Preface: “Onward” is a small book that was written and compiled by members of the Avon Congregational Church in 1982 based upon their work aggregating and organizing church archival documents. Church members were especially proud of the fact that documents discovered established that famed architect David Hoadley was the designer of the meetinghouse, which is pictured in books and histories of New England meetinghouses, and is included in the National Register of Historic Places. The choice of title and the opening sentence of the book demonstrate the committee’s belief that while the church must acknowledge and respect its heritage, it must also move forward. The book reflects historical materials available to the writer and the committee at the time the book was written. Because it is no longer in print, the book is reproduced here in its entirety. -Susan K. Smith
The history of the Avon Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, is the story of a meetinghouse and the continuing inspired Christian fellowship of people.
The foundations go back over three centuries, to 1640, when settlers (mostly farmers from the colony of Hartford) moved over the Talcott Mountain to the Great Meadow, and purchased the Farmingtown (ton) valley area by agreement with the Tunxis Indians. It was an agreement whereby the Indians were to cut wood for fuel and might sell corn and hides to the settlers. The settlers in their turn would plow the fields for the Indians, while the rights for hunting and fishing were to be shared.
The English Christianized the Indians, and “dieted” them in their homes to school them, for which they were paid by the General Court. From the beginning the dissimilar groups enjoyed a good relationship.
Farmington thrived. The village followed the style of English villages, with homes clustered at the hub and fields fanning out to all sides. By 1672 the first Congregational Church had been built. At this period in history towns and the Church were considered one regarding their material interests. Town meetings arranged the maintenance of the minister and the meetinghouse, along with electing selectmen and the like.
In time, further expansion of the town reached the point where new houses had to be built beyond the fields of the original settlers. One such satellite cluster was formed near what is now called the Cider Brook section of Waterville Road in Avon, and a considerable distance from the center of Farmington.
In 1746 “Winter privileges” were granted to these people, permitting them to worship in their various homes during the bitter winter months when the path along the river to Farmington was impassable. A few years later their number had grown to 31 families. After a brief struggle they became a separate parish to be known as the Northington Parish, Second Church in Farmington in 1751.
The new congregation of Northington started building its own meetinghouse, a simple clapboard structure set upon wooden posts near a ford in the river, for which members were taxed 1 cent per acre of their holdings. It was completed several years later and early records tell us a few interesting details: It contained a gallery where the young men might build seats over the men’s side; a person was paid to sweep the floor 12 times a year; stone steps, well hewed, were placed at both the west and south door. In later years the replacement of window glass became a constant expense.
The decades passed. The American Revolution was fought and won. The new country was growing and prospering, as was the Farmington valley. All manner of mills were built along the Farmington River and its tributaries. The Albany-to-Hartford Turnpike cut through Northington and over the mountain, bringing stagecoaches with travelers and trade.
By 1815 the Northington meetinghouse was called “the Lord’s Barn”. It was in great disrepair, and too small for the membership which by that time had grown to form two population centers on opposite sides of the river, one to the west and one to the northeast. As could be expected, each group wished to have a new meetinghouse in their own section; a dilemma faced by many other towns in Connecticut as they grew.
Unable to agree on a single site, application was made to the Connecticut General Assembly to select the location for them. The State at this time in history still established the Ecclesiastical Societies, and defined their boundaries. It also gave into their hands all the power relative to ecclesiastical affairs, schools, and the care of the burying ground. All property within the limit of the society was taxable on the vote of the society for the support of the Gospel and for schools. Counsel for a site was sought at least two times but not accepted.
Two years passed and in February, 1817, the subscription for a new meetinghouse was circulated among the northeast group . . “The subscribers do hereby promise and agree to procure this quantity of timber that we shall set our names to for the purpose of building a meetinghouse near the turnpike road . . said timbers delivered at or near the place where the Meeting House is to be built, by the first of April next, to be of the length and size mentioned in the Bill” .
December, 1817, “The Lord’s Barn” burned to the ground. Only the step stones and nails were salvaged. Today a marker stands upon that knoll near the end of Reverknolls Road, about a mile north of the Cider Brook Cemetery. There are a number of interesting markers in that cemetery including that of the first Northington minister. Once unlettered brown stones marked the burial of several Indians who were said to have attended the church.
