When students arrived on campus this semester, Middletown residents pulled out all the stops. Signs screaming “Welcome Back, Wes Students!” hung in the windows of local businesses, along with loud banners advertising student discounts and acceptance of Wesleyan’s Middletown Cash system. Although relations between Wesleyan and Middletown have been tenuous at times, they have shared a rich and complicated history for almost 200 years.
Europeans first settled the area now known as Middlesex County in 1650, and the community that sprung up was named Middletown for its placement between Windsor and the mouth of the Connecticut River. The early government, like most in New England, was harsh, boasting fourteen crimes punishable by death including the “incorrigible stubbornness of children,” according to the City of Middletown website.
The colonization of the area took years, largely because of Native American activity led by the infamous chieftain Sowheag. By the time of American independence, however, Middletown was the largest and wealthiest town in Connecticut, partially because of its deepwater harbor.
The Industrial Revolution also did wonders for Middletown. According to Deborah Shapiro, member of the Middlesex Historical Society, at least one object was produced in Middletown for each letter of the alphabet. Today, Middletown still deals heavily in manufacturing. Its largest employer is Pratt & Whitney, which mainly makes aircraft engines.
Wesleyan University opened in Middletown in 1831. A group of men, led by Willbur Fisk, had the goal of advancing education and Methodist doctrine in New England.
“Methodists were well-known for education at that time,” Shapiro said.
Middletown was already 180 years old in 1831, but it had fallen on hard economic times in the years leading up to Wesleyan’s establishment. It was a town of muddy streets and frame houses and still had a public whipping post. However, there was much to be said for its beauty. John Quincy Adams, on a presidential visit, called Middletown “the most beautiful of all (the Connecticut towns).”
Charles Dickens is also rumored to have called High Street, a street of luxurious mansions, the most beautiful street in the Americas.
Several other towns in Connecticut contested to house the University, hoping to become successful college towns like New Haven and Hartford. Middletown won out and on September 21, 1831, 48 male students matriculated as the University’s first class.
Following Wesleyan’s establishment, Middletown experienced an economic boom. It even boasted a major league baseball team in 1872, when the Middletown Mansfields took the field against other major league teams of the era.
In the years since 1831, Middletown and Wesleyan have worked on creating a closer relationship. While rocky town-gown relations have created conflicts in recent years, students and the Middletown community have been working on bridging the gap. Wesleyan students volunteer at the Green Street Arts Center and mentor children from the North End, and Middletown residents are invited to cultural and arts events on campus.
“On a personal note, I’ve always seen the influence of Wesleyan on Middletown as a positive one,” Shapiro said.
Wesleyan students tread daily on legendary ground: the ground of Sowheag, General Mansfield, and countless others. Although the campus may at times feel like a sequestered Wesleyan bubble, it is important to remember the myriad ways Middletown’s heritage has shaped the University, and that going to parties on the most beautiful street in the Americas is a privilege, indeed.