Forests In Flux

After forests were decimated by the Industrial Revolution, Connecticut has seen the regrowth of its woods. (WES RAND / Hartford Courant / July 3, 2014)

In 1600, what was to become Connecticut was essentially nothing but trees.

"If it isn't a rock outcrop, and it isn't a wetland or water body, and it isn't a bald patch on a coastal dune, it is all forest," said Robert M. Thorson, a University of Connecticut professor of geology who has researched changes in landscapes extensively.

Not only was the landscape dominated by trees, they were big, mostly mature trees, said David R. Foster, director of Harvard University's Harvard Forest in Petersham, Mass., and an authority on New England forest history.

The Connecticut forest 400 years ago was a rich mix of species, often park-like, without much brush in the understory. In places, native Americans burned patches of forest to keep them open, but much of the state was simply mature, pristine forest.

Native Americans grew crops, but their numbers were comparatively small and their impact on the woodlands was thought to be slight, though there are differences of opinion today among researchers on how just how much the Indians altered the landscape.

Once European settlers arrived, in the first decades of the 17th century, landscape changes became far more dramatic, as early settlers cleared land for their farms. Still, at first, that clearing was largely confined to parts of the Connecticut River valley and the coast, old towns like Windsor, Hartford, Wethersfield, Old Saybrook and Guilford. The rest of the state was woods.

For example, as late as 1700 the hilly countryside that would become New Hartford was forest, river and lake, said William Hosley of Enfield, a cultural resource and marketing and development consultant who has studied Connecticut history for 34 years. There may have been native American trails in the area, but any other sign of human presence was unlikely, he said.

In 1714, with Connecticut still a colony, Henry Woodward moved from Lebanon to Columbia, buying the hill beside an area known as the Great Meadow, creating a farm whose history roughly parallels many of the changes in the Connecticut landscape over the centuries. By 1830, that hill was known as Woodward Hill.

"One of the first things he did was build a dam on the stream exiting the meadow, build a sawmill, and begin the process of deforestation that is such a part of the New England story," said Walter W. Woodward, a professor of history at UConn, the official Connecticut state historian, and a descendant of Henry Woodward.

The Woodward dam and sawmill was but one of many small-scale dams and mills erected mostly on smaller streams. The remains of some of them still can be found along rivers.

By the time the Connecticut Courant began publication in 1764, the population in the colonies had grown substantially, and a state that once was all trees was rapidly losing its forest cover. For roughly the next 80 years, the percentage of the state in forest would plummet.

On April 22, 1817, a column written by the lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in what is now West Hartford, appeared in The Courant. Titled "Domestic Economy," it was a reaction to deforestation and one of the first pleas for conservation in the U.S.

Noting that the state already was extensively cleared, Webster argued that it could no longer sustain the enormous amount of wood burned each year in homes. It was time for more efficient fireplaces — and time to embrace a conservation ethic.

"But we are not merely to seek the means of subsistence for ourselves — we are not to waste and destroy, for the sake of present enjoyment; we must not strip the inheritance of its wood & its fences and its timber, and leave it barren and impoverished for the next generation," he wrote. "We must not be so improvident as to render our country uninhabitable."

On the land that Henry Woodward farmed stands a three-story colonial home built during the years of the Revolution, probably the second home built on the site. It remained in the Woodward family until the death of Walter Woodward's great-great-grandfather in 1875 forced the sale of the home outside the family.

Woodward, the state historian, was delighted to see the home up for sale last year. He bought it in August. "The Woodward Hill Farm in Columbia, Conn., is once again back in the family and I am its steward," he said.

If Stone Walls Could Talk

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as the Woodward family expanded and relatives built homes and farmed in the area, they, like thousands of other Connecticut farmers, created stone walls, one of Connecticut's most iconic landscape features.

Many of the Connecticut farms were to disappear, but as every hiker in Connecticut knows, old, crumbling stone walls are found throughout the state's forests, even near ridge tops, a legacy of thousands of farms that once covered the land. Many of these old stone walls enclose what was once pasture or cropland. The same farmland today is densely covered with big stones.

One of the prevailing assumptions is that Connecticut farms were abandoned, with farmers often heading to the flat land of the Midwest, because the soil was so rocky it was a nightmare to tend crops each year.