Wilton, CT...

PRESERVING ITS PAST FOR THE FUTURE

Wilton, CT Town Hall

As a town of over 18,000 residents, Wilton proudly preserves its historic landmarks amidst a thriving commercial, recreational, and exceptional educational environment. Wilton is ranked #2 in CT Magazine’s November 2011 “Rating the Towns” for those with population of 15,000 - 25,000. Stunning scenery and winding back roads marked with streams, stone walls, and rolling hills are all part of the beauty and charm of this rural community. Wilton’s carefully controlled zoning keeps the over 1,000 acres of open space for active and passive use for all to enjoy.

Wilton’s first settlers, called the Proprietors, arrived in Norwalk in 1651 and owned 50,000 acres in common. On the outskirts of this area, the Proprietors were allowed private ownership of acreage in a common planting field; however, cattle, sheep, and hogs were grazed in a communal pasture area. The outer limit of this pasture approximates Wilton’s present southern boundary.

Wilton Congregational ChurchBy the end of the 1600’s, these Norwalk Proprietors began to sell-off the northern lands for settlement. The first non-Indian settlements in what is now Wilton were in the fertile lands of the Norwalk River valley, and on the ridges of Belden Hill, chestnut Hill, and Ridgefield Road. The settlers had to clear the forests and remove hundreds of glacial rocks in order to till the land. The stone boundary walls that we treasure today in Wilton are products of these very glacial rocks.

The families who bought land in Wilton were required to attend church services in Norwalk each Sunday, as they did not have their own. In the 1700’s when the demand for Wilton lands increased, the Proprietors realized that the land would be worth more if Wilton settlers did not have to trek so far each week for Sunday church. By 1725, there were forty families living in Wilton who wanted their own meetinghouse. So in 1726, with the approval of both the Proprietors and the Wilton settlers, a petition to the General court in Hartford created Wilton Parish, “a village enjoying parish privileges” but still a part of the town of Norwalk. A framed copy of this petition is on display in the Town Hall of Wilton.Wilton Town Hall

The Wilton Parish was organized as an ecclesiastical society, but dealt with many secular issues as well…such things as communal flocks, pounds for animals, and the regulation of the trades and of taverns. The state of the roads was a constant source of comment at society meetings, as was the inevitable subject of taxation. Although the village parish did not have the right to send a representative to the state legislature, it did have complete charge of both local education and military training. Mr. Robert Sturgeon, Wilton Parish’s first minister, was also its first schoolmaster.

By the time the first meetinghouse was built in 1726, Wilton had a “center” of town. Other areas such as Belden Hill, Drum Hill, Pimpewaug and Chestnut Hill had already been settled by self-sufficient farmers. By 1738, the meeting house had become too small and a second one was built on the corner of Sharp Hill Road. By 1790, a third church was built on Ridgefield Road where it still stands as the oldest church building in Fairfield County, Connecticut.

During the Revolutionary War, quite a large number of men from Wilton served in a military unit—over 300. The War briefly came to Wilton in 1777 when the British had to retreat through the village after their invasion of Danbury. Several Wilton houses were set afire, but none were destroyed since the retreat was so rapid. Some fifty-two Revolutionary veteran graves are still identifiable in Wilton cemeteries.

In 1802, the people of Wilton were granted separate Town government status by an act of the Connecticut General Assembly, despite Norwalk’s objections. The Town of Wilton selected the traditional New England Town Meeting-Selectmen form of government, which is retained to this day.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, education became the responsibility of the school societies of nine separate districts within Wilton. Many Wilton and those of well-to-do families of Norwalk and Stamford attended the five private schools and academies in town.

Wilton's scenic countryside remains todayWilton’s population grew slowly from 1,728 in 1810 to 2,208 in 1860. Most of the town’s land was farmland and was used for dairy cattle, horses, or marketable crops. With Midwestern produce made readily available by the railroads, Wilton farmers and their homegrown products had to compete. The rocky soil yielded small amounts at the time, giving way to home industry expansion. Industries such as shoemaking, shirt making, carriage building, and distilleries began to grow. Various types of mills were built along the streams, and the Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing Company began producing wire sieves in 1834.

Prior to the Civil War, the anti-slavery movement was strong, and Wilton served as one of the stops on the Underground Railroad, the escape route to Canada for runaway slaves. The Civil War actually had little impact on Wilton; however, its local businesses continued to prosper due to the demands of the war effort.

After the Civil War, Wilton’s population declined as cities grew with the coming of the railroad in 1852, as it offered easy access to the bountiful western lands. Industrialization increased and the demand for home products plummeted. Farms were abandoned. Nearly 30% of Wilton’s population was lost between 1860 and 1900. By the turn of the century, the census showed only 1,598 people living in Wilton.

Thankfully, Wilton’s long dormant period saved many of the eighteenth and nineteenth century homes from demolition and suburban development. By the 1910’s, abandoned farms were discovered by New Yorkers for their summer homes. In the 1930’s, noticeable stresses at Town meetings could be felt between the “old-timers” and the “new people”. Wilton was transitioning from an agricultural community to one of commuters.

Shortly after World War II, a new phenomenon brought a new look to Wilton’s landscape—subdivisions. With its colonial origins, Wilton had developed with a rather haphazard way, with a house here and a store there. But as light industry began moving into town, town zoning and a plan for more orderly growth were adopted. With population growth and new businesses came new roads, new schools, support services, and executive offices. Wilton’s period of greatest growth was from 1950 to 1970, as the population grew from 4,558 to 13,572.

Shopping in Downtown Wilton