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Famous Residents

Adams, Willis Seaver (1844-1921) – Artist –

Willis Seaver Adams, whose paintings reflected the beauties of the Connecticut River Valley landscape as well as his loneliness as an individual, was born on a farm near that river in Suffield in 1844. Adams attended Suffield Academy sporadically, aspiring to be a painter, but it is not known where he learned to paint. A wealthy Springfield doctor, impressed with his work, sent Adams to study at the Royal Academy in Antwerp in 1868, but Adams was forced to return to Springfield when his sponsor died soon after. Unable to make a living at painting, the artist worked for a photographer coloring crayon enlargements, and three years later set up his own studio.

 In 1876 a vacation in Cleveland lengthened into a two- year stay where Adams met other artists and busied himself organizing that city’s first water color exhibit, the Cleveland Art Club and Cleveland Academy of Fine Arts. A portrait of Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes, done before he became President, did much to enhance the artist’s reputation. Returning to Europe in 1878, Adams established a studio in Venice and became friends with James Whistler who lived above him on the Grand Canal. Adams traveled around Europe, lived in Florence for three years, then returned to Springfield as an instructor for the Springfield Art Association. He began a long association with James D. Gill, at whose galleries Adams exhibited often, with his first one-man show occuring there in 1894.

Although Adams had successful exhibits in other cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York, and his paintings brought good prices and critical success, he became discouraged that he was not getting enough recognition, and returned to his old home in Suffield. His style became less academic and he began to paint lonely landscapes he called his “oil miniatures” which formed the basis for all his later work. Adams had become something of a recluse, moving again in 1906 to a converted barn in Greenfield, Massachusetts. There he continued painting, but further isolated himself, turning to his dog “Collie” for companionship. With over 54 exhibits and some 425 watercolors, oils and drawings to his credit during his lifetime, Willis Seaver Adams died in relative obscurity in 1921. A Greenfield paper obituary said: “As has been the case with so many artists, Mr. Adams will have a posthumous fame, which would have been pleasing while living.”

A retrospective exhibit of Adam’s works mounted at Deerfield Academy in 1966 provided a checklist of known works in its catalogue, many of which have not been located. The catalogue shows five works owned by Kent Memorial library ,and several privately owned by Suffield residents. The Wadsworth Atheniums owns “The Historian” c. 1881-84; and another painting belongs to Suffield Academy.

Alcorn, Hugh Meade (1872-1955) – Public Servant –

Hugh Mead Alcorn was born in Suffield in 1872. Hugh Alcorn’s parents had come to Suffield as children in 1838 from Northern Ireland. His father had served four years in the Civil War, had been twice captured and twice escaped and had suffered the hell of Andersonville Prison. The experience left him with a drinking problem that led to his death by drowning. That left a scar on the young Hugh Alcorn that he never forgot.

He was educated at the Connecticut Literary Institution and then studied law with the Hartford firm of Case, Bryant and Case. In 1900 he married Cora Terry Wells of Suffield. In 1903 he ran for the legislature. He was nominated and elected as representative from Suffield and re-elected two years later.

Aggressive, alert, with an incredible ability to read rapidly and retain what he read, Hugh Alcorn advanced fast in the law. In 1908 he was appointed by the Superior Court of Connecticut as State’s Attorney for Hartford County. It was a post to which he was successively re-appointed every two years for a total of thirty-four years. On his resignation in 1942 he had established the longest tenure of the office in the history of a post that had begun in colonial times with the King’s Attorneys.

State’s Attorney Alcorn prosecuted over fifteen thousand criminal cases during that period. Many were of national prominence, resulting in federal legislation to control white slavery, loan shark operations and medical standards.

The Gilligan poison murders of 1913-16 formed the basis for the internationally known play Arsenic and Old Lace. In 1920 Hugh Alcorn was appointed Special Attorney General of the United States by President Woodrow Wilson to prosecute Edward A. Rumely on charges of being a German agent in purchase of the New York Evening Mail as a German propaganda medium. In 1926 there was the prosecution of Gerald Chapman, head of the largest crime syndicate of the day.

There was the Connecticut angle of the Lindbergh kidnapping case in 1933. There were quack doctors, stock swindlers and the longest criminal trial in Connecticut Court history. That was the Waterbury conspiracy case when Alcorn prosecuted Frank Hayes who was then Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and Mayor of Waterbury at the same time. Hayes and his gang took over three and a half million dollars in graft out of the city in a two-year period.

