Ahh, picnics. The idea of a picnic invokes thoughts of hot summer days, maybe a cool breeze. Some ice cold lemonade and slices of watermelon. Just what we need on a frigidly cold day like today.
Social clubs were all the rage in the 19th century and early 20th. Clubs were more prevalent in cities, and some like the Hartford Club and the Young Men’s Social Club were exclusively for men, and in general more affluent men. These gentlemen’s clubs were joined by the fraternal orders like the Free Masons, Hibernian and Caledonia Clubs. Women were allowed membership in the Good Templars, whose meetings Alonzo Smith noted in his diaries. There were the civic clubs as well, like the Temperance Society and the Elks.
Cheshire also had its kind of social club – a picnic club known as the Copper Valley Picnic Club. It was formed in 1878 by George Ransom Johnson and neighbor Truman Bristol, both of whom were well known and loved residents of Wallingford Road. And both came from really old Cheshire families.
This area where Johnson and Bristol lived was known as Copper Valley because it was not far from the copper mines that dated from the early 18th century. According to Edwin R. Brown in Old Historic Homes of Cheshire, Bristol had in his possession a deed dated 1764 in which the mines were referred to as old then. The Bristol place is on the right side of the road and the Johnson is on the left side before the brook and the sharp “s” curve where my family lived (the Johnson house has that great Hereford sign on the barn).
So Brown, in describing Copper Valley, says “Mr. Parker built a saw mill first, south of the picnic grounds, on land now owned by George R. Johnson.” Picnic ground? Huh? I asked my mom who grew up down there and she had never heard of any picnic grounds. Neither had my Auntie Judy. Neither of them remember my grandmother ever talking about picnic grounds either. Catching eel in the brook, yes, but no picnic ground. I asked my cousin Gary, who was in those woods all the time as a kid, but all he remembers is a hippie camp up near the old saw mill.
So of course I had to do some more digging!
That’s when I found this article from the September 9, 1879 New Haven Evening Register that gives an account of the third annual Copper Valley picnic that was held in Johnson’s Grove on Wednesday, September 3, 1879.1
The paper describes the day as being “favorable” and that 275 neighbors and friends had assembled for the picnic. “The gate at the entrance was neatly trimmed with evergreens and flags, and on the grounds was a battle flag of the war of 1812, belonging to Isaac Taylor of Cheshire, which attracted particular attention.” Young and old played games, listened to music, explored the mines and ate. And boy did they eat!
“The table on which the collation was spread was was 156 feet long and handsomely decorated with flowers.”
Can you imagine how much food that was? And the work that the ladies of Cheshire must have put in to make this happen? Not only did it all have to be prepared, it then had to be transported down to the picnic grounds. Now for some perspective on 156 feet worth of food – the table would span the width of a football field!
The paper notes that “The business meeting was held a 3 o’clock…” and goes on to list the officers elected for the coming year. David Gaylord was elected president, Truman Bristol vice-president, and George R. Johnson secretary. There seems to have been some sort of history related aspect to the club as well as there was a historical committee made up of Johnson, Bristol and Charles M. Hotchkiss.
Hmm. The Johnson’s were involved? Hadn’t I seen a listing for a photostat copy of George R. Johnson’s notebook in the Archives?
I pulled the volume and lo and behold, in all its black-and-white photostat splendor, were pages of George R. Johnson’s notebooks including Copper Valley Picnic Club records2. There are also some great genealogical records of the Johnson family – which will make up a future post – but I was more interested in the picnic club.
This section starts out with a note that simply says “Our first copper Valley picnic was held in 1877.” The next page was a listing of the “Names of those attending the Copper Valley Picnic” in 1879. A numbered list of everyone in attendance, though Johnson lists the number at 252. More than half were from Cheshire with folks from West Cheshire and Mixville separately. Most of the people seemed to have been from the east side of Cheshire, and those from outside of Cheshire were surely former residents and family.
Most surprising was seeing Giles Sampson and his sisters Jennett and Lavinia listed. Giles lived around the corner, in the house my great grandmother bought from him in 1910. He was a market farmer, grew prize winning apples – and he was black (stay tuned for a post about Giles!) No Jim Crow happening at the Copper Valley Picnic!
At the end of the 1879 entry he lists the officers elected and tells this little story*:
About One Hundred rods south stood another old house where One Hundred & Twenty five years ago where a wedding party was held & 60 couple came on Horse back with saddle & pillion & for their supper partook of boiled ham & baked beans.
After giving an account of all of those picnickers who had died since the first picnic he gives an accounting of the 1880, 1881 and 1882 picnics all of which grew smaller year by year. The last reference I find to the Copper Valley Picnic Club was a notice in the September 3, 1884 New Haven Evening Register announcing that the annual Copper Valley picnic would be held in Johnson’s grove on September 10, 18843.
How long the picnics continued I have no idea. Nor do I know what happened to George Ransom Johnson’s original notebook. I had an idea of where the picnic grounds were, but it is doubtful that that will ever be more than a theory. Then again, serendipity is my friend.
So anyone up for reforming the Copper Valley Picnic Club?
* A note about the transcriptions. I know the capitalization is off and the words don’t flow. I transcribe primary sources exactly as they were written. It can be kinda funky to read, but it is what it is.
1 “Cheshire.” New Haven Evening Register, September 9, 1879.
2 Note book of George Ransom Johnson, Copper Valley, Cheshire, Connecticut, 1877-1907, RG 074:001, Small Genealogical Collections, State Archives, Connecticut State Library.
3 “The Copper Valley Picnic.” New Haven Evening Register, September 3, 1884.