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History in pictures
By Shawn Daigle   - 04/08/2009

The Middletown Press

Sorting through old photographs and digging through dusty archives was more than simply a labor of love for native authors Kathleen and Robert Hubbard.

Each little-known anecdote, long-forgotten character and weather-beaten photograph they discovered became a window into the city’s not-so-distant past — a city with a more than 350-year history.

Both authors hope to share that past with readers of their new pictorial history, "Middletown," released as part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America Series, $21.99, released last month.

This husband-and-wife researching team — with help from the archives of the Middlesex County Historical Society — have gathered more than 220 photographs for the book from Middletown’s days as a busy river port to its time as a manufacturing center.

While all the photographs in the book are black and white, there are no shortage of colorful characters and offbeat tales within its pages.

One story the Hubbards were not able to completely verify is that of Sarah Sage, said to have hidden Benedict Arnold’s two sons from an angry mob, burning Arnold in effigy on the streets of Middletown after they heard that he had switched sides and joined the British.

"It was just revealed he committed treason. She protected his sons from an angry mob," Robert Hubbard says.

He also had trouble verifying another story passed down over the years, that famous British author Charles Dickens, upon visiting the city, called High Street the most beautiful street he had seen in the entire country.

A cursory search of Yale University’s Web site found that Dickens is claimed to have said the same about a street located on its New Haven campus.

So, Robert Hubbard contacted Wesleyan University’s archivist to verify which story was true. He was told most likely both were correct. "Probably when he went to another town, he made the same statement," Robert Hubbard says.

Such unexpected discoveries were a common and welcome occurrence for both authors. "We certainly didn’t realize a lot of things until we started digging," said Kathleen Hubbard. "You hit these golden nuggets and you become fascinated."

One event that sparked Kathleen Hubbard’s interest in particular was the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to the city in 1824, accompanied by his son, George Washington Lafayette.

The two traveled by barouche, pulled by four white horses. A reception for the marquis was held at the Washington Hotel. "Everyone wanted to see the last famous hero of the American Revolution," Kathleen Hubbard explained. Residents gathered on the streets to watch him and his son as they passed.

Since then, Middletown has suffered no shortage of other famous visitors. Presidents Harry Truman, George Washington and John Adams are among those who have made stops to the city over the decades, according to the Hubbards.

Middletown has also had its share of famous residents, including Secretary of State Dean Acheson, world-famous boxer Willie Pep, songwriter Allie Wrubel (who wrote the song "Zip-a-Dee- Doo-Dah") and President Woodrow Wilson — who taught at Wesleyan for two years.

From images of famous residents to candid shots of Middletown’s early streetscapes, the Hubbards gathered hundreds of photographs from the archives of Wesleyan University and the Middlesex County Historical Society for their new book. Other photographs were donated by local residents. Robert Hubbard scanned most of the photos himself at the General Mansfield House on Main Street. "I could read the storefronts, their names, what they were selling," he recalled.

Things that couldn’t be seen by the naked eye were made crystal clear by using a computer. The Hubbards used the images from the scanned photographs in some cases to date when the photos were taken.

That was the case with a picture taken in front of Meech and Stoddard’s grain and feed store near the turn of the century. The Hubbards were able to date the photograph to around 1900 using an advertisement for Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show plastered to the storefront window in the background of the photograph.

Some answers, however, were harder to find — such as why Middletown was first founded.

In their research and in talking with local residents, the Hubbards found two competing theories. One explanation holds that Middletown was founded because it was the farthest point north on the Connecticut River that large ships could reach because of the river’s bend, making the area an attractive location for commerce.

An alternative theory the Hubbards heard holds that large-hulled ships would navigate up the river to kill off a certain type of worm that ate through their hulls and couldn’t survive in fresh water. Middletown — it is said — was located far enough up the river that the water would kill off the worms.

In going through many of the old photographs, Kathleen and Robert Hubbard recognized familiar places from when they were raised in the city. While both now live in Wallingford, Kathleen Hubbard is a teacher at Keigwin Middle School, and Robert Hubbard is an associate professor at Albertus Magnus College. Both were born in the city and attended Middletown Public Schools.

So far, public reaction to the new book has been phenomenal. This March, the Hubbards participated in a book signing at Broad Street Books. According to Robert Hubbard, they were told they had sold twice as many books as any book signing the store has held to date.

While putting the book together may have been more difficult than the Hubbard’s originally expected — taking most of last summer and part of the fall to complete — in the end, it is a project they are glad they did.

Always great admirers of history, for the couple, this project was also a learning experience. "We found a lot of things we didn’t know," Kathleen Hubbard explained.

"Don’t you have one of those books with the sepia photos on the cover?" was a question often asked at the Middlesex County Historical Society.

After approaching the Historical Society in the spring of 2008 and signing a contract with Arcadia, the Hubbards got to work reviewing and scanning hundreds of photographs in the Historical Society collection and reading every pamphlet ever written about the city. Conversations with long-time residents and trips to the Russell and Olin libraries rounded out their efforts.

The project went to press in November 2008.

On April 22, the Hubbards will deliver the Arthur M. Schultz Memorial Lecture at the Historical Society’s annual meeting. They will share their experiences researching and writing their book.

Their presentation will feature images from the Historical Society collection and will be followed by a book signing and refreshments. The program will be held in the Hubbard Room at Russell Library, 123 Broad St.

The Historical Society will hold a brief annual meeting at 6 p.m., followed immediately by the program. Admission is free.

The book is available at It’s Only Natural Market, 575 Main St., Broad Street Books, 45 Broad St., Middletown, other area retailers, and at arcadiapublishing.com.

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