Windsor Farms Historic District
The Windsor Farms Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
The Windsor Farms Historic District is a 2-1/2 square mile area on the east bank of the Connecticut River which comprises the historical center of South Windsor. Main Street, the principal street in the Windsor Farms Historic District, runs in a generally northeasterly direction, bisecting open fields under cultivation by the tobacco farmers of this rural village for several centuries.
The fields to the west of Main Street lie in the floodplain of the river, 10 to 20 feet above sea level. Main Street, which maintains a parallel course to the river (the western boundary of the district) at a distance of 4,000-7,000 feet, is situated above the floodplain on a level terrace, 30 to 40 feet above the river. Historic farmhouses with their associated barns and outbuildings line both sides of the street. To the east, cultivated fields extend from directly behind the houses to the treeline, which runs in a north-south direction partially along the course of the Podunk River, forming the eastern boundary of the district. Although a few tobacco barns are located on high ground directly behind the historic houses on the west side of the street, the largest concentration of this type of building can be found along the borders of the cultivated fields to the east, lined up in a staggered progression, all with an east-west orientation.
Historic land use patterns are still maintained in the Windsor Farms Historic District. From the air the seventeenth century strip pattern of land division is still evident. The original grants of land in Windsor Farms extended back from the river and encompassed all types of land: marsh and meadowland suitable for cultivation near the river, and woodlots on the higher ground to the east. Although the floodplain had been occupied on a seasonal basis for thousands of years by Native Americans prior to contact, the settlers from Windsor, the parent town on the west bank of the Connecticut, wisely chose to lay out their homelots above the encroachment line of the river, establishing the linear village plan that exists today. A maximum amount of farmland, under cultivation since settlement and brought into total production in the mid-nineteenth century, is still farmed today (1,300-1,500 acres), leaving a minimal amount of land for residential use along this major thoroughfare. At regular intervals, secondary roads crossed Main Street from west to east at the borders of the first land grants. Today only the eastern half of these roads is maintained. From Main Street west to the river, the roads, including Vibert Road, an offset extension of Pleasant Valley Road, are unimproved and generally limited to farm vehicular traffic. The western half of Governor's Highway, originally running down to a ferry landing, no longer exists. With the exception of North King Street and Chapel Road, which still are lined with historic houses especially on the north side, most of the land along these side roads was undeveloped farmland until about 1960. Small lots have been sold for residential development along Governor's Highway, Pleasant Valley and Chapel roads. Tobacco barns and open fields are still located immediately adjacent to Newberry Road, which has not been developed.
The Windsor Farms Historic District contains a high concentration of contributing buildings and one site (132/180; 74%). The historic houses were built between 1694 and 1931. Approximately one-fourth of these were constructed prior to 1800, including three exceptional survivals from the late seventeenth century (Samuel Porter House, 1021 Main Street; John Skinner House, 1047 Main Street; John Moore House, 1245 Main Street). Most of the remaining houses were built in the nineteenth century; 20 before 1850, and 40 more after that date. An additional 17 houses were constructed in the first decades of the twentieth century. Public buildings in the Windsor Farms Historic District include an 1845 Greek Revival style wood-frame church (First Congregational Church), and a library (Wood Memorial Library, 783 Main Street) and school (Union District School, 771 Main Street), both constructed of brick. Two former nineteenth century schools, now in use as residences, are also located in the district (787 North King Street and 1209 Main Street). Historically several buildings were used for commercial (retail) purposes; only one still functions in that capacity (819-821 Main Street). Several examples of farm workers' housing have been identified in the Windsor Farms Historic District, including an early nineteenth-century rental house (probably a boarding house) owned by a tobacco grower (715-717 Main Street), and a late example, the Pinney Workers' House at 128 Chapel Road. More than fifty tobacco barns and sheds, a major building type of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and three tobacco warehouses are standing in the Windsor Farms Historic District, as well as two water towers in use by tobacco growers today.