For months previous to the fire the northeast group had been moving ahead with their planning. They must have thought their choice of location for building was the wiser one, and their petition to the General Assembly would ultimately win acceptance. It would place a central building at the juncture of major, well-traveled roads.
The Connecticut General Assembly called a Constitution Convention in 1818 and the resulting constitution exempted everyone from an ecclesiastical tax unless they voluntarily assumed it.
Also in 1818, when our present meetinghouse must have been well underway, the assembly meeting at New Haven did approve the petition . . . “humbly showing that we are Christians of different denominations and have associated for public worship of God and have, by subscription, erected a building for divine worship on the north side of the Turnpike Road at a place where the north and south roads from Northington to New Haven intersect said turnpike, and on land given for the purpose . . . soon to be completed . .” At last they were established as a corporation by the name of The United Religious Society of Farmington, a Poll Parish. The new society was the minority group of Northington with 39 (male) members and they assumed the title of Third Church in Farmington. The majority group with 44 voting members retained the title Second Church. They also retained the current minister, Rufus Hawley, who lived to serve a single pastorate of 56 years. The Second Church released the minority members and voted, “It is the desire and expectation that the bonds of Christian love that unite us with these our brethren be preserved notwithstanding dissolution.” They too built on their favored site in what was to become known as West Avon.
The discovery of a memorandum between the building committee and the builder architect, David Hoadley, plus another paper noting completion and payment for services dated December 9, 1819, show conclusively that Hoadley, who was widely known for such edifices in Connecticut at the time, was the designer of our meetinghouse. There are many similarities between our church by the turnpike in Avon and the Congregational Church by the turnpike in Norfolk, which Hoadley built in 1813.
That he was a craftsman of exceptional skill, with a fine sense for proportion, is still appreciated when we view the great beauty of our church today. It is considered one of the finest in New England, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The exterior appears to us much as it must have looked when new, with the exception of window and belfry shutters which were added later.
Perhaps the most beautiful part is the realization that so small a number of people engendered the enthusiasm and zeal to make so large and fine a building possible. It was a tremendous per capita burden. That inspired Christian fellowship dreamed and prayed and pledged heavily. Faith in the future (and future generations) must have been upper-most in their planning.
In early times, meetings for secular affairs alternated between the two meetinghouses.
Besides pledges of $2,150 for the building fund, a fund of over $5,000 was pledged to provide interest monies to cover the cost of preaching the Gospel. Other income was raised by the yearly auctioning of pews and slips, a custom that prevailed until the turn of this century. One farmer who had pledged for both funds, refused to “pay” for his seat, and in defiance sat upon his milking stool in the center “Alley”.
The first minister, Bela Kellogg, was installed at the first service on September 7, 1819. His was one of the longest pastorates with our church. Records show it was common practice in those days to have parishioners brought forth to repent for gambling, drinking, slandering, failure to attend church services, and so forth. In most cases, the accused confessed before the congregation, promising to repent and thus escape excommunication. A religious revival in Kellogg’s first years brought large numbers of new members.
Pledging the first $25, Kellogg himself traveled the parish gathering subscriptions to a fund for a new steeple bell. There would have been a steeple clock too, if enough monies had been collected. A fine bell was cast and hauled all the way from Albany in 1820. The clock was never realized.
At the close of the Civil War, our steeple bell was rung so hard and with such jubilance, that it was cracked and had to be re-cast and re-hung. This same bell has called the congregation to worship, pealed with gladness at weddings, and tolled for the loss of loved ones. For many years it was the tradition of the young men in town to surreptitiously make their way into the church vestibule shortly after midnight and start the Independance Day celebrations with the wild ringing of our bell. It has been carefully re-fitted, when necessary, by good members.
Mr. Kellogg saw to it that a stove was set up in the sanctuary that would provide at least some heat during the long services. The builders had not included such a convenience, nor was a real basement dug until a hundred years later.
