Somewhere in every Connecticut community there is a blue historical maker that gives a brief history of the town. Erected in the 1970s, the markers each have the name of the town in large letters across the top. Except the marker that stands at the corner of Pennywise Lane and Main Street in the center of Old Saybrook. It has “Say-Brooke” as its top line, reflecting the earliest name by which the location was known in Colonial times. Viscount Say and Seale and Robert, Lord Brooke, were two of the English nobles who received a patent or title to some of the coastal land claimed by England in 1632. Neither ever set foot in the place that bears their names. But they are part of the interesting story of this singular coastline community.
In the early years when Europeans first started to establish trading posts along the Atlantic seaboard, there was significant competition between the Netherlands and Great Britain. All of the Connecticut shoreline was claimed by the Dutch, who in 1623 established a settlement at what is now Saybrook harbor at the mouth of the Connecticut River. The colonists from Holland did not like the remoteness of their new setting and soon returned to the more developed New Amsterdam town. Taking advantage of the changed situation, Robert, Earl of Warwick, granted a patent for lands that reached from the Narragansett River to the Pacific Ocean to a group of 11 of his British friends and relatives with the hope that they would develop it.
Working with the leadership of the well-established Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, the patent holders commissioned John Winthrop Jr. as the first governor of the new territory. Concerned about holding on to the new land, Winthrop sent a force of 20 men and a battery of two cannon to deal with any attacks by the Dutch or local Native Americans. In 1635 he hired military engineer Lion Gardiner to lay out a fort and town for the new owners. Gardiner was paid 100 English pounds for a four year commitment, which he fulfilled. A son, David, born in 1636 to Gardiner and his wife, Mary, is the first English child recorded as being native to Connecticut.
Among the first structures built by Gardiner was a palisade, which soon was put into use during the Siege and Battle of Saybrook Fort in 1636-1637 during the Pequot War. The history of this era is well preserved in the community under the auspices of the Old Saybrook Historical Society. An informative brochure, produced with the cooperation of the American Battlefield Protection Program of the National Park Service and the Research Center of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, describes 12 locations in the community that relate to the events of the Pequot War. The fort survived a six-month siege by the Indian forces, which were ultimately defeated by Captain John Mason, who became the second commander of the military camp.
After the years of conflict, a time of peace was enjoyed under the governorship of George Fenwick, the one patentee who actually came to Say Brooke. During the years of his leadership more contact was made with the developing communities further up the Connecticut River. In 1644 the decision was made the sell the Saybrook Colony to the Connecticut Colony that was firmly established at Hartford, Wethersfield and Windsor. What had been used as the official seal of the Saybrook founders became the seal of Connecticut that is still used today. After the death of his wife, Lady Fenwick, in childbirth, George Fenwick left America and returned to his native England. But his name remained on behind him.
One of the political curiosities of Old Saybrook is that it contains the Borough of Fenwick, population-wise the smallest entity in the state. Established as a summer colony of city dwellers from Hartford and elsewhere, Fenwick listed 44 permanent residents in a recent demographic survey. Most of the oceanside neighborhood is included in the Fenwick Historic District, which includes 60 buildings on 195 acres. Most notably, Fenwick was the lifelong home of actress Katharine Hepburn, who died there in 2003 at the age of 96. Hepburn is well-remembered in the town she once described as “paradise” through the distinctive structure that bears her name.
The building that now houses the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center on Main Street definitely has an “old and new” story. In 1905, town resident Joseph Cone, a printer, poet, musician and actor, proposed the idea of constructing a theater in Saybrook to stage local performances. By 1908 enough funds had been gathered to purchase land on Main Street and construct a classically styled building, which was named Town Hall. As years passed, the use of the building changed from its initial arts related functions to civic activities. The spacious auditorium was converted into town offices and the stage became a conference room. When a new town hall was built in 2003, the voters of Old Saybrook passed a measure that restored the building to its original use as a theater. In 2005 it was named for Katharine Hepburn, the town’s most famous resident.
Many other notable people have lived in Old Saybrook at one time or other, including professional basketball player Vin Baker and award-winning actor Art Carney. In the early years of the town, The Collegiate School, established by an act of the Connecticut General Assembly in 1701, produced a number of graduates who became clergymen and civic leaders in communities across Connecticut. The Collegiate School was the first school in the colonies that expanded its courses of instruction to accommodate students that were not planning on church service. In 1717 The Collegiate School moved to the more central and larger city of New Haven, where it was renamed Yale University in honor of a generous donor who bequeathed his large library to the institution.
The “Old” in Old Saybrook comes from the fact that the town is the old or original part of the Say-Brooke Patent. Area communities that once were part of the original colony include Essex, Deep River, Chester, Old Lyme, Westbrook and Lyme. Today the town has an area of 18.3 square miles and a population of just over 10,000 people. Central to the life of the town is the Chamber of Commerce, located at One Main Street. The helpful people there can provide a Walking Guide to the town and a map that outlines a driving Natural Heritage Tour. Visiting Old Saybrook is pleasurable in any season of the year. This month a good day to stop by is Feb. 29, when the town has its annual Chili Fest along Main Street from noon to 3 p.m. Blending old and new, Old Saybrook is quintessentially Connecticut.