Early History of Bethlehem

In the Spring of 1673, fifteen planters with their families traveled north from Stratford, and after many days of mishaps, purchased from the Indians an extensive tract fifteen miles in width, now comprising Woodbury, Washington, Bethlehem, Roxbury and parts of Oxford and Middlebury. These Lands were incorporated in 1674 under the name of Woodbury."   "Connecticut as a Colony and as a State", Forrest Morgan, Editor in Chief, 1904 Vol. 1, p. 299

From Old Bethlem Historical Society, Inc  and the Connecticut Historical Commission 1976

The Spring session of the 1703 General Assembly granted to the town of Woodbury the right to enlarge its bounds. Negotiations with the Indian inhabitants were successfully concluded and in 1710 a deed of sale signed by Nunawague and five other chiefs, conveyed to Woodbury nearly 18,000 acres, known thereafter as the North Purchase.  This included the present town of Bethlehem and parts of the parts of the later Judea, now Washington.

Surveyed in 1723, and after proprietors were granted their rights, divided into lots, it was opened for sale.  Pioneers arrived in 1734 settling on the heights northeast of the present center.   In 1738 young Joseph Bellamy was called to preach during "winter privileges".  Separate "society privileges" were granted in October, 1739.  Bellamy was requested to continue as pastor, and so remained until his death in 1790.  As the settlers established their own Bethlem church and school, Doctor Bellamy became a most distinguished author, preacher, and teacher, conducting the first theological school in America.

Young men lived in the Bellamy home while he grounded them in his brand of scriptural interpretation and preaching methods.  Among future leaders who studied there were Aaron Burr, Jonathan Edwards II, and James Morris.  Bethlem men served in the French and Indian and all subsequent wars.  Numerous are the captains and lieutenants buried in the Old Cemetery. 

Bethlem was incorporated as a separate town in 1787.  Mainly a farming community until the 1900's, it had sufficient water power for 18th century industries -  mills; cotton mill, woolen mill, wagon factory, straw hat and bonnet factory and miscellaneous manufactories of leather goods.

The following text is courtesy of Evelyn Paluskus 10/97

In 1740 there were 14 families living in the North Purchase still owned by the town of Woodbury.  These settlers had moved from settled towns to a wilderness of forest.  The forest had some traveled paths made by animals and Indians.  Slowly highways were established from a distant house to the meeting House.  In the beginning each house owner had to maintain the portion of road that fronted his property.  After becoming a town 1n 1787 the town was divided into districts, using school districts as a pattern.

Also in 1740 Bethlehem became an Ecclestical Society, a parish of Woodbury.  This was based on the fact that we could have our own minister and that the Congregational Church would also establish a school.  The Rev. Joseph Bellamy, first pastor of Bethlehem, served the church community for the next 50 years.  He was followed by the Rev. Azel Backus, who served only a few years, and left to become president of Hamilton College.

The Congregational Church has had three church buildings.   The earliest was on "Bear Hill" as far as can be determined, "Bear Hill" was in the vicinity of today's town center.  The second church built in 1786 was in front of the Bellamy property on what we now call The Green.  The third church built in 1839 at about the same time that our first town office was built.   Henry Jackson offered a site for the town office south of the Episcopal Church.   The plot measured 38 ft. frontage by 65 ft. deep, and cost the town $55.00.   The building was to be two stories high and completed by September 15, 1839.  The first floor was to be used by town officials, the second floor was to be used for town meetings and could be rented out to town organizations for entertainment and their meetings.

When North Purchase was laid out in the 1700's a portion of land was designated as "Common Land".  (Today it would be the center of Bethlehem).  The Common was opened to all to graze their cattle, horses, and swine.   Geese were not allowed on the Common.  To guard against stray animals endangering people or property, the Town also maintained a pound.  Each year a bid went out to the lowest bidder who provided an area in his farmyard for the  pound.   The owner of any stray animal confined to the pound was fined before the animal was returned to him.  In 1809 animals were banned from grazing on The Common or along the "highways."  In 1847 "one cow with a strap around neck with owner's name was allowed to browse along highway."  So these free grazing rights varied from time to time.

In the early 1800's the Town still maintained financial responsibility for the Congregational Church.  In this era the term "meeting house" was recognized as the site for religious services as well as for all town meetings.  In December of 1809 the meeting house bell cracked.  The Town purchased a new bell and was given the cracked bell.

Roads seemed to be built in sections.  Notations will mention that a road is to be build between one owner's house and another owner's.  A committee was appointed in each district to take bids on the cost of repairing highways in each district.  Wages of $1.00 per day was allowed for a days wages.  $2.00 a day was paid if the laborer also used  a team of horses.  At this point "surveyors" were appointed to collect road taxes.  These taxes were in addition to taxes on property.  In the late 1800's a road was built from the Porter house (Rt 61S) to the Nonnewaug Rd. 

There is a 1874 map of the Town of Bethlehem in the Town Clerk's office that shows the nine school divisions.  District #9 which was in the Southeast part of town was never used.  The children in this district attended the Woodbury one room school that was almost opposite the exit of Nonnewaug Rd. on the present Rt 61.  Bethlehem parents paid tuition to Woodbury.

Although  the Town Fathers advocated and encouraged education, parents in each school district were liable for taxes to pay the teacher's salary and they also had to purchase the texts used by the students.  The Town did not take over the support of schools until the early 1900's.

The Town also maintained the cemetery, appointed a grave digger and owned a hearse for the use of the public.  The Town also built a shed to house the hearse on land belonging to the Meeting House.  The grave digger set his own price for his service.

Our original cemetery is the Bellamy Cemetery and is on land owned by the Rev. Joseph Bellamy and was deeded to the Town in the middle of the 1800's by his son.  When space became limited in the Bellamy Cemetery, the Evergreen Cemetery was established in the 1860's.  The Mt. Carmel Cemetery was first established as a family cemetery.

Browsing through the Town Journals of the 1800's it was interesting to note the changes from then to today.  In the 1800's the population of Bethlehem ranged from 1,138 down to 576 in 1910.  Our town had a woolen mill on Bird's Pond, a clover mill, at least one general store, blacksmiths, leather tanners, and a ladies hat maker.  The main industry however was farming and raising apples, primarily for cider.  Rev. Backus reported in 1812 that Bethlem produced 7,315 barrels of cider.  Probably a lot was allowed to get "hard" and a good portion was distilled to make brandy.