Irish Immigration to Avon – A Forerunner to An Incidence of Cultural Prejudice at the Pine Grove School House in West Avon, 1876 (Part 1)

Author: Janet M. Conner,  Avon Historical Society

No matter when, in the course of our nation’s history, instances of racial or cultural discrimination or prejudice have occurred, the result is always the same…feelings get hurt, people become disenfranchised, the wrongs done continue to be perpetrated and people are less connected with those who are “different.”  Such was an instance of prejudice that occurred long ago at the lovely, one-room Pine Grove School House in West Avon, Connecticut. (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1: Pine Grove School House

On the surface, the incident would appear merely as children being mean to other children but, in fact, the issue ran much deeper.  So deep in fact that it was reported to and published by the Bristol Press, June 1, 1876 from Unionville News section as follows:

 In the South School District of Avon, the cup from which the children drank water during school hours having become much dilapidated from long exposure to air and water, was considered unfit for longer use, and the school was furnished with a new one to replace the old.  When the new cup was produced, the pupils being all descendants of Yankee stock, with the exception of one family who were of Irish descent, the Yankee children appropriated the bright new cup to their own special use and behoof and in passing the cooling draught the old rusty cup was passed to the Irish children, who were tauntingly told that it was the “paddy cup” by the water bearer in attendance.  This insult and change of cups is said to have been noticed by the teacher, which caused a smile upon her countenance rather than a reprimand.  That smile of approval sank deep into the hearts of the lone Irish children.  They went home depressed in spirit, and in tears made complaint to their father, who upon diligent inquire, found that the story of his heart-stricken children was true and that the committee man of the district was the father of the teacher who let the indignity pass without a rebuke to the perpetrator.

The Irish first came to the Farmington Valley in the first quarter of the nineteenth century seeking to build railroads and the Farmington canal. (Fig. 2)  “Four hundred pick and shovel laborers, chosen for their strong backs, came from the ‘loughs and dells’ of Ireland in 1826 and 1827 to become the labor force,” according to Frances L. Mackie (64-65).  After the canal was completed, many Irish moved on following the work but there were some “…who worked on the canal and stayed in the valley to share their rich heritage with the Yankee farmers (Mackie, 159).”  “The Shanachie,” the newsletter of the Connecticut Irish American Historical Society, recalls that a priest from Massachusetts, Father Woodley, kept a log of canal workers’ births and baptisms in the Hartford area and this “log confirms that many canal workers were family men with Irish wives willing to share whatever hardships were necessary to build a new life in America (2).”

Fig. 2: Farmington Canal, Mount Carmel

The Irish population began to increase incrementally in Avon.  According to the 1850 census for the Town of Avon, there were “only nine Irish families with ‘farmer’ or ‘laborer’ shown as the occupation for the household-head (Mackie, 170-171).” By the 1860 census, “thirty-four Irish families are recorded (Mackie, 173-174).” Professor John F. Sutherland of Manchester Community College notes in his article “Immigration to Connecticut” that “They [the Irish] were the single largest foreign-born group in the state…(269).”

Connecticut’s Governor William T. Minor (Fig. 3) was staunchly anti-Irish and was elected to office in 1855 on the American Party ticket that became the Know Nothings. At his inaugural parade, Irish immigrants and anti-immigrant nativists came close to violence when there was an attempt to break up the Irish militia lines.  As Christopher Hoffman wrote in a 2014 article in the Hartford Courant, “The ugly incident typified the prejudice, demonization and outright hatred the Irish faced during the 1840s and 1850s when they began arriving in Connecticut in large numbers.” A historian for the Connecticut Irish American Historical Society told Hoffman, “The people of Connecticut felt very threatened…They felt [the Irish] were dirty. They were Catholics, which was a bad mark against them.” The Irish, in great numbers, joined the Democratic party as a means of upward mobility both socially and economically. The Ethnic Heritage Center explains, “This political move frightened many Yankees who worried that radicals and Catholics would join forces to take political control of Connecticut (8).” It was not until 1883 when a Governor of Irish descent was elected, a man by the name of Thomas M. Waller (Fig. 4) of New London, that tensions eased.  He was the son of Irish immigrant parents named Armstrong and was adopted into the Waller family.

Fig. 3: Gov. William T. Minor

Fig. 4: Gov. Thomas M. Waller

Irish women began working as domestic servants and shop girls and men as mechanics, farm hands, and laborers. New Irish families came to seek work in Avon, some being employed at the Climax Fuse Company.  (Fig. 5) An industrial accident happened there in 1905 with a major explosion and fire that killed nineteen people, some with Irish surnames. “The rapid influx of ‘new’ immigrants after 1900 was greeted by a few Avon people with dismay.  Straight off the boat, the immigrants were ‘different;’ they did not speak English, their ‘ways’ were strange, and in a small New England farming town where the vast majority were [sic] of Yankee stock, the dissimilarity was a fearsome thing,” wrote Frances Mackie.

Fig. 5: Climax Fuse Co.

Fig. 6: US Census sample of Workers at Fuse Factory

With anti-Irish sentiment at home, it is not surprising that the Irish children attending school at the one-room school house were treated with disrespect at that time in our town’s earlier days.  The Connecticut Historical Commission opined, “The Irish experience in Connecticut was painful, but the Irish at home had endured poverty, famine, and English rule; they were not easily discouraged by the prejudice they encountered in Connecticut.”

To be continued…

Sources and Recommended Reading:

The Ethnic Heritage Center, An Ethnic History of New Haven, p. 8, available at

Hoffman, Christopher, “19th-Century Irish Catholic Immigrants Faced Unabashed Hostility-State’s First Major Wave Of Foreigners Widely Seen As A Threat,” The Hartford Courant, June 22, 2014.

Mackie, Frances L. Avon, Connecticut: An Historical Story. Canaan, NH: Phoenix Publishing, 1988.

“The Coming of the Irish,” Celebrate Connecticut 350 Years 1635-1985-Connecticut History and Culture,  Hartford: The Connecticut Historical Commission, 1985, page 141.

“The Shanachie,” Connecticut Irish American Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. XXV, No. 1 (2013): 2.

Sutherland, John. “Immigration to Connecticut.” Celebrate Connecticut 350 Years 1635-1985-Connecticut History and Culture. Hartford: The Connecticut Historical Commission, 1985, 269.

Thompson, Alice Holmes. “Pine Grove School, Seventh District, Avon, Conn.,” The Lure of the Litchfield Hills, December 1953.