Brief History of Granby

Outlanders, Villagers, and Suburbanites

By Mark Williams

Connecticut was a Puritan colony, and Granby's roots reach well into that staunch puritanism of the colonial period. When Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfield were first organized under the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1638, a "Bible Commonwealth" was what the settlers along the river had in mind. In England, Charles I and his Archbishop William Laud were doing all they could to put a stop to the preachings of dissenting clergymen who wanted to "purify" the Church of England by ridding it of "superstitions" (the sacraments), "idolatry" (the alter and church decorations), and its "corrupt hierarchy" (the bishops and priests). Many of these clergymen, like Thomas Hooker and John Wareham, came to Connecticut hoping to create their "City upon a Hill" without royal interference. Not only did they want their churches to abide by Puritan doctrines, but they and their fellow settlers thought that civil government as well should conform to and support the will of God as related in the Bible. King Charles was too busy fighting rebels at home to stand in their way.

As settlers began to spread out from the river towns, the General Court (the legislature described in the Fundamental Orders) saw to it that towns were organized by good Puritans who would "covenant" together and establish a congregation that would be the core of the community. Although some settlers had migrated into the Simsbury/Granby/East Granby area earlier to exploit natural resources, the main thrust of early settlement was by such a group of Puritans after King Phillip's War (1675 to 1676). It was some of these, such as the families of Nathaniel Holcomb, Nicholas Gossard, George Hayes, and James Hillyer, who were given the first land grants "at Salmon Brook" (Granby) toward the end of the 17th Century.

The 17th Century

Because they were on the very fringes of English civilization, these "outlanders," as they were later called, huddled together between the two branches of the Salmon Brook and isolated from the main Simsbury settlement by "a large extent of barren pine plain," doubtless developed their own community spirit early on. They had to share their tools and prepare to fend off Indian attacks such as the one at Deerfield in 1704; and, since settlement proceeded very slowly before 1730, they were fairly limited when it came to choosing marriage partners. They also shared the common grievance of not being granted enough land, and, as the first generation entered old age, of being required to make the long journey to Hopmeadow to attend meetings and "lectures" twice a week.

After a bitter struggle, the General Court allowed them to set up their own church society in 1736. That was a time when there was a good deal of dispute about religious doctrine in Connecticut. Eventually, the people of Salmon Brook compromised between the so-called New Lights and the Old Lights when they settled Joseph Strong as a minister in 1752. They remained, however, a fiercely independent lot, as their community grew, and it is no surprise that they found the principles of the American Revolution to their liking. So independent-minded were they, in fact, that they resisted sending their men to fight in the Continental Army, preferring, instead, to organize their own militia companies; and after the revolution, they angrily protested pensions for the Army officers and even the ratification of the Constitution of the United States. They had had their fill of "distant governments," which, as far as they were concerned, included both Parliament and this new national government. Furthermore, they were not even interested in being ruled by the "distant" government in Simsbury, where they have usually assured two seats on the board of Selectmen! In the old Puritan tradition, they wanted their own community, "both civil and ecclesiastical," and, in 1786, the state legislature incorporated them as the Town of Granby. It was fitting that they chose, as their first elected civil magistrate, one Samuel Hayes. As a yeoman farmer, deacon of the Congregational Church, captain of the local militia company during the Revolutionary War, and former rebellious selectman when Granby was still part of Simsbury, Hayes personified the key traits of this independent-minded, isolated community that saw no difference between church and state.

For a time, the people of Granby clung to their ideals about the "covenanted community," where all worked together and worshiped together for the glory of God. This area was no longer frontier, but it was hardly "developed." The work was hard, the land was stingy, and often only the sense of community people got from being part of the congregation kept their spirits up. But there were other, sometimes more appealing faiths emerging in Connecticut. Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians now competed with Congregational Churches and challenged the notion that a community needed to be centered around, and, in fact, ruled by one church. Furthermore, bitter arguments developed in town meetings between Turkey Hills (the present East Granby) and Salmon Brook (the present Granby) over the laying out of roads. The harmony the founders of Granby had sought was being threatened from all sides.

19th Century

In the early 19th Century, Granby experienced a great many significant changes. The Congregational Church was disestablished with the new state Constitution of 1818. At that time rural Connecticut was in the midst of a serious depression, and it must have seemed to many of the old Granby natives that they would never know "the good life" again. Some tried to develop small manufactories along the brooks but were thwarted by a series of floods. It wasn't long before young men and women were leaving town in large numbers for more promising places in New York, Ohio, Illinois, and even Iowa Territory. Efforts to save the town "from its decaying condition" ranged from building more manufacturing shops to an abortive campaign to outlaw "intoxicating beverages." For a brief period before the Civil War it looked as though the small water-powered shops might finally bring some hard cash into Granby, and better times with it; but Granby "industrialists" soon discovered they would not be able to compete with steam-powered factories in cities located along much better transportation routes. As for the temperance movement, Granby remained, throughout the century, Hartford County's leading cider distilling area; in spite of the determined attempts of some citizens to make Granby "dry," the majority could not see outlawing the only profitable industry in town.

By the second half of the 19th Century, Granby slid into a sleepy eight-decade depression. The rapid population turnover of the antebellum years, when the total population remained relatively stable but half the population was new every decade, was replaced by permanence. There was little immigration, and the vast majority of people were engaged in farming or working on the farms of others. Some people made significant fortunes as lawyers, merchants, cider brandy manufacturers, or just by saving enough money from cash crops such as tobacco and dairy products to invest in insurance company stock. Others continued to struggle with a barter economy, low prices for farm products, high railroad rates, and constant indebtedness.

Late 19th & 20th Century

Even though the years of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were hard times in which to make a living, a resurgence of communal spirit in various "villages" of Granby made life bearable (even utopian, in some minds). West Granby had its Methodist Church and Drum Corps; the "Pegville" / "Goodrichville" area became united again around the Congregational Church as grandchildren of the Universalist dissenters either left town or reunited with the Congregationalists (who were no longer preaching fire and brimstone); Granby "Street" built its own Congregational Church; and the North Granby cider men established a grange and their own library. Each village was a world within itself, a network of kinfolk, farmers, and craftsmen, dependent upon each other for material and spiritual sustenance, and finding "the good life" in the communal harmony the early puritans had sought in the 18th Century.

It was not until the 1950s that new changes came to Granby. Suburbanization was slow in arriving, but the population finally began to grow after 1950, and farmland, both the good and the gravel, gave way to housing development. However, because most inhabitants between 1870 and 1950 were too poor to afford major renovations and improvements upon their property, Granby today still maintains much of its rural New England flavor. Many old houses, old families, old roadways, and foundation holes still provide much evidence of a way of life not so very lost. Some of our old houses and families stretch back to the earliest days of settlement when Granby was a little pocket of hardy pioneers on the outskirts of the "Bible Commonwealth."