National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site
Village of Chesterfield, Town of Montville, Connecticut

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

[Photo]
New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site
Photograph courtesy of the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office

The New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site, located in the town of Montville, Connecticut, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on February 28, 2012 for both its historical and archaeological significance.  The site includes two modern tax lots which were purchased in 1892 by the Society Agudas Achim (founded in 1890) and the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue, its successor organization.  With the financial assistance of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, the recently arrived Jewish farmers and residents of the Chesterfield community constructed a synagogue and creamery on the property. 

Lot 2 contains the foundation remains of the synagogue, its associated mikvah, and a stone well.  Lot 3 contains the foundation remains of the former creamery building (later converted into a dwelling and inn), a stone well, a barn, and several retaining walls.  Although no longer visible on the landscape, there was once a small hydro-electric “powerhouse” located within the perennial stream (now known as Powers Brook) that runs under CT Route 85 and through the site, as well as a small 20th-century bungalow to the northwest of Powers Brook facing Route 85.  The property is overgrown with vegetation and woods today but historically contained a mixture of cleared land and maintained woods.  A commemorative monument, noting the site of the Chesterfield synagogue, was dedicated next to the synagogue foundation remains in 1986.

[photo]New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site
Photograph courtesy of the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office

Beginning in the early 1890s, a number of Eastern European Orthodox Jewish families, many recently settled in Brooklyn from areas of Russia, began a migration to Eastern Connecticut towns and villages where they were able to purchase inexpensive land of former Yankee farmers, often with the financial help from philanthropic organizations
such as the Baron de Hirsch Fund.  Chesterfield was one of the first of these villages to be established as a Russian Jewish enclave.  Hayim Pankin, a wealthy and enterprising Jewish immigrant from New York, was the first of the group to purchase land in Chesterfield circa 1890. Hirsch Kaplan, an unordained rabbi who led a small Lubovitcher group from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was given a Torah enabling him to establish a new congregation in Chesterfield.  By January 1892, there were some 52 Jewish families in Chesterfield.  The newly formed religious congregation was known initially as the Society Agudas Achim (meaning Society of Brethren) when it was formed in 1890, and worshipped initially in Kaplan’s farmhouse.

The Baron de Hirsch Fund, a philanthropic organization founded in New York City in 1891 with funds from Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a wealthy German Jew who had made his fortune in industry and railroads.  The Baron de Hirsch Fund was incorporated to assist recently arrived Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe through financial aid, and held as one of its main goals the resettlement of Russian Jews on farmland, known as the “Back to the Land” movement.  Baron de Hirsch wrote:

[Photo]
New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site
Photograph courtesy of the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office

What I desire to accomplish, what after many failures has come to be the object of my life and that for which I am ready to stake my wealth and intellectual powers, is to give a portion of my companions in faith the possibility of finding a new existence primarily as farmers and also as handicraftsmen in those lands where the laws and religious tolerance permit them to carry on the struggle for existence as       noble and responsible subjects of a human government.

The Fund helped identify areas where farmland could be purchased inexpensively, often because former owners had abandoned” the land due to poor conditions or had migrated away from the countryside to urban areas, or, by government invitation, to the West.  Eastern Connecticut was one such location where many Russian Jews bought land, often with help from the Fund.

In 1892, at the suggestion of Baron de Hirsch agent Arthur Reichow, the group changed its name to the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society, and proceeded to have a synagogue built on the site.  That same year, the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society sold a portion of their holdings on the site to the newly formed New England Hebrew Farmers Creamery Association, which, with a mortgage from the Baron de Hirsch Fund, had a cooperative creamery built, giving the farmers an outlet for selling and processing milk produced on their farms. 

[photo]New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site
Photograph courtesy of the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office

In time, the synagogue parcel came to include a mikvah, or ritual bathhouse, constructed in ca. 1910 with funds from the women of the congregation, and its associated stone well.  The creamery parcel supported an associated icehouse and a second stone well, in addition to a barn. In the 1920s, the small hydro- electric “powerhouse” was constructed within the perennial stream, now known as Powers Brook, which runs through the site.  The “powerhouse,” provided electricity to both the former creamery building, then converted into a dwelling and inn, and the property across the street where Powers Pond, which once served as a local ice pond, is situated. The former creamery building, once converted to an inn, continued to be owned and operated by local Jewish residents, and contributed to the summer resort trade in the area through mid-century.  The “Back to the Land” movement that promoted the settlement of Jewish émigrés on farmland in late 1890s America was particularly evident in Eastern Connecticut, where a number of these small hamlets were established, with the Chesterfield community being one of the first. 

The Jewish residents who settled in Chesterfield beginning in about 1890 hailed from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe, generally from areas in what is now Russia.  They practiced Orthodox Judaism, in contrast to Jews who had emigrated earlier in the 19th-century, primarily from Germany, many of whom practiced Reform Judaism. The Baron de Hirsch Fund contributed about $1800 for construction of the synagogue in Montville, Connecticut, which was built by Ben and Rock Lyons in 1892 and overseen by Hirsch (Harris) Kaplan and his sons. Ultimately, the synagogue was said to cost about $2000. Consecrated on May 8, 1892, its purpose was recorded in the Town of Montville Land Records and is preserved on the commemorative monument that was dedicated on the site in 1986.  It reads:

[Photo]
New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site
Photograph courtesy of the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office

We, the subscribers, for the purpose of perpetuating the cause of Judaism in all its essential purity, and cherishing and promoting its great and fundamental principle in the Rock upon which our undying Faith is founded, the belief in and worship of one God, hereby unite to form a Society for public worship according to the principles and practices of our Faith.

