For most people, history in West Hartford means its development in the 20th century as a suburb of Hartford. But modern West Hartford's roots date back more than 300 years to the time it was first settled in the late 17th century.
As a way of recapturing West Hartford's ties to its past and providing a focus for the future, signs and plaques have been installed to mark the 39 most historic sites in town. Today, residents can view the site where early American soldiers camped during the Revolutionary War and learn about the past by reading the inscription on any one of the 16 historic signs.
A large 4-square-foot sign of cast aluminum on Goodman Green in West Hartford Center lists all 39 historic sites and identifies their numbered locations on a town map. The signs at each site have a message about the background and historical significance of each site. The map is part of a touring guide detailing the sites prepared by the Architectural Heritage Committee and the Hall High School graphics department.
The historic spots range from homes of noted individuals like Timothy Goodwin, Sarah Whitman Hooker and Noah Webster to schools, businesses, churches and recreational areas like the Charter Oak Park Race Track and Fair Grounds at the intersection of Oakwood and Flatbush Avenues, a nationally famous horse racing track in 1874.
One of the oldest historic sites is that of the Burgoyne Elms in Elmwood. A sign notes that residents in the 18th century planted elm saplings there to celebrate the American capture of General John Burgoyne's British army at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777.
Other signs trace a fascinating history at locations across West Hartford. Bishop's Corner, the intersection of North Main Street and Albany Avenue, was established after the Talcott Mountain Turnpike was developed in 1797 and 1798. The area flourished as a business center with a blacksmith shop and taverns, including Goodman's, which also was the town's first post office in 1820.
A short distance eastward was Joseph Bishop's tobacco warehouse and factory. South of Bishop's Corner was the Trout Brook Ice and Feed Company, located on the north side of Farmington Avenue. The company was an important ice cutting and shipping industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Talcott Woolen Yarn Mill and Vine Hill Farm, on Quaker Lane South near Trout Brook, and the Old Grist Mill, located west of North Main Street, were the local yarn and corn mills that were operated for many years in the 1700s and 1800s by the Morgan and Goodwin families.
Thomas O'Hara Goodwin operated his pottery shop at the intersection of New Britain and New Park Avenues.
The Old West School, now the West Hartford Art League at the corner of Mountain and Buena Vista Roads, was built in 1878 and is one of the first brick school houses as part of Henry Barnard's campaign for safer school buildings. Nearby is the Buena Vista Historic District.
Residents of West Hartford met at the First Three Meeting Houses of the First Church of Christ, Congregational, which were built in 1712, 1744 and 1834 on the northwest corner of Farmington Avenue and North Main Street. Some residents of this time came from affluent families. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt built a huge mansion for his son on West Hill Drive, formerly known as Vanderbilt Hill. Today West Hill is a community of architecturally distinguished, 20th-century homes.
West Hartford's first modern subdivision (1896) is detailed in a sign noting the Boulevard-Raymond Road Historic District between South Main Street and Trout Brook. The Metropolitan District Reservoir No. 1, on the north side of Farmington Avenue west of Sunset Farm Road, was opened in 1867 to supply pure water to homes in Hartford and West Hartford. Reservoir No. 1 is the oldest component of the present regional water system.
The historic signs were made possible through a joint venture with Town of West Hartford, the Architectural Heritage Committee and former Town Historian Nelson Burr.