On the first Tuesday of March 1737, at one o'clock in the afternoon, an area of land on the eastern bank of the Housatonic River was auctioned off at the Colony courthouse in Windham, CT. The area was divided into ten sections of fifty-three shares each, fifty of which were sold, while three were set aside for a school, church, and minister's lot. Within a year, the first settlers of Kent established themselves on their newly acquired plots. The other sections, or divisions, were auctioned off in sequence over the next thirty-five years, and promptly settled. The town remains rural and small to this day.
Descendants of a few of these early settlers are still in Kent, including Margaret Kane, who lives in her ancestors' pre-Revolutionary homestead on top of Skiff Mountain.
Daniel Soule, descended from an early 1800s settler, was recently elected to the Kent Board of Selectmen. Originally the town included Warren and part of Washington, but by 1784 the present boundaries were established, with Warren and Washington as separate towns. Land speculation was rampant during the early colonization of Connecticut's "Western Lands," and Kent was no exception. Many of the early lots were bought and sold with alarming frequency, with prices rising at each transaction. Within a few decades, some settlers began to eye the uninhabited land (about 11,000 acres) across the river, and soon Kent's first major scandal erupted.
According to Miss Emily Hopson, late President of the Kent Historical Society, two early entrepreneurs, Joseph Fuller, and Joshua Lassell, "staked out large claims of land and appealed to the General Assembly for approval of grants to the land, disguising the amount of land involved and presenting themselves as hard-pressed farmers. The legislature was skeptical of their claims and reduced their acreage considerably," with Joseph Fuller ending up only with the land on the mountain that bears his name today.
Moses Rowley of Sharon soon jumped on the bandwagon and managed to acquire most of the Macedonia Valley. He continued to add to his holdings on the other side of the river at a rapid rate. At that time, the western lands were not officially part of Kent, and therefore not subject to taxation or regulation.
The townspeople of Kent began to realize the potential of what was being squirreled away by Rowley and others and petitioned the General Assembly to annex all the lands into the town. The General Assembly promptly ordered that the land in question be annexed, surveyed, and sold off by lots.
Colony Surveyor Roger Sherman arrived in 1752 and divided the acreage into twenty-eight lots, somehow missing Rowley's land in the process. Initially escaping detection, Rowley managed to tangle with the General Assembly periodically after that, finally petitioning for a grant to the land. The grant was given in 1769, but in 1771 it was charged that Rowley had, like Fuller and Lassell before him, deceived the assembly by understating the actual amount of land in his holdings, and two major investigations ensued.
Finally, he was found by the Selectmen of Kent to be "guilty of poor husbandry and mismanagement in his business and is thereby in great damage of wasting his estate, we, therefore, appoint Abraham Fuller to be overseer over said, Moses Rowley. Justice of the Peace Feb 25, 1771, Town Clerks Office, Kent." At long last, the western lands were all included within Kent's official boundaries, and fittingly, Moses Rowley's initial grab now belongs to the People of the State of Connecticut as Macedonia State Park.
Macedonia has always played an important role in the town of Kent. In contrast to its present peaceful existence, the valley was once a vigorous hub of activity centered around one of the town's three blast furnaces. Iron Fever gripped the entire northwest corner of Connecticut during the 1800s, beginning with the many small local forges and developing into a major industry for the town of Kent, with furnaces in Macedonia, Flanders, and Bulls Bridge.
There was high-grade iron ore buried in our hills and the heavily forested mountains provided an ample supply of charcoal to fuel the furnaces. Surrounding the furnaces were gristmills, sawmills, cider mills, trading posts, and other cottage industries that supported the ironworkers. The population of the town reached a high point during the heyday of the iron industry, with Kent's high-quality iron being shipped out for many uses, including the manufacture of wheels for the increasingly popular railroad trains.
The arrival of the railroad drastically altered the face of Kent. Whereas the town center had originally been located in Flanders, about two miles north of the present Main Street, the establishment of the railroad in the flat river valley brought new life to the area formerly known as the "Great Plain," once used as grazing ground. The lovely Victorian houses that still line Kent's main streets were built as a result of the railroad, and Flanders became a sleepy little hamlet of stately Colonial homes.
