonbury’s involvement during the Civil War was more than military. Before the battles began, forty women, including Hannah Hickok Smith and her five daughters, signed a petition denouncing slavery. On February 5, 1840, it was presented to Congress by the former president, John Quincy Adams, and is believed to be the first anti-slavery petition brought before Congress. 

Men from Glastonbury served in the Connecticut 1st Cavalry Unit. Connecticut’s only cavalry unit, it accompanied General Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865 to Appomattox Court House where Confederate General Robert E. Lee signed the surrender agreement that led to the end of the Civil War. This unit was the only cavalry unit present at the laying of the cornerstone of the Gettysburg Monument on July 4, 1865. 

Glastonbury’s industries supported the Union’s war effort. At Hopewell Mills, cloth was produced for Union troop uniforms. In Curtisville, the Connecticut Arms & Manufacturing Co. produced pistols and rifles used by the Grand Army of the Potomac. 

Another important Glastonbury resident was Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, and Father of the Modern Navy. In the troubled war years, Abraham Lincoln and Gideon Welles would not always agree. But integrity bred respect, and friendship soon followed. As the War for the Union became, as well, a war for emancipation, Welles, with Seward, would be the first of his advisors to whom the President would broach his plan for emancipation by presidential proclamation. And it was to Gideon and Mary Jane Welles that the Lincolns would turn in times of tragedy. 

That now seems inevitable. Beginning as small-town politicians, each had grown through a struggle with ideas and events, and through a long and often-frustrating apprenticeship, to become a leader with the insight and patience necessary to help guide the nation through its darkest hour. Writing in 1851, Welles had characterized statesmen as those whose “great minds distinguished themselves on great occasions”--and in Abraham Lincoln and Gideon Welles they did. 

Glastonbury is a town which is always changing and growing. It has participated in all the great movements of American history and continues to make a mark today. This has been just a short synopsis of Glastonbury’s history and the men and women who built it, continuing to make it a source of inspiration. To learn more about Glastonbury visit the Museum on the Hubbard Green M, T, Thurs. 9am-4pm, the 3rd Sunday of the month from 1-4pm or visit the Historical Society of Glastonbury’s website at: