The Foreign Mission School operated in Cornwall from 1817 to 1826, educating young men from around the world and training them to become Christian missionaries to their people. Students came from Hawaii, Greece, China, the Marquesas Islands, India, the Malay Peninsula, and from the Cherokee, Choctaw and Abenaki tribes. Cherokee students included Elias Boudinot and John Ridge, who later negotiated the removal of the Cherokee Nation to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Ridge and Boudinot married women from Cornwall before returning with them to their people. The collections at the Cornwall Historical Society include a unique Friendship Album created by the students of the Foreign Mission School, ledgers from the local store showing purchases made for the school’s pupils, as well as extensive printed materials describing the School’s activities. The Foreign Mission School collection is a valuable resource for historians, who seek access to the materials on a regular basis.
Virginia’s Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, now Hampton University, had strong ties to Cornwall during its first fifty years. Hampton was founded by Samuel Armstrong, whose father had been a missionary in Hawaii with six graduates of the Cornwall Foreign Mission School. Samuel’s daughter Louise married William H. Scoville, who was one of several Hampton teachers from Cornwall during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many Hampton students spent their summers working in Cornwall. The historical society’s collections include a variety of promotional materials and documents relating to Hampton.
The Cream Hill Agricultural School was established in Cornwall in 1845 by Samuel W. Gold and his son Theodore Sedgwick Gold, both graduates of Yale College. Students studied scientific agricultural methods as well as a full curriculum of general college preparatory courses. Students came primarily from Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts, but there were also students from New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri, Louisiana, Georgia, Peru, Puerto Rico, Germany and Mexico. Graduates of the school included George Jarvis Brush, who later became director of Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School. The school remained in operation until 1869. Two decades later, Theodore S. Gold used his experience in Cornwall to help establish the Storrs Agricultural School, which became the University of Connecticut. Although the original school building and its natural history collection have been removed to nearby Kent, the collections of the Cornwall Historical Society include numerous documents, brochures and images relating to Cream Hill Agricultural School and to the Golds.
Rumsey Hall was the second private nondenominational pre-preparatory school in the United States. It was established in Cornwall in 1900 by Lillias Rumsey Sanford and remained here until 1948, when it was relocated to Washington, CT. Related collection items include school uniforms, brochures, photographs, broadsides announcing performances and graduation ceremonies, programs for plays, yearbooks and other school publications. The CHS archives also include the original documents pertaining to the construction of the school’s building, which opened as the Alger Institute, a private school for boys, in 1848. The building was also home to the Housatonic Valley Institute, a college preparatory school for girls beginning in 1884 and briefly for boys in the late 1890s. Brochures for the Housatonic Valley Institute are included in the CHS collections.
The Cornwall Historical Society is the repository for the archives of Brigadier General Heman Swift and the archives of Major General John Sedgwick. Heman Swift commanded the 7th Regiment of the Connecticut Line during the Revolutionary War, fought alongside General Lafayette and camped at Valley Forge with General Washington. The Cornwall Historical Society collections include a Chinese Export Porcelain tea set and a pair of decanters presented by Swift to his daughter as a wedding present; shoe buckles and stockings worn by Swift; holsters used by Swift during the Revolutionary War; town records pertaining to Swift and to Jack Freedom, who had been sold as a slave to Swift in 1769 and was his servant during the Revolutionary War; Size Rolls from 1777 and 1781; and other documents relating to his military service.
John Sedgwick was one of Abraham Lincoln’s generals during the Civil War. Sedgwick was killed during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse shortly after chastising his men for showing fear while being shot at by Confederate sharpshooters. According to his soldiers, Sedgwick was fatally shot seconds after declaring “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” He was the highest-ranking Union officer to be killed during the Civil War. Following his death, Sedgwick’s sister compiled his personal letters, military papers and personal affects (uniform, sword, photographs) into a collection now at the Cornwall Historical Society. In addition to his personal correspondence and military papers from the Civil War, the collection also includes Sedgwick’s personal and official correspondence and journals from the Seminole Wars and punitive expedition against the Sioux. The collection also contains materials relating to his legacy, documenting the monuments erected at West Point, Gettysburg and Cornwall.
Other Civil War materials at the Cornwall Historical Society include photographs and documents relating to Lt. William H. Coggswell, a member of the Schaghticoke tribe and well-known Cornwall resident who died after his leg was amputated in the field in 1864.