President Hoover tried to appoint Hugh Alcorn as Special Attorney General in charge of Prohibition enforcement. The appointment was blocked by the political antagonism of the Connecticut senators and the Roraback political machine. They objected to the independence of a man who had been on personal terms with Presidents Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.

In 1934 Hugh Alcorn was the Republican nominee for Governor of Connecticut, the first Suffield native so honored. He was defeated in the Franklin Roosevelt landslide by the smallest vote margin in the state’s history.

The quality of his public service had been recognized with many and varied honors. But the recognition Hugh Alcorn most cherished was the award of an Honorary Master of Arts degree from Dartmouth College in 1928.

He was in his eighty-third year, still active in his profession, when he died in 1955.

Gay, Ebenezer (1718-1796) – Minister –

Ebenezer Gay, the third minister of the First Congregational Church of Suffield, was born on May 4, 1718 in Dedham, Mass. His father was a substantial farmer, and his uncle was the famous minister, Ebenezer Gay of Hingham. Young Ebenezer graduated from Harvard in 1737, where he took the Hopkins Prize and had a speaking part at Commencement. In June 1740 he preached for the first time in the Third Church of Dedham and then went on to preach in neighboring parishes.

Gay became a candidate for the pastor at Cohasset and then at Suffield. On November 5, 1741, the church and congregation of Suffield called him, and the ordination was held January 13, 1742, which turned out to be a very snowy day. In spite of this, there was a most distinguished gathering headed by Uncle Ebenezer who preached the ordination sermon.

On July 9, 1742 he married Hannah Angier and on November 14, 1743 he moved into the house he had built-“The Gay Manse” on Main Street. They had no children, but their adopted black girl Sybil was baptized as the “child of Ebenezer and Hannah”. There were other black members in the Gay household in later years, of whom the best known was Ti.

Ebenezer’s sermons reflected a plain kind of preaching and the simplicity of his religion. “His religious sentiments were formed on the gospel; not on human creeds. Attached to no system, and calling no man master, he repaired directly to the fountain of truth . . . . He was steady in his principles; but, despising bigotry, he ever manifested an amiable liberality of spirit. He never was severe to censure, or forward to condemn those of different sentiments.” Many of his sermons have been preserved, including The Work of a Gospel-Minister (New Haven, 1755), the Sovereignty of God (Hartford, 1767), and Evangelical Preacher (Boston, 1763).

This tolerance led to his close relationship with prominent people of various political and religious convictions of the period. His line-a-day diary for the years 1738-1794 tells of frequent contact with Rev. Jonathan Edwards (Northampton), Rev. Stephen Williams (Longmeadow), Presidents Clap and Stiles (Yale), Rev. Eleazar Wheelock (Dartmouth), Rev. Cotton Mather Smith (Sharon), and other political and military leaders of the day.

When he was not traveling to preach in other parishes and visiting family, Gay supervised work on his farm, keeping slaves as was customary for ministers, magistrates, and tavernkeepers, who were freed by his sons after his death. Gay also found time to tutor students preparing for Yale College, including his own two sons, one of whom followed his father’s ministry in Suffield so that between them they served church and community for nearly 100 years. After the death of his first wife in 1762, Gay married Mary Cushing of Scituate. One of their five children, Mary, married Timothy Swan.

After a long and distinguished career, Reverend Ebenezer Gay died on March 7, 1796. His sermons and diaries have survived, a rich source of 18th century religious and social thought as practiced in what was then a leading town in New England.

Graham, Sylvester (1794-1851) – Inventor of the Graham Cracker –

Sylvester Graham, best known today for his invention of Graham crackers, was from a line of clergymen-physicians and was born in West Suffield in 1794, the 17th child of the 72-year old Reverend John Graham, Jr. Graham decided to prepare for the ministry also, and studied languages at Amherst College briefly in 1823. Following a long illness, he began preaching for the Presbyterian Church in New Jersey, and in 1830 was made general agent for the Pennsylvania Temperance Society.

Probably because of concern for his own health, he became interested in human physiology and nutrition, giving lectures in the eastern states, and developing what came to be known as the Graham System, a vegetarian dietetic theory. He advocated use of whole wheat for bread, hard mattresses, open windows, fresh fruits and vegetables, pure drinking water, and cheerfulness at meals . . . apparently revolutionary ideas at the time. A number of his lectures were published, including: “The Young Man’s Guide to Chastity” and “Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life.” Although he became the subject of jokes and editorials — Emerson called him the “poet of bran and pumpkins” and his “Treatise on Bread and Bread Making” of 1837 resulted in an attack by a mob of Boston bakers — Graham flour was successfully being milled, Graham boarding houses were established, and his lectures were being published. Graham’s most ambitious work, Lectures on the Science of Human Life, published in 1839, became a leading text on health reform, but his popularity waned after 1840 and he died in 1851 before completing The Philosophy of Sacred History, a collection of his lectures relating his theories of living habits to the scriptures.

