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Center Stage: Resolving town center controversy

Updated: Jul 30

This article first appeared as the cover story in the July edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication


By Terri Wilson and Nora Howard — Special to Today Magazine


THERE HAS BEEN a friendly debate for the past 10 years about this question: Where is Avon’s town center?


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In May 2012, an article in the former Avon Life magazine about the proposed Avon Village Center development — “Avon Will be Beating with a New Heart Soon” — mistakenly claimed that “Avon has never had a traditional New England Town Green, marked by a white church spire and surrounded by the town’s earliest buildings.”


In February 2022, a town official repeated this thought in an article in Today Magazine when he said, “The town didn’t really have a center.”


Most recently, The Valley Book wrote in its annual 2022-23 guide that the new Avon Village Center development is providing Avon “with a ‘proper’ center at long last.”


We share Avon’s pride and excitement about the new commercial and residential development called Avon Village Center. However, Avon’s true town center has been right before us all along — and it is important to recognize this location and this heritage.


HEART OF TOWN HISTORY

The historical heart of a town matters, with its architecture, monuments, burying grounds and landscape. Author Thompson Mayes writes about the deep attachments we have to old places in “Why Old Places Matter: How Historic Places Affect Our Identity and Well-Being.” These are the places, he says, that help give us feelings of community, belonging, identity and stability.


​ROAD RENAME ​• Looking south in 1932, a mileage marker stands at the crossroads of Avon’s town center with the Constitution pin oak nearby — still there today — and the post office at left​ ​• The post office has since moved a stone’s throw north and this building was demolished — the DaCapo of Avon restaurant and several other businesses are at the intersection today​ ​• By the way — this is the current-day intersection where Route 10 and Old Farms Road meet Route 44, which was named in March 1935 after being known as Route 101 from 1932-34​ • ​Courtesy Photo​: ​Avon Historical Society

Since 1819, Avon’s traditional town center has been at the intersection of Routes 10 and 44 and Old Farms Road.


An early reference to a town green occurred in the 1840s, when a town boy named Edward Kellogg watched Avon’s militia company performing its drills on “the green near the church." While the size of Avon’s original green has been reduced with the widening of the surrounding roads, it is still flanked by buildings and landmarks that are among Avon’s oldest.


On this original town green is the Avon Congregational Church (completed in 1819). Its soaring church spire and meetinghouse are surely the features of the “beating heart” of any New England town center.


The meetinghouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its addition to the list in 1972 is a high honor.


Appropriately, the town center featured the busy Farmington Canal (1828-48) and the railroad — with the last train passing through in 1991. The canal site is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Its crossing of Route 44 is marked by two monuments erected by the Avon Historical Society. The rails-to-trails path, officially known as the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, follows the old canal route.

Since 1819, Avon’s traditional town center has been at the intersection of Routes 10 and 44 and Old Farms Road

The building at 12 West Main Street (built circa 1830) housed the Farmington Canal offices. The O’Neill blacksmith and transportation business (established 1886) was in the white barn and home at 25 Simsbury Road (Route 10/202) across the street from the post office.


Nearby was the Union Baptist Society Church (1817) — the building was later moved to 6 Old Farms Road.


The School District #5 schoolhouse (1809) is at 15 Old Farms Road and is now a private residence. The home of 19th-century photographer Clinton Hadsell is at 11 East Main Street. Oliver Gabriel’s house at 29 West Main Street was a safe house on the Underground Railroad.


The peaceful East Avon Cemetery (1821) faces Route 10. The original Avon Free Public Library, a red-brick structure built in 1932 and used as a library until 1982, was at 17 West Main Street — today it is the Coco Lily store. The very active Prince Thomas of Savoy Society’s Italian Club (1917) is nearby on Old Farms Road.


The repurposed Ensign-Bickford factory complex (1892) with its intentionally designed “indestructible” stone buildings anchors the western end of the town center.


The sidewalk of the Route 10 corridor leading south into Avon is seasonally decorated with historical banners on vintage-style lampposts. They were designed precisely to recognize and celebrate the entryway to the town center.


GREEN SCENE

Remnants of the original town green are beside the Avon Congregational Church. Nearby on today’s official town green are the Avon Veterans Memorial (1996), the gazebo (1994) and the town hall campus (1971). The website for the Avon Recreation & Parks Department identifies this one-acre area, on West Main Street adjacent to town hall, as the town green.


ABOVE • In the 1960s, Avon’s Constitution pin oak stands sentry at the town center where the northern end of Old Farms Road meets Route 44 — the seedling was planted in 1902 (Avon Congregational Church is to the tree’s left) • BELOW • In November 1899, an unpaved Old Farms Road runs north toward the intersection with current-day Route 44 aka West Main Street • The Avon Hotel, with two chimneys visible, is immediately to the left of freight cars on the track of the New Haven-Northampton Railroad — the railway came through Avon from 1850-1991 • The Avon Congregational Church — with its soaring steeple — is in the background beyond the hotel • Courtesy Photos​: ​Avon Historical Society

Beside the gazebo is a state of Connecticut sign marking this location as the original transportation and commercial center of Avon. The sign was erected in 1979 by the town, the Avon Historical Society and the Connecticut Historical Commission.


In March of this year, a regional gathering by Forward CT in support of Ukraine was held in this central spot by the gazebo on the Avon town green.


The Memorial Day parade in May has honored our war dead for the past 77 years, weaving through this town center toward the town green and ending at the Veterans Memorial. The annual ceremony at the memorial in November honors our current military veterans.


In 1902, the state of Connecticut gave every delegate to the Connecticut Constitutional Convention a pin oak tree seedling. Avon’s delegate was Robert J. Holmes, a Civil War veteran who had been at Andersonville Prison, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.


The town’s pin oak was planted, naturally, in the town center — at the intersection of Old Farms Road and Route 44. Avon’s tree, now over 120 years old, is listed on Connecticut’s Notable Trees register and is among the largest surviving Constitution pin oaks in the state.


Avon historian Mary-Frances Mackie wrote in her landmark book “Avon, Connecticut” (1982) that this neighborhood was referred to as “Avon Center.”


For more than 200 years, Avon’s “beating heart” has been right here. Slow down, take a look and feel part of this historic community. +


Related Story — Historic intersection centers Avon


• Nora Howard is Avon’s town historian and the author of three books on Avon history — she began her tenure in 2005 and has been affiliated with the Avon Historical Society for nearly 25 years


• Terri Wilson is president of the Avon Historical Society (since 2008) and has been affiliated with AHS for 30 years — she won a first-place Connecticut SPJ award this year with Today Magazine in the team-effort Reporting Series category, with five other Today writers

• SPJ – Society of Professional Journalists


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