The Meeting House – the heart to a colonial town – routinely appears at the early stages of the histories of New England towns. Town leaders gather, agree to build a meeting house – for worship and other civic purposes – and the town is off and running.
But the new meeting house didn’t always come together so smoothly. Poor construction, leadership squabbling, fire – all were threats to the early meeting house. And Bridgewater, Connecticut was a typical example of how not to build a meeting house.
Bridgewater spun off from the town of New Milford. The area that is Bridgewater today was settled as early as 1722, but its inhabitants were generally called upon to attend the church at New Milford – and to support it with tax payments.
Over time, the arrangement began to annoy the Bridgewaterans who didn’t like travelling all the way to New Milford. In 1788 the Baptists had established a presence in Bridgewater, and the fast-acting Baptists had a church built by 1789.
So the Congregationalists began pushing to build a local church of their own – perhaps to thwart the growth of the more convenient Baptist church. The town of New Milford is still – even after having other towns split off from it – one of the largest towns in Connecticut in terms of land area.
The distances that the residents of Bridgewater – then called the Neck – had to travel to church was a source of annoyance for them. Some had been granted permission to send their money not to the local church but to a neighboring town, which was more convenient.
In 1803, the separatist movement made another run at independence and Andrew Minor was an active supporter of the group. The group recommended that the local citizenry be granted their own town – with boundary lines carved out of New Milford – and that they raise $2,500 for the support of their new village to be held by the treasurer.
Late in 1803, the Connecticut government approved the committee to begin the work of forming the new town and to send negotiators to New Milford’s First Ecclesiastical Society to formalize the division. That’s when things started to bog down.
Samuel Orcutt notes in his History of the Towns of New Milford and Bridgewater, Connecticut, 1703-1882 that at its first meeting in November1803, the committee accomplished little. “. . . possibly there was so much talking to be done that but little progress could be made, a failing which has sometimes befallen even the Congress of the United States,” he said.
But by January of 1804, forward progress was reported again. The committee planned to build a new meeting house, hire a minister and tax its members for the expense. Eli Smith and Benjamin Mead were appointed to buy lumber for the new meeting house.
A year later, however, the committee declared that it did not accept the lumber Smith and Mead had purchased, without specifically stating why they found it substandard. Meanwhile Abijah Treat and Samuel Lockwood had been appointed to negotiate with the church at New Milford regarding funding for the new church and its location.
That ended badly, as well, with the new society firing Treat and Lockwood from their appointed posts noting they “regretted the doings of Abijah Treat and Samuel Lockwood.”
The end of 1805 found the new committee mired in a dispute over where and how to fund its meeting house. The committee now turned to the county legislature to mediate the dispute and a group of men from neighboring towns declared that it would site the new meeting house at Cranberry Pond.
Andrew Minor was the lucky man who had been appointed to mediate the issue of where to locate the meeting house and as a reward (or punishment?) for his success in 1807 he was appointed treasurer for the committee and it empowered the construction to go forward.
By 1807 the work was under way on a building 52-feet by 40-feet, and the committee petitioned the legislature to run a lottery to pay for it. Lotteries were common in those days as they are today as a way to generate funds without taxation.
In 1808, the committee held its first meeting at its new meeting house, even though it wasn’t yet completed. Nevertheless, there was one last eruption to come.
The lottery raised some money and the legislature renewed it in 1813 with Minor still in charge. Not knowing much about the workings of a lottery, Minor hired an agent to run the lottery and collect the funds from people wagering in it. Minor’s agent skipped town with the greater portion of the lottery’s money, leaving Minor on the hook personally for the meeting house.
With some taxes and the contribution of the better part of Minor’s fortune to the cause, the meeting house was finally finished. Minor would leave town seeking to restore his fortunes, the meeting house would be damaged in 1817 when it was hit by lightning. By this time he Baptists had pulled up stakes and the town of Bridgewater would remain part of New Milford for nearly 40 more years.