East Windsor Hill Post Office, South Windsor, Connecticut

The East Windsor Hill Post Office in South Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The scene in 2022:

These two photos show the post office at 1865 Main Street in the East Windsor Hill neighborhood of South Windsor. The building dates back to 1757, when Jeremiah Bullard constructed the one-story section on the left side. He operated a store there, and then in the 1760s David Bissell built the two-story section on the right side, where he likewise had a store.

The building was used by a variety of businesses during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it is perhaps best known for its claim of being the oldest continuously-operating post office in the country. As indicated on the historical marker on the building, the store “received the first government post rider in 1783.” However, the building was not officially designated as a post office until 1837, so it seems questionable whether occasional post rider visits would qualify it as being a true post office, much less one that was in “continuous use.” A stronger contender for the oldest continuously-used post office would seem to be the one in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, which has been located in the same building since 1816.

Either way, though, the East Windsor Hill post office is definitely still among the oldest existing post offices in the country, and the building itself is a rare surviving example of a colonial-era commercial building. The top photo shows the building around the late 1930s, and it has seen only minor exterior changes since then. These include removing the shutters on the left side and installing new windows on the right side, both of which were likely done to improve the historical accuracy of the building. Today, the building remains in use as a post office, and it is part of the East Windsor Hill Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Ebenezer Grant House, South Windsor, Connecticut

The Ebenezer Grant House on Main Street in South Windsor, Connecticut, around 1934-1937. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2022:

The East Windsor Hill neighborhood of South Windsor has many well-preserved 18th and early 19th century homes along Main Street, but perhaps the most celebrated of these is the Ebenezer Grant House, shown here in these two photos. Long recognized as an architectural masterpiece, the house exemplifies the type of homes that were built for the upper class families of the Connecticut River Valley during the mid-18th century.

This house was built around 1757-1758 by Ebenezer Grant (1706-1797), a prosperous merchant who lived in what was, at the time, the eastern part of the town of Windsor. Although located many miles from the ocean, this area is near the head of navigation for oceangoing vessels on the Connecticut River, and Grant was heavily involved in the West Indies trade. He exported commodities such as horses, lumber, tobacco, staves, bricks, and barrel hoops to Barbados and other West Indies ports, and in return imported rum, molasses, sugar, and indigo.

Grant also built several merchant ships here in modern-day South Windsor, near the mouth of the Scantic River, and he was a part owner in many other ships. It does not seem clear as to whether Grant was directly involved in the slave trade, but most of the goods that he imported and exported were closely tied to the plantation economies of the Caribbean colonies.

Aside from trading bulk commodities and other raw materials, Grant also purchased wholesale consumer goods, which he then sold here in his hometown. He had accounts with many of the leading colonial-era merchants in Boston and New York, including John Hancock. Around 1767 he built a store just to the south of his house, and there he sold “dry goods, rum, groceries, hardware, and fancy articles,” according to Henry Reed Stiles in his book History and Genealogies of Ancient Windsor, Connecticut.

Ebenezer Grant’s wealth and social standing were reflected in his house, which was built when he was in his early 50s. Its overall form, with four windows and a door on the ground floor and five windows above them, was typical for houses of the period in this region. But, unlike many of the other mid-18th century houses, it has two chimneys in the main part of the house, rather than a single large chimney in the center. This design choice enabled the house to have a large front entrance hall and staircase, rather than a small entryway with a winding staircase that was typical for the center-chimney homes.

This house is also different from most of its contemporaries in its exterior detail. Most homes of this period were relatively plain on the exterior, but the Grant house included details such as pediments over the first floor windows on the front of the house, and similar pediments over the side doors, which are not visible in these photos. Overall, though, its most famous feature is the highly elaborate front doorway, as shown in these two photos. Often referred to as a “Connecticut Valley doorway,” this style of doorway was perhaps the single most important architectural innovation to be developed in western New England. There were many variations on the design, some with or without the scroll pediment above the door, but the one on the Grant house is among the finest in the region. It is also one of only a handful of scroll pediment doorways that are still on their original houses; many homes were demolished or altered over the years, and several similar doorways are now on display in museums.

As was often the case for 18th century New England homes, the Grant house also included a wing, or an “ell” on the back of the house. These were often added years or decades after the house was built, to accommodate growing families. However, the ell on the Grant house might be even older than the house itself. Some sources, including Stiles’s book, cite a tradition that say the ell was built by Ebenezer Grant’s father Samuel Grant in the late 17th century as a house, and was later moved and incorporated into the new house when it was built in the 1750s. Other sources, though, including the 1900 book Early Connecticut Houses: An Historical and Architectural Study, are skeptical of this theory. It seems more likely that the ell was built at the same time as the main house, perhaps using old timbers that had been repurposed from the previous house.

