- Historic Sites
A Connecticut seafaring town has held off all challenges to its essential character for three centuries
October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
Signs of battle show up all over town, from the marker that simply states, “This Is to Remember,” down at the farthest edge of the Point, to the wall of the 1860s factory (now abandoned) on Water Street where the earthwork stood. There, a plaque recalls, “the defenders of Stonington, Connecticut, bravely battled and drove the British Squadron from our Shores.” A huge old flag that was nailed to the battery mast, restored from its near-shredded state, now hangs in the fine little Greek Revival bank building on Water Street. British cannonballs, retrieved from the woods and excavated from local walls, sit in an almost sprightly fashion atop hitching posts and other stone columns. The two 18-pounders are, of course, the central feature of Cannon Square.
In the 1800s Stonington went on from war to its busiest time, as the harbor filled with fishing vessels and coastal traders. Steamboats carried passengers between Stonington and Boston, while the railroad, its terminus located in the heart of the village, brought them to and from New York.
In those years Stonington was an industrial center, attracting a more heterogeneous population than it has now, as the author Anthony Bailey notes in his book In the Village . The brick factory buildings that occupy prime territory on lower Water Street closed down a few years ago, and no one is certain what their future will be.
One survivor that continues to thrive is the American Velvet Company, which celebrated its hundredth year in Stonington in 1992. When the Wimpfheimer family, who still owns it, first relocated here from Long Island to escape a malaria epidemic, they took advantage of President McKinley’s new tariff laws to switch from importing to manufacturing.
The factory is housed north of the railroad tracks in its original 1892 building, which was raised by energetic town fathers in hopes of attracting business. The company has grown since then and added buildings, but undisturbed directly across the road in a tiny cemetery, edged by a low stone wall, lie the descendants of William Chesebrough, the first white man to settle in the area. Every one of the dozen or so worn old gravestones marks the burial place of a Chesebrough.
Stonington is also home to Connecticut’s only active fishing fleet and, by contrast, to a harpsichord factory whose owner is busy filling orders from orchestras and concert halls in response to the music world’s recent interest in period instruments. Another international company based in Stonington, the Quimper Faïence shop, on Water Street, is owned by Paul and Sarah Janssens, who were inspired to buy the French manufactory of this ancient form of pottery in 1984 when it threatened to shut down. Last fall the Janssenses invited their French workers to Stonington on an expense-paid week-long visit. Of the hundred and fifty who made the trip, half were housed in a Mystic hotel and the others lodged with Stonington families.
One can only imagine the quiet back streets and silent old houses brought to vibrant Gallic life that week, as golden October cast its mild light on the hidden-away village whose defenders have kept it going these nearly three hundred and fifty years.