“Sufferers’ Land” Post #44 – Life in Norwalk in the 1840’s –

In the mid-1840s, Norwalk was a vibrant village with over a thousand inhabitants. A sandy road, now called Main Street, ran along the ridge. Clouds of dust often filled the air, kicked up by long trains of Conestoga wagons carrying grain from the wheat fields south of town to the canal port at Milan. The other streets of the village were only alleys bisecting the main road between houses and businesses. Much of the town was still farmland, and many of the inhabitants were farmers.

A favorite gathering place of the time was on the “stoop” of Jenney’s tavern, owned by Colonel Obadiah Jenney, a long time business partner of Platt Benedict. Here residents would meet to gossip and do business. People also watched the fire company drilling with their waterpumper, or witnessed a game of “long ball” or an early form of baseball played on the square across the street. If so inclined, they could purchase liquid refreshment inside the tavern, or have cool water free from the town pump.

Town pumps were plentiful in Norwalk, and were popular gathering places, and opportunities for a bit of fun. Lucy Wickham’s second son William recalled years later how a gang of boys captured one of the town drunks, and threw him into a trough. William was upset to see this man humiliated, but he noted that the experience had a good effect on the man, as he remained sober the rest of his life. [1]

In 1845, Dave and Fanny Benedict were living in their father’s house on Seminary Street. They had lost their mother five years before and their sister Mary recently and had to cope with their stepmother Caroline, whom Jonas Benedict married in 1843. Caroline did not like Dave and Fanny, and made their lives miserable.

David & Fanny Benedict

David & Fanny Benedict

A portrait from mid-1840 shows two attractive young people. Dave had the soft features and gentle expression of his father. Fanny had a pleasing almond shaped face and large expressive eyes. They sit close together. Fanny’s head rests on her brother’s shoulder.


Among Dave Benedict’s friends in the 1840’s was his cousin Caleb Gallup, known to his friends as “Caley.” They attended Norwalk Academy together, which at the time attracted boys and girls from around the Firelands.

Some of the boys attending the academy played pranks on unsuspecting teachers and passers-by. One evening, they caught an old horse and brought it to the school. They lowered the bell rope down from the cupola on the roof and attached it to the horse’s neck, fastening it so the bell rang when the horse dropped its head to eat from a bag of oats. Every time the bell rang, a teacher who slept in the building went to the cupola, but could not find what was causing it.

On another occasion, a wood seller left his cart overnight near the academy. When he returned the following morning, he found it and its load of wood on the academy roof. [2]

Dave may or may not have been involved in those pranks, but he did have a wild streak, perhaps provoked by his stepmother’s treatment of him and his sister Fanny, or because of the lack of accomplishment of his father, or maybe just because he was a teenager. In any event, in 1846, he was a leader of a prank that caused a lot of trouble.

On the Fourth of July, he and his friends fired a cannon shot down Main Street. The blast damaged a barbershop belonging to Robert Shipley, whose bad temper had made him an enemy of many village boys.

Dave left town immediately. When his father learned that he was behind the prank, he quietly paid Mr. Shipley for the damage, then sent word through a friend to Dave that the problem was taken care of, although he didn’t want Dave to know he was involved. [3]

Life in Norwalk was pleasant in those days. The early settlers had cleared the land and started businesses. Now they were reaping the harvest of their labors from the fertile farms and villages they had carved out of the wilderness. However, at the end of the decade, Cholera returned, bringing terror and death.

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GO TO NEXT POST – Cholera Strikes Again

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[1] Description of life in Norwalk from 1840-1850 is from “Norwalk, Men, Women & Girls,” by William Wickham, The Firelands Pioneer, December 1918, pp. 2073-2077.

[2] Stories of pranks by students of the Norwalk Academy are from “Norwalk, Its Men, Women and Girls,” by William Wickham, The Firelands Pioneer, December 1918, p. 2129.

[3] The story of this prank gone awry is from The Firelands Pioneer, December 1902, p. 923-924 & an undated note by Harriott Benedict Wickham Barton in the possession of the author.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

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