An Influential Citizen and The Avon Congregational Church

Author: Janet M. Conner, Researcher, Avon Historical Society

Early Northington resident Joel Wheeler was a civic-minded individual.  Joel was born about 1754 to William and Abigail Fost Wheeler.  He moved to town in the late 1700s and began buying property in the town center known as East Avon. Land ownership correlated to status, wealth, and standing within the community, as well as within the Church.  

In 1795, he had acquired about 100 acres of land and a house at 26 Main Street, which is a restaurant today.  His property was formerly owned by John Northway who built a water-powered sawmill near Stub Pond on Nod Brook.  Later a gristmill was added by Timothy Soper, and eventually a wool fulling mill.  Mr. Wheeler bought these mills when he acquired the property on which they stood making him an entrepreneur, as well as, a land owner.  

Joel Wheeler was involved with the affairs of the Parish of Northington and when there was an issue dividing the Congregational church community, he enabled a solution. The issue at hand was the hardship of townspeople-some living on the east side of the river and others on the west side-making it difficult to get to church during the winter months.  The original ‘Lord’s Barn’ was destroyed by fire, leaving parishioners to worship in private homes or school houses.  There were arguments among parishioners as to where to locate a new church.  Finally, it was mutually decided that there should be two Meetinghouses, one east, one west.  

Mr. Wheeler deeded the land on which the Avon Congregational Church (then known as the United Religious Association of Farmington), was built with a stipulation. According to Farmington town records, dated November 18, 1819, the deed stipulated:  “…provided nevertheless that in case the said meetinghouse shall be removed from said premises, then the improvement of said ground shall revert back to the grantor, his heirs or assigns, and so remain until improved again for the same purpose by the grantees.”[1] In a footnote found in Avon Connecticut: An Historical Story,[2] the heirs of Mr. Wheeler in the early 20th century filed a ‘quiet title’ to legally complete the title. Austin Hunter and other heirs became the owners of the premises.

This Church is the epitome of classic New England-style, designed and built by famed church architect David Hoadley, and modeled after his Norfolk Congregational Church.  The exterior architectural details are timeless and the interior, with a gallery above the first floor, is simple and elegant. In the early days, there was no heat and in winter foot warmers filled with hot ashes, were brought in to keep people’s feet warm.  Issues of the day were discussed from the pulpit, and the Church was the center of family life, cradle to grave.  Not only did the Church perform baptisms, weddings, and funerals, the Church elders handled more personal family matters. 

 Ministers not only preached religion, but also acted as counselors and teachers.  Members of the congregation had to be accepted by letter from another church or by profession, and they also needed permission to be dismissed from the congregation.  In the early days [still seen in historic churches today] there were family box pews. Those with higher social standing, i.e., wealth, social position, usefulness, were seated closest to the pulpit.  This was a custom in Puritan days and carried forward into the early part of the nineteenth century.  This was known as “dignifying the meetinghouse.”  A committee was formed and it was their job to decide who was seated where.  

Avon Congregational Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. It is at the epicenter of Avon’s past; it was there when the Town was incorporated in 1830.  It was there when horse-drawn wagons were replaced by gasoline-powered cars on Main Street.  It was there when canal boats came and went at the dock of the canal warehouse diagonally across the road.  It was there when the train came to the depot, bringing new immigrants to live and work here.  Generations of the Avon community have heard the joyous ringing of the bells on holidays, the celebratory ringing for weddings, and the somber tolling when a citizen was laid to rest in the East Avon Cemetery many years ago.  This iconic Church, at 6 West Main Street, is now over 200 years old and part of this town’s collective soul for all of the history it encompasses, both of the Church and the community.

[1] Deed, Joel Wheeler to the United Religious Association of Farmington, Avon Congregational Church, Connecticut Digital Archive,

[2]Frances L. Mackie, Avon, Connecticut: An Historical Story (Phoenix Publishing Company/Avon Historical Society 1988), 285.

Photo credits: Church exterior: Nora Oakes Howard; Interior and plaque: Janet M. Conner

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