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Conn. town preserves a history built on ivory

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / April 17, 2005

ESSEX, Conn. -- It has been called the best small town in America, but there is a dark -- and fascinating -- chapter in this town's otherwise proud history. For almost 100 years, starting in 1850, 90 percent of all the ivory imported to the United States from Africa was shipped to a village of Essex that came to be known as Ivoryton or to nearby Deep River.

The trade involved the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of elephants and altered the course of evolution. Mature elephants with the largest tusks were the first to be killed, leaving behind immature elephants with a smaller chance of survival and smaller-tusked elephants to reproduce. Native Africans carried the 100-plus-pound tusks by hand to ports; thousands died or were sold into slavery along the way.

The primary destination was Comstock, Cheney & Co., a large mill complex on the Falls River. Essex had built a reputation as a manufacturer of buttons and combs made from bones and bovine horns. It had deep-port access to the ocean and water power from the Falls. And in 1799 Phineas Pratt had patented a machine to cut comb teeth, streamlining a laborious process that had been done by hand.

Add the Victorian Age requirement that every young lady learn to play piano, and the stage was set for the large-scale manufacture of ivory piano keys and actions, along with combs, billiard balls, knitting needles, and toothpicks. In its heyday, Comstock, Cheney & Co. employed about 1,000 people. It created the quintessential factory town with a school, library, company store, social hall, and housing appropriate to the status of its employees.

Ivoryton is one of three villages of Essex. Remnants of the former factory town include Victorian mansions along Main Street once occupied by company executives, modest homes built for workers, a library that has changed little since 1889, and the Ivoryton Playhouse, erected in 1911 as a social and meeting space for Comstock, Cheney & Co. With its flat land suitable for farming, the village of Centerbrook drew the earliest settlers, in the late 1600s, when the area was called Potapoug. Today, Centerbrook is regaining its economic prominence, with an influx of stores, banks, and small industrial parks. Essex Village, with its shipbuilding legacy, historical homes, museums, and shops, lures the most visitors.

The past and present will be on display Saturday through May 6 in a photo exhibit titled ''Images of Essex" at the Essex Art Association, 10 North Main St., Essex Village. Sponsored by the Ivoryton Library Association, the multimedia exhibition will include old and new photos, a slideshow of some 300 old postcards, and a movie ''Tied to the River."

The goal of the exhibition, said Ivoryton Library Association director Robbi Storms, is ''to capture the essence of life in the three Essex villages today in a series of new photographs, taken in a pseudo-documentary style, and to contrast this new work with images taken in years past."

If you ask town historian Don Malcarne, the 1995 designation as the best small town in America was the worst thing that ever happened to Essex. A book by Norm Crampton examined towns with populations between 4,000 and 14,000 and ranked them on eight criteria, such as the percentage of the town budget spent on education. Essex came out on top and the book, said Malcarne, sent real estate prices soaring. New developments such as Foxboro Point and Winterberry (in Deep River on the Essex line) sprang up. Prices for waterfront property increased to as much as $1 million an acre. Small houses were razed and mansions erected.

''The culture of Essex has changed more in the last 20 years than in the previous 200," Malcarne said.

I had the good fortune to spend half a day touring the villages of Essex with Malcarne, a lifelong resident who taught archeology and the history of architecture for many years at Wesleyan University in Middletown. Villages are demographic rather than political entities, he explained, built around a geographic or economic commonality. While under the same municipal government, Essex, Centerbrook, and Ivoryton each has a post office and ZIP code and a Main Street. There are libraries in Ivoryton and Essex.

We started our tour on Main Street in Essex Village, an attractive mix of beautifully restored historical houses set close to the road, shops, restaurants, and galleries. Birdhouses on the lawns of some of the houses reproduced in miniature the elaborate homes. The village's houses of worship are clustered along Prospect Street in an area formerly called Church Hill; one of the most interesting is the First Baptist Church, an Egyptian Revival structure built in 1846. If you stare at it long enough, you can see the outline of the Sphinx. The weather vane seems out of place; Malcarne said the Colonial gold-leaf dome and weather vane replaced a steeple that fell off in 1925.

The Connecticut River Museum sits at the foot of Main Street, in a warehouse on what used to be the steamboat landing. Exhibits include ship models, manifests, and navigation tools; a full-scale working reproduction of the ''Turtle," the country's first submarine, a clunky, wooden, egg-shaped vessel; and a display from Comstock, Cheney & Co. of ivory combs, hairpins, buttons, and two elephant tusks. In the boathouse children can try on fur trappers' clothing, touch models, identify animal tracks, and dig for archeological treasures in the sand. The vessel River Quest plies the nearby waters looking for bald eagles and migratory birds.

Leaving Essex Village on Grove Street, you pass Grove Cemetery, the small but ostentatious resting place of members of the Hayden family, decorated with ornate Egyptian obelisk monuments.

''As a culture dies," Malcarne said, ''artifacts of that culture become more elaborate and more self-serving." By 1840, the shipbuilding culture the Haydens had been so much a part of was dying in Essex; this cemetery was their last chance to commemorate it and themselves.

Along Centerbrook's Main Street (Route 154), you can catch a glimpse of the airfield Howard Hughes used when he was courting Katharine Hepburn and see the original Congregational Church, built in 1790. The handsome brick building at 67 Main St. on the Falls River, occupied by Centerbrook Architects, was originally a drill bit shop powered by the river.

The Ivoryton Library, built by Comstock, Cheney & Co. in 1889, is a gem. The main reading room features a brick fireplace and leaded-glass windows in amber and purple. In the foyer are two 5-foot elephant tusks and a display of ivory objects including buttons, piano keys, dice, and cufflinks.

You can drive by the former Comstock, Cheney & Co., now an industrial park, and the original men's dormitory, now Cugino's Restaurant. On the hill across the street is the occasional boxy, two- or three-story house the company built for immigrant workers, a sharp contrast to the mansions along Main Street where company owners and executives lived. The Museum of Fife & Drum is in the former Polish Falcons Club, a social club for Polish factory workers. The Ivoryton Playhouse produces live theater year round.

Local historians feel a certain ambivalence toward the town's ivory legacy, said Storms.

''For all the pride of achievement and the opportunities it created for immigrants," she said, ''it involved a great deal of suffering -- serious suffering." The book she coauthored with Malcarne, ''Around Essex: Elephants and River Gods" (Arcadia Publishing, 2001) is dedicated to the curator of the Deep River Historical Society ''and to the elephants that were killed before our communal consciousness was raised."

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ealbanese@globe.com.

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