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Preserving Newtown’s History Is A Centuries-Long Quest

Nearly a century separates the lives of the man recognized as Newtown’s first historian, Ezra Levan Johnson, and Newtown’s first official historian, Daniel Cruson, but uncanny similarities between the two men make them brethren.

Both teachers, Mr Johnson spent the majority of his teaching career at South Center and Sandy Hook School districts, and served on the Board of School Visitors for 58 years, until his death in 1914. Mr Cruson retired in 2005 from Joel Barlow High School in Redding, after teaching in the history department there for 37 years.

Mr Johnson was a member of the Men’s Club, as is Mr Cruson.

In 1905, Mr Johnson served on the committee for the celebration of Newtown’s Bicentennial, and as “historian of the day,” according to a tribute to Mr Johnson published at his death. One hundred years later, Daniel Cruson served on the committee for Newtown’s Tercentennial celebration.

“Mr Johnson was, in ancestry, linked by blood to many of Newtown’s early families, and it was a happy Providence that turned his patient industry, his unrequited toil, his faithful research to the early, musty records of his native town,” wrote Newtown Bee editor Reuben Hazen Smith at Mr Johnson’s passing at age 82. “How many a Newtown man or woman in distant spot had memory thrilled and information furnished, as Mr Johnson and his loyal wife stopped in with words of cheer and good will… Mr Johnson seemed to have drunk from the fountain of perennial youth, so active his mind… His fellow citizens recognized this unfailing buoyancy of mind…” continued Mr Smith’s words of praise.

While not a native of Newtown, Mr Cruson was born in 1945 and raised in nearby Easton, the son of Daniel Cruson, Jr, and Brenda Cruson.

“As long as I can remember, finding out about the past and the town has fascinated me,” Mr Cruson said in a recent interview.

“I became a charter member of the Easton Historical Society in 1968,” he said. Turning out a 300-page tome of Easton’s involvement in the Revolutionary War for that organization, including the war records of all of Easton’s veteran, was “the project that set me off,” he recalled. He moved to Newtown in 1970. “My interest spread now, to Newtown,” Mr Cruson said.

For Mr Johnson, it was a souvenir booklet including a brief history of Newtown, which he gave as a public address for the bicentennial, that appears to have catapulted him into the place of revered historian. “It was the first comprehensive sketch of Newtown history, and the research for that got him interested in Newtown history,” said Mr Cruson. “[Mr Johnson] started publishing histories on the front page of The Bee,” a business with which Mr Johnson had an ongoing relationship, as does Mr Cruson in present day. Both historians found the local paper to be a means of conveying their historical discoveries to the general population, and used the paper’s past issues as a source of historical information.

It is a devotion to making Newtown’s history appreciated by and available to the town’s residents, however, that makes these men kin.

 

Different Approaches

But despite their commonalities, there is a decidedly different approach to parsing Newtown’s history to the townspeople between them. Today’s reader might find Mr Johnson’s publications unwieldy, Mr Cruson said. “He was what we call an antiquarian historian,” he said, meaning that Newtown’s first historian tended to publish antique documents in whole. A modern historian, such as Mr Cruson, is more scientific in his/her research, and apt to condense information from a large document into a more user-friendly form.

“I spend more time interpreting than my predecessors did. I’m more interested in the stories about the people here, and why they did what they did,” Mr Cruson said.

Ezra L. Johnson is best known through the book Newtown 1705–1918, a collection of the many essays published in The Newtown Bee over his lifetime. “When [Ezra Johnson] died in 1914, his wife Jane Eliza [nee Camp] decided to publish all of the writings, as a whole. She adds her own essay, ‘The Domestic Economy of Our Mothers, a genealogy section, and the list of Newtown resident’s sworn to the Freeman’s Oath,” Mr Cruson said. Mrs Johnson, however much research she did herself, would have cringed at the idea that she was a historian. “That,” Mr Cruson said, “was her husband’s title.”

Mr Cruson points to this collection as invaluable to understanding Newtown’s place in time. “It is a great source of information that would otherwise be hard to get hold of,” he noted.

There were other people who fed information to Mr Johnson, and who had an effect on Newtown, Mr Cruson said. Between the time of Mr Johnson’s death and the appointment of Mr Cruson as town historian in 1994, “interesting Colonial history of Newtown was sometimes alluded to by ministers,” he said. Even before Mr Johnson took it upon himself to put Newtown’s history in writing, Town Clerk Charles Henry Peck was creating his own trove of Newtown history, Mr Cruson said.

“He lived in what is called the Balcony House on Main Street, and he started collecting Newtown memorabilia. He had a tremendous amount of material, because people would clear out their attics and bring it to him. The first floor of his house,” Mr Cruson has discovered in his own research on the town’s history, “became a kind of first Newtown museum.”

When Mr Peck’s adopted son, Arthur T. Nettleton, became involved in putting together the C.H. Booth Library in the 1930s, a good deal of that collection was given to the library.

“With Peck, it was more about ‘things,’ with the occasional publication in The Bee in the 1890s about his collections,” said Mr Cruson of the earliest of Newtown’s history-minded residents. “He was a historian in the sense that he ferreted out the stories behind the things he collected, when he could. He was not a systematic historian, by any means,” he said.

Susan Scudder was another early resident of Newtown interested in preserving the town’s history, mainly through her involvement with the Congregational Church. “In 1914 she wrote a history of the Congregational Church, and it is magnificent,” Mr Cruson praised his fellow historian. “She was writing about just one institution, but hers is a history of one of the most important institutions in Colonial Newtown,” he said.