Ebenezer Grant and his first wife Ann (1712-1783) had six children, although four died young, including three who died within a month and a half of each other in the fall of 1747. By the time they moved into this house in the late 1750s they had two surviving children: a son Roswell (1745-1834) and a daughter Ann (1748-1838). As the only surviving son, Roswell would go on to become a partner in his father’s merchant firm, following his graduation from Yale in 1767. He went on to serve as an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, and after the war he married Flavia Wolcott, whose uncle Oliver Wolcott Sr. had been one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

In the meantime, Ebenezer Grant’s wife Ann died in 1783, and a year later he remarried to Jemima Ellsworth. She was the widow of David Ellsworth, and she was also the mother of Oliver Ellsworth, a lawyer who later went on to become a U.S. Senator and Chief Justice of the United States. Jemima died in 1790 at the age of 67, and Ebenezer continued to live here in this house until hos own death in 1797 at the age of 91.

After his death, the house would remain in the Grant family for many years. His grandson Frederick W. Grant later inherited the house, and he lived here throughout most of the 19th century. In his book, Stiles credited Frederick with restoring and preserving the house, which was recognized as an important landmark even as early as the late 19th century. By this point the Grant family had also become famous, due to Ebenezer’s great-great-great nephew Ulysses S. Grant, who was descended from Ebenezer’s older brother Noah.

The top photo was taken sometime around the late 1930s, as part of an effort to document historic homes across Connecticut. By this point the house had seen some alterations, including the addition of an enclosed porch on the left side and the installation of shutters on the windows. Both the porch and shutters were apparently installed around the late 19th or early 20th centuries, since they were not present in a c.1890 photo of the house.

Those changes were later reversed, and today the exterior of the house better reflects its original 18th century design. It stands as an important architectural landmark in the Connecticut River Valley, and it is a contributing property in the East Windsor Hill Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Jonathan Cogswell House, South Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 1748 Main Street in South Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

Jonathan Cogswell was born in 1782 in Rowley, Massachusetts, and was the son of Dr. Nathaniel Cogswell, a local physician. He graduated from Harvard in 1806, followed by Andover Theological Seminary, and in 1810 he was ordained as pastor of the Congregational church in Saco, Maine. A year later, he married Elizabeth Abbott, whose uncle, Samuel Abbott, was a wealthy merchant who had been one of the founders of the Andover Theological Seminary.

The Cogswells lived in Saco for 18 years, until Jonathan resigned in 1828 because of the mental and physical strain of the ministry. He and Elizabeth moved to New York City with their four daughters, but the following year he accepted a position as pastor in New Britain, Connecticut, where he remained until 1834, when he left to join the faculty of the newly-established Theological Institute of Connecticut.

The school was located in what was, at the time, part of East Windsor, and in 1834 Cogswell built this elaborate Greek Revival-style mansion directly across the street from the school. With its massive columned portico, it stands out among the mostly Colonial and Federal-style homes in the village of East Windsor Hill, and reflected his wealth and social standing. He taught church history at the school, and served as the chair of the ecclesiastical history department for the next 10 years.

In 1837, a few years after moving to East Windsor, Elizabeth died, and later in the year Jonathan remarried to Jane Kirkpatrick, the daughter of the late Andrew Kirkpatrick, who had served for many years as the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. They had two children together, and during their time in East Windsor his daughter Elizabeth was also married, to James Dixon, a lawyer from Enfield who went on to serve as a U.S. Representative and Senator.

Jonathan Cogswell remained in East Windsor until 1844, when he retired from teaching and moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey. He sold his mansion to the school, and it became the home of the president, Dr. Bennet Tyler. A year younger than Cogswell, he had graduated from Yale and served as a pastor in Connecticut before becoming president of Dartmouth College from 1822 to 1828. He subsequently returned to Connecticut, where he was one of the founders of the Theological Institute a few years later.

Tyler served as president of the school until his retirement in 1857, and he died a year later. Then, in 1865, the school moved to Hartford, where it eventually became the modern-day Hartford Seminary. The original campus here in East Windsor Hill has since been demolished, and today this house is the only surviving building from the school. Along with the rest of the neighborhood, it is now part of the East Windsor Hill Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Captain May House, South Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 1732 Main Street in South Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

Like the neighboring Moses Wells House, this house dates back to the 1700s, although the exact date of construction seems unclear. Various sources indicate that it was built in 1700, 1740, 1750, and 1780, with perhaps the most authoritative of these sources, National Register of Historic Places inventory, dating it to 1700. This date is certainly plausible, as its saltbox-style design was common in New England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and if accurate it would make this house one of the oldest in South Windsor.

The original owner is identified as a Captain May, who was apparently involved in trade with the West Indies. Such merchants were not uncommon in 18th century East Windsor, which at the time included modern-day South Windsor. The town is about as far upstream as ocean-going ships can travel on the Connecticut River, and the trade helped to bring prosperity to the village of East Windsor Hill. The result was a number of fine 18th century homes along Main Street, many of which were far more elegant than this relatively modest saltbox home.