Granger, Gideon Jr. (1767-1822) – Postmaster General –

A Suffield native who went on to national prominence as Postmaster General of the United States under President Jefferson, Gideon Granger served Connecticut as a leader in the Republican minority, Like his father before him, he was a graduate of Yale (1787). He was admitted to the bar in 1789 and married Mindwell Pease, sister of Seth Pease, in 1790. Two years later he was elected to the Legislature where he served for nine years. He played an important role in the adoption of the Common School Law of 1795. Granger’s political articles were published in Hartford’s “American Mercury” under a pseudonym since they espoused opposing views of the rule of “Standing Orders” by the Federalist majority.

Although his campaign for Congress in 1798 was unsuccessful, Jefferson rewarded his support by appointing Granger Postmaster General in 1801, a post he held until retired by President Madison in 1814. Resuming his law practice in the state of New York, Gideon Granger became interested in the Erie Canal Project. He served in the Senate of that state in 1820-21 after which his health began to fail. He died in 1822.

Lyman, Phineas (1716-1774) – Major General of Connecticut Troops in French and Indian Wars –

Born in Durham, Connecticut in 1716, Phineas Lyman graduated from Yale in 1738. He studied law in New Haven and was a tutor at Yale until his marriage and move to Suffield in 1742. He practiced law in Suffield and ran a law school which may have been the first in Connecticut. He was instrumental in the transfer of Suffield from Massachusetts to Connecticut in 1749. He held town offices, was a representative to the General Assembly, and a member of the Governor’s Council.

During the French and Indian War of 1755-1760, Lyman was a Major General in command of the Connecticut troops. For part of the time he was second in command of all American forces. He demonstrated exceptional military ability. In 1762 Britain was at war with Spain; Lyman commanded all the American troops in the successful assault at Havana.

At the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Britain acquired all Spanish lands east of the Mississippi River. On behalf of a group of war veterans, Phineas Lyman spent eight years in England seeking land grants in the new territory. He succeeded in obtaining a grant only for himself. In late 1773 Lyman, his son and 8 slaves left Suffield to establish a new home 380 miles up the Mississippi River in Natchez. There he died in 1774 before his wife and 5 children arrived, a sad conclusion to an eminent career.

Pease, Seth (1764-1819) – Western Reserve Surveyor –

Seth Pease, born in 1764, one of Joseph Pease’s eleven children, played an important role as surveyor of the Western Reserve lands in Ohio and participated in important expeditions which helped open up these lands for settlement. Field notes, journals, and correspondence made by Pease provide today’s historians with details of these journeys which took place in 1796 and 1797. With Moses Cleveland, also of Connecticut, and one of the eight original purchasers of part of The Western Reserve, he laid out the city of Cleveland, Ohio, named in honor of the latter.

Seth Pease was graduated from Yale College where he had excelled in math, thus preparing him for his career as a surveyor. In 1785 he taught an evening school in Suffield, and with his brother, Royal, ran a sawmill here between 1785 and 1798. Following his Western Reserve trips, he conducted a fur business with Israel Spencer in 1801, handling mink, otter, marten, muskrat, and red and grey fox skins. Their accounts show they bought and sold furs, extending their trade as far as Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and into New York state.

During Jefferson’s first term as President, Pease served as the first Assistant U.S. Postmaster General under another Suffield native, Gideon Granger, Jr.

Taken ill suddenly in Philadelphia in August, 1819, he died there at the age of fifty-five.

Phelps, Oliver (1749-1809) – Western Reserve Land Speculator –

Oliver Phelps (born in 1749) was a great land speculator. A native of Windsor, young Phelps came to Suffield apprenticed to a local merchant and later became a tavern keeper in Granville, Mass. As Deputy Commissary of the Colonial army during the Revolution, he supplied troops and was commended by General Washington. With a partner, Phelps contracted to buy 6,144,000 acres in the Genesee Country, New York (then Massachusetts), for $1 million between 1787-1788. After meeting the Indian owners of the land at Buffalo Creek, he ended up with 4,940,000 acres of the tract. By 1789 he had returned to Suffield, bought the Hatheway House where he opened one of the first land offices in America (and another in Canandaigua, N.Y.). At the time of the Western Reserve purchase (some 3,300,000 acres), Phelps was also negotiating for land in Georgia, West Virginia and Maine, and considered to be the largest land holder in the country.