 

Town Historian

Fast forwarding to 1994, the town Legislative Council had created a position of town historian, in accordance with recent state legislation encouraging towns to have an official historian, a move supported by the Newtown Historical Society. Having been a member of the society since the mid-1970s, and being a resident already familiar with and intrigued by the town’s history, Mr Cruson was elected to that position.

Inspired by his mentor Fran Mellon of the Easton Historical Society, who had published reminisces on Easton in newsletters there, Mr Cruson was sparked to do a similar thing for Newtown. Although the society had published a newsletter “mostly of facts” since 1966, in 1989 Mr Cruson took over the newsletter and started adding essays.

To date, he has published more than 120 essays on Newtown’s fortunes and misfortunes, in the Rooster’s Crow. The publication became a primary vehicle, he said, for getting historical information out to the town. Many of the essays from the quarterly newsletter were collected into a book, A Mosaic of Newtown History, for the 2005 Newtown Tercentennial.

Mr Cruson’s other writings put him hand in hand with Mr Johnson’s prolific journaling. He has produced two photographic histories of Newtown, entitled Newtown, and Newtown 1900–1960; has written numerous pamphlets, including ones on Newtown’s benefactress Mary E. Hawley, Newtown’s schools, and Mary Hawley’s great-grandfather William Edmond; and a history of the C.H. Booth Library and a history of Newtown Savings Bank, for its 150th anniversary. He has also published photographic histories of other area towns, The Slaves of Central Fairfield County, and a prehistory of Fairfield County. Most recently, Mr Cruson published Legendary Locals of Newtown, a photographic history of Newtown’s movers and shakers, but including more prose than his previous photographic histories.

Along with his ardor for collecting the tales of Newtown’s people and places, Mr Cruson has indulged in a related passion for years.

“Archeology has always been a love of mine,” he confessed. “Those kinds of discoveries create an unmatched high.”

A childhood visit with his father to a Native American campsite near what is now Lake Lillinonah jumpstarted his interest in archeology, Mr Cruson said. Church picnics to Putnam Park with his grandfather included poking about the Revolutionary War ruins there “and knowing intuitively even then, there must be materials there,” he said. That suspicion was confirmed nearly 40 years later, when he led a dig with his Joel Barlowe High School students at that site.

“One of the first archeological digs I was involved with in Newtown was off of Flat Swamp Road, around 1972,” he recalled, “where we discovered artifacts going back 8,000 years in a meadow there. I’ve been poking at things ever since.” Artifacts often stimulate research that leads to stories, he pointed out.

 

Discoveries Large And Small

Town historians are responsible for discoveries large and small, but all of them important in piecing together a town’s history, Mr Cruson said. “The details of Edmond’s life was a delightful discovery,” he said, as was the history of a more obscure Newtown resident, Abijah Curtis. “Curtis was a very well-known, leading figure in the War of 1812, and led a regiment of Newtown men. He was relatively unknown, though, until I reconstructed his story while researching the War of 1812,” Mr Cruson said.

Then there is the discovery of an 18th–19th Century alewife fishing aqua culture along the Housatonic in Newtown, he said, which is a facet of early American life, up through the Civil War.

Like Mr Johnson, he draws on past issues of The Newtown Bee as a source of information, as well as delving into Probate Court and land records, town clerk records, and information from the assessor’s office, and church records. “Another big area of resource is the Newtown Historical Society collections,” he said, where diaries spill private stories and store ledgers are “a goldmine of information in workforce changes over the centuries.”

Why a town’s history is important to present and future generations can be found in a quote from Roman philosopher Cicero, Mr Cruson said: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to live the life of a child forever.” That naivety continues into adulthood, Mr Cruson clarified, without knowledge from the past.

Reuben Hazen Smith, in the foreword to Newtown 1705–1918, wrote of Mr Johnson’s devotion to preserving history for future generations. “It is but the plain truth that no man was so well equipped for the task which Mr Johnson set for himself with such unflagging zeal, both in his own knowledge of Newtown’s past and in his painstaking search into local records, as well as those of the Colony, State and Nation.”

Mr Johnson’s own words, captured in another foreword to his essays, reflect on history and its continual flow, and his pride in Newtown’s contribution to a broader history of the nation and world. “And who dare question the truth of the statement that the New England stock of this country is the backbone of the nation? On land and sea, wherever our flag floats, nine-tenths of them, including the gentler sex as well, have made, and are still making good their ancestral training in the old New England homes. We are glad when our young people marry and settle in the ancestral homes, or take the homes of those whose family name has died out, and, with the cooperation of mother, wives or sisters and in the home life, help to build and strengthen the nation,” he wrote, “for in the homes of its people rests the prosperity and perpetuity of the nation.”

The perpetuity of Newtown rests in his hands, as town historian, said Mr Cruson, and as such he has set goals for himself. “I want to get the collections of the Newtown Historical Society gathered all in one place. I’m organizing the letter collection we have. I want to get it in digital format and make it more easily available [to the public],” he said. Any information moved to digital format will be regularly updated, he said, adding that to many people’s surprise, a paper document properly preserved survives longer than a computer program, unless that program is updated.

He sees his job as one of gathering and preserving Newtown’s history, assisting in historic queries, and in educating the town, “especially the children, by presenting historic material so that they can understand their own heritage,” he said. He does this through annual walking tours of various sections of town, the Holiday Festival trolley tours, and tours of Edmond Town Hall for school children.

Office hours on most Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at the Edmond Town Hall make the town historian more accessible to the population, too, he said.

As much as Mr Cruson believes knowledge of history enriches the lives of all, he believes his role as town historian has enriched his own life. “You make connections, which is the purpose of education. There is a tremendous satisfaction not only in finding out and knowing,” he said, “but in being able to share it with other people.”

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