From the West Hartford Archives: South Main Street at Pelham Road

South Main Street at Pelham Road. Courtesy of Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society

Historian Jeff Murray takes a look into West Hartford’s past to uncover some surprising information, stir up some memories, or reflect on how much life has changed – or hasn’t changed at all. Enjoy this week’s ‘From West Hartford’s Archives’ …  

By Jeff Murray

This is a very, very old look at the west side of South Main Street near the corner of Pelham Road. The family that occupied this land did so for a century.

Articles about full neighborhoods are great to understand how the layout came to be developed, but every so often, it’s important to go a bit deeper and look at just one family that directly shaped the area they lived in.

The origins of a branch of any family tree often have a bit of mythical storytelling and the Ellsworth family’s West Hartford branch is no different. It can be traced back to the 1830s and started with John Ellsworth, whose ancestors had come to Connecticut in the 1600s and whose distant cousin was Oliver Ellsworth, the third Chief Justice of the United States and a Founding Father.

Ellsworth was a farm laborer on the homestead of Albigence Scarborough, who came to Hartford from the eastern part of Connecticut with his brother Jared and settled on a significant amount of land on the hill along what is now Prospect Avenue near Asylum Avenue. This hill was originally called Scarborough Hill and indeed, Scarborough Street in Hartford, laid out in the 1880s between Prospect and Woodland St, was named after the family. Ellsworth, born in the 1790s, worked on the farm for many years, but despite his work ethic, one person who knew him said that you would have thought his farming equipment and personal clothing “might all have been bought for $5.”

In 1833, Albigence Scarborough capitalized on the allure of settlement to the distant West and set off on horseback for Illinois to establish a village there. In the years that followed, he purchased land to lay out a village in a grid, other families trailed behind and joined the settlement, and today Payson, Illinois, has about a thousand people, per the 2020 census.

Scarborough left John Ellsworth to occupy the Hartford house on Scarborough Hill and tend the farm, but only a few years later, the housekeeper who maintained the property, a woman named Hannah May, approached him and told him he had to vacate so the house could be occupied by someone else. He was taken aback and sought guidance from the neighbor women on the hill, who suggested rather than just leave, he should propose marriage to Hannah. She agreed and the two were married in 1836.

Of course, the details of this whole exchange are quite fuzzy – it wouldn’t be a family legend with complete clarity! – but the couple built several houses along Prospect Avenue and eventually sold the whole property in the 1850s.

The Hartford Courant lamented in 1873 that if they had retained the land on the hill for just another few decades, they and their descendants would have been millionaires and that it was only for “lack of knowledge of the future” that they didn’t. Instead, John and Hannah moved to West Hartford Center, buying the land on the west side of South Main Street from around the current Boulevard to the foot of what was Goodman Green, now Unity Green. When John died in 1859, Hannah continued living in the house in the Center with her children and her sister, Ann May. The map from 1869 of West Hartford Center gives a good idea of where they lived.

Map of West Hartford Center in 1869, with the homestead at 27 South Main Street owned by Hannah May Ellsworth

John and Hannah had four surviving children – Mary Abbott Ellsworth, Lucy Ann Ellsworth, Daniel Webster Ellsworth, and John Ellsworth. The first to leave the homestead was their son John, the youngest child, who lived and worked on the farm of Samuel Fuller on Mountain Road as a teenager. Fuller maintained a nursery business on the property between Farmington Avenue and Fern Street.

After Fuller sold the farm, it eventually came into the hands of Ellsworth. The farmhouse that he purchased, which dates to the 1850s, stands today at 269 Mountain Road at the corner of High Farms Road. John conducted a dairy farm here, as well as an orchard, setting out nearly 1,500 peach, 200 apple trees, and 90 plum trees. It is also where his own three children grew up after he had married Sarah Fisk in 1870 while he was a laborer on the farm. His two daughters married in consecutive years (1908 and 1909) and moved away with their husbands; his son Robert married the adopted daughter of Carl Conrads, a famous German-American sculptor, and built his own house for him and his wife right next door to the family farm at 265 Mountain Road in 1904.

Eight years later, his father retired at the age of 62 and sold the milk route and farm. The milk route sale allowed Arthur Howe, the buyer, to effectively consolidate his milk business and become one of the largest in town by that point. The Howe family and their interactions with the local milk business, believe it or not, could practically be its own article! The Ellsworth farm on Mountain Road was sold to the largest poultry corporation in the state, known as the Jacobs Egg farm. Despite the ambitious project to become the biggest egg producer in the state, it didn’t do as well as expected and the land changed hands several more times in the matter of a decade. Meanwhile, John left it all behind, moved in with his daughter in Wethersfield, and died in 1918. John had left the Ellsworth homestead in the Center and forged his own path in the west of town and his descendants branched out from there.

