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Dartmouth Cream Ale, made in Springfield, Massachusetts after prohibition ended, tried to build up its reputation by borrowing its name from the university. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut River Museum )
This temperance banner was borrowed from the Griswold Inn, which has a full collection of temperance banners, most of them local from places including Old Saybrook and Essex. This one was used by a temperance organization called The Coldwater Army, which was started as a children’s group by a minister who figured it was easier to influence children than adults already fond of imbibing. Children carried these banners in parades, tacked them up in school rooms, and wore little badges with the same sayings. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut River Museum )
Connecticut River Museum folklorist Stephen Gencarella ran across a story out of Hadley, Massachusetts in 1878 about a harvest of apples that was bountiful they piled up so high that they pressed on each other, and that, then, the river flowed with cider. The fable was turned into artwork by artist Sharon Houle, a recent graduate from Lyme Art Academy, for the exhibit. (Photo courtesy of Connecticut River Museum )
The Castle Hotel was located on Cornfield Point in Old Saybrook. Originally a magnificent mansion, it was later turned into a hotel and then played a central role in the rum-running trade during prohibition, since it had a perfect location on Long Island Sound and near the Connecticut River. In the 1920s it became a notorious speakeasy with its basement rooms and secret passageways. (Photo courtesy of Connecticut River Museum )
Several beer recipes come from the Connecticut River Museum’s archives, including one for spruce beer and another for cream of tartar beer. Both were intended in part for medicinal use and were examples of beer that might have been made in small batches and given to family members for stomach aches or indigestion. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut River Museum )
This ledger sheet shows how much Madeira just one vessel brought in. The fortified wine was very popular and was considered an upper-class treat. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut River Museum )
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The Connecticut River Museum on the banks of the Connecticut River in Essex has long been known for its exhibits relating to maritime history, and, related to that, the long history of prosperous trade in the Connecticut River valley. Not too long ago, while reviewing the history of trade between the valley and the West Indies, the curatorial staff came across some records relating to trade involved rum.
Thousands and thousands of gallons of rum.
That made Amy Trout, the Connecticut River Museum curator, wonder: What about cider? What about beer? What about whiskey? What about gin?
“And then we thought, well, OK, maybe there is something here that is worth a closer look,” she says.
They started an investigation that led to topics that were much more interesting than they even first imagined.
“From an agricultural point of view, from an industrial point of view, from an immigration point of view,” she says, “we were just floored by the richness of the material. It became clear to us that this was a great topic and one we would want to expand.”
The resultant exhibit The Thirsty River: 400 Years of Drink, Life, and Reform in the Connecticut River Valley, examines the past, present, and future of alcohol in the valley including its relationship to immigration, trade, slavery, and changing fashions of different eras. Temperance, Prohibition, and the effect of different reform movements are also included in the exhibit.
The Thirsty River will run through Oct. 8 at the museum, 67 Main Street, Essex. Associated with the exhibit is a map that shows the locations of breweries, cideries, wineries, and other related establishments all along the Connecticut River.
There are several special events coming up in conjunction with the exhibit:
• On Tuesday, Sept. 11, Trout will give a lecture on temperance and the effects of reform movements, with a focus on organizations including the Sons of Temperance and the Cold Water Army that proliferated throughout America during the 1840s and ’50s, along with the social, political, and economic issues relating to temperance.
• On Thursday, Oct. 11, garden research historian Christie Higginbottom will present “An Infinite Variety of Fruit” cider history talk and heirloom apple tasting.
“Hundreds of historic apple varieties were born in New England cider orchards from the early 1600s to the late 1800s. These apples comprise an extremely diverse collection with evocative names such as Roxbury Russet, Westfield Seek-No-Further, Sheepnose, Maiden’s Blush, and Hubbardston Nonesuch. This program will explore the roles played by apples at the table and on the farm landscape in the past. We will celebrate the revival of interest happening today by tasting a selection of heirloom varieties,” says Jennifer White Dobbs of the Connecticut River Museum.
• The museum also will offer at least one more “Thirsty River Cruise” aboard Onrust, a replica of Adriaen Block’s vessel, one of the first western-style ships built in the New World, with the specific date of that to be determined.
Immigrants Introduce Different Traditions
Alcohol has played an important role in the history of the Connecticut River valley for as far back as anyone can remember, Trout says.
