Brief History of Norfolk, Connecticut

Courtesy Norfolk Historical Society

When the tract of land that would become the township of Norfolk was divided into 53 rights of 400 acres each and offered for sale by the Colony of Connecticut in 1738, few buyers were interested. The Green Woods, a dense hemlock forest riddled with swamps and rock ledge, did not appeal to prospective settlers. It took six years for the first of the original proprietors, as the buyers of these rights were called, to settle in Norfolk. Although settlement was slow, by 1758 with 43 families in residence, the community was sizable enough to petition the General Assembly for town privileges. On October 12, 1758, Norfolk was incorporated, and the business of civic life began in earnest.

Early Town Priorities

One of the first actions the town took following its incorporation was to build a meeting house and hire a preacher. In 1760 the Church of Christ was gathered, and the following year Ammi Ruhamah Robbins accepted the call. An Episcopal Society was organized in 1786 and the First Baptist Society in 1812 with members from Colebrook, Canaan, New Marlboro and Norfolk. In 1841 a Methodist church was built, and the first Catholic mass was held in Norfolk in 1836 in the Ryan brothers’ woolen mill, with the construction of a church coming 20 years later.

Education was another early priority for the residents of Norfolk. Town leaders voted in 1767 to cover the expense if 10 or more families would set up an approved school. Given Norfolk’s widely scattered settlement, this was intended to encourage the building of neighborhood schools. The district school system eventually included 11 grammar schools, each managed by a local school committee. The most populated of the school districts, the Center District, demanded increasingly larger facilities, culminating in the 1912 two-story brick Center School building. Center School served grades K through 8 until 1970 when Botelle Elementary School opened.

For those going beyond grammar school in the nineteenth century, the Norfolk Academy, now the Norfolk Historical Museum, was built on the east side of the Green in 1840. The first floor of this building also functioned as the Town Hall. In the twentieth century, secondary school students attended the Gilbert School in Winsted until the regional high school was built in Barkhamsted in 1958. Norfolk was also the site of a private secondary school, founded in memory of Norfolk’s first pastor, Ammi Ruhamah Robbins. Built in 1884, the Robbins School flourished for 25 years, closing its doors in 1912.

Local Industries

An 1828 census recorded that 191 of 232 families in Norfolk lived on farms. Many operated sawmills and grist mills to supplement income. Sheep provided wool for domestic industry. Butter and cheese were made in great quantity and were an important source of income to farmers whose land was not suitable for cultivation. In 1844, Auren Roys wrote that an average of 200,000 pounds of cheese was made annually and shipped to market in locally made cheese casks. Dairy farming remained an important enterprise in Norfolk well into the twentieth century.

The Blackberry River provided a plentiful supply of water power and contributed to the growth of industry in the mid-nineteenth century. Dams were built along the river and water wheels were installed to harness that power. West Norfolk became an industrial hub of sorts, as several large tanneries and an iron works were located there. Among the many items manufactured in Norfolk were wooden bowls and dishes, cheese boxes, clocks and clock plates, scythes, shears, planters’ hoes and axles.

As the century progressed, local men financed large companies such as the Aetna Silk Company, organized in 1878 for the manufacture of silk thread; the E.G. Lawrence Iron Works, and the Stevens Hoe Factory. The Lawrence Machine Company’s complex included a foundry and a 42-foot diameter iron water wheel, reportedly the second largest water wheel in the country at the time. The plant later housed the Connecticut Arms Company, which produced Springfield rifle muskets for the United States Army during the Civil War.

The Norfolk Manufacturing Company, established in 1852 for the manufacture of cotton warp, knitting cotton and warping twine, was later sold to the Norfolk Hosiery Company, whose founder, Edward E. Kilbourn, invented an automatic knitting machine that revolutionized the manufacture of underwear and hosiery. The factory still stands as part of what was more recently the General Electric Plant. With additional investors and the purchase of a mill in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the company expanded to become the Norfolk and New Brunswick Hosiery Company, at one time a giant in the manufacture of knitted garments and Norfolk’s largest industrial concern.

During the course of the nineteenth century, Norfolk’s rich forests were also tapped for industry. Hemlock stands were felled to provide bark for local tanneries. Broad swaths of woodland were cleared and the lumber produced charcoal to smelt iron ore. Some wooded areas still bear traces of the circular hearths where piles of lumber smoldered. By the late-nineteenth century, vistas were opened as much of the forestland was reduced to burned-over scrub and brush. Today, through careful stewardship and sustainable forest management of such properties as the Great Mountain Forest, the Green Woods have regenerated and timber harvesting is once more economically feasible.


