Fairfield at 375: Celebrating what's made town 'special' over the centuries
The sixth-oldest town in Connecticut has a big birthday this year and planning is underway for a year-long celebration.
Fairfield was settled in 1639 and the early settlement encompassed lands that are now part of Westport, Weston, Easton, Redding and Bridgeport.
"Every resident should take the time to participate in any of the events planned this year for our 375th anniversary," said Town Clerk Betsy Browne. "We're very fortunate to live in Fairfield, with its rich history and great community spirit, which make it such a special place."
Browne, the chairwoman of the committee planning the anniversary celebrations, said events will include exhibits at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, as well as lectures on the history of the town at the center and Fairfield University.
Also on the agenda are a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored cake bake-off in February with the winner to bake the 375th anniversary cake for a gala in the fall at Sacred Heart University; a food drive on the campus of Fairfield Ludlowe High School and Roger Ludlowe Middle School; and discounted "Fairfield Day" tickets for Bridgeport Sound Tigers hockey games and Bridgeport Bluefish baseball games.
In August, the town plans to celebrate the legacy of Gustave Whitehead, an aviation pioneer and German immigrant who at one time lived in Fairfield, and is believed by many to have flown a motorized aircraft in 1901, two years before the Wright brothers, Browne said.
Celebrations of the 375th anniversary also will be incorporated into annual events such as the Fourth of July fireworks display over the shoreline, the Memorial Day parade and the summer and mid-winter book sales at Pequot Library, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2014.
"Part of what makes Fairfield special is to realize how many people have worked, lived, celebrated and spent their lives here," said First Selectman Michael Tetreau. "It gives our town more of a personality. It gives it character."
Marcia Miner, the town historian, said three historic events that she finds most noteworthy are the British burning of Fairfield in 1779, President Ronald Reagan's visit to Old Town Hall in 1984 and witch trials in the 1600s.
During the witchcraft scare, Fairfielders were known to dunk women suspected of witchcraft in a pond on the property near the present-day site of Sullivan-Independence Hall -- if the accused woman floated, she was judged to be a witch, but if she sank, she was cleared of the charge.
"The pond is physical evidence. You can stand by that or go by that and visualize," Miner said. She said the depression alongside the driveway that now leads into Sullivan-Independence Hall isn't very deep, but back then, the body of water was probably 10 to 12 feet deep before partially filling in over the years. She said people used to ice skate on the pond in the early 1900s.
Miner was not a resident of Fairfield when Reagan gave a pre-election speech in front of Old Town Hall, but her mother told her the U.S. Secret Service required residents along the route Reagan took to Town Hall Green to pull down the shades on their windows. She said Reagan decided to visit Fairfield because his staff considered it the most beautiful town hall between New York and Boston, providing a picturesque backdrop for his speech.
Miner said British troops' fiery attack on Fairfield during the Revolutionary War is particularly significant to her because she lives in a house that was built to replace a home that was burned.
She said the replacement house, which was later a tavern, has been in her family for about two centuries. Miner said her South Benson Road property also is significant in the town's history because it once was a meadow owned by Roger Ludlow, the town's founder.
Michael Jehle, executive director of the Fairfield Museum and History Center, said the history of Fairfield "has lots of stories and facets to it."
One of the significant events for Jehle is the Great Swamp Fight of the Pequot War in which early settlers and Native Americans waged battle in what is now the Southport section of town.
Jehle said the museum has partnered with the Mashantucket Pequot Museum to develop projects on the Great Swamp Fight in the past and will feature an exhibit on the battle next fall. He said other notable events at the museum in 2014 will be exhibits on musicians who put Fairfield on the map, the witchcraft trials and what it was like for residents who grew up in Fairfield in different eras.
"Fairfield has such an interesting and diverse history. We try to tell as many of those stories as we can," Jehle said. He said an exhibit that gives an overview of Fairfield's history, called "Creating Community," opened in October and will continue into 2014. "It's the central exhibit of our celebration," he said.
Tetreau, who grew up in Fairfield, said the town's identity continues to evolve -- from its roots as a farming community to what he said is now a center for arts, culture and dining.
"We tend to look back on history and assume nothing's changed," he said. "Fairfield has continued to change and evolve. What hasn't changed is if you go back and read stories, the town had a history of people coming together and helping each other."
Tetreau said he better appreciates Fairfield because he lived out of town before returning in 1995.
"I think our history, our heritage, is something that, growing up here, we too often take for granted," he said. "It helped me to live away from Fairfield for a few years because, coming back, you don't take our beaches, open spaces and school system for granted. There are very few towns that have as many special characteristics as Fairfield."
The 375th anniversary of Fairfield's founding gives residents an opportunity to celebrate the town and also to promote it, Tetreau said. "It's 12 months to remind ourselves about everything that is special about Fairfield and to have fun doing it," he said.