WCSU projects open new windows on 19th century Danbury

University Archives site provides online access to borough records and hatter’s diary

DANBURY, CONN. —The Archives of the Western Connecticut State University Libraries are opening important new windows on the history and development of Danbury during the 19th century with current projects to provide online access to official records of town government from 1855 through 1889 and the personal diary entries of a hatter during the 1860s.

WCSU Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Brian Stevens has received extensive assistance over the past year from Adjunct Librarian Roseanne Shea and her husband, Gerald, in tackling the formidable tasks of scanning and transcription required to make these original source materials available online to researchers. The Sheas, who reside in Danbury, have committed many hours of labor to completing the scanning of approximately 2,600 pages from six ledgers providing the official records of charter revisions, Board of Burgesses meetings and other documents related to the borough government of Danbury in the latter half of the 19th century.

The borough ledgers cover a period of explosive growth in the population of Danbury, which increased more than threefold from less than 6,000 in 1850 to 19,473 in the 1890 census. A frequently recurring subject in the official records is the expansion of borough boundaries to accommodate residential and commercial development, reflecting the emergence of Danbury as a railroad hub and a leading center for hat-making and other manufacturing industries. In addition to property issues, the ledgers set out the historical record of statutes and regulations covering the wide gamut of challenges for a growing town ranging from taxation, roadways, water supply and sewage management to public safety, law enforcement and fire fighting. Entries in flowing script also capture the reflections of another time: A charter revision in 1862, for instance, authorized officers of the law to arrest persons “guilty of profane cursing, swearing and Sabbath breaking” and affirmed the borough’s right to regulate “billiards and bowling saloons” and “the speed of animals and vehicles.”

The Sheas are continuing work on a separate project begun last year to transcribe the diaries of Horace Purdy, written during his employment in the finishing shop of a Danbury hat maker. Purdy’s diaries, which offer rich detail portraying the daily life of a Danbury family during the 1860s, previously were converted to digitized format as part of the WCSU Archives’ Truman Warner Collection. The Sheas’ transcription of Purdy’s original script for the first time will provide a machine-readable version that can be accessed and searched online using the WCSU Archives Web portal.

Stevens’ successful quest to recover the 19th century Danbury borough records, previously thought to have been lost to historians, began during the course of his research on a wave of arson incidents that took place shortly after Danbury’s government reorganization as a city. After several fruitless attempts to locate records for the board that managed borough affairs from 1822 until Danbury’s incorporation as a city in 1889, Stevens learned from historian William Devlin, coauthor with WCSU Professor Emeritus Herbert Janick of the book “Danbury’s Third Century,” that several borough ledgers had come into the possession of a former city official, who in turn told Stevens he had given the ledgers to the Danbury Public Library. WCSU Presidential Assistant Betsy McDonough, formerly director of the Danbury Library, provided helpful guidance that enabled Stevens to locate the borough ledgers in a library cabinet.

Stevens recognized the ledgers, dating back well over a century, were in a physical condition too fragile to bear frequent handling without suffering significant damage. “I realized that it would be great if we could scan the ledgers because it would be the best way to preserve the documents and make them available online for research use,” he said. Stevens offered Danbury Public Library the services of the WCSU Archives in undertaking the scanning project and making the scanned images available online through the university Web portal.

That goal was realized when Roseanne and Jerry Shea agreed to take a WCSU scanner to the Danbury Public Library to begin the laborious assignment of scanning pages from the six borough government ledgers — each volume about 15 inches in length, 2½ inches in width, and at least 6 pounds in weight. “To scan them physically, you have to pick up the ledger, place it on the scanner, complete the scan, turn the page, and do it all over, again and again,” Stevens observed.

“You get into a routine, but they are heavy to handle,” Roseanne Shea said. Water damage to the sixth and final ledger to be scanned, recording government business in the first year of the city government, has left “the cover warped and some pages falling out,” but she noted that pages in most of the ledgers generally retain their whiteness and show little deterioration or crumbling.

In reviewing meeting records to compose tables of contents that will facilitate online searches, Shea observed that she and her husband have learned much about 19th century Danbury, such as the 1869 break in the Kohanza Reservoir that resulted in major property damage and 11 deaths. Stevens noted the meeting records reflect the mounting challenges confronting the borough government as it struggled to cope with the rapid development of industry and resulting strains on clean water resources, road and rail transportation, and public services during the latter half of the 19th century. By the time that Danbury incorporated as a city, he added, its infrastructure had fallen seriously behind the demands of a population that had nearly doubled during the preceding decade.

Stevens noted that historians seeking out original records and accounts of Danbury’s development during the 19th century will find the borough ledgers especially useful in filling a present dearth of information. “Aside from the News-Times archives, there is not much primary source material available for this period, so these ledgers will help researchers to understand what was going on.” He affirmed the importance of Western’s commitment to contribute to the community through its partnership with Danbury Public Library in making these historical resources more widely accessible.

The Sheas have found that their participation in the Purdy diary project has inspired similar interest in learning more about Danbury’s past, reflected in the life of a man who gave up his relatively secure position as a hatter in 1869 to pursue a second career as an insurance agent. Historical records of Purdy’s death and burial in 1910 led the Sheas to Wooster Cemetery in Danbury — and in the first section they explored, they discovered the graves of Purdy and his son.

“This has been a fantastic experience,” Roseanne Shea said. “We’re happy to help in making these records available, and we’re learning a lot about Danbury history in the process.”

Scanned documents from the Danbury borough ledger project may be accessed online at: http://archives.library.wcsu.edu/omeka/items/browse?tags=ledgers.

For more information, contact the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.

 

 

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