Although he was a founder and large stock holder in the Hartford National Bank and Trust Co., about 1800 his financial troubles became acute because of the effect of changing money values on mortgages held on the tracts of land sold and a depressed land market. Forced to sell his Suffield home, Phelps moved to Canandaigua, N.Y., where he built a grist mill and endowed an academy. He was appointed the first judge of Ontario County and between 1803 and 1805 he served in Congress. Although a man of great ability and broad vision, Oliver Phelps was ahead of his time. He tried to help settlers who could not fulfill their contracts, but he was doomed to poverty and died in 1809 in debtor’s prison.

His memory is honored in Canandaigua, where the inscription on his tombstone reads: “Enterprise, Industry, and Temperance cannot always ensure success but the first of these will be felt by Society.”

Swan, Timothy (1758-1843) – Composer –

Timothy Swan, who was to become one of the first and most important composers during his thirty years as a resident of Suffield, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1758. While apprenticing as a hat maker at age sixteen he attended singing school briefly and wrote his first song, “Montague”. In 1776 as a member of the Continental Army, he learned to play the flute — and these two experiences comprised his only musical education.

Swan moved to Suffield in 1782 and became a member of the Congregational Church choir where he met Mary Gay, daughter of Rev. Ebenezer Gay, whom he married in 1784. Ten years later they built the house which still stands north of the church and filled it with a dozen children. Pursuing his vocation as a hat maker, Timothy Swan continued to compose and became known as the Hatter-Composer, writing tunes mentally as he worked, and persisting in always wearing a hat of some sort in public.

His hymns became popular, and six were included in Oliver Brownson’s Select Harmony published in 1783 including “Poland”. A hymn called “China” composed in 1790 and his most well known, was considered by the composer as his best. It was named for a town in Maine, and was first published in 1801 in New England Harmony. Swan also published The Songsters Assistant about 1800 with Alexander Ely, and The Songsters Museum in 1803. The latter was published anonymously with 204 pages of secular music by Swan, who loved poetry and wrote verse for the local paper in Scottish dialect. In 1807 he and his family moved to Northampton, and he died at the hearty age of 84 in 1842.

Sykes, Henry (1810-1860) – Architect –

Although Henry Sykes, born in Suffield in 1810, was never given more than a “common” education, he managed to acquire an extensive knowledge of many subjects beyond his profession as an architect and builder. He had a keen interest in researching Suffield history, and was an honorary member of several historical and antiquarian societies.

Orphaned at the age of five, Henry Sykes was raised by his grandfather, Victory Sykes. When old enough he was apprenticed to study architecture and building with Chauncey Shepherd of Springfield, Mass. and later with Ithiel Towne of New Haven. By the time he was thirty, he had designed and built both the First Congregational Church (later moved from its place on the green for use by the railroad company) and the Second Baptist Church (still in use) in Suffield.

His reputation as an architect went beyond the town, however, and he was responsible for the design of many stores and private residences in Springfield, buildings at Amherst College (which awarded him an A.M. degree in 1854) and residences and churches in Greenfield, Mass.

Known for his Christian virtues, Henry Sykes was made a deacon of the First Congregational Church in 1857, an office he held until his death at the age of fifty in 1860.

Warner, Olin (1844-1896) – Sculptor-

Olin Warner was a nationally-known sculptor who is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and whose statues and other works in major cities remain as a legacy to his creative talent. Born in West Suffield in 1844 as the son of an itinerant Methodist minister, Warner was to move many times with his family, eventually working as a telegrapher to save money for art studies abroad. At 25 he began studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, later joined the French Legion when France declared its Republic, and in 1872 returned to New York.

Following a four-year struggle for recognition as a sculptor and artist, Olin Warner finally won some important commissions after his bust of Daniel Cottier, the art dealer was hailed by critics. Works of note include the Skidmore Fountain in Portland, Oregon, statues of Governor Buckingham at the State Capitol in Hartford and several in Boston including abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and busts of a number of famous people. Not confining his creations to metal and stone, he made portraits of Indian chiefs while in the northwest in 1889-91. But Warner’s most outstanding contribution may well be the design and modeling of two bronze doors for the Library of Congress entitled: “Oral Tradition” and “Writing”. The first of these was completed before his tragic death at age 52 from a bicycle accident in 1896.