“Well you know, we know alcohol came with the Europeans as they were settling in the valley. The Dutch also brought it when they were exploring. The English settlers brewed ale. They all brought their own drinking traditions with them,” she says.
And, then with the successive waves of immigration came different drinking traditions, including some that sparked the backlash known as Prohibition that was in part prompted about concern about the effect of intemperance on family life, and in part by concern about Irish and Italian and other immigrants in general, Trout says.
Cider is a focus on the exhibit, relating to an early Colonial period of the valley’s history. There is also a focus on beer, which was important for a while, then waned in influence, then regained prominence as Germans started to settle here. Then the Irish and Scots brought traditions relating to vodka, Scotch, and whiskey.
Trout says she was surprised to learn that in the mid-1800s, East Windsor was the gin capitol of the United States.
“I had no idea,” she says. “I didn’t know the gin story at all. Turns out that the East Windsor agricultural community was growing rye, juniper, and other agricultural products that were ideal for turning into gin. And this was not dry English-style gin. It was more of a Dutch genièvre...an old European-style gin, darker in color, and not at all like the English gin.”
In later years, there was a shift toward a more clear, dry gin, she says.
“It was very important for the economy in that area, because any farmer could start to distill it,” she says.
For apple growers, cider played a similar role.
“Windsor was known for its apple orchards,” she says. “Practically every farmer was making it and selling it. It added both to the individual families’ economy, and to the community’s economy. It was not at all frowned upon or considered a problem that it was alcohol.”
Finding appropriate artifacts for some of these historical moments wasn’t easy, in part because the activities were widely scattered across the state.
“The artifact search was a difficult challenge,” Trout says. “That was my primary job on the exhibit and I came to determine that, when you talk about the early breweries or cideries...we were dealing with agricultural towns. People often think of a brewery, and they think of a big brick building in the middle of an urban area, but in the Connecticut River valley at this time, these were breweries and cideries based in agricultural communities.”
So she tracked down account books of the farmers and merchants, and other records that talked about how much they were making, how they were making it, how much they were selling, and related information.
A Common Communal Experience
“And we found they were selling tons and tons of alcohol,” she says. “Thousands of gallons were being dispersed in these small towns, in general stores and taverns.”
In an effort to convey the role of both family farmers and the community in the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol, the museum also set up a small mock tavern scene, showing the place where someone in the community could not only buy a bowl of punch or a glass of ale, but also run into neighbors and collect their mail.
“It was a very common, communal experience,” Trout says.
In the centerpiece of the exhibit is a kiosk shaped like a barrel. There are also apple flip cards where exhibit attendees can test their knowledge of different kinds of apples used for cider.
“Certain apples were more popular than others,” she says. “It’s a fun test for people. Some of the varieties may be ones they’ve never heard of before.”
The exhibit shows how cider and beer were not only an important agricultural and economic commodity, but also substances that were important to the daily human experience, she says.
“If you think about it, the ultimate community unit is the family unit, and cider and beer were really important when it came to providing sustenance for the family. It was made by the family, and it was an important part of their diet,” she says. “I mean, the Puritans drank. It was not frowned upon. It was not considered sinful. It was considered something made by God and something that was an important part of the diet. The ultimate approval is when you have it in your family, and you share it from family to family, and with the community.”
Likewise, it was an important part of the tavern, a place where the public was coming and going.
“That was a very important center of the community. You went to the tavern and that’s where you got the news. You went to get information, you shared a drink. Every election day. Every celebration. Every business deal,” Trout says. “Everything was shared with alcohol.”
Around the 1830s, Americans peaked when it came to alcohol consumption, Trout says, but then, there was increasing concern about distilled spirits.
“That started to make people uneasy,” Trout says.
A Concern About Outsiders
Around the 1840s, temperance societies started to form.
“It was not just one individual reformer and it wasn’t just one movement,” Trout says. “It was a campaign to end, mostly, distilled spirits. Some became teetotalers, including no cider, no beer. But others said it was OK to drink those in moderation, but no distilled spirits.”
This related in part to overall concerns about immigration, among some of those who made up the temperance movement, she says.
“Yes, there was always a concern about what outsiders might be bringing, particularly if they were Catholic, and if they were of certain ethnic groups, like the Irish, the Italians, the Germans,” Trout says. “Particularly before World War I, there were many anti-salon leagues that were virulently anti-German.”
Trout said some tried to connect liquor and alcohol and the Kaiser.