With cannon firing and band playing, the first canal boat seen in Farmington was launched. That marvel of the time, The New Haven Northhampton Canal was opened in 1828. The canal passed on up from New Haven through Northington (at our center) to Weatogue and beyond, carrying passengers and goods for trade. Passengers traveled on it to attend meetings which dealt with the division of Northington from Farmington. By the end of Kellogg’s pastorate in 1830, Northington became incorporated and was called Avon.
Improving transportation and communication brought about new awareness and concerns beyond the immediate church family, and continue to do so. Early church members became concerned, then active, in a Temperance Society during the pastorate of Stephen Hubbell. The railroad had opened in 1848 and took the place of the canal which had become a financial disaster. Trains were able to run year round and the people in Avon and the valley thus became more mobile. Fear was expressed that a ten-pin-alley was attracting undesirables to our village and seducing our citizens from the paths of sobriety.
Preceding the Civil War, churches in the valley and in Connecticut were active in their support of the “AntiSlavery” movement. When the war broke out, feelings ran high. Church women everywhere banded together forming Ladies Aid Societies and Sewing Societies. Our women, 80 strong, organized and became a new force in the church, at first by sewing for the Union soldiers. The whole community collected blankets, food, and medical supplies, as did communities throughout the state. These supplies were often shipped south, free-of-charge, by the Hartford and New Haven Steamship Company.
Festivals on the lawn in the Spring . . . Fall and Christmas fairs . . . chicken pie and pot luck suppers .
Up through the years the women, besides sewing and filling basic needs, have worked tirelessly, giving opportunity for town-wide sociability along with their fund raising. Their efforts have made possible projects, large and small, in our church and far beyond. The activities may change but the spirit and results continue.
People brought up in our church have gone out to serve as missionaries in the remote parts of the world. Through our World Service Boards money, clothing, and even Heifers have been sent to people in need. Our members have given much time to settling displaced families in our town, finding them housing and jobs, and standing by them through the adjustment period. Our first two families were displaced from Europe following World War II. Our third family had been made homeless following the war in Vietnam.
There has been much out-reach to our immediate community in diverse ways as the need or occasion arose. Services in Italian were supplied for early Italian immigrants to Avon prior to the building of a Catholic Church. Our sanctuary housed stranded travelers during the 1955 flood, and Flood Relief Headquarters were set up in our rooms. Our facilities have been open to countless groups and their meetings. Our Diaconate has begun a training program for members of our congregation which will better equip them to assist the minister in making parish calls.
The enthusiasm of our people for religious expression through music reaches back to the time when Psalms were lined out by a chosen deacon who might have used six tunes for variety. The congregation would follow his cue, line-for-line, A cappella, resulting in a truly joyful noise. This was improved upon over the years with the advent of a singing master and selection of the better voices for a choir. The pitch pipe was replaced with a bass viol, then with a melodeon. Our first minister’s grandson was especially fond of music and in early manhood composed many songs for Sunday School which were published in a song book “The Morning Star”. He also wrote the popular melody for “We Three Kings of Orient Are”.
To the metronome beat of “Time and Trend” the choir has been moved up (then back down) stairs, each position having it’s own advantages. By 1876, the centennial year of our country, our music had become highly professional and almost operatic in style and in content. This trend had caused some little dissatisfaction, for the centennial speaker noted . . . “Happily we are improving in the last few years . . . we are bringing our choirs down from above and behind the people . . . We are placing them where they should be by the side of the minister as his acknowledged aids and assistants in leading and conducting the service in the House of God, and place them in front of the people to be their leader and invite them to sing with them” . .
A reed organ preceded two pipe organs. Our present fine Austin organ and the Schulmerich Carillon were memorial gifts given by a descendant of one of the original members, and made especially for our church. More recently delicately toned hand bells for our Bell choir and Orff percussion instruments for the young people, have been made possible through generous gifts and memorials. With these instruments and the choirs, our musical expressions today are still joyful, and could be more likened to “The Speech of Angels.” Having gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us – The generosity and talents of the members and friends of our church have enriched our meetinghouse, our services, and our Christian fellowship. What wonderful gifts of stewardship are the gifts of time and thought given to committee service, maintenance of our properties, Church School instruction, and music practice. All is caring, sharing, time contributed by each person, that gives shape and meaning to our fellowship.
