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Ridgebury Congregational Church — An American Story
Ridgebury Congregational Church serves as a beacon of American history and a symbol of continuing faith. This corner, this land, has been witness to the establishment of the United States through peace and war.
The area’s religious role dates from the establishment of the “New Patent Meeting House” in 1738, which was recognized by a Ridgefield town meeting on December 13, 1742. It was formally organized as “The Ridgebury Ecclesiastical Society” with a congregation of 18 members in January of 1760, and recognized by the colonial Connecticut General Assembly in 1761.
The Ridgebury Pound was authorized at the Ridgefield town meeting in 1737, and was located at the joining of Old Stagecoach and Ridgebury roads. To be officially designated as a Town, an area had to include a church, a school, a meeting house, and a pound. The four elements were closely connected as the minister was often the school teacher, and the school teacher often served as shepherd for the pound. The pound was fenced-in acreage on which the town’s 2,000 sheep were kept, along with any domestic animals straying from local farms. Farmers paid to “rent” the town’s sheep for several weeks to graze and fertilize their lands. Strays were reclaimed by paying a fee (25 cents) which in turn was used to finance the schools. Ridgebury in the 1700s usually had five schools with a minimum of nine students each. Students had to bring their own firewood to school.
Ridgebury applied three times to become a town separate from Ridgefield and Danbury, but the two towns, not wishing to lose their land or one of their two General Assembly representatives respectively, repeatedly voted against granting the request.
However, Ridgebury remained quite a self-sufficient neighborhood boasting four taverns (including two Keeler Taverns), two stores, a sawmill, a clothier, a tanner, a blacksmith, two plasterers and a trader with good road access to New York. The tax list for Ridgebury right after the Revolution included 619 head of cattle, 148 horses, 849 sheep, 1,111 acres of farmlands, 2,159 acres of meadows and 3,350 acres of “boggy and bushy land.” Also taxed in Ridgebury were one chaise, 19 silver watches, 4 metal clocks, 4 wooden clocks, and 232 fireplaces.
Ridgebury industry grew quickly with many hatters and shoemakers. The church clerk’s records also show that in the late 1800s over a thousand women were employed to finish shirts that were cut out in New York City and brought to Ridgebury for sewing.
Throughout almost 250 years the church has been served by 32 ministers, four of whom served a total of 112 of those years: Samuel Camp (1769–1804), who is buried in the cemetery with his three wives); Nathan Burton (1821–1841); William Parsons (1871–1884, 1889–1895); and Hugh Shields, who served 39 years from 1923–1962 while also serving full time at the First Congregational Church of Ridgefield from 1919–1956. Hugh Shields’ son, Reed, was buried next to his father in Ridgebury Cemetery in 2006. Many of these ministers were students at or graduates of Yale School of Divinity following in the footsteps of Samuel Camp and Hugh Shields.
In the quiet of this simple frame church and the nearby cemetery you can sense the presence of colonials. Troops from England, France, French Canada and the Colonies have passed by here and have camped both on the land and in the church. Among the famous, Benedict Arnold, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington with the Marquis de Lafayette met here with the Comte de Rochambeau from France; British General Tryon with his Danbury-burning army passed by. Ridgebury was well represented among the 275 Ridgefielders fighting the Revolutionary War, and Ridgebury Cemetery, established in 1743, is the final resting place of 16 Revolutionary War soldiers. One, Thomas Boughton, joined the French troops under Rochambeau as a teamster, and was honored with a cannon salute and graveside homage from the French Ambassador at the 1981 re-enactment of Rochambeau’s army encampment at Ridgebury Church. Ridgefield men and women have continued to serve our country faithfully throughout its history: 209 in the Civil War, 171 in World War I, 625 in World War II, and others in Korea, Viet Nam, and the Middle East. Many of these were from Ridgebury.
In the application to the National Register of Historic Places, David Ransom of the Connecticut Historical Commission comments: “The church was an important center of community life in Connecticut history and in Ridgefield for many decades, especially during the years until 1818 when it was taxpayer-supported. In Ridgebury, the importance of the church’s location as the activity center was strengthened by the fact that the general store and post office were next door, to the north. The corner of Ridgebury Road and George Washington Highway both religiously and commercially was the center of the community....the white church on its country corner...makes an important contribution to the historic and architectural character of the community.”
— Josette Williams, RCC Historian
1792, 1816, 1834