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Old Meetinghouse Hill Field

There is a field in Vernon with a direct connection to Vernon's roots. It has one of the best views in town and is still a working farm. This field is so connected to our roots, both historically and physically, that it is truly a Vernon gem; yet is taken for granted and greatly underappreciated. This is the story of Old Meetinghouse Hill Field.

You know this special field. It's located across Hartford Turnpike from the Vernon Center Middle School, covers 33 acres and connects to Cemetery Road to the south. Abutting the fields are houses dating to the early 1800's. Hundreds of people pass it daily, yet few take a real look and fewer still have ever climbed the hill.

Eigthteenth Century Roots

Old Meetinghouse
Pen and ink drawing based on description
furnished by Allyn Stanley Kellogg

Vernon began as an agricultural community establishing farms in the eighteenth century around an old Native American trail that would become Hartford Turnpike and later Route 30. The trail passes through our field and it's not hard to imagine those early inhabitants standing at the summit and looking out over the valley.

Initially part of Bolton, as our small community grew larger we petitioned to have our own church and in 1760 became the North Bolton Parish. Remember that at that time Connecticut was a Congregational state.

Where to build the first meetinghouse, as the church's were then known to early Congregationalists? At the time it was customary to build them on the top of a nearby hill.

"The location on a hilltop was chosen and favored for various reasons. The meeting-house was at first a watch-house, from which to keep vigilant lookout for any possible approach of hostile or sneaking Indians; it was also a landmark, whose high bell-turret, or steeple, though pointing to heaven, was likewise a guide on earth, for, thus stationed on a high elevation, it could be seen for miles around by travellers journeying through the woods, or in the narrow, tree-obscured bridle-paths which were then almost the only roads. ... Then, too, our Puritan ancestors dearly loved a 'sightly location,' and were willing to climb uphill cheerfully, even through bleak New England winters, for the sake of having a meetinghouse which showed off well, and was a proper source of envy to the neighboring villages and the country around. The studiously remote and painfully inaccessible locations chosen for the site of many fine, roomy churches must astonish any observing traveller on the byroads of New England." (Earle)

For whichever reason the early Vernon congregation chose to build theirs atop what would be known as Meetinghouse Hill; a little east of what we now call Vernon Center where the current First Congregational Church stands. Abbott, writing in 1888 refers to the meetinghouse location as "the top of the hill still known to some as the "Old Meeting-House Hill."

The meeting house was located on what is now Sunnyview Drive. All that remains is a marker placed there by the Vernon Historical Society; but you can imagine what it might have looked like when built 250 years ago in 1763. The view would have been magnificent. If cleared of trees, you could see the mountains of Tolland on the east, the entire Tankerhoosen Valley, and beyond that on a clear day you can also see Hartford and Talcott Mountain. Indeed you can clearly see the steeple of Thomas Hooker's First Congregational Church in Hartford, which would have been the mother parish for the area. We have to wonder if that sight influenced their decision to build there.

The first church was more than a center of worship as it was also where the community would have met to make civic decisions - our first Town Hall.

When they called their first minister, Rev. Ebenezer Kellogg, who served here for 55 years, he moved into the still existing house at the corner of Hartford Turnpike and South Street, where he also farmed. Indeed during the early days the center of North Bolton was likely in this area rather than down the hill at the Bolton Road crossing. Consider that the first schoolhouse was also located here as was our first cemetery, the North Bolton Burying Ground on Bamforth Road.

One of the Best Views In Vernon

The first church's site was long ago opened to development, and houses now line the hilltop with only a very few getting to experience the magnificent view towards Hartford and the Connecticut River Valley. If Vernon had thought to preserve a lot or two as open space everyone in town could have picnicked there and enjoyed the view.

Below the houses on the hill is a broad field rolling down to Vernon Center and the Tankerhoosen Valley. The field is currently owned by the Strong Family Limited Partnership where generations of Strongs farmed it. It is one of the two remaining Heritage Farms in town - all that is left of our rich heritage.

If you go up the path and through the grasses you can look over the field much as our ancestors did. It's not hard to imagine yourself as one of the parishioners going to meeting on a Sunday morning and looking out from the top at the Connecticut Valley and perhaps feeling a connection with Hartford.

The Path Up The Hill

There was a road that climbed the hill to the meetinghouse that began across from VCMS. You can still see the path and a small stone causeway and bridge that crosses a brook. The stonework is very rough hinting it was built early in or history and then abandoned when the road was rerouted. The 1934 aerial maps, however, show it clearly. More recently Norman Strong took his dairy cows across Route 30 and up the hill in the morning to bring them back to the barn for milking in the evening.

Although early records are limited the case could be made that what is now a cow path was part of the original Native American trail that ran through Vernon to the campground at Shenipsit Lake and on to the village in Stafford Springs. The trail ran along the ridge line separating the Tankerhoosen and Hockanum River watersheds and at the time the meetinghouse was constructed in 1762 settlers may have made few alterations to route.

Allyn Kellogg (1824-1893), grandson of our first minister Rev. Ebenezer Kellogg, wrote down his memories of early Vernon for an address in 1888 to the Church of Christ in Vernon. He had a strong interest in the church's formation and early history and drew on early church and town records, some no longer available.

This committee met on the 25th of February, and fixed upon a place "on the southward part of land belonging to Mr. Samuel Bartlett, near to the highway that leadeth westward from Mr. David Ellis's." (Note: The David Allis house is still located at the corner of South Street and Hartford Turnpike, adjacent to Meetinghouse Hill.)

