I recently pulled a box of diaries from the archives at work. The diaries span from 1868 to 1890 and were written by Alonzo E. Smith of Cheshire. Smith, well known in his day was a carpenter by trade, but he also acted as an undertaker, was an Assessor, Probate Judge and a veteran of the 20th Regiment having served throughout the Civil War. He was elected to the General Assembly twice, once in 1871 and again in 1902, sitting for the Constitutional Convention. He was also pretty sarcastic.
His diaries are pretty bland for the most part – no self reflection or deep dark secrets – just a daily weather report and notes about his work. But, peppered throughout, are some truly awesome little nuggets that offer us a peek into the life of 1870’s Cheshire-ites.
Smith notes many of the deaths that occurred in Cheshire, especially when he or his employee/cousin Daniel Judd acted as undertaker. On May 11, 1870 Smith notes “DJ Buried Nameless from the Alms house”. Smith even mentioned our Sweet Adeline, though with a fair bit of bite saying “The brief career of Addie Cook ended”. I’m guessing from his remark that Addie was practicing her trade here in our own fair Cheshire!
One of the parts I love is the mention of performances and lectures at Town Hall. That was back in the days when Town Hall was the center or Cheshire’s social universe. The first mention comes just two months after the gala New Years Ball that officially opened Town Hall. On Friday, February 21, 1868 Smith notes the first performance at Town Hall by the Fish Family. There was also “Professor Bails Prestidigitorium”1 on Tuesday, February 2, 1869 and “Phantasmaopticon” on Friday February 12, 1869.
There were a series of other events he noted with a preface of “The Great Moral…” . There was “Great moral bear climb, Liberty, pole” on April 15, 1868. On June 22, 1869 it was the “Great moral Horse show with canine attachment”. May 10, 1871 he writes “DJ to the great moral leg show in New Haven”. My guess is that he was his way of passing some sort of moral judgement on events he found distasteful. On October 5, 1869 he remarks “Great moral Elephant Empress passed through this quiet village.” Hmm, moral elephant empress? I had to dig a little more on this one.
Turns out that the “Great moral Elephant” was actually named Empress! And she and the rest of her menagerie marched through Cheshire on their way from Meriden to Waterbury. Empress was a 13,000 lb. elephant2, the biggest in the U.S. at that time, who was a part of J.M. French’s Great Oriental Circus, Egyptian Caravan and Rare Animal Exhibition. James M. French was born in Woodstock, Connecticut and was one of the the countries most well-known menagerie owners of his day. His Great Oriental Circus, which existed from 1867 to 1870-71, was well known and employed some of the biggest performers of the day. Riders Lucille Watson and Charles Fish, cannon-ball juggler George Cutler, the acrobatic Bliss Family and clowns like George Clarke joined Empress, six Caffra lions (small African black-footed cats), sixteen camels, monkeys, exotic birds and “Fourteen real Arabs, mounted on Dromedaries.”3
Can you imagine the spectacle? An elephant, camels, monkeys and all those performers parading through Cheshire in 1869? There is no indication of what route they traveled, though it was likely they came down the Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike from Meriden headed into Cheshire on Route 10 and then followed Waterbury Road to Waterbury. This may have been a little longer than heading straight up the Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike – but can you imagine that menagerie trying to get up the mountain?
One of the more interesting mysteries in the Smith diaries is a code of some sort. The code is numeric and those numbers definitely refers to people, with Smith likely being the “132” mentioned. But why write in code? The notations are quite innocuous – like on December 9, 1870 he writes “132 visited 3 in the evening”; or on May 22, 1872 when he writes “149 visited 132 in the evening”. He doesn’t strike me as the type to be having affairs and giving his lady friends numbers so why all the secrecy? Smith was, in all likelihood, a member of Cheshire’s Temple Lodge of Freemasons, so maybe the numbers refer to other Masons? I’m gonna have to do some more digging on this – and any Mason’s out there are welcome to chime in!
A side note on the image above – he writes on Thursday May 23, 1872 “Vienna Demorest shower [sic] her pretty teeth in the Town Hall Terrible applause”. Vienna Demorest was the daughter of publisher and national prohibitionist William Demorest and his wife Ellen Curtis Demorest, the queen of fashion circa 1870’s (she is credited with the invention of paper dress patterns). Vienna was a society girl and a musician who composed for Christine Nilsson, one the premier opera singers of the day. She was also an aspiring singer, though a review of a performance she gave at Steinway Hall in New York on April 16, 1871 says otherwise. This New York Times reviewer wrote that her performance “was characterized mainly by a nasal emission of the voice, by a tendency to sing false, the result of an ill-trained ear, and by vast self-reliance.”4 Ouch! This review mentions that Ms. Demorest was headed to Italy for more training so hopefully she was greatly improved by the time she gave her concert in Cheshire.
Politics also played a role in Alonzo Smith’s diaries. He notes Democratic and Republican conventions, meetings and caucuses, though the Democratic meetings are always associated with Daniel Judd. He writes on July 2, 1870 “DJ & EFJ & AES to the city. President Grant there. White Hose of Chicago beat Yales 38 to 8.” He also noted the 15th Amendment proclamation on March 30, 1870 (for those who have forgotten their history lessons – the 15th Amendment prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
He also notes some of the political issues of the day – like temperance. Judging from a few of his comments, Cheshire was was becoming a teetotalers paradise. On January 2, 1871 he writes “Adjourned Town meeting Voted to suppress the sale of intoxicating liquors” and on February 10, 1871 “Hutchinson Family & Temperance Convention at Town Hall”. The following year Smith wrote “Special Town Meeting to vote on licensing the sale of liquors Voted 37 to 33 not to prevent the selectmen from recommending persons to get a license.”
….Meanwhile the December 9, 1870 edition of the Hartford Daily Courant reported that there were eight cider brandy stills in Cheshire….
He also recorded some of the noteworthy events of his time. He wrote on July 12, 1871 “Riot in New York” referring to the Orange Riot of 1871 between the Protestant “Orangemen” and the Irish Catholics. 60 civilians died and 120 were wounded. A few weeks later he wrote “Ferry boat Westfield blown up in New York fearful loss of life” and that “Chicago burned” on October 9, 1871.
I have only gotten through about 5 years of diaries with another 18 years to go, but Smith was a true jack of all trades. Its hard to imagine the man who freely uses the “n” word in a deragotory way, but also records the deaths of several members of Cheshire’s African American community without ever mentioning their color. He was involved in everything and truly loved his country and community. Many of the houses we hold dear were built by him, graves of our loved ones dug by him and much of our history comes from one his greatest contributions to Cheshire, his daughter Nettie.
Nettie Smith, was a pioneer of her time who wrote for the New Haven Register, was active in all sorts of civic organizations and was a founder of the Lady Fenwick Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She was an honorary member of the 20th Regiment even serving as Secretary after her father’s death in 1912. She lived in the family home, which stood on Main Street (just to the left of the old Keeler Stove Shop) until her death in 1939. After the death of Joseph Perkins Beach in 1911, Nettie Smith finished his manuscript and through the Lady Fenwick Chapter of the DAR, published the seminal History of Cheshire. We are indebted to Nettie and her contributions to Cheshire and its history.
1 Professor Louis Bail, who taught at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale College, was a well known lecturer who promoted a system of drawing he designed as a way to develop a better skilled workforce.
3 Information about these circus performers can be found in William L. Slout’s book Olympians of the Sawdust: A Biographical Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century American Circus.