The tobacco barns and sheds (the terms are used interchangeably) are all elongated, gable-roofed buildings, built in a traditional manner with a post-and-beam framing system of bents. Some of these buildings date from the nineteenth century; all of them definitely pre-date 1920. The standard width is 30 feet with an average length of 125 feet, although some of the sheds in the Windsor Farms Historic District exceed 200 feet in length. They all have weathered, vertical-board siding; most of the wood-shingled roofs have been replaced with metal roofing. In addition to their extreme length, another characteristic feature of these buildings, distinguishing them from other types of barns, is the use of moveable siding boards. Every other board on the side elevations can be tilted for ventilation. Additional ventilation is provided by four small hinged openings in the gable ends, two above the sill and two others over the plate. Both gable ends also contain large, hinged, double doors.
Most of the houses in the Windsor Farms Historic District are of wood-frame construction, both post-and-beam and balloon framed, two-and-one-half stories in height. Despite the presence of brickyards in town since the mid-eighteenth century, only two historic houses and two public buildings utilize this material. Brick, however, was a favored material for chimney stacks from settlement and after 1830, foundations. Prior to this time, red sandstone was in universal use for the underpinning of houses, a use that persisted well into the twentieth century, long after concrete was used elsewhere. A Federal style house that extends back from the corner of Main and Newberry streets appears to be constructed with hand-made brick (712 North King Street), while a later Queen Anne style house makes full use of harder-fired, machine made brick for extensive corbelling and decorative brick patterning (Chandler T. Ward House, 880 Main Street).
Integral or attached rear ells and an extended rear roofline give all the late seventeenth century houses a typical "saltbox" configuration. Only one room and the chimney stack of the Moore House are believed to date from that period, with the rest of the building added a few years later. However, it displays the same deep gable overhang and five-bay configuration as the John Moore House built by the father in Windsor in 1660 (1245 Main Street). These early houses, along with a representative group of eighteenth-century houses in the district, including gambrel-roofed cottages and several well-preserved, three- and- five-bay, center-chimney houses, serve to recall the town's early history. This group includes the 1778 Georgian/Colonial home of Aaron Chapin (870 Main Street), the famous cabinet maker, and the circa 1750 house built by Deacon Abner Reed (932 Main Street). A deacon of the Congregational church who has left an important historical record, Reed was also noted for his work as a bank note engraver. With the exception of the Wareham Moore House, which has an exceptionally fine spiral staircase, none of the houses from this period approach the level of style found in the houses built in the Georgian and Federal periods in East Windsor Hill, the riverport community to the north of Windsor Farms.
Farmhouses built after 1830 in the Greek Revival style are much more sophisticated, displaying an exceptional range of form and style. Only farmhouses in the functional sense, the Samuel T. Wolcott House (695 Main Street), and to a lesser degree, the Dr. Horace Gillette House (1225 Main Street), are quite formal buildings. Both have matching wings attached on either side of the main block. The hip-roofed main block of the Wolcott House has a two-story, colonnaded porch in the Doric order, and a flush-boarded facade with fine applied detailing: beveled corner blocks on the window surrounds and a beveled key block over the entrance door. The pedimented, two-bay facade of the Dr. Horace Gillette House has an unusual center pilaster, as well as the more typical corner pilasters, and one-story, columned porches on the set-back wings. The hip-roofed form of the Wolcott House is repeated in another Greek Revival style house at 621 Main Street, which also features a high entablature pierced by attic windows, and an entrance portico. More typically, the remaining houses built in this style have a gable-to-street orientation, and display pedimented gables and Greek Revival style doorways. Several of these have extensive rear additions, creating the elongated type of farmhouse more commonly found in northern New England.