“It was very anti-German. They were tooting a patriotic horn and saying, ‘Don’t drink! Don’t support those German breweries! They are all tied to the Kaiser anyway!’” she says. “It was very effective.”
The temperance movement was also associated with certain religious movements and targeted concern about what overconsumption of alcohol might do to men as the heads of households.
“There was a fear that alcohol was ruining families, and there was a strong religious tie-in,” she says. “The intemperate man left his family penniless and in the poor house. There was a great concern about men now spending too much time in taverns, and with what worried was the potential disappearance of family life and moral life.”
As immigration continued, and production became concentrated in river valley cities like Middletown, Hartford, and Springfield, those towns, and jobs associated with the alcohol industry became magnets for new immigrants.
“In particular with German immigration, you see the establishment of real true breweries, not just like in Colonial times, ladies brewing at home,” she says.
“All of the immigration all along the river brought their own traditions and tastes changed along with those change in society,” she says. “And with some of those changes came resistance.”
The Rum Trade
The river valley’s connection with the slave trade is also another important focus of the exhibit, Trout says.
“Oh my goodness, yes, well. The largest part of the story there is the rum trade with the Caribbean. We know our agricultural products from the valley were taken down on Connecticut-made ships to the West Indies,” Trout says. “At this time, the islands are in effect internationally owned by the Dutch, British, even the Scandinavians. And they had turned these beautiful islands into sugar manufacturies. That became their whole reason for existence for these people. Huge plantations with slaves, producing sugar cane.”
The merchants had to feed the people they had enslaved, and so Connecticut helped and profited by bringing agricultural products, livestock, other kinds of food, along with other products, including wood products.
“And that helped sustain a lot of those plantations,” she says. “And these ships would also bring back rum and molasses. And, oh, by the way, these merchants might buy a few slaves. And so this connected us directly with the slave traditions and the slave plantations. We helped influence it through this lucrative trade. Alcohol was the lubricant for this slave plantation system.”
In addition to the past, the exhibit also takes a look at the present and the future of alcohol in the Connecticut River valley. In many ways, there has been a gradual return over many years to craft breweries and boutique distilleries, and many are located in Connecticut and the Connecticut River valley, many of which are located on a map produced by the museum in conjunction with the exhibit.
“Well, one of the ways we got the exhibit funded is to get funders and sponsors and they are included on the map. They are, in many ways, the outcome of all of this rich history,” Trout says. “These are people who have decided that their passion is making beer, and not making beer like the big breweries but making it in a way that is more traditional. Maybe giving it more of a German influence, or more like an English ale. These are people who enjoy using different kinds of hops and ingredients, and making it a much more individual and unique drinking experience, as opposed to a Bud or other standards,” she says. “So many people are craving something more unique, and learning about the traditions.”
In addition to the trail map, the museum has been sponsoring tastings during the museums concert series Thursdays on the Dock.
“They come down here and serve beer, cider, fruit wines,” Trout says. “It’s just a way of getting the public exposed to their products, and to spread the word.”
The map also can be used as a game. Some of the sponsors have stamps and after the map gets stamped, it can be returned to the museum and traded for a prize.
As for the future?
“Well, we do touch on that,” she says. “Microbreweries had a fashion in the 1980s and ’90s, and then it dipped down. It was always dependent on the economy. But I think there’s a solid generation now into craft brewing, microbrewing, and distilling. And that’s planting a good seed for the future. No pun intended. It’s like it’s a generation of inventors. They love what they are doing, creating something new, every experimental and exciting. Building something from the ground up. It’s part of the great Yankee spirit of the Connecticut River valley.”
This exhibit is supported by Yankee Cider Co.–Staehly Farms Winery and Connecticut Humanities. Additional sponsors include Copper Cannon Distillery, John Fitch Distilling, Griswold Inn, Still Hill Brewery and Tap Room, and Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery.
The Connecticut River Museum is located on the Essex waterfront at 67 Main Street and is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The museum, located in the Steamboat Dock building, offers exhibits and programs about the history and environment of the Connecticut River. For a full listing of museum programs and events, visit www.ctrivermuseum.org or call 860-767-8269.
Editor's Note: "Scotch" is a liquid. "Scots" refers to people, those whose origin is in Scotland. That was clarified in this article on Aug. 10, 2018. Thank you to the reader who called in to remind us of that.