The Meaning of Community

Wilton, The Meaning of Community

Thirty-eight years ago I met a house in old Wilton Center. White paint chips littered its grassy-patchwork of a front yard and there were gaps beside a few of the windows where green shutters should have hung. Inside the walls and floors were a pallet of mismatched colors with wide pine boards that bounced when you walked on them, but it had rooms filled with character. I immediately felt drawn to this orphan of a house that was surrounded by neighboring homes and buildings that spoke of Wilton’s history.

With a good scraping, a coat of paint, and removal of broken shutters, the house began to welcome visitors. This meant we began to meet our neighbors, people who had lived in the community for years or generations and were glad to see one of its historic homes regain its dignity. From them we learned that this was just not any ordinary house. It had a history dating back to 1797 when it became the second school house in Wilton after the first burned; where the two school teachers were asked by then Reverend Beedy to do something with the children who were disturbing the Sunday church services. They did. They established Wilton’s first Sunday School in this house at the far end of the common.

Meetinghouse TragedySeveral years later we learned our house also sat next to the spot where Wilton’s Meeting House Tragedy took place in 1773, although it was built a few years after that event. The early inhabitants of Wilton dreamed of building a meeting house that would be the center of community activity. Fifty three men from Wilton and surrounding towns were setting two double rafters three stories up when the large supporting post snapped, throwing them all to the ground amid the fallen timbers. Five men died and the remaining forty-eight all sustained injuries. Perhaps 200 spectators witnessed this event that directly impacted nearly every family in Wilton’s close-knit farming community, while news of the tragedy traveled as far as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Some of the injured were put up by neighboring families as travel was unthinkable until they healed. The idea of community, neighbors helping neighbors, was a given in Wilton at that time.

By the time we learned what happened less than a hundred yards from our front door, we had already experienced what the word community means in Wilton today: What keeps people in their same homes for many decades. What still keeps us firmly attached to Wilton without a thought of leaving, even as we age.

We became woven into the fabric of Wilton just as others do who settle in this small town. Anyone moving within a few miles of the center is invited to share their phone number or email, meaning that everyone knows how to contact any of their neighbors. It also means that when a summer or holiday gathering is planned, there is an easy way to extend invitations so people may greet old friends or get to better know new neighbors. And there are always helping hands when illness or other challenges befall a neighbor.

Each of Wilton’s neighborhoods may have their own character, but one thing is certain, the residents of Wilton have a strong sense of community that keeps them in their homes for decades. This was illustrated in one small way when Covid became a fact of life. People worried about our local businesses’ ability to survive and many took creative steps to ensure that beloved institutions  like our Town Hall Theater, restaurant gathering spots and other unique businesses did not fade from our Main Street. Getting to know Wilton is getting to know what is meant by the word “Community.”

Community will be the focus of all my future articles on Wilton.

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