The New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue Minutes Book shows that the society adopted a democratic constitution in January of 1894, elected new officers every year, governed their members’ behavior, adjudicated disputes and in general conducted the society’s business beyond just the running of the synagogue.

The synagogue was a simple frame building, one story in height with no basement. A Jewish version of a small rustic church, it had several basic adornments, including a cupola on the roof above its entrance, a Star of David over the doorway, decorative sunbursts carved beneath the lintels above the windows, and a small stained glass window crowning the ark that held the Torah.  The doors of the ark itself were draped in black velvet cloth.  According to Orthodox Jewish practices, the interior, which contained wooden pews, was divided into separate spheres for men and women, marked by a long curtain, known as a mehitzah. By 1910, according to a newspaper article, a mikvah, or ritual bathhouse, had been constructed on the site in conjunction with the synagogue.

In her memoir describing Chesterfield, Micki Savin (2004) describes the small enclave of Jewish residents as “A Shtetl in America.”  Shtetl is the name for small villages with large Jewish populations, which prior to World War II were located in Eastern Europe, most notably within the Pale of Settlement.  They describe a communal way of life, organized around the synagogue and a small cluster of businesses.  Savin, in her memoir I Remember Chesterfield (AuthorHouse, Bloomington, IN; 2004:11) writes:

[photo]New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site
Photograph courtesy of the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office

Alien to the land, alien to the language, alien to the customs, they created their own village, a shtetl, similar to which they were accustomed.  There was a blacksmith, a cobbler, a Hebrew teacher, a synagogue, a bakery, and a cemetery.  Although the families had come from diverse localities in Russia, their shared culture formed a   cohesive community among their Yankee neighbors.

The New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society creamery operated for only about 12 or 13 years over a 20-year period. The communal creamery met its demise due to economic factors. As the Chesterfield community grew, many farmers supplemented their income by taking in boarders during the summer months. These visitors, Orthodox Jews themselves, hailed from urban areas and were attracted to countryside retreats where they could escape the heat of the city and partake in generous kosher meals offered by farm families.  In order to feed the visitors, farmers kept much of their milk for the boarders during summer months; production at the creamery dropped to only 200-300 quarts per day. Without a reliable supply of raw milk, the creamery could not operate economically for long.  Additionally, by the 1910s norms were changing, and milk was now being touted as a nutritional element in children’s diets Until this time, much milk was discarded after its cream had been extracted, but now that milk was being seen as a worthwhile product in its own right, small scale creameries that could not process large quantities of milk were becoming obsolete. There was also a high turnover of personnel operating the creamery.

In 1912, the Baron de Hirsch Fund foreclosed on the creamery property, and for several years there was much correspondence within the organization about the fate of the creamery building.  In 1915, a public auction was proposed (and then revoked, although an advertisement for the event was printed), and eventually the property was sold to Julius Kaplan, a member of the Society.  Kaplan in turn sold the creamery building (with its icehouse) and its land to Abraham Miller, who converted the building into a residence by removing its gabled dormer and cupola and adding a full second floor.  The building served as both a dwelling, and later, an inn (known as Galper’s Inn and operated by Miller’s daughter, Rebecca Miller Galper, during the 1940s).  The building burned down in April 1950.

[Photo]
New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site
Photograph courtesy of the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office

The experience of the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society community speaks to both local conditions and national trends, both in its beginnings and its demise.  The “Back to the Land” movement and its associated Jewish aid organizations permitted communities like Chesterfield to establish and sustain themselves during the 1890s and the first decades of the 1900s.  The children of the original settlers learned English and assimilated into the larger local and national culture.  But ultimately, the lure of big cities and the failure of small-scale agricultural farms and dairies to compete with larger urban operations meant that these hamlets could not endure.  In Chesterfield, the children of the original Jewish settlers increasingly left for better opportunities elsewhere, and many of them went on to lead highly successful lives in New London and Hartford. 

However, as a result of this urban migration, by the 1920s and 1930s the Chesterfield community had dwindled to only a few families. Savin writes that by about 1930 the synagogue had difficulty generating a minyan, and that often it was only on the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that extended families returned to Chesterfield to fill the synagogue again.  The synagogue sustained fire damage to its roof in 1950 when the former creamery building burned down and with the dwindling population, in 1953, the synagogue closed its doors for good.

The Chesterfield community was one of the first rural enclaves of Orthodox Jews established in Connecticut.  Later areas included Colchester, Lebanon, Vernon, Ellington, and Somers, with the Baron de Hirsch Fund financing a second synagogue in Ellington in 1915. The “Back to the Land” movement was not limited to Connecticut.  Perhaps the most well known Jewish farming colony that resulted from this popular trend was established in Woodbine, New Jersey.  Some 5,300 acres were purchased by the Fund in 1891, and the first Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School was established at Woodbine in 1894.  Ultimately, the “Back to the Land” movement, led by the Baron de Hirsch Fund and other similar Jewish aid organizations, empowered Jewish farmers to settle individually or collectively in numerous locations throughout the United States, including New York, Louisiana, Arkansas, Colorado, Michigan, North and South Dakota, and Oregon.

[photo]New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site
Photograph courtesy of the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office

Today, none of the former structures on the property are standing, and only features and foundation remains are visible on the modern landscape.  These include the foundation of the synagogue, the mikvah and an associated well, the creamery and an associated well, a barn, retaining walls, cement footing pads, and a midden.  Although many historical records are available relating to the site, most notably the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Minutes that have entries ranging from 1892-1918, there are still many questions about the site that cannot be known from written records or personal recollections, and which future archaeological investigations could address.  


Excerpted and edited from Julie Abell Horn and Faline Schneiderman-Fox, New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society Synagogue and Creamery Site, NRHP Nomination, Connecticut SHPO, February 28, 2012.

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