Become a Fan
William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes
By Henry W Zecher
Friday, December 17, 2010
Rated "G" by the Author.
From Chapter 2, The Nook, describing Gillette's home town and the neighborhood in which he grew up.
In the years immediately following the Civil War, one of the intellectual centers of America was a little corner of New England a mere hundred miles yet worlds away from the glittering lights of Broadway. Epitomizing the latest civilizing influences of the day, this little hotbed of cultural sophistication and progressive activism defined William Gillette’s early life and shaped him into the man he would become.
Hartford, Connecticut, was not yet the major city it is today but, by mid-century, it was well on its way. It was the happening place, described as “a hub of manufacturing and invention, the birthplace of the modern insurance industry, a center of finance and book publishing,” as well as “relatively to the number of its inhabitants” the “richest city in the United States.”
Samuel Clemens, who first saw the city in 1867, called it “the best built and the handsomest town I have ever seen” and “the centre of Connecticut wealth. Hartford dollars have a place in half the great moneyed enterprises in the Union.”
Hartford’s big boom came in the 1850s when all the local industries were humming and the population was doubling. The Connecticut census of 1790—the first ever taken—was somewhat imperfect, so figures are unreliable, but the city’s population was at least 4,000. By 1850, it had jumped to 13,555. By the time Clemens discovered it the number was about 29,000 and, when Gillette put his tall lanky self on the stage at age twenty in 1873, the population had grown to nearly 40,000. It was also regarded as one of the most cultured centers in America, with the highly spirited intellectual haven known as Nook Farm sitting on its edge.
What changed it from a sleepy little river town to an important trade and manufacturing center was not only the establishment of Samuel Colt’s factories, which prospered because of the war, but also the arrival of both steamboat traffic and the railroad. The local granite and marble works were run by the same man—James G. Batterson—who also formed the world’s first accident insurance firm in 1865. Hartford soon became the insurance capital of the world and Clemens could describe the people of the city as “being a quadruple band of brothers working sweetly hand in hand – the Colt’s arms company making the destruction of our race easy and convenient, our life insurance citizens paying for the victims when they pass away, Mr. Batterson perpetuating their memory with his stately monuments, and our fire insurance comrades taking care of their hereafter.”
The up-and-coming metropolis was on the map. Brothers-in-law Francis Gillette and John Hooker took advantage of this in 1853 by purchasing from William H. Imlay about 140 acres of what was called the “nook,” that area partly enclosed by the bend in the river. Imlay had owned the land for many years but had fallen on hard times. The land, however, had remained intact since the American Revolution.
It was located on the north side of the bend of the Park River where the North and South Branches came together and the river turned eastward into Hartford. It was bounded by the river on the west and south, Farmington Avenue on the north and Sigourney Street on the east. Gillette and Hooker—staking their position and prosperity on expected expansion of the city—subdivided the plot into what later became known as the community of Nook Farm, which Francis referred to as “a Paradise on Earth.”
In what turned into a profitable business for the two entrepreneurs-in-law, they sold the plots to friends and relatives who could afford to build large, lavish, comfortable homes. Francis moved his family into Imlay’s old farmhouse and planned construction of a new house of his own, while Hooker built his house on what they “opened and called Forest Street.” Divided into apartments, Hooker’s house still stands today. Other homes were then built as the new folks moved in.
This new colony contained the first group to fill the city’s intellectual vacuum since the Hartford Wits, a group of satirical poets at Yale University before and after the Revolution, disbanded and went on with their lives. The Wits, however, were New Englanders, all but one sons of Connecticut. The newcomers in the Nook came from different parts of the country, converging on “an apparently provincial corner of Connecticut” before the opening of the “the chasm between American past and American future that their personal histories would bridge.”
Site: Henry Zecher
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