Our meetinghouse has undergone many cosmetic and structural changes and additions over the years. In the 1800’s when shutters became popular, they were added to the exterior. In 1833 gallery pews were altered to benefit the singers. In the 1850’s pew slips replaced the box pews and a conference room was added to the rear of the building. It was probably at that time the windows on the north wall were closed and plastered over, including an arched one behind the pulpit. After a serious fire in 1876, the small-paned windows, with the exception of one protected from the fire by gallery stairs, were replaced with ones in the style of the day, two-over-two panes. In the 1950’s these in turn were replaced with memorial windows that are copies of the originals. The wooden columns under the gallery are not original though no record tells of their erection. The unusually tall columns above are original. The plain solid shafts with boldly carved Scamozzi Ionic capitals actually serve as structural supports. The pilasters against the north wall and the arch behind the pulpit may have been added at the time of the conference room changes or following the fire.
The hurricane of 1938 severely damaged our lovely steeple, necessitating its removal above the belfry. A friend of the church generously started a fund for the building of an exact copy, which was set in place with the old banner weather vane atop, some years later.
With the exception of the present parsonage on Rosewood Road, our church has provided houses along or near Main Street for ministers and their families. One of these still remaining in place is the house at the corner of the Avon Park North entrance.
Congregational history was made in this old parsonage in 1848, when the Hartford Consociation set up a tribunal to hear the case against Horace Bushnell. Bushnell’s work, “Christian Nurture”, introduced the new and then heretical idea that children brought up in Christian families grew naturally into Christian life without the convulsion called conversion. The vote, though not unanimous, dropped the charges of heresy against Bushnell.
In early times toddlers were taught their catechism and attended “Sabba-day ” services. Children had been considered but miniature adults. Over the ensuing years the Sunday School has become an important part of the church, augmenting home instruction with appropriate materials developed for instructing children.
Entering into church activities where they have been able to, our youngsters have done it with joy and zest. A newspaper release during the depression of the 30’s tells of an Old Fashioned Lawn Festival put on by the Sunday School to help pay a share for a much needed piano. With a menu of:
Strawberry shortcake – $. 15
Sandwiches – .05
Ice cream – .10
and so on, they raised $26.26 on a June night from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
A fine ecumenical spirit working through the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Churches, brought about the forming of the United Church of Christ in 1957, whose force has combined the efforts of the two groups at many levels.
Locally we have felt the awakening of an ecumenical spirit which has progressed in our community as churches of other denominations have been built. There are now special services and programs with Baptist, Catholic, Congregational, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist congregations and clergy participating. In connection with our nation’s Bicentennial, a special Heritage Sunday celebration was held at our church in 1976. Many entered into the spirit of the occasion arriving in old-time outfits. A priest from St. Ann’s was among the visitors and at the close of the program he passed in a visitor’s card with many good-natured suggestions, including a request that . . . “The minister should preach a sermon on ‘Papal Infallibility’!”
Of greatest importance has been the building of our inspired Christian fellowship under the wise and loving guidance of our chosen leaders, the ministers. Their leadership has been both spiritual and realistic.
The most rapid growth our church has known started in the post World War II years. Small farms west of the mountain had become less and less profitable and the farmland was ideal for home sites. Residential building and the population of Avon shot up year after year. At that time the gentle shepherding of a wise minister effected the smooth transition of a country church into a suburban church, as it’s members took in and embraced newcomers to town.
Next we were lead by a dynamic husband and wife team, both ordained, a unique arrangement for the times. With great vigor they shared the pulpit and all facets of our parish. Our enlarged fellowship joined together in the work of the church. By 1953 a new parish house with a Fellowship Hall, modern kitchen and classroom space, replaced the old Conference room. All of the church groups and members pledged heavily to make it possible.
The next pastorate was marked by a period of some unrest and introspection in our church.
We are now led with the steadying influence of our present minister. With six protestant churches now established in Avon, our newcomers growth has leveled out, but our concerns and programs are many and challenging.
We are very much involved with future planning for our meetinghouse and our continuing inspired Christian fellowship. As we step forward may we be imbued with the same faith and vision that inspired those who planned and built for us in their time.