Toasting To Cheshire’s Drinking Past

Toasting To Cheshire’s Drinking Past

by John RookHerald Staff

They began in the morning, continued through the afternoon, and finished up in the evening, right about supper time.

For Cheshire’s earliest settlers, that could ably describe a work day. There was something to do from the moment you awoke to virtually the minute your head touched the pillow.

Yet, from “sun-up to sun-down” could also easily describe another pastime of the first Cheshireites — drinking.

It wasn’t hard to find an alcoholic beverage in Cheshire in the 18th and 19th centuries. There were taverns near the town green, off Cheshire Street and on Main Street. Cider mills were all the rage, with one located near what is now Mountain Brook Road, another in the Brooksvale area of town, and still another off Wallingford Road, in the Copper Valley area.

Living in Cheshire meant drinking in Cheshire, and it went hand in hand with the rough-and-tumble lifestyle of the people who built the community.

“Alcholic beverages were a part of everyday life,” says Town Historian Jeanne´ Chesanow. “People drank alcohol all day — beer for breakfast, hard cider for lunch, and rum or whiskey in the evenings. Saloons and taverns were in every town and the beverages served there were from local distilleries.”

The reason for regular alcohol consumption was a practical one. In the 1700s and 1800s water had a tendency to be polluted. That meant drinking it put people’s lives at risk at a time when medicine didn’t offer much in the way of relief. It was actually safer to consume alcohol, much of which was much less potent than modern-day equivalents, than to brave the water.

It also meant great business for those producing and selling alcohol around Cheshire.

According to Chesanow, an 1868 “Beers Map of Cheshire” shows two distilleries were located in the Brooksvale area of town. The grain was milled, fermented and then turned into beer. Apples were ground and made into hard cider.

Some cider was turned into Apple Jack, the common name for American apple brandy. Distillers would leave their vats of cider out in the figgid cold during the winter months, where the water mixed with the alcohol would freeze. When the frozen water was removed, the liquid left over would have grown significantly in alcohol percentage — from the normal 7 percent in cider to roughly 35 percent. The process was called “jacking.:

Rier Bristol operated a cider mill and distillery in Brooksvale that was water-powered, however it does not appear that the Brooksville stream passed by Bristol’s facility. That wasn’t the case for the cider and sawmill in the Copper Valley area, which was located near a brook. 

Southwest Cheshire was home to the town’s only sorghum mill — Cook’s Cider and Sorghum Mill, to be exact. The sorghum syrup — a natural sweetener — served as a cheap alternative to sugar, so the New England rum was made with the locally-grown grain. 

Who partook of the spirits?

All you had to do was venture out into the hay fields of Cheshire during a hot summer day to find people enjoying their drink. “Haying time” referred to the afternoon hours when those haying the fields by hand would relax and enjoy a beverage and usually a few songs. Hayers would commonly begin their work around 4 a.m., and would stay at it until around noon. Then, the workers would stop, sing a few songs, and pass around a large jug of hard cider that was kept cool in the spring running through the field. After a nap, the workers would begin their work again, which could last until 9 p.m.

Some hayers even carried around a ceramic jug of cider to drink from throughout the day.

“At the Hall Farm (in Cheshire), there was no hard cider,” explains Chesanow. “No alcoholic drinks of any kind (were allowed). The Halls belonged to the Temperance Society, so there was no rowdy haymaking at the farm.”

Another place where locals enjoyed a beverage or two was on a stagecoach. “Passengers found ample spirits (aboard),” explains Chesanow. “A sign posted in some stagecoaches read, ‘Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink, share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish…’”

Of course, just as now, the best place to find a drink was at the local tavern.

In Cheshire, perhaps the most famous for its day was the Abijah Beach Tavern, located at 157 South Main St., where it still remains. The structure dates back to the mid-18th century, when Beach first built it.

The tavern had nine fireplaces, an inside well, and an ample wine cellar. Most of the activity occurred in the third-floor ballroom — 40 feet long with 20-foot-high ceilings. On the sides of the ballroom were long-board seats for guests and even a fiddler’s box in the corner, where the night’s entertainer would station himself.

It is rumored that a dancing bear once performed at the tavern.

In 1852, Martin Brennan bought the building and turned it into his private residence, although he did continue to allow church services to be held in the ballroom from 1856 to 1859.

At 1251 Cheshire St., Thomas Parker opened his own tavern in the late 1700s. A general store was also located on the property, but was later moved across the street by new owner Russell Miles.

The Tavern was a popular stop for those passing through, as Cheshire Street was on the main stagecoach route between Middletown and Waterbury. The tavern was operated by the Miles family until the beginning of the 20th century, when it was eventually turned into a private residence.

On Spring Street, at the current site of Humiston School, the Israel Bunnell Tavern once sat. Built in 1780, Deacon Bunnell owned approximately 400 acres in the area, and the tavern was one of few structures built on the land. 

Perhaps best known to current Cheshire residents, the Waverly Inn became a favorite destination for those interested in good food and drink when it opened in the late 1800s. The Waverly began life as a private residence — the home of a local judge, to be precise – but was purchased by Walter Scott, who also owned the Payne’s Hotel in West Cheshire. The name was chosen as a reference to the Waverly novels written by famous Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, and it was a success right off the bat. 

The original structure burned down in 1912, but was rebuilt. It has changed hands several times over the decades since, but remained a central part of Cheshire life until just recently, when the inn was closed yet again.

While everyone enjoyed their drink in Cheshire in the 18th and 19th centuries, it often times came at great moral cost. Trade between Connecticut and the English islands of Barbados and St. Kitts was particularly strong, and Cheshire-grown ground corn was routinely shipped to the islands in exchange for rum. 

That rum was often the result of slave labor, as Africans enslaved on the islands were forced to work in deplorable conditions in sugar cane fields. How much Cheshireites knew of the human toll it took to make the rum they so enjoyed is not known, but the community and state as a whole profited from it.

Eventually, the town relied very little on imported rum after the colonists figured out how to make molasses from their own locally-grown sorghum.

Whatever the drinks’ origins, there’s no question that Cheshire’s earliest days were fueled in large part by alcohol. Much has changed in the centuries since — today, you’d likely find yourself unemployed if you carried around a large jug filled with hard cider while at work — but the desire to kick back and relax with family and friends over a few glasses of your favorite beer or spirit remains strong.

I guess it’s always been five o’clock somewhere.




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