As expected, a greater range of style was utilized in the last half of the nineteenth century. Influences of all the major domestic styles can be found on some of the plainer nineteenth century vernacular houses; individual examples of more "high style" farmhouses, again exhibiting a greater degree of sophistication, add diversity to the streetscape. The Italianate style house at 1042 Main Street, the Carpenter Gothic style Commodore Greene House, and the John N. King House are examples of this latter type. They are all exceptionally well preserved. The Greene House has many features of the Carpenter Gothic style: board-and-batten siding, steeply pitched gables, diamond-paned windows, and an extended finial with a drop in the central gable peak. The house is crowned by a large, multi-flued brick chimney which emphasizes its verticality (1042 Main Street). The Gothic influence can also be seen on the Italianate house in the design of the cut work of the trim that runs along the eaves of the roof of the main block, and is repeated on the wrap-around verandah (660 Main Street). The Second Empire house built by King, the only example of this style in the Windsor Farms Historic District, has a bell-cast profile on the mansard roof of both the house and its centrally located, square tower. A bracketed Italianate-style portico, bay windows and a side porch set in the recessed north side of the main block complete the styling of this imposing building (793 Main Street). The Stick style influence, chiefly manifested in the detailing of the gable peaks or spandrels of the porches, or in the variety of turned porch columns and spindles on otherwise unadorned farmhouses, such as the William Jennings House (788 Main Street) and the Parsonage First Church (920 Main Street), was quite common in the district in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. A few of these later houses also display imbricated shingles in the gables. Only one house, however, can truly be considered Stick style, the John P. Jones House (1063 Main Street), which fully utilizes the sunburst pattern in the gables, and displays several types of siding on the walls. The pronounced asymmetry of the building, emphasized by the tower, suggests the influence of the Queen Anne style, a stylistic tradition also found in the later Colonial Revivals. Almost all of the houses built around the turn of the century are similar in design, with steep, hipped roofs, projecting gables, and Colonial Revival-style porches with paired columns. A matched pair of these houses is located on lower Main Street (379 and 380 Main Street). Two other similar houses in the same area are the John Reardon House (465 Main Street) and the William Kinnery House (756 North King Street). Enough similarities exist between all of these houses to suggest the hand of the same builder.
The Windsor Farms Historic District, the historic center of South Windsor, is a well-preserved, rural-residential community of great historic significance. It is one of the few farming villages remaining in Connecticut still devoted to tobacco agriculture. Unlike the more typical historic rural areas of the state where the historic components are widely scattered, the Windsor Farms Historic District is a highly concentrated, cohesive entity. Not only does it contain a significant group of farmhouses, barns, and other specialized buildings related to tobacco agriculture, it also encompasses approximately 1,500 acres of contiguous historic farmland which has been under intensive cultivation for more than 300 years. In addition to the more than 50 tobacco barns or sheds, the Windsor Farms Historic District contains well-preserved examples of major domestic building types and styles dating from 1694 to 1930, including a particularly fine, representative group of nineteenth-century houses built in the Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, and Colonial Revival styles.
Tobacco has been grown in central Connecticut since the early 1600s. It was first introduced in the colony when seeds were brought from Virginia in 1640. Tobacco proved to be an ideal crop for the Connecticut River Valley. A fast growing surface feeder, it matured in the short northern growing season and flourished in the rich, well-drained soil of the alluvial floodplain of the river. Tobacco production was generally limited to the home grower and its use was regulated by the General Court in the seventeenth century. Protective import tariffs were introduced by the colony when it became a profitable cash crop in the eighteenth century. Although the cultivation and curing of tobacco was, and still is extremely labor-intensive, the crop was worth considerably more per acre than the more conventional cash crops of the colonial period, such as flax, wheat or rye. By the middle of the nineteenth century, 249 large farms in the state were raising 47,799 pounds of seed leaf for cigar wrappers. The number of these farms has dwindled in recent years. Tobacco production has declined since the 1950s, primarily because of the scarcity and high cost of unskilled labor. As it has become less profitable to raise tobacco, the fields have fallen into disuse or been sold for development. Groups of tobacco barns, once a familiar sight throughout the Connecticut River Valley, have been abandoned or demolished.