"The place where this house was erected is about half a mile East of the present meetinghouse at Vernon Centre, on the top of the hill still known to some as the "Old Meeting-House Hill." It was usual to choose an elevated place for a house of divine worship. This house stood in the most sightly place near the centre of the Society. When first built, it could be reached only from the East and the West, by the highway already mentioned. Several years later, highways were opened leading to it from the North and from the South."

"This meeting-house was of the prevailing style of architecture for country churches; a plain four-sided building, without a steeple. It fronted the highway on the South by one of its longer sides, having doors, also, in the East and West ends. It was not dwarfed by the horse-sheds and the school-house, the only buildings erected near it."

The plaque on Sunnyview Drive commemorating the meetinghouse is on the south side of the road, while the historical record indicates the meetinghouse was on the north side of the road.

WHEN WAS THE ROAD RE ROUTED AND BECOME HARTFORD TURNPIKE AND A STAGE ROAD?

The Field Today

Two hundred and fifty years later it's the field that remains and connects us to our heritage. The path is still there. Corn still grows in rows below and a few cows graze on the grasses. The Civil War era red barn is also a reminder of the past and is on the Connecticut Register of Historic Barns.

The pasture is also remarkable for the soil type making up the land which contains the most highly productive soil classification - Prime Farmland Soil. To put this in perspective to be eligible for the farm perservation programs in CT parcels must have at least 26% Prime farmland. The Strong parcels have 45% as evaluated by the USDA-NRCS.

Last fall Scott Lent used his drone to make an aerial video of the field and the surrounding neighborhood. There is a touch of color, the corn has been recently cut and if you look closely there are six cows resting under a tree in the upper field.

The video is best viewed at Full Screen with 'Setting' at 1080p for high definition.

The next time you drive past VCMS or up Cemetery Road take a moment to acknowledge the field and the hill and how it still connects us to our roots.

The Field Tomorrow

This is one of the last, and certainly the most historical, fields in Vernon that embodies our agricultural heritage. Most of our heritage we have let slip away to development with no public discussion of what we want to preserve. This field is threatened too and could be one more housing development in the very near future.

POCD

In 2012 Vernon adopted our 'Plan of Conservation and Development' as part of a two year process involving the whole town. In it we weigh the benefits of what to conserve and where to develop. Chapter 5 is titled 'Preserving Our Roots.' The subsections deal with Natural Resources, Open Space & Greenways, Historic Resources and Community Character. It provides many reasons for preserving Meetinghouse Hill Field:

Historic Resources: Historic buildings, structures and landscapes remind us of Vernon’s rural and urban heritage and contribute to the community’s overall quality of life. It is important to Vernon’s history because of what occurred there or who lived there. Such places can instill local (and state) pride, give residents a sense of heritage and provide education.

Vernon's Character: Preserve the scenic value of hilltops and ridges by ensuring that large-scale development is avoided or carefully managed/sited.

Preserve Heritage Farms: Like many Connecticut communities, Vernon has a strong agricultural heritage. Most farms have been developed for housing or business or have reverted to forest. Vernon is fortunate to have retained a prominent farm, centrally located in the historic Vernon Center. The 58-acre Strong Farm keeps the connection to this past, strongly contributes to the character of Vernon Center, and contributes to the local economy. It is also easily accessible to visitors due to its proximity to I-84. Because of its central location, development pressures could be strong. The Town should continue to work with the owners to ensure that the farm remains economically viable and continues its important role to both Vernon Center and the Town.

Open Space and Greenways: The quality of life in a community is greatly enhanced by the quality, quantity and distribution of its cultural and natural resources. Protection of these resources through the preservation of their supporting landscape is a key function of open space preservation. Open space preservation also provides for the community’s recreation needs and the basic human needs for fresh air, sunlight, physical exercise and psychological release.

If we choose to protect and preserve Old Meetinghouse Hill Field perhaps one day everyone can walk the old path up the hill and enjoy a sunset and the view.

Sources

Brooks, George S. (1955). Cascades and Courage. 529 pages. This is the classic local history book. The entire text can be found and searched online. Pages 10-12 include sections from the early church records and meetings from 1760 to 1762 detailing the planning of the new meetinghouse.

Earle, Alice Morse (1891). The Sabbath in Puritan New England, Seventh Edition

Kellogg, Allyn S. (1888). The Church of Christ In Vernon, Connecticut: An Historical Address. 50 pages. History and memories of the First Congregational Church by Kellogg (1824-1893), grandson of the first minister. Although primarily a church history includes early town history also.

Smith, Harry Conklin (1908). A Century Of Vernon, CT 1808-1908. Pages 11-15, 65. Poem 'Vernon' page 81. Prepared and published for Vernon's Centennial. Good history of Vernon's first 100 years drawing on contemporary sources. Smith was the editor of the Rockville Leader.

Smith, Harry Conklin (1908). The Connecticut Magazine, Volume 12", 'Centennial of Vernon 1808-1908'. Good history of Vernon's first 100 years drawing on contemporary sources. Smith was the editor of the Rockville Leader. The referenced story is on page 167. This same article was printed in Reference 1. Available at the Connecticut State Library in Hartford.

(2002). A History of the First Congregational Church of Vernon - 240th Anniversary. 31 pages. Includes early history of Vernon and first Meetinghouse. Update of 1974 pamphlet.

Vernon 2012 Plan of Conservation and Development - Vernon Planning and Zoning Commission - Effective: January 30, 2012. The full report is posted online and is recommended reading. Chapter 5 begins on page 25.

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