Danbury: History

From Beans to Revolution to Hats

English settlers moving north from Norwalk took root in Danbury in 1685 and called it Swampfield though this was short-lived. Renamed Danbury in 1687 after a town in England, it was nicknamed Beantown for the beans and other vegetables that grew prolifically there, which were carted over a primitive road to be traded in Norwalk.

Danbury functioned during the American Revolution as a storage and warehouse point for patriot arms and supplies. In April 1777, British General Tryon was dispatched there to attack the city, which had received advance word of the raid but was able to round up only about 250 militia to defend itself against a British force of some 2,000 men. General Tryon captured the town and set his men to destroying patriot homes. The troops came upon stores of rum and began consuming it. Fearful that the American militia was gathering to block his way to his ships to the south of the city, Tryon ordered his drunken men out of Danbury, where they were attacked by troops led by Benedict Arnold and General David Wooster. British troops did manage to reach their ships but suffered many casualties.

The first hatmaker of record in Danbury was Zadoc Benedict, who founded a firm in 1780 that turned out three hats a day. By 1800 Danbury had emerged as a U.S. center for the manufacture of hats, part of a Connecticut pattern of factories being established in small villages rather than large industrial cities. By 1887 the city's 30 factories were turning out about five million hats a year, and Hat City became its nickname. Danbury continued to be a national center for the production of hats until the beginning of the twentieth century, when the fashion for the stiff fur derby hats produced there changed to a demand for softer hats. It is speculated that the automobile was the reason for this change in fashion—the stiff derbies would blow off in the wind. Following World War II men began to go hatless, and the industry went into a further decline from which it never recovered.

Danbury also became famous for the Danbury Fair, which originated in 1821 and by 1869 had become an annual event. The fair brought farm folk with a week's supply of food in their wagons together with city slickers for livestock and agricultural displays and competitions. Discontinued in 1981, a shopping mall now occupies the former fairgrounds.

The coming of the railroad in the 1830s (running by 1852) brought whole crews of Irish workers to Danbury, where a Roman Catholic church was built and distinctly Irish neighborhoods grew up.

From Hats to Diversified Industry, Corporate Headquarters

Although hatmaking has almost disappeared in Danbury, industry has grown rapidly there to the extent that the area is more heavily industrialized than any other labor market in Connecticut, the reverse of a trend being experienced elsewhere in the country. Beginning in the 1970s corporate headquarters leaving New York City caused explosive growth in Danbury's population, which expanded by more than 19 percent between 1970 and 1980. The I-84 corridor east of Danbury to Southbury saw an 80.3 percent increase in population. A slow yet steady shift in population to these rural areas of the state continues.

Forecasts foresee no end in Danbury's population growth. The economic development of the area has been a critical goal of the city leaders and their efforts can be witnessed in organizations such as CityCenter Danbury, which focuses on the prosperity of the downtown area. In 2004, CityCenter Danbury oversaw $18 million in public and private investments. Mayor Mark D. Boughton stated in his 2005–2006 annual budget that Danbury is "on the rise" with its success anchored by a high quality of life, a solid educational system, and vast recreational and cultural opportunities. The city's strengths are recognized by its sixth place ranking among Connecticut's 17 major cities by Connecticut Magazine in 2004 in terms of education, crime, and economic condition.

Historical Information: Danbury Museum & Historical Society, 43 Main St., Danbury, CT 06810; telephone (203)743-5200