By contrast, tobacco farming has been the economic mainstay of the Windsor Farms Historic District since the seventeenth century. With a thriving riverport at East Windsor Hill, only two miles to the north, farmers in the district had a ready market for their crop by the early eighteenth century. The Town of Windsor, of which South Windsor was a part until 1768, found it necessary to appoint an "Inspector and Presser of Tobacco," along with the more common colonial officials, to supervise the grading and packing of tobacco in hogsheads for shipment to the West Indies, South America, and Europe. By 1752 village farmers supplied 26,000 pounds for export by East Windsor Hill merchants. According to Deacon Abner Reed's records, the price of tobacco fluctuated widely in this period; in a bad year it sold for as little as five cents a pound. Black slaves and semi-indentured Indians provided most of the labor on the larger farms. Smaller subsistence farmers, who raised only small amounts for barter or cash, depended on their families for help in the fields during the harvest and at packing time each November.
It was not until the nineteenth century that tobacco became the major crop grown in the Windsor Farms Historic District. Improved technology for drying and curing, including the first use of heated and vented tobacco sheds, and horse-drawn "setters" for planting, made it possible to grow the finer grades of Havana seed leaf much in demand for making cigars. By the Civil War South Windsor was well known for this product. "Long Nines" and "Windsor Particulars" were two of the better known brands of cigars rolled from locally grown leaf by farmers' wives who sold their product throughout the state from peddlers' wagons. Leaf tobacco and cigars were also shipped by rail from South Windsor by mid-century. Tobacco land leases and the sale of curing leaf first appeared in the land records in the 1870s, an indication of its importance and economic value in this period. Phrases such as "now hanging on poles in the shed of the grantor," or "hung in part and in part stripped in buildings on the premises" were common in local land transactions.
Shade-grown tobacco, which produces an exceptionally fine leaf for the outside wrapper of cigars, first introduced in Windsor Farms in 1901 by Marcus Floyd, was a decided boost to the tobacco industry. The lesser grades were reserved for the binders and fillers. Floyd was also the first agriculturalist to bring migrant workers to South Windsor (primarily Blacks from the South) to alleviate the seasonal labor shortage. Shade tobacco, along with the regular field grown, was cultivated until the 1970s. Most of the available farmland in South Windsor is still in use for tobacco agriculture today. Tobacco companies that maintain warehouses in the district grow and cure the binder and filler grades in the local fields, but process the tobacco outside the district in modern plants.
Cultivation and curing methods have changed very little in the last century. Plowing and tilling is now done by modern tractors, but horse-drawn setters are still to be seen working the fields each Spring. Young plants, grown from seed in cold frames, are set out in the fields in May. Tilling and side dressing with fertilizer take place every week during the growing season. Maturing plants, pinched back by hand, take fourteen weeks to mature. After the harvest in August the plants are strung on a lath in the field, then taken to the long sheds to be hung on poles to cure under temperature- and- humidity-controlled conditions. The final step is the packing and sorting of the leaf in the warehouses.
The rapid expansion of the tobacco business in the nineteenth century produced a building boom of major proportions. Colonial houses on Main Street were torn down or moved to make way for the larger, more stylish houses of the Victorian period. More than twenty Greek Revival-style buildings were constructed between 1830 and 1850, including the First Congregational Church, and the district school (1209 Main Street). The old village church, which stood in the middle of Main Street near the center of the district, was replaced with the present building. Both buildings were paid for by tobacco money; the earlier directly through the sale of tobacco, the later through donations from wealthy growers.
Many of the nineteenth-century agriculturalists, as they preferred to be known, were prominent in local and state politics. Their increased status and wealth is reflected in the quality of their hones, such as the 1839 Greek Revival-style house of Samuel T. Wolcott (347 Main Street) . The Wolcotts were a distinguished family involved in raising tobacco since at least the early eighteenth century; Samuel was a direct descendant of Roger T. Wolcott, a colonial governor from 1750-1754 (1169 Main Street). John Newberry King, another member of an old South Windsor family, built two houses in the district. He was the son of Zebulon King (863 Main Street), who came to South Windsor in the eighteenth century. (King Street was named for him.) John, the first grower in town to use tobacco sheds for curing, was elected a state representative in 1879. Shortly before his death in 1895, he built the only Second Empire-style house in the district (793 Main Street).