By the time the first photo was taken, the house was in somewhat rough condition. On the interior, much of the paneling was original to the house, but by the 1930s it was not well-maintained. The exterior of the house also showed its age, as seen with the deteriorating and missing shutters, as well as the suspiciously warped roof. However, the house has since been restored, and now stands as an excellent example of an 18th century saltbox home. Along with the other homes in the village, it is part of the East Windsor Hill Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Moses Wells House, South Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 1712 Main Street in South Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

The exact date of construction for this house seems somewhat uncertain, with different sources providing widely varying dates. The National Register of Historic Places inventory lists it as having been built in 1735 and the first owner as Nathan Day, but the WPA survey, done when the first photo was taken, lists three possible years, including 1780, 1680, and the impossibly early date of 1635. According to this survey, an ell likely dates back to the 17th century, while the main portion of the house was built later.

The 1735 date also seems too early for this style of house, which closely resembles the 1784 Jonathan Ellsworth House on the other side of the Connecticut River. Because of this, the 1780 date seems the most likely, and it appears to have been built for Moses Wells, a local hat merchant. At the time, the house was in the town of East Windsor, but in 1845 it became part of South Windsor when the new town was created.

The subsequent ownership of the house seems unclear, but by the time the first photo was taken it had seen some changes to the exterior, including the small front porch, the side porch, and a new front door. About 80 years later, however, much of the exterior has been restored, including removing the porches, adding Georgian-style window lintels, and installing historically appropriate doors and windows. Along with the other houses in the neighborhood, it now forms part of the East Windsor Hill Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

John Watson House, South Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 1876 Main Street, at the corner of Sullivan Avenue in South Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2023:

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many wealthy New Englanders built large, ornate, three-story mansions such as these, usually with symmetrical facades, hip roofs, Palladian windows, and other Federal-style architectural features. However, most of these mansions were built in prosperous coastal seaports, such as Salem, Providence, and Portsmouth, and they were rarely seen in inland towns. This house in South Windsor, though, is a rare exception, and it stands out among the otherwise more conservatively-designed homes in the village of East Windsor Hill.

The house was built between 1788 and 1790 for John Watson, a prominent local merchant and farmer. Although he did not live in one of the major seacoast ports, he nonetheless styled his home after the leading merchants in those places, and hired architect and builder Thomas Hayden to design it. The result was one of the finest late 18th century homes in the area, with an elegant exterior and interior that reflected Watson’s wealth and his standing in the town. The house even included such luxuries as a four-hole outhouse, which is still standing in the backyard.

A Yale graduate of 1764, John Watson married his wife Anne Bliss three years later, and they had eight children. Around the same time that he built his house, he was serving as a delegate to the state’s U.S. Constitution ratification convention, voting yes in favor of ratifying the new national constitution. He was in his mid-40s at the time, and John went on to live here for the rest of his life, until his death in 1824. Anne died three years later, and their son Henry inherited the property. Born in 1781, he married Julia Reed in 1809, and they had 13 children, who were born between 1810 and 1833.

Several of Henry and Julia’s children would go on to become prominent individuals, in widely varying fields. Their oldest, Henry Jr., graduated from Harvard, but moved to Alabama in the early 1830s and became a lawyer. He became wealthy through his law practice and several business ventures, and he went on to purchase a plantation, becoming one of the largest slaveowners in the state. In the meantime, his younger brother Louis graduated from Yale Medical School and became a successful surgeon, with a career that included serving as a medical director in the Union Army during the Civil War. Yet another Watson brother, Sereno, also graduated from Yale, with a degree in biology. He went on to become a prominent botanist, and served as the curator of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard.

Despite having so many heirs, the house did not remain in the Watson family after Henry’s death in 1848. Instead, it was sold to Theodore E. Bancroft, who probably moved in around the same time as 1853 marriage to Elizabeth Moore. During the 1860 census, he was 32 years old, and was already a moderately wealthy farmer, with real estate valued at $8,000 and a personal estate of $3,815, for a combined net worth equal to over $300,000 today. He and Elizabeth had two children at this point, and he also employed two farm hands who lived here.

By the 1870 census, Bancroft’s net worth had increased to $37,000, or over $700,000 today, and he and Elizabeth had a total of six children. He lived here until his death in 1903, and Elizabeth remained here with her son Frank until her death in 1923, when she was over 90 years old. By this point, the house had already become a prominent landmark because of its seemingly out-of-place architecture, and the first photo was taken only about a decade later, as part of a project to document the state’s historic buildings.

About 80 years have passed since the first photo was taken, but the exterior of the house has not changed much. It was restored in the late 1990s and converted into a bed and breakfast, the Watson House, which has since closed. The exterior of the house was recently restored, including a new coat of paint, and it still stands as a rare example of a three-story 18th century mansion in the region, and it is one of the contributing properties in the East Windsor Hill Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.