by Hans DePold, town historian
February 2014 (first written in 2006)
Gay City State Park is the location of an ancient mill town, Factory Hollow. The park is named after the Gay family, the largest family living there and the last to leave. The Sumner family, who were the most active family there, also suggested the name when asked.
First settled in 1796 by Elijah Andrus, the leader of a religious sect, it grew to a mill town of about 25 families, the majority of them members of the Gay family. The residents kept to themselves and lived separately from other towns. They built a sawmill on the Blackledge River, and a wool mill in the hollow. Both were successful businesses until the War of 1812. The mill was burned to the ground in 1830, triggering an exodus of many families to the urban mill cities. A paper mill was later built which revitalized the town but that too burned to the ground after the Civil War and the town was abandoned. Local lore has it that the park is haunted.
While it managed to survive, after a fashion, for some 80 years, Gay City was never, as its name seems to suggest, a center of merriment. In fact, the 20 or 30 devout, hard-working families who first settled the hollow on the Hebron-Bolton town line probably would not have recognized the name. That's because the settlement planted in 1796 by Elijah Andrus and a band of devout followers from Hartford was long known as "Factory Hollow," until feuds, wars, liquor, fires, and legends of murders and ghostly hauntings finally transformed the small community on the Blackledge River, below Still Pond, into a permanent ghost town in the 1880s.
Not until 1953, when the area where Factory Hollow once stood was turned over to the State of Connecticut for use as a state park, did the Gay City name become attached to the place. There was an irony in this, too, since it was descendants of the powerful Sumner family, who for years battled the Gay family for village domination, who suggested that the state use the Gay name for the new public recreation area.
If the traditional stories about the settlement are credible, there was trouble, right there in Gay City, almost from the beginning. Within four years of the founding, Elijah Andrus had abandoned his followers to the not-so-tender mercies of the rocky soil, steep terrain, and utter isolation of the dark gorge of the Blackledge, just as the first frame houses and muddy streets began to appear. No one knows why Andrus departed, but tales persisted for years of feuding and fighting among the group of zealots he had led into the wilderness. According to legend, alcohol had been the principal factor contributing to Gay City's first upheaval. Some say that it was part of the group's religious practice and others claim that it was an inducement to attend the twice-a-week services, but whatever the reason, all male members of the community were served hard liquor when they attended the meetings for worship. Rum may have improved attendance figures, and it may even have encouraged spirited participation in the religious services, but legend has it that the alcohol did very little for the peace and tranquility of the religious gatherings. As the drunken brawls and blasphemous language of the male parishioners contributed more and more to the general civic unrest, a number of the first families of the colony packed up and left Gay City, resettling in the Hockanum River region of East Hartford and Glastonbury, and along the banks of the Connecticut River to the south.
In 1800 John Gay was officially appointed "president" of the colony, while the Methodist Rev. Henry Peterson Sumner took Andrus's place as spiritual leader. John Gay and his brother Ichabod apparently shared with Sumner the responsibility of administering the community's affairs, though the relationship between them was never said to be cordial.
There was a story that one of the men at the Hollow did a good imitation of Reverend Colton of Bolton to poke fun at Puritans. Reverend Colton was said to go one time in disguise to see the impersonator's performance. Reverend Colton then challenged the impersonator to see who could do a better impersonation and Reverend Colton lost by community vote.
By 1804, the hollow had reached a turning point. John Gay and the remaining families decided that the survival of the struggling community depended on some sort of economic stimulus, something to bring jobs and income to residents whose interest in the colony was flagging, and maybe even inspire new population growth. Their answer: a mill for the manufacture of woolen cloth. So, after choosing a site about a quarter of a mile down river from Still Pond, the Gay City folks, aided in the back-breaking enterprise by outside laborers recruited from neighboring towns, began construction of a woolen mill.
Huge foundation stones, some weighing over a ton, were moved to the site on ox-drawn sledges, while a dam and canal were constructed to divert water from the river to run the huge, overshot wheel that operated the mill. The work was finally completed after many months, despite the defection of at least one of the laborers. According to a traditional story, this workman refused to have anything to do with building a canal in which the water "ran uphill" (as, indeed, it seemed to do). Proclaiming that it was "doing the Devil's work" to contribute to an "un-natural" stream of free-flowing water, he laid down his shovel, walked off the job, and never came back.
A horse thief got out the back way of Factory Hollow on what is now French Road and got as far as the first house where he was tied to a tree and whipped. That tree still stood as the Whipping Tree well into the 1900s. Other stories were passed on by word of mouth. Unusual stories persisted that suggest some alcohol abuse continued.