Enoch Pelton, one of the largest nineteenth-century tobacco growers, was the son of a brickmaker and tanner, John Pelton. Although at one time Enoch owned or leased 300 acres of farmland in the district, the house that he built in 1895 was a very simply detailed, vernacular farmhouse (1185 Main Street). Most of the larger growers in this period built relatively elaborate houses. They included the Jones brothers who came to South Windsor about 1850. Nathaniel Jones lived in several houses before building a Queen Anne-style house at 772 Main Street. His brother John Pantry Jones built an exceptional Queen Anne/Stick style house in 1882, the year he was elected to the General Assembly (1063 Main Street). William Jennings, whose father came to South Windsor in 1849, built another Stick-style house in 1893 (788 Main Street), as did Henry Pitkin (516 Main Street).
Not all of the new men in town were farmers. Edwin Farnham, who came to town from England and served for many years as the chairman of the school board and the tax assessor, soon recognized the need for a middle man. A jobber, he made his living buying and selling tobacco in wholesale lots throughout central Connecticut. Although he is credited with originating this marketing concept, in truth his role in the business was hardly different from that of the merchant captain of the eighteenth century, the individual who realized the greatest profit from the tobacco trade. His Italianate house was built about 1860 (657-659 Main Street).
Several South Windsor men returned to their hometown to take up farming on their families' land. Charles Greene, a retired naval commodore, built his exceptional Carpenter Gothic style house in 1851 (660 Main Street), where he lived the life of a gentleman farmer, leasing his land to other growers. John N. King's son Isaac, George Bancroft, and Leonidas Chandler shared similar experiences in the American West before returning home after the Civil War. Only Chandler served in the war, but all three men spent several years as prospectors and ranchers in Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. Isaac King prospered on land farmed by his family for 150 years. Bancroft took over his father's butcher business and grew wealthy raising cattle and tobacco on 400 acres. Chandler also became a tobacco farmer and was elected as a state representative in 1879.
The rapid expansion of the tobacco industry in the mid-nineteenth century produced a demand for labor which could no longer be met locally. Irish immigrants who did not find work in the cities soon arrived in South Windsor. Unlike the situation in the urban industrial centers where the majority of the immigrants were single men and women, whole families came to the district; children, along with their parents, were hired by the growers. Although the Irish never became a significant presence in town in terms of their numbers, several upwardly mobile Irishmen, who had worked in the fields as boys, established themselves as landowners in the village. Lawrence Daly progressed rapidly from "working shares" (land leased for a percentage of the crop) to a farm manager. In 1869 he was able to buy his own farm. His widow, who also came to the district as a child, ran the farm for many years after his death, raising a tobacco crop known locally for its quality. Dennis Riordan is another example. Although the house that he owned is no longer standing, his son John Reardan (spelling changed) built a Queen Anne/Colonial Revival style house nearby which is still owned by the family (465 Main Street). William Kinnery, another successful Irish-American, built his house and established a farm on North King Street in 1902 (756 North King Street). Its late Queen Anne/Colonial Revival styling was quite typical of the houses built in the prosperous early decades of the twentieth century following the introduction of shade tobacco.
Because the growing of tobacco is a highly specialized, land- and labor-intensive form of agriculture, a most unusual historic built environment evolved in Windsor Farms. The Windsor Farms Historic District retains representative components constructed over 200 years that illustrate the historic interrelationships of a rare form of farming village a historic district of exceptional integrity and architectural diversity one that is uniquely adapted to the terrain. Historic houses line both sides of Main Street as they might in a more urban setting, one of the special features of this rural district. Most of these farmhouses have retained their house barns and shed; their tobacco barns, warehouses, and fields are quite literally in the backyard readily accessible to the farm workers as they have been for centuries. Historic public buildings from the late nineteenth century still serve their village functions. Earlier buildings used as schools, a library, a post office, and the town clerk's office from the early nineteenth century are still intact, although they have been converted, or reverted to residential use.
