By Bob Crawshaw
MIDDLETOWN I have never seen in elephant in Connecticut so the little bronze elephant outside the Town Hall in Deep River is oddly out of place.
It stands outside the door to the offices with a raised trunk, welcoming locals doing business with the clerk or collector.
Yet the elephant is more than a curious piece of public art. It is a reminder of when Deep River was the ivory capital of the United States and industry and shipbuilding made it “queen” of the Connecticut Valley.
The bronze statute is a tribute to the tens of thousands of African elephants that were illegally slaughtered in the 19th century for their ivory tusks.
Every month, 12,000 tons of ivory landed at the town wharf on the Connecticut River and were carted up Kirtland Street to the Pratt Read factory on West Elm Street.
There, workers turned the ivory into piano keys, billiard balls and combs to be sold across America and exported around the world.
Today Deep River has a far different connection with the elephant. The appetite for ivory has disappeared and people are more concerned with the welfare and survival of these gentle African giants who are threatened by poachers. The Rotary Club and the Historical Society of Deep River have joined the town to support international efforts to save the elephant and secure its future.
I learned of Deep River’s ivory past when I joined a walking tour of the old waterfront run by the Historical Society and traveled back to the 1800s and 1900s, when ivory, shipbuilding and agriculture made Deep River an important economic hub in New England.
The one-and-a-half-hour stroll started in the 1826 two-story, stone home of Captain Calvin Williams, a Connecticut sea captain and an early settler in Deep River.
From there society members — Jim, Nancy, Kathy and Sue — led the way, detailing the histories of the old waterfront, homes of sea captains and colonial merchants and that of the cavernous, old lace factory now reinvented as a wedding center.
The enthusiasm of these volunteer guides was contagious and similar to the passion I have found elsewhere in New England. In this part of the world, people love their towns and willingly share their special stories. Yet they do not lock them into some musty or romantic past.
As Deep River’s concern for the elephant shows, they involve their towns in the important issues of our planet.
The historical society’s walking tours run every second and fourth Saturday over summer. Details can be found at the society’s website, by visiting 245 Main St., Deep River, or calling 860-526-1449.
Bob Crawshaw blogs at mainestreet.com.au and is a content marketer in Australia’s National Capital of Canberra. He’s visiting Middletown for the summer. Read all his columns in the Press at bit.ly/1dvd1vS