Apr 9, 2012
09:02 AM
Discover Connecticut

Connecticut From A to Woodstock: Bethel

 
Connecticut From A to Woodstock: Bethel

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Tucked away in the southwestern corner of the state, Bethel is one of those places that when mentioned, those not familiar with it sometimes mistake for somewhere else. "Bethany? Bethlehem? Berlin?"

We know it for many reasons, among them having a busy, hip downtown area and for being the birthplace of legendary showman P.T. Barnum. Of course, there are other places to see and things to do that make it a worthwhile destination.

Where is it? As mentioned, Bethany is located in the southwestern corner of Connecticut, adjacent to Danbury and just a little north of the panhandle (or "the tail").

What's it like? Bethany is like many Connecticut suburbs, a mix of retail establishments and plenty of private residences spread across its 17 square miles. The town's downtown area is officially known as The Greenwood Avenue Historic District, is on the National Register of Historic Places and includes "a number of shops, several restaurants, a former opera house, a public library, and a church." The population is just over 18,000, the majority of which commute to other nearby bigger places to work, such as Danbury, Stamford or New York City.

Brief history The first colonists settled Danbury in the late 17th century, and then eventually spread into what's now Bethel around 1700. In 1759, the First Ecclesiastical Society of Bethel was formed, and the area was a parish of Danbury for almost a century. On June 21, 1855, it finally won official recognition from the state as an independent entity, becoming Connecticut's 154th town. It took its name from the Hebrew, meaning "house of God." Since it was long a part of Danbury, Bethel shared in becoming a center for the hat-making industry, at one time having four different factories dedicated to producing hats. For a more detailed history, visit Bethel Friends and Neighbors online.

Birth of an American icon As mentioned, Bethel is the birthplace of Phineas Taylor Barnum, who was born at 28 Elm Street on July 5, 1810. Given Barnum's unsurpassed skills for hyperbole and promotion, it's surprising that the headline of the Connecticut Journal on that day wasn't "The Great Barnum is Born" in 72-point type.

Drive in destination When editor Charles Monagan did our Connecticut's "Dishes To Try Before You Die" in 2009, included was the Sycamore Drive In's fabled Dagwood burger: "A big burger with all the trimmings served in the unbeatable atmosphere of a must-visit drive-in from another era. Go on a scheduled Cruise Night for the full effect. Try the homemade root beer, too."

Bikes and batteries Although no longer a center for hats, Bethel is also home for the corporate headquarters of Cannondale bicycles and Duracell batteries, although neither product is actually manufactured in Connecticut.

Barnum day Here's an exclusive excerpt from the manuscript my upcoming book, Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Connecticut History, which dedicates one chapter to "lovable jerk" P.T. Barnum. (From Globe Pequot Press, due out in September 2012.)

In 1831, Barnum started his own newspaper in Danbury, the Herald of Freedom and Truth, which he used to further his own agenda, including his strong belief in universalism. He also used it to “speak the truth” as he saw it about other members in the community, including one Deacon Seth Seeley, who accused Barnum of libel and won. Barnum was consequently fined $100 and sentenced to serve 60 days in jail.

Being incarcerated didn’t deter Barnum from continuing to edit his newspaper or holding court from his cell, entertaining dozens of visitors. At his liberation from jail on December 5, 1832, Barnum modestly orchestrated a grand spectacle to celebrate the freedom of the press that, according to The New York Times, included a band, a choir, a committee of “prominent citizens,” many speeches and toasts. It was followed by an enormous procession that featured 40 horsemen, 60 private carriages and Barnum himself in a special coach drawn by six horses, which paraded the three miles from the courthouse in Danbury to Barnum’s home in Bethel.

Obviously, the penal system had done its job in reforming him.
 

Connecticut From A to Woodstock: Bethel

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