As families begin to gather for the celebration of this 2012 Independence Day, the sound of bocce balls clinking and children’s excited laughter will be heard throughout the streets of East Haven.
However it will not be too much of an imaginative stretch to also hear echoes of other sounds: sounds like the shouts of warning as men
Or sounds like the crack of rifle shots as East Haven farmers fired on advancing Hessian soldiers from the hedges along Townsend Avenue.
Or sounds like the crying of children as mothers hurriedly loaded them into ox carts to run from the advancing battle.
Or sounds like the crackle of burning fields as the enemy puts torches to every farm and building from the Lighthouse to Forbes Road.
In 1779, people were preparing for their Independence Day celebration, but it was delayed since July 4th fell on Sunday that year, and good Puritans didn’t celebrate on the Lord’s Day.
So, though the bunting was hung for festivities on July 5th, and the Governor’s Second Foot Guard had polished their buttons for a march through New Haven, the morning of July 5th would bring a terrifying change of plans.
Donna Bigda, who lived on Fort Hale Road while growing up, now lives near the Lighthouse on Doty Place, directly in the path the British took northward to join another contingent that landed in Morris Cove. Bigda, who is a realtor, has a special affinity for the Cove.
“Fourth of July today means that everyone goes to Lighthouse Point, and I mean everybody,” Bigda said. “You can hardly get out of our driveway after 11 in the morning. When I was a kid, we’d have a family picnic, then at night, Dad would have us gather in the backyard to watch him light fireworks.”
Bigda was surprised when told that her current backyard would have been overrun with British troops in 1779. “That’s really interesting. I think it’s too bad that our celebrations seem to be more about the party aspect of it, now, and not so much about the true meaning of July 4th, our Independence Day.”
The historic Pardee-Morris House on Lighthouse Road was the home of Captain Amos Morris. He was one of 50 hastily gathered defenders at Lighthouse Point, but had retreated north toward his farm when the 1,500 enemy troops landed. He managed to get his family into the woods before the British began to burn his fields.
The fighting then continued up Townsend Avenue toward Beacon Hill, but some smaller encounters occurred as soldiers were left to burn farms and gather up livestock. One platoon that stopped to barbecue a stolen sheep was discovered by Colonial militiamen who made short work of their lunch guests. This happened at the corner of Burr Street and Fort Hale Road – three blocks from where Donna Bigda lived in the 1970s.
Single’s Bridge Group
It’s also just five blocks north of the home of Carl Yohans, who lives on Myron Street in his family’s 1912 farmhouse. Yohans has been having his own barbecues for many years on Independence Day.
“I started having these gatherings on July 4th many years ago for a few friends. Then, about 1986, I began to invite my friends from the Single’s Bridge Group I helped found. Since then it’s become an annual event where we eat, drink and play a lot of bridge,” Yohans said.
His memory of past Independence Day celebrations goes back to pre-WWII when they included a bonfire not unlike the one the British started on the western side of town.
“Back in the 20s and 30s, people would spend a good part of the year gathering wooden crates and stacking them on the property across from my grandfather’s farm,” Yohans said. “That was before the airport was built and this was all open land. At midnight on July 3rd, they would light a bonfire three or four stories high. People would come from all around the Cove and East Haven to watch.”
The Battle Continued
In 1779, as smoke from the fields and farmhouses burning along Townsend Avenue rose higher, the battle continued. General William Tryon’s British regulars and Hessians met heavy resistance.
The bodies of several Hessian soldiers were found in 1870 when the street was widened. They were buried where they fell at the corner of Townsend Avenue and Tuttle Road.
Ironically, the street was named for , who along with his cousin Samuel, watched as the British burned their farms to the ground. Their location had been betrayed by a young Tory, Tom Chandler, who, along with a brother who was guiding the British invasion over in West Haven, knew the area well. Both brothers had hunted, dined and overnighted with the families since childhood.
As General Tryon marched north, he sent squads toward the village center. They got as far as the Old Stone Church, which they searched for plunder but didn’t burn. The heavy opposition they met on Main Street from farmers coming in from outlying towns stopped them at this point.
They returned to New Haven to be loaded onto their ships. The British knew that it was time to leave as hundreds of farmers and militia poured into the woods around town.
Bill Jackson, former East Haven Fire Marshall and father of the present Fire Chief, Doug Jackson, has his own memories of fireworks along Main Street many decades later.
“I remember one or two celebrations where we had fireworks in the empty lot across from the police and fire stations there on Main,” Jackson said. “The police were in charge and actually shot off fireworks they had seized in the past from private individuals who weren’t supposed to have them.”
Jackson was in charge of making sure the area was far enough from other buildings and traffic to make the display safe.
Besides the Main Street extravaganza, the community fireworks displays turned up in other places over the years.
For many years there was a display at Lighthouse Point, and Jackie Albis, the mother of East Haven’s current State Representative, can remember when it was at the Middle School, although, “I remember James was in his stroller so that has been a number of years ago.”
Town Beach Party
was at the , as it has been for the past twelve years, compliments of the town budget and the fundraising efforts of the Viet Nam Veterans Chapter 484.
“It was suggested by one of our members that we should support a local fireworks celebration instead of having everyone spread out to other towns for displays," said Annarose Russo, wife of chapter president, Bernard Russo. "We took the idea to the town officials and they were very supportive."
Russo remembers that the first year was the hardest, since all the committees and support groups had to be created.
"It's a small group of veterans — about six — and their wives, as well as the town volunteers who work with them, that makes this happen every year," Russo said. "There are about 14 of us who put it together. The mix of the veterans and the townspeople who joined the committee just worked — and we've been doing it ever since."
She hastened to add that support of the community in the form of business sponsors and private donors had been phenomenal since it costs about $35,000 a year for the event.
"It's a $25,000 fireworks show," Russo said. "Then there's the insurance, the band and other expenses. We're just really grateful that the businesses and residents come together to allow this to happen. I can't say enough about the help of the town administration — whoever is in office — and our sponsors. We're blessed with a good town and good people."
Wonderful Men and Women
The fact that today’s celebrations are sponsored by a group of East Haven veterans seems very appropriate.
They represent the wonderful men and woman who have been called upon to defend our freedoms, just as that other group of men did in 1779.
They help us to remember that July 4th — Independence Day — is not just another picnic.
For a complete report on the battle in 1779, please go to: