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"There is nothing new
in the world
except the history
you do not know."

- Harry Truman

Brief History, Part IV: 20th Century Middletown

Text & timeline graphics by R.W. Bacon
(Editor, The Middler, newsletter of the SMFSD)

Part I: Middletown in the 17th Century
Part II: Middletown in the 18th Century
Part III: Middletown in the 19th Century
Part IV: Middletown in the 20th Century

Links to Local & Regional History Books Online

A diverse population sets the tone for 20th century Middletown

Wesleyan University history professor Willard M. Wallace, in his essay for the Middletown Tercentenary in 1950 wrote: "With the 20th century have come changes of profound import, some of them in process before 1900. Middletown in 1800 was Protestant, largely Congregationalist, and almost entirely Anglo-Saxon. In the 19th century, the Irish were the first to arrive in numbers, followed by the Germans, Swedes, Jews, and a few Italians; then, in this century, came many Italians and Poles, and other peoples as well. The result is a rich mixture of racial strains, typically American in their variety. The change is never more apparent, nor more wonderful to contemplate, than when comparing the surnames of those who fought in the Revolution and those who served in both World Wars."(47)

While Middletown, in its 250th Anniversary celebration in 1900, and in its 1950 Tercentenary, looked back at its origins as a settlement, the look backward had little personal meaning to the overwhelming majority of its citizens.(48) At best, the look back then, as now, might have offered hope that through persistent striving for consensus, the most insurmountable problems could be worked out.

Middletown faces 20th century challenges

Middletown in the 20th century experienced its share of management-labor difficulties, prohibition excesses & follies, Great Depression losses, flood & hurricane damage, wartime hardships, racial tensions, and economic malaise.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Middletown grappled with the same issues so many small cities in the northeast U.S. faced: a deteriorating downtown, retail expansion in outlying areas, and suburban development. Like many cities, Middletown embraced a redevelopment plan that included the razing of acres of the downtown. While this redevelopment cleared away blocks of unarguably squalid properties, it also took with it irreplaceable parts of the city's history. By the 1970s, the redevelopment philosophy of "adaptive reuse" and preservation had gained currency, and a few 18th-century buildings were saved from demolition.(49)

As the century drew to a close, the dominance of manufacturing had long since given way to a primarily service-oriented economy. This made the vibrant presence of the highly-regarded Wesleyan University even more significant to the city's life and image.

Middletown today: A rejuvenation in progress

At this writing (2007), Middletown's Main Street is basking in the glow of its rejuvenation-in-progress. Judging only from the city's web site, guidelines are in place for managing development, on paper at least, in a way that will help it avoid the errors of the past, being mindful of open space and economic balance. As for the improvement projects in process for the riverfront and North End, they await some future historian's commentary.

Part I: Middletown in the 17th Century
Part II: Middletown in the 18th Century
Part III: Middletown in the 19th Century
Part IV: Middletown in the 20th Century

Links to Local & Regional History Books Online

Endnotes - Part IV:

(47) Wallace, Middletown 1650-1950, pg. 37.
(48) Hall, Middletown: Streets, Commerce, and People 1650-1981, pg. 5-7.
(49) Warner, Pictorial History of Middletown, pg. 162-167

About the author: R.W. Bacon, editor of The Middler, the newsletter of the Society of Middletown First Settlers Descendants, is a publication editor/designer, historian, and museum professional based in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He is the author of Early Families of Middletown, Connecticut - Volume I: 1650-1654, published by Variety Arts Press.