Westport on Clark's map of Fairfield County, Connecticut from 1856

County Histories and the Wakeman Candle Factory Fire

Sometimes, in our quest to find our ancestors, we overlook the very sources that could add interest to our family history and break down brickwalls in our research. One such resource is the county history.

Oftentimes, as genealogists, we are so focused on individual documents that we do not allow ourselves the freedom in our research for serendipitous finds through these types of resources. This is too bad; because it is the things that you stumble across that often lead you in different directions in your research than you might otherwise consider.

For the last decade I have been researching the Wakeman family of Fairfield County, Connecticut. This family was originally from England and came to this country just after the Mayflower and ultimately settled there.

Seeing the county histories on the Accessible Archives site, I took some time to browse through the titles and discovered the History of Fairfield County, Connecticut, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches by D. Hamilton Hurd. J.W. Lewis & Co., 1881.

A search of the surname “Wakeman” in this resource yielded many results. Clicking on them, I found many stories that I had not known about members of this family.

Saint Paul's Church in Fairfield County Connecticut

Saint Paul’s Church in Fairfield County Connecticut

These stories gave me a different perspective on them in ways that my document-focused research could not.

For example, I found this excerpt about the burning of one of the Wakeman’s candle factories in 1859. Fortunately, the community had just purchased a new fire engine in February of that year and it arrived in Westport in March of 1859. The fire occurred on May 28, 1859.: (pp. 827-843)

During the month of February the committee learned that the city of Waterbury had two hand-engines which they wished to dispose of. Messrs. Taylor and Phelps therefore visited Waterbury, examined the engines, and obtained the prices. About a week later the rest of the committee, viz., Wood, Jones, and Downes, went to Waterbury and purchased Phenix Engine, No. 1, for the sum of three hundred dollars, and they at the same time bought two hundred feet of hemp hose, for which they paid one hundred dollars.

The machine arrived in Westport on the 11th day of March, 1859, and was taken to Lee’s factory, where it was overhauled and put in working order. The engine was of the piano style, manufactured by Van Ness & Co., of New York. At a meeting of “Union” Engine Company, held in Betts’ Hall, April 11, 1859, it was voted to reorganize under the name of “Compo Engine Company, No. 2,” and the following officers were elected: Foreman, John S. Jones; Assistant Foreman, Edwin E. Warner; Treasurer, Elijah S. Downes; Secretary, Oscar I. Jones.

At this time, the company having no house, the engine was stored in different barn’s about the village. The first service the company ever saw was at the burning of Wakeman’s candle-factory, on West Avenue, on the night of May 28, 1859, at which time the machine was kept in constant operation for over four hours, thereby saving the entire lumber-yard of Staples & Adams and a number of adjoining buildings.

Although I do not wish an ancestor to be known for having his factory and therefore his livelihood burned, but knowing that he had the first fire ever put out by the first fire engine in the community, it did add a bit of flare (no pun intended) to that part of the research project.

Pondering this bit of news leads me to several questions that I would follow-up with in my research: How did the burning of the factory affect Mr. Wakeman’s livelihood? Was he financially ruined? Did he rebuild?

Fairfield County Courthouse

Fairfield County Courthouse

I would check newspapers for coverage of the blaze. Information from the 1860 census population schedule may indicate the lessened value of his estate. Possibly he left the area and went to Vermont where many of the members of this family migrated.

But what if he was not in the 1860 census for Fairfield County, Connecticut? If I did not know that this particular Wakeman had a fire in his factory, but could not find him in the 1860 census. Where would I expect to find him? Possibly, he followed his extended family to Vermont. Or, if I already had him in the 1860 census for Vermont, I would now know why he left Connecticut.

In conclusion, do not overlook county histories for tidbits of information that can yield valuable clues to your ancestors whereabouts. Sometimes, that bit of information can be the difference between an engaging family story and one that no one will read.

Supplemental Information

This map by Richard Clark from 1856 shows the location of many of the homes and farms of Fairfield County at that time.  The inclusion of an inset detailed map of the village center of Westport made it easy to find the home of H. Wakeman at the time the map was created.


All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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