At the Intersection of the Bridgeport and Newtown Turnpike (route 25) and Monroe and Newtown Turnpike (Hattertown road) is located the Stepney Green. The Stepney Green, the heart of historic Stepney, was used for militia drills beginning in the 1700s. In 1817 it was officially purchased for $140 to serve as a
place of parade for the Birdsey’s Plain Rifle Company.
Monroe already had one green at Monroe Center established in 1784 with land donated by Captain Joseph Moss and Nehemiah DeForest that was the “centre” for the New Stratford Society in the eastern part of town. But as Stepney grew in size and importance during the nineteenth century this parade ground became Monroe’s second town green.
One of the most tumultuous events in Monroe history occurred on the Stepney Green. Ironically, it started as a peace rally.
Four months after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, signaling the beginning of hostilities in the Civil War, some Northerners (and Southerners) known as the “Copperheads” still clung to the hope that all-out war could be avoided. A Copperhead was a member of a vocal group of Democrats wanting immediate peace settlements with the Confederates. Republicans started calling antiwar democrats “Copperheads”, liking them to the venomous snake. The peace Democrats accepted the label, reinterpreting the copper “head” as the likeness of Liberty, which they cut from copper pennies and proudly wore as badges.
On August 24, 1861, a large crowd gathered on the Stepney Green to rally for peace and to adopt a series of resolutions. The peace rally attracted like-minded citizens from Easton, Newtown, and Bridgeport to raise a “peace flag.” The rally had barely begun when a sizable number of ruffians, along with Union soldiers home on furlough, arrived by train from Bridgeport to break up the gathering. The scene on the green deteriorated into chaos. Although both sides were reportedly armed, a bloody tragedy was somehow avoided with many protesters fleeing up into Birdsey’s Hill what today is Hubbell drive and Aquarion Water Company property.
The ruffians pulled down the peace flag and hoisted the American flag, then proceeded to hold their own rally on the Stepney Green in support of the Union and the war effort. Speakers included entertainment impresario P.T. Barnum and sewing machine inventor Elias Howe, Jr., who both had led the armed contingent from Bridgeport. They claimed peace meetings were in reality demonstrations in support of the secession of the Southern states.
The interlopers headed back to Bridgeport that same day, where they destroyed the presses and office of the peace supporting Bridgeport Farmer, a popular newspaper. In the wake of the forceful break-up of the Stepney peace rally; similar events planned in other towns were cancelled. This peace rally was the first of two Civil war rallies in Monroe’s history.
The second rally, as reported by the Bridgeport newspaper, The Republican Farmer, was held on October 21, 1864 on the Stepney Green. This one more organized than the one of August 24, 1861, with over 4,000 in attendance. President Eli D. Beardsley of Monroe called the meeting to order. General Curtis and Mr. E.B. Goodsell from Bridgeport, presented four Civil War resolutions. The resolutions adopted were reportedly the same prepared for the meeting of 1861.
An excerpt from the The Republican Farmer newspaper, dated Friday, October 21, 1864, Bridgeport, is as follows “Whereas, Civil war prevails in our country, dividing the people, and the States of our once happy and prosperous Union into armed hosts seeking each other’s blood, amid the ruins of constitutional rights, individual freedom, the destruction of commerce and trade, and the prostration of all the industrial interests of our land, bringing taxation, demoralization, destitution and suffering upon the mass of the people.
Therefore, Resolved, that we are opposed to war for the subjugation of States. We are opposed to war for the abolition of slavery. We are opposed to that policy in legislation that confiscates the Negro Slave, making our General Government, either a slave holding, or an abolition one — and while we give our sympathy to the down trodden and oppressed of all climes, we have no political fellowship with any party attempts to free the negro, at the sacrifice of the white race, and the destruction of the Constitution.”
In other resolutions, “We commend to the people of Fairfield County, as they love their rights and their liberties, to give expression to their vows in this crisis, which portends the doom of our beloved country, either by convention or otherwise, that the voice of Peace, and the Constitution, may be heard above the din of battle, and the Demon cry of War redder than blood.” A Peace flag was raised to the topmast of a 60 foot flag pole in the center of the Stepney Green, just as was done in August of 1861, this time not to be torn down.
After the War of the Rebellion, 19th century development of the Stepney and Birdsey’s Plain (Upper Stepney) area of Monroe was largely brought about by two things: the layout of the Bridgeport and Newtown Turnpike (1801) and the construction of the Housatonic railroad, which open in 1840.
Because of these transportation developments Birdsey’s Plain grew into a bustling commercial and community center. Here were located two churches, Monroe’s largest general store, cobbler shops, tinsmiths, and a number of large, stylish new homes. A Methodist Church was built on the Pepper Street side of the Green in 1839, and a Baptist church on the Main Street side in 1848.
Charles B. Wheeler owned a home at 440 Main Street (today Tia Berry) and was a boot and shoemaker. The house located at One Pepper Street at the northern tip of the green originally was the Wheeler shoe factory where in 1851 Charles Wheeler began manufacturing boots and shoes for himself and the United States Army during the Civil War.
In 1794 Noah and James Burr, Jr. donated land for the Birdsey’s Plain Cemetery which is located next to the Methodist Meetinghouse known today as Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Chapel. Buried here are more than 40 men who helped direct the course of American history through military service in crucial conflicts. Among their number are five veterans of the Revolutionary War, six veterans of the War of 1812, and 31 veterans of the Civil War.
At the southern end of the green stood the Osborn/Corning House c. 1810, one of two Federal half-houses still standing in Stepney (the other is the Charles B. Wheeler house at the north end of the green).
The Osborn and Corning families were some of the earliest families to settle Stepney. The house has been demolished for the expansion of the interection at Main Street (route 25) and Green Street. No longer standing today across from the green at the corner of Route 25 and Easton Road was Burrit/Burr Hawley’s store. Built around 1850, it was a hub for milk wagons and for the sale of hardware and household goods.
The Stepney Green and the surrounding area experienced its own succession of sometimes confusing name changes. The origin of the name Stepney is uncertain but appears in land records by the 1730’s.
The area where the Stepney Depot and the Barnum Curtis House and other businesses were located on Maple Drive was originally called Stepney. The area around the Stepney Green was originally known as Birdsey’s Plain. Birdsey’s Plain was named after Joseph Birdsey, an early settler, approximately 1780.
For some unknown reason, in the late 1800s Birdsey’s Plain came to be known also as Upper Stepney. The area to the south of Upper Stepney bordering the Town of Trumbull was renamed Lower Stepney to distinguish itself.
The name Birdsey’s Plain eventually faded from use. Today the community defined by the intersection of Routes 25 and 59, Hattertown Road, and the green, originally known as Birdsey’s Plain and later Upper Stepney, is simply called Stepney. The name Lower Stepney for the southern section of Route 25 has fallen out of use. Thus Stepney today embraces both population centers.
The Save Our Stepney Task Force, with assistance from the Monroe Historical Society, is organizing the Civil War Commemoration. For more information about the Civil War Commemoration or to be part of the organizing committee please contact: Joel Leneker, at 203.268.0247. or visit us at https://www.facebook.com/SaveOurStepneyTaskForce.
Sources: A Glimpse of Old Monroe, Edward N. Coffey, Connecticut Humanities Council: Stepney Heritage Trail Grant 2003.Historic and Architectural Resource Survey of Monroe, CT 2002, Diana Ross McCain, Project Historian, sponsored by the Connecticut Historical Commission, State of Connecticut. Connecticut Humanities Council: Stepney Heritage Trail Grant 2003.