Each spring, before the dogwood blooms and fiddleheads are ready for harvest, the Connecticut River banks are laced by shadblow trees, and fishermen converge along its shores to test their skill and luck during the shad run.
Today's anglers have replaced the Indians of long ago who named the Quinnehtukquet: "beside the long, tidal river." Modern Suffield retains its sense of nature and open space, including many of the characteristics which originally attracted Indians and settlers. Besides providing shad and salmon, the river made boat-building possible. Yellow pine was used for building, fuel, naval stores and fine furniture. Deer, moose, bear, fox, and other wild animals and game provided hides, furs and food. Tobacco was a productive crop from the beginning. Brooks were harnessed for grist, cotton, and paper mills; there were even three iron works.
Settlement started in 1670, after Major John Pynchon, a fur merchant from Springfield, paid the Natives Americans thirty pounds for a six-mile tract of land known as Stony Brooke Plantation.
A thickly wooded area between Springfield and Windsor with a narrow meadow provided a land route connecting Springfield and Windsor. This route was called the Hampton Path (usually thought to include Hill Street, Remington Street, South Street , and possibly other roads).
The local Indians used this land primarily as a hunting ground and preferred camping by the Congamond Lake and Manatuck Mountain areas to the west. The Massachusetts General Court authorized Pynchon's committee of Springfield men to settle a town on the "West sid of ye Ryver Connecticott towards Windsor." They stipulated that in five years twenty families were to settle there and that a minister be maintained. (By a surveying error in 1642, the Suffield region was thought to be included in the Massachusetts colony.)
The town was carefully planned, reserving land for a common area in the center and space for a meeting house, school, and land for a minister. The first land was sold at four pence per acre. By 1675 three dozen families had settled, but they were forced to flee to Springfield during King Philip's War. Returning and rebuilding after the settlement was burned, they were ready to retain their first minister in 1679.
For its first twelve years the town's affairs were conducted by a Committee of Proprietors (land owners), who held the first town meeting on March 9, 1682. Attendance was compulsory for every property owner, and a two shillings and sixpence fine was imposed for unexcused absences or tardiness. This first town meeting chose five selectmen, a town clerk, two highway surveyors, a land measurer, and a sealer of leather. No treasurer was elected because town tax was paid in grain. About that time a meeting house was built: the site is denoted today by a plaque on a large rock on the town green. By 1674 the town had taken the name Suffield, a corruption of Southfield.
The period between 1670 and 1740 was one of hard work, primitive living, and self-government regulated by the Fundamental Orders of the Congregational Church. Church and town government were one, with no deviation allowed until more liberal changes were demanded and the Second Congregational Church was organized in 1743. Soon after, Hartford County's first Baptist Church was founded on Hastings Hill. Religious liberty and complete separation of church and state were finally guaranteed by the Connecticut Constitutional Convention in 1818. Between 1840 and 1890, Methodists, Roman Catholics, and Episcopalians established town churches.
After settling border disputes with neighboring towns, Suffield, which had been part of Massachusetts for 79 years, was granted admittance to Connecticut in 1749. The town prospered and produced a number of distinguished citizens who served the Town, Colony, and Crown. When the Western Reserve Lands were opened to speculators, some people, who felt that 1000 residents was a population explosion, moved west to New York and Ohio, while a significant number emigrated to Vermont. Residents were early supporters of the trade embargo against England and sent supplies and men to fight in the war for independence. Suffield's contingent accounted for one-third of Connecticut's militia.
The period following the Revolution was one of commercial growth and a decline in church influence in government affairs. Transportation improved noticeably with the 1808 bridge to Enfield, the 1829 canal bypassing the Enfield rapids, the 1844 Hartford-Springfield railroad line with its branch to Suffield completed in 1870, and generally improved roads. Steamboats plied the river and the height of convenience, if not speed, was achieved in 1902 with the advent of trolley service through Suffield between Springfield and Hartford.
At different times the town boasted two paper mills, its own newspaper, the Impartial Herald, a distillery-cider mill, cotton mill, a curative spring called "The Pool" (at the end of Poole Road), and a one-half mile racing track. Immigrants who worked on the canal project, especially those from Ireland and Poland, brought their families to settle here.
Suffield participated in the Civil War by providing soldiers, supplies, and taxes. Slaves were here as early as 1671, but the last were given their freedom in 1812. A century later African-American residents formed their own Baptist church.
Since the earliest days, the tobacco industry has been the greatest single continuing commercial enterprise in Suffield. In 1727 tobacco was used as a legal tender for debts. By 1753 the fertile Connecticut valley was growing tobacco for export. The first cigar factory in the country was opened here in 1810 after a Cuban was hired to teach women how to roll the "long nines", which were sold all over the eastern United States by peddlers. Twenty years later broad leaf tobacco for cigar wrappers was developed, as was the process of "sweating" tobacco. Profits earned from crops grown between 1830 and 1880 were used for western land speculation and helped finance commercial ventures, including the Hartford insurance business. Early in the 1900's higher grade tobacco were grown under cheesecloth tents, but decreasing cigar consumption brought reduced production. Though tobacco growing in the Connecticut Valley has been greatly curtailed, the appearance of white tents on shade-grown tobacco fields is still a sure sign that summer is close at hand.
Suffield's school system began when Anthony Austin was hired as schoolmaster in 1796. Thereafter a number of district schools were built according to need as the town grew. In 1898 a town-wide school district was established and was administered by a Board of Education. Gradually, the old district schools were replaced by elementary schools in Suffield and West Suffield. In 1833 the Connecticut Baptist Literary Institution, a private school for young men, was founded. Ten years later a ladies' department was added, enrollment increased, and several buildings were built on High Street. Later known as Suffield School, it served as a high school for local students from 1897 until 1939. Now called Suffield Academy, the 1833 school continues as an independent, coeducational, college preparatory school.
Suffield remains immersed in historic richness. Main Street, a designated historic district with the Green, three churches, Suffield Academy and vintage colonial and Victorian homes, typifies a New England town. Kent Memorial Library is a foremost research center for source materials, records, and documents from north central Connecticut. A walk along Main Street is a rich architectural expedition into an 18th and 19th century landscape. The Dr. Alexander King House, on the corner of Kent Avenue, and the Phelps-Hatheway House, a little farther north on Main Street, are museums open to the public from May to October.
Built in 1764, the King House is the museum of the Suffield Historical Society. It features period furnishings and exhibits of local history, including a gallery of tobacco and cigar memorabilia, a large collection of flasks and bottles, Bennington pottery, and many other interesting exhibits.
The Phelps-Hatheway House is unique. It represents three periods of 18th century New England architecture. Originally built by Shem Burbank in 1760, it was remodeled and expanded by Oliver Phelps who commissioned the first native-born architect, Benjamin Archer. The three story addition features brightly colored French wallpaper and magnificent furnishings. On the south side of the house there is a lovely colonial garden which is maintained by Suffield Garden Club volunteers.
Copies of a walking map of Suffield's Main Street, prepared by the Suffield Historical Society and the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society, are available at the library. An excellent reference is an illustrated history entitled, Biography of a Town: Suffield, Connecticut 1670-1970, by Robert H. Alcorn, which was published in conjunction with the town's 300th anniversary celebration in 1970.