Leadership in a Time of Change: The Story of John Horton
Almost every American community in post-World War II America underwent tremendous change in the 1950's, and Hebron was no exception. John Edmund Horton, whose family has lived in this small rural town for generations, was a major influence in that decade. His service to our community has defined much of the Hebron we know today.
The Horton family can trace its roots in Hebron back to January 6, 1768, when Ezekiel Horton purchased 71 ½ acres of land from Samuel Gilbert and began farming. Many wonder how the Horton family came to live in the Governor John Peters House. Governor Peters, a confirmed bachelor, bequeathed the house to his sister, Mary, who ultimately married a member of the Welles family. Their son, John Welles, eventually sold the house in 1882 to Daniel Gott and his wife Henriette Brown. The Gotts had two daughters: Marion and Marietta. Marietta married John Luther Horton, and it was through this union that the Peters House came into the possession of the Horton family.
The Welles-Gott-Horton connection is more significant than just the Peters House ownership. In 1835, John Welles' daughter, Clarinda, had married William H. Horton, establishing the blood lines between the Peters and the Horton families.
Interestingly, Marietta Gott Horton was a teacher at the Gull Schoolhouse, and her love of teaching would influence future generations of Hortons in a very significant way. After John Luther died at a relatively young age, Marietta went to live with her sister, Marion, in what is today known as the "Horton House" on Marjorie Circle, eventually inheriting the house when Marion died. The Governor Peters House became the home of John Luther and Marietta's son, Edmund, as he continued the Horton farm operations.
In 1912, Edmund married Sarah ("Sadie") Doyle, and the next generation of Horton farmers would soon be born. The Hortons started a tradition of community service to Hebron that is still rooted in the Horton family today. Edmund served as First Selectman, and Sadie, in 1925, welcomed a group of women into their home, forming the Young Women's Club of Hebron, an organization dedicated to charitable activities and literary discussions. Today, the YWCH is known as the "Original Hebron Women's Club," and members continue to support local charitable activities.
Three children, John, Robert, and Betty, were born from Ed and Sadie's union. Growing up in one of the most impressive homes in Hebron did not exempt the children from daily farm chores. They attended Center School, and John was especially excited to get the job of starting the morning fire at school, which paid 10¢ a day. Like most Hebron children, his post 8th-grade education was at Windham High School, and like many children of Hebron farmers, he attended Connecticut Agricultural College (now University of Connecticut). One of the highlights of John's college days was when he and his buddies took a car trip to Florida. There, he bought a baby alligator, put it into a glass tank, and roped the tank to the car's running board for the trip home to Connecticut. Everything was going great - until Sadie placed the tank on a hot radiator, just trying to get it out of the way while she cleaned her son's room. John was crushed to learn of the alligator's demise!
John graduated from college in 1939, the same year his mother died of cancer. Six years later, when Edmund died in 1945, John and Robert were determined that the farming operation continue. They expanded the farm, acquiring property off Croach Road in Amston for pasturing cattle and other small parcels in the Kinney Road area. The farm now included property south of Route 66 (across from Ted's IGA), bounded on the south by Kinney Road, and all the way west to Church Street. When Betty entered the Sisters of Mercy, a teaching order of the Catholic Church, she renounced all her worldly belongings, including her inherited portion of the Horton farm, which then reverted back to her brothers.
John and Robert lived together in the Peters House as they farmed the properties, even after they married. John married Vivian LaJoie in 1945, and Robert married Doris Rigby in 1951. John won election as a Selectman in 1951 (a position he held until 1959), following in his father's footsteps. A particular honor was bestowed on the Horton Brothers Farm in 1951 when they were voted to host the Connecticut Farm Field Day. Over 25,000 people attended the weekend event, where farm equipment and new farming techniques were demonstrated. One of the things they demonstrated at that event was how to bury old stone walls, and if you look at the property across from Hebron Elementary School today, you will notice that half of the stone wall is missing. That's because the other half was buried as part of the demonstration!
John worked hard, especially in the dairy side of the business. He'd get up at 4:00 a.m. to do the morning milking, then come in around 8:00 for a gigantic breakfast prepared by Vivian. Then it would be back to work until 5:00 or 6:00 at night, whenever he had completed the evening milking. He also was an avid gardener, and in addition to the Horton's dairy products, they were also locally known for their excellent produce. Robert also worked hard, but by 1954, decided that he wanted to leave farming and pursue a career in teaching. An agreement was soon reached. A huge auction was held, and the farm equipment and livestock were sold. The proceeds of the auction were given to Robert, and John kept the land and the Peters House. Robert and Doris were also received a small house, located just east of where today's CITGO station can be found, where they soon relocated.
The rest of 1954 was a very busy year for John Horton. He leased the Horton land to local farmers, including Ned Ellis, Alan Hills, and brothers Doug and Wilbur Porter, who primarily grew corn. A longtime Republican, he was elected to the Connecticut Legislature (back then, there were representatives from every Connecticut town) where he took an active part in the Agricultural Committee. He also took a job with CL&P as a "Farm Sales Representative," traveling around Connecticut, visiting farms, and making recommendations to farmers on how they could electrify their farms. By now, John and Vivian were also the proud parents of three sons, Gregory, Gary and James (all of whom ultimately became teachers.)
John was particularly concerned when the State of Connecticut decided to put Route 66 through the center of Hebron's Green. He lobbied, unsuccessfully, for the road to be placed north of where it is today, bypassing the Green area. Because of this troubling experience, he founded and became chairman of Hebron's Planning and Zoning Commission in 1959.
Interestingly, John also became a Trustee of the Douglas Library in 1950, a position he held until 1970. The family remembers that Emory Taylor would call frequently, reminding John of Trustee meetings and other Library events. In 1957, he served as Chairman of the first library building expansion project, which added a large room and basement on the south side of the original 1898 building. Forty years later, his son, Gary, served as Chairman of the library's 1997 building expansion project. Hebron residents today can thank this father-son duo for the work they did in giving us the Douglas Library we enjoy today.
John passed away on March 6, 1992, at the age of 75. Though quiet in his later years, he had already left his definitive mark on Hebron.
The Hebron Historical Society sincerely thanks Assistant Town Clerk Ann Hughes for the extensive research she conducted on vital statistics and land records data used in this article.