Jul 28, 2014

Acheson Rotary, City's Baptist Movement Intertwined

In 1955, Middletown's South Main area traffic circle heralded modernity, a fresh start after World War II.

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When I came across this old photograph, shown here, I was surprised by how many memories it evoked. 

It shows the intersection of South Main and Mill streets, with the new access road to and from the four-lane road that ran along the river, today Route 9. At this time, probably in 1955, the new highway, which only carried traffic off local roads from Hartford Avenue to South Main Street, was referred to as Acheson Drive.  

It was completed during the weekend of July 4, 1955. The entire highway, from New Britain to Saybrook, opened in 1969.

The photograph is taken from Loveland Street, facing the new road. On the right side of the photo is Mill Street, and South Main Street runs north to south in the forefront. The rotary served as a way to transition into the various roadways.

The intersection at South Main and Mill streets was wide well before the rotary was installed, as seen in the 1874 map detail. This immediate neighborhood had been the site of the Middletown’s first Baptist church built about 1810, and for many years the area remained a link to them through the home of their pastor.

When the Baptist movement swept through Middletown in the 1790s, many of the converts also criticized the political and social dominance of the local religious structure, including the practice of town taxes being used to support the Congregational Church. Local Congregationalists were warned that if they embraced the concept of adult baptism, one of the major hallmarks of the Baptist revival, they would be dismissed from the church.

Therefore, it caused quite a stir when the pastor of the Strict Congregational Church (now South Church) took the pulpit one Sunday in 1795 to announce that he embraced the tenets of the Baptist ideologies. Needless to say, he was "involuntarily dismissed" and became the unofficial leader of the new Baptist congregation.

This Rev. Samuel Parsons secured meeting space for the new group in available sites on South Main Street, first in a parishioner's house and later in the grist mill opposite the entrance to Warwick Street. So, for many years this area between Mill and Warwick streets became the center of Baptist worship and is where they built their first church in 1811, close to the intersection of Mill and South Main.

In 1837, the parsonage occupied by the Rev. John Cookson was built just north of the intersection. In 1842, the Baptists built a new church for themselves at Main and William streets. (Interesting note: First Baptist Church on Main Street was brought into discussions with the City’s Redevelopment Agency in 1967 about selling their church to allow for redevelopment of the entire block.)

I am not certain about what happened to the original Baptist Church after the new church was built on Main Street. The 1874 map, which depicts the South Main Street area 37 years after the new church, shows no signs of the abandoned church. The history detective in me is struck by unusually broad entrance to Mill Street, shown on the map. 

I’ve often wondered if this was the lot that onced house the church. Today there remains an open space between Mill and South Main streets, which was partly created when the rotary was removed. The small "park" once featured the bust of Henry Clay Work, the great Civil War composer, which is now on South Green. Work, who wrote Marching Through Georgia in the 1860s, lived on Mill Street. At one time, the open lot was also the site of a small grocery store.

Cookson’s old Baptist parsonage on South Main Street was eventually purchased by the city’s Redevelopment Agency in 1972 and moved as part of the South End Restoration project to the west side of Main Street by John Reynolds. It is the center house, shown here, and the first one to be moved there. Ironically, it is just one house away from the current Baptist Church, which seems appropriate.

Back to the rotary. The state of Connecticut took control of the intersection (and of its maintenance) from the rotary, south to about Warwick Street, in 1955. In 1958, nearby residents protested when the city approved the construction of a gasoline station at the rotary (which, clearly never got built).

A spectacular, fiery truck crash at the rotary in 1962 was the first event that made local people question the safety of a rotary at this site. By the late 1970s, the rotary was replaced by a T-intersection with traffic lights. (Does anyone recall the exact year it was removed?)

I remember as a kid loving that rotary. I think its allure was that it was like the rotaries we took each summer on Cape Cod. It seemed romantic and old world to me. I recall, also, being very sad to see it go.

Prior to intrusion of the Acheson Road cut-through, that South Main Street neighborhood was a classy place of fine homes with addresses that people coveted. This photo depicts the end of that era and the beginning of a new one.

The rotary is so new in this photograph, fresh and untested. In 1955, it also heralded modernity, a fresh start after World War II when things would be new and modern and organized … even it if rebuilding and destroying the familiar world around town.

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