Transportation was critical to the success of both farming and industry. By 1800 the Greenwoods Turnpike (now Route 44) was completed and became the principal route between the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers for travel and trade. Taverns sprang up along the turnpike to service the needs of travelers.
The railroad arrived in Norfolk in 1871. In an effort to boost industry and prevent Norfolk from becoming an abandoned mill town, Egbert T. Butler, then president of the Norfolk Bank, proposed building a railroad through the hill towns of northwest Connecticut. He paid for a survey to be done and applied for a charter for the Connecticut Western Railroad Company. This was granted by the Connecticut State Legislature in 1866. Ground was broken in Winsted in October of 1869. The route to Norfolk brought the line through the Grantville hamlet in the southeast part of town and then north along Litchfield Road to the town center and from there to East Canaan. A celebration was held on the Village Green in September of 1871 shortly before the last rail was spiked. The original station in the village center was a simple wooden structure. In 1898 a new station was constructed of native granite. A sign in brass letters read: “Norfolk, the Highest Railroad Station in Connecticut.” Known for most of its existence as the Central New England, the railroad was never financially successful and ceased to run through Norfolk in 1938.

A Summer Resort

The railroad did not prevent the demise of industry in Norfolk, but it did bring an influx of vacationers enticed by company booklets describing the attractive scenery of the Litchfield Hills. This steady stream of summer visitors changed the character of the town, and by the end of the nineteenth century Norfolk had become a fashionable summer resort celebrated for its pure mountain air and fresh spring water. Large hostelries were built. The Stevens House, later known as the Norfolk Inn, opened in 1874 with 57 guest rooms. Many people would spend the entire summer at the Hillhurst Hotel on Laurel Way, and a number of them returned year after year.

Norfolk’s appeal increased with construction of the Eldridge Gymnasium in 1892, the opening of the Norfolk Downs Golf Links in 1897 and the building of a country club in 1916. Carl and Ellen Battell Stoeckel founded the Norfolk Music Festival, attracting thousands of concert-goers to the Music Shed in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Sportsmen came for hunting and fishing opportunities. Many vacationers stayed on, calling upon well-known architectural firms to design country houses.

By 1900 Norfolk had an unusual number of public services that made it an especially attractive place to call home. It was one of the first towns in Connecticut to have telephone (1894) and electrical service (1897). In 1896 the water system was installed, piping fresh water from Lake Wangum to the center of town, and in 1899 a public sewer system was completed. A Village Hall, built in 1883, provided commercial space as well as a theater upstairs. With the completion of the Royal Arcanum building in 1904, housing the drugstore, post office and the newly-founded Norfolk Volunteer Fire Department, the local press reported that Norfolk boasted one of the finest business districts of a town of its size in Connecticut. Many of the buildings and houses built in the early years of the twentieth century were designed by architect Alfredo Taylor, and his work in Norfolk has been designated a Thematic Group on the National Register of Historic Places.

In order to ensure the preservation of the growing town’s rural beauty, two state parks were established in the twentieth century through the generosity of town residents: Haystack Mountain and Dennis Hill. In northeastern Norfolk, summer residents built camps on Doolittle Lake, reclaiming the Doolittle Woods from abandoned farmland.

A Magnificent Green

By the end of the nineteenth century, Norfolk’s Village Green had become a magnificent visual centerpiece for the town and the epitome of the classic New England green, bordered by well-kept houses, stately elms and the iconic Church of Christ, designed by noted church architect David Hoadley in 1813. Winding footpaths, rustic twig furniture, and covered gateways gave the Green a particular charm as townsfolk gathered for mid-summer concerts and Fourth of July fireworks. The Battell family’s stately residence known as Whitehouse, a new library and Battell Chapel provided an attractive backdrop. The southern tip of the triangle is graced by Battell Fountain, designed by Stanford White with bronze-work attributed to Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The Village Green is now the center of the Norfolk Historic District.

Adjacent to the Green is the Battell-Stoeckel estate. Following Ellen Battell Stoeckel’s death in 1939, her will provided for creation of a trust that would enable music, art and literary offerings to be carried on under the auspices of Yale University on her property. Her estate was transformed into a campus for the Norfolk Music School of Yale University. This evolved into the Yale Summer School of Music and Art where the arts continue to flourish today.

When John Warner Barber sketched a view of Norfolk for his Connecticut Historical Collections (published in 1836), he described what he saw as “a village uncommonly neat and beautiful.” His engraving is the earliest picture of Norfolk and captures the essence of the town almost two hundred years ago. We see a pristine church, a cluster of houses and young trees planted at the edge of the Green to ornament the village. The image has changed very little since Barber’s visit, a tribute to the vision of the founding families who laid out the town and the ensuing generations whose sense of pride in community has enabled Norfolk to retain its charm.

For more about Norfolk’s history

The Norfolk Historical Society archive and museum form a comprehensive repository of the town’s history.

Norfolk’s Natural Resource Inventory contains a longer version of this history with many of the buildings and other features mentioned keyed to a map.