Collections relating to World War I and World War II include WWI posters, Liberty Loan materials, WWII rationing stamps and souvenirs such as helmets and a shell case brought back by soldiers. The Cornwall Historical Society is the repository for Cold War materials from the Civil Defense Ground Observation Post, part of the Department of Defense’s “Operation Skywatch” in the 1950s. The collection includes official correspondence from the State Office of Civil Defense, the Air Force, Senator Prescott Bush, letters from Cornwall citizens supporting the program and from others questioning the necessity of the program, instruction manuals, log books, propaganda, identification pins and Altitude-Distance finders.
Cornwall has been home to many artists and authors, and this is reflected in the collections of the Historical Society. During the 19th century, a group formed around Cornwall artist Lydia Brewster Hubbard (1849-1911). Landscape painter Ben Foster (1852-1926) began spending his summers in Cornwall in 1893. James Henry Moser (1854-1913), who is renowned for his paintings of African American life in the South after the Civil War, spent many summers in Cornwall painting the local landscape beginning in 1883. The collections of the Cornwall Historical Society include work by Foster and a significant number of works by Moser, as well as Moser’s sketch books and a remarkable album of sketches and miniature paintings documenting his life and artistic activity from 1877 to 1892. The album was created as an anniversary gift from Moser to his wife and includes artwork from his time in Galveston, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Maryland and Cornwall, Connecticut. Also in the collection is a first edition of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus, containing illustrations by Moser and Frederick S. Church (one of the Hudson River School artists).
Later Cornwall artists represented in the CHS collections include James Thurber (1894-1961), author and cartoonist of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and numerous contributions to The New Yorker magazine; Armin Landeck (1905-1984), a printmaker known for his depictions of New York City and of the rural Connecticut landscape; Bernhardt Wall (1872-1956), a printmaker who designed patriotic postcards during World War I, illustrated several biographical works on famous Americans, and etched portraits of sitting Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Warren Taft and Henry Coolidge; Ruth Gannett (1896-1979), illustrator of numerous children’s books, including My Father’s Dragon and other winners of Newbery and Caldecott honors, John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, and works by her husband, author Lewis Gannett (1891-1966); and Marc Simont (b. 1915), who has won several Caldecott awards and citations for his illustrations of children’s books, including Nate the Great and A Tree is Nice, James Thurber’s books The 13 Clocks and The Wonderful O, and his own recent anti-war cartoon book, The Beautiful Planet.
Agriculture and Mercantile Ventures
Cornwall has been a farming community since its earliest days, and this is reflected in the CHS collections. The first landowner in Cornwall was Yale College, which had been granted 300 acres by the colony in 1732. The College Land, as it was known, was farmed by Cornwall residents. The collections included related indenture documents from the 18th century and a segment of the fence that surrounded the land.
The town gained easy access to New York City with the arrival of the railroad in 1840 and became a supplier of dairy products such as cheese, butter and milk. Collections include tools, milk bottles, ledger books and other items relating to agricultural life in Cornwall during the 19th and 20th centuries. The historical society is also the repository of a significant collection of letters, ledger books and other papers documenting mercantile ventures in New York and Ohio during the 19th century.
Following the discovery of iron ore deposits in 1728, the area around Cornwall was an early industrial center with dozens of blast furnaces and iron forges. Cornwall’s first iron forge was established in 1780 by Revolutionary War General Sedgwick. The Cornwall Iron Company began operating its blast furnace in 1832, and the Cornwall Bridge Iron Company did the same in 1833, remaining in operation until 1897. The production of shears became an important local branch of the iron industry beginning in the 1850s. The CHS collections contain many items relating to the iron industry, including iron ore, finished products including decorative cast iron and shears, early currency issued by The Iron Bank, ledger books and early photographs.
Related to the iron industry was the charcoal industry. Colliers built charcoal mounds used to reduce timber to nearly pure carbon over several weeks. The charcoal was used to fuel the blast furnaces. The workers who labored in the forests were typically immigrants. During the 19th century, the iron industry drew new immigrant groups to Cornwall, primarily Irish, French Canadian and Polish. The CHS collections include the oral histories collected in the 2005 St. Bridget History Project (SBHP), which was funded by the Connecticut Humanities Council and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. The SBHP oral histories record the lives of the Irish Catholic parishioners in Cornwall who trace their heritage to the iron industry. That project led to the Iron Workers Project at the University of Connecticut-Torrington.