When some of my childhood friends return to Easton for a visit, most are both pleased and amazed at how little their hometown has changed over the last 50 years. Unlike nearly every other town in lower Fairfield County, there are actually fewer non-agriculture commercial ventures in operation here today than there were in the 1960’s. No Whole Foods Market, no Chase bank, no multi-pump, canopied Shell gas outlet, no Red Lobster or Olive Garden serving dinner… not even a single Starbuck’s!
But we still have our farms! Many are not only bigger and better than they were in the 1960’s, but there are actually a couple of additional agricultural ventures compared to back then.
Why are the residents of Easton so fortunate to have escaped the ugly urban sprawl that has taken over so much of the rest of lower Fairfield County? And how has this community managed to keep so many of its agricultural roots while farms in so many of our surrounding towns have been lost and so many of those lands developed?
The makeup of our present community is mostly a product of our past, and here are several reasons why:
Easton, along with Weston and Redding, started life as part of the town of Fairfield. The initial division of lands in of the town of Fairfield was certainly conventional in nature, but after the town purchased all the Native American lands between its northern border and Danbury in 1670, that land was surveyed and divided into long, narrow strips and distributed among about 100 men based upon the value of their estates. Those original grantees and their heirs were then able to sell portions of those lots to other colonists willing to settle inland. The Fairfield Long Lots were separated by vertical highways that initially had no cross-highways bisecting them. The lack of easy east-west movement simply wasn’t conducive to the establishment of the traditional parishes that would eventually become villages and towns like of most the rest of the Connecticut colony. The Long Lot lands were better suited for farming – and rather isolated farming at that. Initially, the farms in what would one day become Easton were established along the vertical highways named after the earliest land grantees, such as Jackson, Morehouse, and Burr. Settlers in the Parish of North Fairfield were very few in numbers prior to 1725.
Records indicate one of Easton’s earliest family farms was established in 1713 by Mathew Sherwood and his son Thomas along the Jackson Highway (now Sport Hill Road). A true testament to the townspeople’s dedication to working the land, it is still in operation over 300 years later and is still owned by members of the Sherwood family.
While the Long Lots were slowly transformed into individual farms as new cross highways were surveyed and approved as public byways during the remainder of the 18th century, the North Fairfield Parish that would later become Easton had little in the way of suitable streams and rivers to provide enough vertical fall to support anything much beyond a few grist mills and saw mills. As stone dams were built to create a constant source of waterpower, those mills provided essential lumber for new construction and enterprises where farmers could process their wheat and corn crops.
While a great number of area towns saw new rail-lines installed throughout the second half of the 19th century, Easton was left out in the cold. A planned railroad between Westport and Hawleyville that would have run through the Aspetuck Valley failed to materialize in the late 1800’s, leaving the few small industrial operations along the river no means of economically transporting their products to larger markets. One-by-one, they either failed of moved elsewhere. While Easton’s farming community flourished during most of that century, by the 1890’s, the land was yielding less and younger people were being enticed by the regular wages paid by the growing factories in nearby Bridgeport. Adding to the decline in farming was the acquisition by Bridgeport’s Citizens’ Water Company of some of the lands in the Narrows section along the Mill River and the ensuing construction of a new dam and reservoir that flooded part of that valley. By 1900, the town’s population had dwindled to less than 1,000.
But the farming community wasn’t dead yet. While many of Easton’s original families of English descent were abandoning some of the less profitable farms, a few others were expanding their land holdings to support their growing dairy businesses. Milk from Easton mostly made its way into Bridgeport where the demand easily outstripped the capacity of city’s remaining farms to produce it. Milk cows needed grasslands upon which to feed and many of the previously cleared fields in Easton that had once produced wheat and corn were ideal for that purpose. In addition, there was an entire new population of farmers, many emigrating to America from Eastern Europe, and they were more than willing to work the lands that were being abandoned by second and third generation farmers of English heritage. It would be this new generation of Easton farmers who would contribute to the town’s population growth in the early part of the twentieth century and keep the farming industry alive into the twenty-first. The Snow and Silverman families are prime examples of that new wave of farmers whose families still run agricultural enterprises in Easton today.
The beginning of the twentieth century also saw a young engineer by the name of Samuel Senior take over the job of planning and designing a complex and comprehensive system of connected reservoirs for the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company. By 1910 the company was buying most of the land that surrounded the Aspetuck and Mill Rivers in anticipation of greatly expanding the reservoir in the Narrows, while also constructing two new reservoirs that would become the Aspetuck and Hemlock. Much of the land the company took through the eminent domain powers the state granted it had been previously farmed. While the town ultimately lost a good deal of farmland, it also gained open space that would never fall victim to mass development.
By the mid-nineteen-twenties, the city of Bridgeport was a thriving center of industry. As electric lines were finally run through southern Easton and some of the major roads were paved for the first time, some of the land atop Sport Hill began to be divided and new houses built to accommodate the new demand for suburban housing. All that new construction worried some of the older Eastonites, but it was the installation of the twin radio towers by WICC on the top of Sport Hill that caused the most commotion and set into motion a concerted effort to introduce zoning laws that would be aimed at severely restricting the building of any new commercial structures.
1941 was the year that Easton’s zoning laws were finally adopted, and it was those ordinances that sealed the deal for keeping Easton much as we see it today. Those laws all but prohibited the construction of new commercial buildings. In addition, new homes built north of the Flat Rock Road area required a minimum of three acres of land, a restrictive requirement that made sub-dividing much of the farmland in the northern end of town such an expensive proposition that it slowed developments to a crawl.
So, while no single event shaped the Easton of today, a combination of many circumstances from our past have kept our town the serene and scenic wonder that most of us love in the present.