A side view of the younger John Ellsworth’s farmhouse on Mountain Road (Google Street View)

John’s three other siblings, however, maintained closer ties with the Center. His brother, Daniel W. Ellsworth, retained a significant amount of land south of the homestead. Born in 1845, he was the second youngest in the family (his brother John was the youngest). In 1868, he married Lucy Brace, a close neighbor and whose father was the driver of the first horse-drawn omnibus line to Hartford from the Center.

The farm they raised their four children on in the 1870s and 1880s is the one that is pictured in the very old photo featured above and was located at 69 South Main Street at the corner of Pelham Road. By 1895, as suburban development loomed on the horizon, Daniel was approached by Frederick Rockwell proposing a sizable purchase of a strip of land at the south edge of his property. When sold and laid out, this would form the current section of the Boulevard west of South Main Street.

Over the next few years, he sold off more of the land to individual owners for new houses along South Main Street (1900-1906), shifting away from farming and towards development. Some of this decline in the farm can be attributed to his loss in vision – over just a few years in the 1890s, he went entirely blind. He died in 1920 at the house and had been predeceased by his wife Lucy, who was active as an officer with the First Congregational Church and in Bible School work until her death in 1916.

Sometimes the way these old families developed over time can be poetic. Since John moved off to farm on Mountain Road and Daniel consolidated his own farm with his wife south of the original homestead, it is only fitting that their two sisters, the oldest children, stayed even closer to home. After their mother Hannah’s death in 1872, her daughters Mary and Lucy lived together at the original house at 27 South Main Street for another three decades.

Lucy, the second oldest, had graduated from the Hartford Female Seminary in 1858 and like her sister Mary, she never married. Both were active with the church and other social organizations, however. Mary was president of the Larrabee Fund Association, which had been founded by a veteran of the War of 1812 for the benefit of disadvantaged women.

After Lucy died in 1904, she left the home to her nephew, Charles H. Ellsworth, and Mary moved in with her brother Daniel at 69 South Main Street. She died just a few weeks before Daniel did and so in the month of June 1920, with no surviving children from the mythical origins of the marriage of John and Hannah, there seemed to be a symbolic passing of the torch.

The migrations had been gradual and the families had grown, but suddenly, it felt like the Ellsworth family in the Center became just the four living children of Daniel. His oldest, Charles Harrison Ellsworth, was born in 1870, two years before the death of his grandmother Hannah. Charles was a bookkeeper at the Trout Brook Ice & Feed Company and owned the homestead at 27 South Main Street from the time it was left to him by his aunt until it was removed for the First National Stores supermarket in 1948. Charles died in Bloomfield in 1950.

1934 aerial photograph of the neighborhood. The original home of John and Hannah Ellsworth is highlighted at the top; the highlighted home at the bottom is the same one that can be seen in the featured photograph.

His two surviving sisters, Mary S. Ellsworth and Emma B. Ellsworth, were also unmarried, just like their aunts before them, and lived at the remaining home at 69 South Main Street. In the mid-1920s, after the death of their father, the Ellsworth children sold off a chunk of land in the rear of the farm to the Morrissey Brothers, a developer duo who capitalized on the population explosion in this era to build a number of houses close to the Center.

In 1925, Ellsworth Road was laid out west from South Main Street to enter the housing tract, known as Ellsworth Heights, where houses were built along Riggs Avenue, Newport Avenue, Pelham Road (laid out in 1927), and Van Buren Avenue. The Ellsworth sisters remained a fixture at the house and in town for many more years. Mary was the treasurer and registrar of the Sarah Whitman Hooker chapter of the D.A.R. and a librarian at the West Hartford Public Library for several years. Emma was also heavily involved with the D.A.R. and the West Hartford Grange. Mary’s death in 1949 left only Emma, who passed 10 years later as essentially the last Ellsworth from this branch of the family who lived in the Center. Her obituary headline from October 1959, while short, captures the weight of their impact on the town: “Emma Ellsworth Dies; Member of Pioneer Family.”

Two years later, in 1961, the house was removed and replaced by a dental office; this building still stands at the northwest corner of Pelham Road today. Other houses next door spanning the length to Ellsworth Road were also removed to make way for a three-story office building in 1968.

Town officials, West Hartford Chamber of Commerce representatives, and owners of New Image Dental at a ribbon cutting at 69 South Main Street on June 1, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

The Hartford Courant may have been right in 1873 that if John Ellsworth and Hannah May had retained their estate on Prospect Hill, it would have been worth millions, but maybe what happened instead brought a different kind of richness to West Hartford.

South Main Street at Pelham Road (Google Street view)

Jeff Murray was born and raised in West Hartford and has been involved with the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society since 2011 when he was a high school student and won the Meyer Prize for his essay on local history. Jeff routinely volunteers as local history researcher uncovering information for numerous museum programs such as the West Hartford House Tour and West Hartford Hauntings. Jeff works as a data analyst at Pratt & Whitney.

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