The iron industry waned in the late 1800s, but Kent did not skip a beat. Farming, always practiced on a subsistence level, began to fill the gap left by the iron industry. With the hillsides clearcut by the voracious need for charcoal, dairy farms proliferated, along with tobacco, corn, hay, wheat, rye, chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs!There are still a few farms left in town, although nothing like the eighty or ninety that dotted the landscape in the days before the mega-farms and mass transit put them out of business. Population dipped. But this mass transit brought another boon to Kent. The newly arrived trains began to bring a fresh resource to the town - tourists.
Not long after that, the invention of the automobile increased access to our area. The "Great Trunk Road," now Rte 7, was built, allowing many city-bound people to escape to the fresh air of the country. The covered bridge at Bulls Bridge gorge and Kent Falls just north of town quickly became new tourist attractions that are still popular today.
About this time, a scion of Danbury's famous White family, Alain White, began to recognize the threat to the area from all this increased visitation. He and his sister May quietly started buying up land, which they gave to the state for public parks, including both Macedonia and Kent Falls in Kent. Mr. White also donated land in other towns, and eventually established a foundation to preserve his own beloved home in Litchfield - The White Memorial Foundation.
The bucolic setting of this little rural town with its farm fields and rolling hills captured
the attention of a number of talented landscape artists, primarily from New York. According to Robert Michael Austin, author of the recently published Artists of the Litchfield Hills, "Kent attracted the most permanent colony of artists and developed the only artists' organization that survives today." The Kent Art Association celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2004. Its founders included George Laurence Nelson, Robert Nisbet, Spencer Nichols, Willard Paddock, Frederick J. Waugh, Rex Brasher, F. Luis Mora, Eliot Clark, and Floyd Clymer. All these men, along with other friends and family members in the colony, were extremely skilled, highly respected artists whose work is still in great demand.
Laurence Nelson's 1751 Flanders home now belongs to the Kent Historical Society and is open to the public during the summer. On display are many of his finest works. Also in the house, though rarely on display, are two portraits by an earlier, also famous, local artist - Ammi Phillips. Were it not for Laurence Nelson and his wife Helen's arrival in Kent, Ammi Phillips' identity might never have been known.
Helen Nelson was an art critic who had developed a keen eye for her subject. As she began to socialize with area residents, she noted many unsigned portraits, the quality of which quickly attracted her. She recognized them as all being done by the same primitive but talented hand, and set about to discover his identity. She staged an exhibit of his works in Kent, and in the March 1925 issue of International Studio, wrote a fascinating article about the yet unidentified "Border Limner" or "Kent Limner," as Phillips came to be known.
Tirelessly promoting his work, through exhibits, speeches, and articles, Helen continued her search for his story, and was soon joined by other detectives. Eventually, a signed painting was discovered, and finally in 1959, Barbara and Lawrence Holdridge were able to conclusively prove his identity. Today, Phillips' portraits are considered to be exquisite examples of early American Primitive art.
Another artist of world renown was a resident of nearby Warren - Eric Sloane. Sloane left a huge legacy to the town of Kent through his donation of the defunct Kent Iron Manufacturing Company lands to the state of Connecticut for the establishment of a museum there. Through this benevolent gesture to the town he loved, Sloane really managed to tie together many important elements of Kent - the iron industry, farming, art and tourism.
The Sloane-Stanley Museum grounds are on the site of the Kent Iron Manufacturing complex, the furnace of which has just been restored by the state. The main building of the museum houses Sloane's extraordinary collection of farm tools. His studio from Warren is reconstructed in the building, along with a gallery featuring many of his finest works.
The complex itself is arguably the most popular tourist attraction in town, rivaling nearby Kent Falls as a destination for folk from far and wide. From the museum grounds in the heart of old Kent, a visitor may gaze across the Houstaonic to the controversial Western Lands, and then head south to stroll down the Main Street of a quintessential New England town.