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Jewish farmers' settlement to win historic status

By Jeffrey A. Johnson
The Day Of New London / December 4, 2011
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MONTVILLE, Conn.—A small stretch of nondescript land tucked away in Chesterfield at the intersection of routes 85 and 161 soon will be recognized nationally as one of the area's most treasured historical sites.

More than a century ago, the land was home to the state's first rural synagogue and a community of Jewish farmers. The farmers, originally from Russia, immigrated in the 1880s to New York to escape the persecution and violence they faced abroad. By 1890, many had made their way to Chesterfield.

Earlier this month, the state's historic preservation council voted unanimously to accept a nomination to list the Chesterfield site among the National Register of Historic Places. By the end of the year, it is expected the site will be accepted to the register, which features more than 80,000 historic buildings, sites, structures and more scattered throughout the country.

The New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society, a nonprofit religious organization, has been at the forefront of the effort to preserve the Chesterfield site.

Many residents may not know the background story of the Jewish settlers, but the national recognition may play a part in changing that in the future, said Jon B. Chase, the town historian.

"It's a part of the town's history that has slipped from consciousness," Chase said. "It's a remarkable story ... When (the immigrants) came here it was difficult under the circumstances. Farming provided a foothold to establish themselves economically and move their families forward."

Before moving to Chesterfield, many of the Jewish immigrants experienced difficulty settling in New York, where a language barrier made life difficult. Nine families initially set out for Chesterfield, and they were helped greatly by the Baron de Hirsch Foundation.

Funded by a German philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the fund aimed to help Eastern-European Jews develop agricultural communities in the United States and South America by offering them loans for mortgages on depleted farms, according to a report by the American Jewish Historical Society. In Chesterfield, the farmers developed a creamery, a synagogue and a ritual bathhouse.

Although life was difficult, a staunch work ethic seemed to help the community thrive.

"We just had horses and carriages. There were no automobiles," settler Bessie Savin told The Day's editorial page in a 1984 interview. "Later, we had a Ford when I was 14 years old. My mother and father, both Russian people, did not know the language, but they tried hard. All the time they were learning, they taught us as well."

The community swelled to about 50 Jewish families at one point, and the creamery was successful in selling butter and milk to neighboring restaurants and businesses. While the area's population declined after World War I as residents left, many from the colony found success in neighboring towns.

The Savins are a good example. Moses Savin went on to become a three-term mayor in New London and a former state senator. His sister, Bessie Savin, married Abe Kirshenbaum and the couple opened the Juvenile Shoppe in New London at the onset of the Great Depression. They ran the business for more than 40 years.

Norwich resident Susan Friedland, the granddaughter of Abe and Bessie Kirshenbaum, said the role of the Baron de Hirsch Foundation in helping Jewish immigrants should not be overlooked.

"Very few people know about it," Friedland said. "(These communities) were set up because millions of peoples' lives were at risk and (de Hirsch) tried to save them."

In 2007, the Chesterfield site became the state's 24th archaeological preserve, according to the New England Hebrew Farmers of the Emanuel Society website. Behind the lead of president Nancy Savin, the society has worked to help connect the descendants of the Jewish settlers who called Chesterfield home.

Chase is hopeful that gaining national historic recognition for the Chesterfield site will be a way to celebrate its history - and keep its story alive.

"This national register listing I'm sure will be of benefit in years to come as the town grows and changes," he said. "It's really a recognition of the important history of the site."

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