Easton is certainly best known for being a farming community. Even as we are almost a quarter way through the 21st century, there are still over twenty working farms in our small town. But when Easton was first incorporated nearly 175 years ago there was another major source of income and employment – shoemaking.
Tax records indicate that in 1845 the shoemaking industry directly employed 44 people in Easton. Together they produced 3,362 pairs of boots and 577 pairs of shoes, far more than the original population of just over 1,400 people would have purchased in a single year.
The first U.S. Census conducted after the town split from Weston 5 years earlier was done in 1850. The three largest employers of wage earning laborers were all in the shoemaking business. Together they employed nearly 60 people and produced in excess of $20,000 worth of footwear.
Eliphalet Bradley lived at 320 Valley Road in a house that still stands today and is on the National Register of Historic Places, designated as a Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. It wasn’t his tenure that earned the house that honor, but rather a subsequent owner – Ida Tarbell. Sorry, Mister Bradley, but employing 24 workers who produced 4 types of boots worth some $9,000 in 1850 wasn’t quite enough to earn your home its present historical recognition. It was however enough to earn Bradley the distinction of being the town’s largest non-agricultural employer that year.
Most of Bradley’s employees lived on Rock House Road or in the Little Egypt area on Den Road that then went through to Weston’s Valley Forge district. In 1833, Valley Road became part of the Fairfield County Turnpike, a toll road that ran from the intersection of Black Rock Turnpike north towards New Milford. That route was chosen because: “That a road along the Aspetuck River so called in other intersecting lands can be laid out over feasible ground—almost in a straight line without a hill and more level than any other turnpike of the same distance in Fairfield County.” When the railroads came a few years later, that same route was considered for a rail line…Wouldn’t that have changed the valley?
Not very far to the west, Ebenezer Winton employed 15 males and 4 females in his shoemaking business on Black Rock Turnpike. In 1850, they turned out some 3,000 pairs of shoes, earning the venture about $6,000 in sales.
Burr Bennett’s boot shop was located just to the west of the Center School on Westport Road in 1850. He employed 10 men and 2 women in his operation.
Easton’s participation in the shoemaking industry was a natural offshoot of the agricultural businesses that supported almost everyone else in the town. Farmers sold the hides of their slaughtered cattle, sheep and pigs to tanners who then processed them into the leather needed to make shoes. Blacking, the material needed to protect the leather uppers on boots and shoes, was easily made by local farmers using lampblack mixed with either tallow or beeswax. The raw materials in those early years were mostly locally produced and added to the overall income of Easton’s other inhabitants. The earliest part of the 19th century saw individual shoe and bootmakers making footwear for residents on an as-needed basis, but by the middle decades, merchants of growing communities to the south were buying finished products in bulk – something that would not last for very long at all.
By the early 1870’s, industrial sewing machines were being manufactured in Bridgeport in great numbers. There was also a large producer of patent leather turning out material for uppers that was less expensive and less labor intensive to produce. Soles were being pressed with steam powered machinery and produced in a matter of minutes rather than the hours once required by small shops to make them ready to assemble. By the year 1900, there wasn’t a single person in the town of Easton who listed his or her occupation as a shoe or bootmaker. What had once provided many families with their livelihood was gone forever.
Information for this post was compiled mostly from the work of Stuart Reeve and Kathleen von Jena, both of whose countless hours of efforts in compiling much of Easton’s earliest history will long be appreciated!