Modern intrusion has not significantly disturbed the integrity of the historic environment. On Main Street the newer twentieth-century houses are dispersed and compatible in scale; clusters of modern houses are confined to the side roads and do not visually intrude upon the district. With the exception of a modern convalescent home set well back from the road, but still highly visible, other commercial intrusion is limited to one historic building, a continuation of its original function.
The state of preservation of the earliest houses in the Windsor Farms Historic District is exceptional. Not only are the seventeenth-century houses significant because of their rarity, they have virtually retained most of their architectural integrity. Well-preserved eighteenth-century houses have survived in sufficient numbers to provide historical and architectural continuity to the district, particularly because they are almost equally divided between the colonial and post-Revolutionary periods.
The nineteenth century focus of the Windsor Farms Historic District is established by significant concentrations of two groups of well-preserved buildings. In addition to a large group of historic tobacco barns, an increasingly rare type, well-preserved and maintained because of their continuous usage, 60 nineteenth-century farmhouses were built in Windsor Farms. However, unlike the more typical farmhouses of the period, these buildings display an uncommon range and diversity of style. As is the case with the barns, their exceptional state of preservation is primarily due to the fact that they have been maintained as part of working farmsteads for most of their history.
Good representative examples of stylistic trends, as well as one-of-a-kind examples of several architectural styles were built in the nineteenth century. Some of the more "high-style" houses of this period are still the centerpiece of working farms, for example, the Samuel T. Wolcott House (347 Main Street), the home of the family of twentieth-century tobacco grower. An exemplary Greek Revival-style house, one that would add distinction to any environment, the Wolcott House is the most notable of the many houses influenced by this style in the Windsor Farms Historic District. It is distinguished by its unusual form — the hip-roofed main block with a colonnaded portico flanked by matching one-story wings, and its restrained but stylistically pure applied detail. Although tobacco fields abut the rear of the property, another distinguished building from the pre-Civil War era, the Commodore Greene House (660 Main Street), is one of the few stylish houses which did not serve as a farmhouse sometime in its history. Constructed in the Carpenter Gothic style, it is the only example of this style in the district and the Town of South Windsor. Enhanced by its Victorian-period landscaping and the well-preserved carriage house, it exemplifies the "villa farmhouse" promoted by A.J. Downing as "lacking in ostentation...with as much architectural refinement of feature and expression as properly belong to the subject." Appropriately enough it was built for a country gentleman, one who retired to this rural setting to live a life of leisure.
Other individually significant buildings include the John N. King House, a Second Empire style house at the center of the district (793 Main Street). One of the few domestic buildings of its size in Windsor Farms, it is quite compatible with the massing and scale of the adjoining library and school built about the same time. The King House is also exceptionally well-preserved. Except for the small square skylights in the tower roof, there have been no external changes to the house.
Although most of the late-nineteenth-century houses retain their original architectural details, even those which have been sheathed with aluminum or vinyl siding, none of them approach the level of style and elaboration of the Stick-style John P. Jones House. Its unaltered state, with its wealth of architectural detail and decorative surfaces, is enhanced by its historically appropriate color scheme (1063 Main Street).
A much narrower range of style and form is present in the early-twentieth-century houses built in the district. This distinctive group of buildings, however, express the continued prosperity of Windsor Farms in this period and complete more than 200 years of architectural expression. One of the most typical of this number, again a working farm, is the William Kinnery House at 756 North King Street. Strongly influenced by the Queen Anne style, this Colonial Revival style farmhouse retains all of its architectural features, such as the porch with the pediment in front of the entrance, and the multi-paned windows commonly used in this period. The straightforward solid massing of the barns on the property add to the historic architectural character of the site, and complement the substantial, Foursquare appearance of the house.
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dagger; Jan Cunningham, Cunningham Associates and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Windsor Farms Historic District, South Windsor, Connecticut, nomination document, 1986, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.