Middletown: Think You Live in South Farms? Maybe Not

The "real" South Farms; it isn't where you think. The clues remain to reveal its past and remind us all of what came before us.

I remember the day my mother told me that the heart of South Farms was at the intersection of East Main and Silver streets. I grew up between Ridge and Farm Hill roads, and the area around the Grand Union seemed like the center of South Farms, if not the universe.

Now I understand that South Farms is a vast area, historically divided into neighborhoods such as Durant, Farm Hill, Zoar and Pameacha. But its heart and soul was over near Silver and East Main.

I learned all this when I was about 10 years old, and my mother and I were headed to Pelton’s drug store at the southeast corner of East Main and Silver streets. The neighborhood had seen better times and was in a period of flux. Key buildings — churches, schools, and stores — were being razed and it was hard to imagine that the neighborhood was key to the city’s residential and commercial development 100 years earlier.

Its place as a indendent neighborhood also made more sense to me when I learned that Main Street Extension, from Crescent Street to Ridge Road, was not laid out until the 1930s. If one wanted to travel south from downtown, Main Street then curved at what is now Union Street and curved again along Sumner Street to East Main Street. Therefore, East Main Street was rightfully called Main Street, South Farms.

This South Farms — the real South Farms — was the site of Middletown’s most expansive mill complex, one that was known around the world and enjoyed continued respect in the industrial community for almost 150 years. Of course, I am referring to The Russell Manufacturing Company. Their mills on East Main Street led to the development of one of Middletown’s first large suburban areas.

This network of mills ran along East Main Street from Silver Street to beyond the intersection of Russell Street. Brick factories lined both sides of the street and nestled along the banks of Sumner Brook. The mill closest to the city was known as the Sanseer Mill, and today it is the oldest of the remaining two mill buildings. 

After crossing Main Street Extention as it turns into Saybrook Road, the vast majority of the mills were on this end of East Main Street. The site of Stop & Shop today was the main headquarters of Russell, or RusCo as it was known for a time. Across the street, where the land is currently under development, was a complex of mills.

The other remaining mill building, known as the "Webb Mill" on the 1859 Walling map, is the located at the southwest intersection of Russell Street, which was adapted for residential use.

Samuel Russell in 1834, freshly returned from making his fortune trading opium between the Middle East and China, invested his wealth by establishing the Russell Manufacturing Company. The company produced elastic webbing that was woven by power looms that were used, initially, as the sturdy material used to power other looms in factories all over the United States. Russell was so successful because it managed to adapt its product line to meet the needs of a changing world. Evenutally, they were well-known for making men's suspenders and cartridge belts for war.

The mill pond to the south of the factories still exists and provides a lovely scenic area for those living on its banks on Fowler and East Main Street.

At one point in the late 19th century, more than 900 people worked at the seven mills that they operated in the East Main Street area, in Staddle Hill and in Middlefield.

Multi- and single-family housing sprung up in the neighborhood to house the workers. Front Street, Fowler Avenue and Russell Street became a German immigrant enclave for much of the mid-to-late 19th century. Wall, West Silver, Elm, Roberts (now Chestnut) and Maple streets were developed for housing. The neighborhood first started in the 1830s and grew to one of the most populated areas in town by 1860.

Of course, the people living in the neighborhood needed local services. Churches and schools were built. Small manufacturers and service industries, such as a blacksmith shop, opened in the neighborhood. And, of course, merchants saw the opportunity for opening small grocery stores.

The Church of the Holy Trinity built a chapel at the intersection of East Main Street and Main Street Extension in 1870. This was recently torn down to make room for Walgreen’s. The Methodists built the South United Methodist Church on Wall Street near the turn of the century.

By 1900, there were approximately 850 Catholic families living in South Farms and they established the St. Francis of Assisi Parish and built their church edifice in 1904 on Silver Street, opposite the future site of Hubbard School.

The first neighborhood school was in the triangle formed by Baer, East Main and Saybrook Roads. It is visible on the 1874 map, shown here. Later, a large brick elementary school, Hubbard School, was completed in 1908 to serve the families in that area. The U.S. Post Office was built on its former site in 1975.

When the German Evangelical Lutheran Church on High Street split up over an argument relating to parishioners' membership in the Masonic Order, the working-class members took the more conservative stance and moved their new church closer to where they worked at the factories. Their St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church was built on the west side of East Main Street, near the current intersection of Cooley Avenue about 1895.

This was torn down about 20 years ago after many years of commercial service. The church was sold when the congregation built its new home of Randolph Road, which was renamed Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, in 1960.

Russell Library even built a branch library on East Main Street in the 1920s on the land where CVS sits below grade.

Russell Manufacturing had its own fire department and provided public fire service to the surrounding area. This was originally located across from the site now occupied by Stop & Shop. 

The real South farms was once a vibrant, well-populated center of immigrants, commerce and manufacturing. The clues remain to reveal its past and remind us all of what came before us.

Next week, I will write about the various stores in that neighborhood.  I have included photographs for some of them here, and would love any information you'd like me to share in next week's column. There is a lot to cover and your memories will be needed. Please drop me a note.

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John September 08, 2011 at 01:18 PM
One of the buildings on East Main Street across from Hillside Ave. was Modern Electric which was owned by Steven Feiser. He sold refrigerators freezers and stoves,
Kathy Way December 09, 2011 at 12:43 AM
I was under the impression that I lived in the South Farms area way down on Marguerite Rd (Now Margarite Rd....changed when the signs were replaced at some point)...have I been wrong all this time...
Elizabeth Warner December 09, 2011 at 03:20 AM
Hi Kathy - Somewhere down the line, South Farms became everything south of Route 17, virtually all the way to the Haddam and Durham borders. Historically, your house is in the Farm Hill District neighborhood of Middletown, bordering on East Long Hill. Farm Hill was a narrow neighborhood that ran from Russell street to the Haddam border, with Farm Hill Road and then Margarite Road running the length of it, with East Long Hill on the west and Johnson Lane Fistrict on the east.
Patrick Shugrue July 13, 2012 at 07:50 PM
Hello, Hubbard School was actually built in 1903, the date can be found in old photos. The school was torn down in May of 1973.
unknownauthor March 31, 2013 at 03:28 PM
Great article. Does anyone remember Needle's Store , or Alice Richter, librarian at the S.Farms Branch of the Russell Library, or Dripp's Store on Ridge Road? There was a book written by Rev. George Gilbert, Pastor at the Episc. Church, "Forty Years a Country Preacher" about the church and his travels to his other churches in the County. .Also I believe the first grist mill was on Sumner Brook. Liz before you leave the area are you going to have any lectures ? I hope your move doesn't keep you from digging up more Middletown history and sharing it with us.


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