Jul 8, 2014
10:08 AM

NW Connecticut History Center Is in Former Office of a Black Panthers Trial Attorney

NW Connecticut History Center Is in Former Office of a Black Panthers Trial Attorney

Alice Tessier/Litchfield County Times

Inside The Canaan History Center, located at 115 Main St.

 The Canaan History Center will open its doors for the first time to the public on July 13, providing an opportunity for researchers to delve into the history of the area.

The center is located in a white clapboard building at 115 Main St. that once served as the law offices of civil rights attorney Catherine B. Roraback. (below)

“It is not a historical society,” said Kathryn Boughton, the town historian. “It’s a place where people can conduct research. It is called the Canaan History Center but is not dedicated just to the history of Canaan but to the history of the northwestern part of the state, which is quite interconnected. What we have here is not really a parochial collection.”

The very names of area towns can be a puzzlement when digging into the past.

“North Canaan known locally as Canaan,” said Boughton (below), a lifelong resident, whose mother’s family, the Buckbees, came to town in 1920.

She went on to explain that “although the town is legally named North Canaan, it has always been called Canaan, to the endless confusion of visitors. The town was once part of the original Town of Canaan but split away in 1858. The current Town of Canaan is known by locals as Falls Village.”

The original town, settled in 1739, spread out from the Massachusetts border to Cornwall, but geography worked against unity, in terms of governance as well as worship.

“Canaan Mountain virtually bisects the town, and almost immediately there was unhappiness with its residents,” said Boughton. “All the industry was in East Canaan, off of Route 44, and on the other side of the mountain in Falls Village and Huntsville,” she said, and the center of town was close to where Geer Memorial is located today. The town hall, library and a working-class inn were once situated there.

“In 1769, they got permission from the state government—there was no separation of church and state then—to split it into two ecclesiastical districts—Falls Village was the first; North Canaan, the second,” said Boughton.

To add to confusion for researchers, Falls Village went on to build its second church in South Canaan, in 1804, and North Canaan erected its second in East Canaan in 1824, she noted.

When the railroad came in 1841, both population and business began to experience growth.

The current village of Canaan grew up around the railroad depot and was still a thriving business center when Roraback, who had been practicing law in New Haven, increasingly moved her offices to Main Street in the 1970s and ’80s. She lived next door to Boughton.

“She was not unfamiliar with Canaan. She came here often while growing up, when her father was a Congregational minister in Brooklyn, N.Y.,” she said.

“The building was the family’s law office for many years,” noted Boughton. “It was built about 1875 by her grandfather, Alberto T. Roraback, a Connecticut Supreme Court justice, who moved here from Sheffield, Mass. He read law with George Warner, a major Salisbury justice.”

Roraback acquired the practice in the 1950s, inheriting it from her great-uncle J. Clinton Roraback, and had the wing on the western side of the white clapboard building constructed when she took up residence full time in the early 1980s. She set up her office in new addition, which now houses the Berkshire Litchfield Environmental Council.

Roraback had a long, distinguished career in the law, taking on such cases as Griswold v. Connecticut, the action that legalized birth control in Connecticut and was precedent setting regarding the right to privacy as used to justify Roe v. Wade, and defending Ericka Huggins in the New Haven Black Panther trials. She represented Peter Reilly, the Litchfield County teenager accused of murdering in his mother who was coerced by police to confess, convicted and sentenced to jail, and later declared innocent of the crime.

See the full story at The Litchfield County Times.


NW Connecticut History Center Is in Former Office of a Black Panthers Trial Attorney

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