The mill began operation under the name William Strong and Company around 1810 and, for a brief time, provided a welcome boost to the Gay City economy. Much of the wool used in the manufacturing process came from locally-raised sheep, while Hartford and other nearby towns provided a ready market for the cloth. Then came the War of 1812, the British blockade of shipping, and a recession causing a decline in commerce. The Strong mill failed. But Henry P. Sumner purchased full control of the factory and continued the business as the Lafayette Manufacturing Company until a disastrous fire in 1830 finished for all time the production of woolen cloth in Gay City. But the venture may have helped save the village for several decades.
Several years after the cloth factory burned, Dr. Charles F. Sumner, son of Henry P. Sumner, erected a new mill -- this one for the manufacture of rag paper -- near the site of the old woolen mill. The rag paper was of high quality and suitable for paper currency. Managed by children and grandchildren of the Sumner family, the paper mill inspired a modest revival in Gay City, as well as a folk misconception about the operation which has persisted to this day. Because so many buttons have been found over the years at the site of the old paper works, people began to believe that the place was a button factory. Actually, the buttons came from the clothing rags used in the paper-making process.
Even with the success of the Sumner paper mill, however, Gay City's days were numbered. The last members of the Gay family had moved into Bolton after the woolen mill fire. Other founding fathers and mothers were dying off, and young people were moving out of "The Hollow" to seek economic opportunities elsewhere. Then the Civil War carried off many of the village's young men, many of them never to return. Old homes stood vacant or deserted because death had removed the last resident. Finally, the paper mill met the same fate as the old woolen factory, burning to the ground in 1879. Gay City as much as died with it.
While students of the printed record may find in the succession of documented disasters sufficient causes for Gay City's untimely demise, folks around Hebron claim that the village would have survived longer if it hadn't been for the terrible murders -- and the hauntings that followed them. They still tell, for example, about the unfortunate old jewelry peddler who was murdered and robbed of his wares, perhaps by a village charcoal-burner, shortly before the beginning of the Civil War. The sudden disappearance of the popular travelling salesman aroused many suspicions in the community, until a human skeleton, identified as the peddler's remains, was found in a charcoal pit on the edge of the village. Apparently the killer had tossed the body on the coals in an effort to destroy evidence of the crime. Although an investigation followed the discovery of the bones, the murderer was never brought to justice and the crime remains unsolved to this day.
Other versions of the story identify the victim as either a circuit-riding preacher who made the mistake of passing through Gay City one night or a drover returning home after successfully selling his cattle, killed for the contents of his fat purse. But peddler, preacher, or cattle-dealer, the ghostly skeleton of the murdered man was seen on numerous occasions in the years following the crime, hovering over the dead charcoal pit, bones shining in the moonlight, apparently in vengeful search for a killer who would remain forever unpunished.
Legend also reveals a second murder in the Gay City of pre-Civil War days, one which, in its own grisly way, must have been more shocking than the peddler's slaying. According to tradition, the victim was the teenage assistant to the village blacksmith. It seems that the hapless lad turned up a few minutes late for work one day, and when he entered the smithy's forge, his angry boss went after him with a butcher knife.
Some said that the blacksmith carved up the tardy boy quite thoroughly, including lopping off his head, while others merely report that the assistant was slashed to death. In any event, the blacksmith made sure that the youth would never be late again. Despite the apparent open-and-shut nature of the crime, neither the blacksmith nor anyone else, as far as records reveal, was ever brought to trial in the slaying. As in the case of the jewelry salesman, the murder remains unsolved after more than a hundred years. Perhaps that is why folk legend has reported for years the presence in Gay City of the ghostly figure of a young man moving rapidly through the overgrown tangle of woods, bushes and vines, as if hastening to some appointment for which he seems to be always late. Sometimes, they say, in his obvious agitation, the restless spirit quite literally holds his head in his hands!
Now, on a sunny, summer's day, as swimmers splash in the cool waters of Still Pond and an occasional hiker tries the narrow trail that melts into the deep woods along the Blackledge River, Gay City's cellar holes and burned-out factories sleep with history. But wait for a calm, moonlit night, old-timers once warned. Then sometimes the sound of drunken voices can be heard rising from "The Hollow" or a ghostly specter can be seen flitting through the trees, as if on an important mission. For when darkness shrouds the haunted hollow, they say, Gay City lives once more.