The Town of Preston is located in New London County in the southeastern region of Connecticut. This semi rural town is 31.3 squares miles in area. Commercial activity is centered on a few small retail centers along the major roads and there is very little industry.
The topography is primarily the result of glacial action during the last ice age. The glacier scoured the bedrock, with an igneous rock known as Preston Gabbro rounding the contours of the hills which are generally less than 350 feet in height. Small streams in Preston drain into the Thames River or its tributaries, the Shetucket and Quinebaug.
While woods cover much of the town, they represent second growth forests which have gradually covered abandoned fields. The dominant species are oak and hickory. White-tailed deer and small game are numerous. Freshwater fish such as trout are found in the steams of Preston, while the waters of the Thames and the lower Shetucket host a variety of species of fish, such as striped bass, shad, alewives, eels, and menhaden. Poquetanuck Cove is rich in shellfish.
The geography and soil of Preston have influenced its historic development. Agricultural use of the land has been conditioned by soils and topography best suited for livestock grazing and corn production. Numerous streams provided waterpower for industrial development. In earlier times, the Thames River provided access to distant markets. Railroads and highways have since displaced waterborne transportation. Preston still retains much of its earlier rural character despite slow residential development.
At the time of the first European exploration, the Pequot tribe controlled most of Eastern Connecticut. After many conflicts during the Pequot War, the home territory of the Pequot’s was claimed by the English as spoils of war. The remainder of the Pequot territory, including the present towns of Norwich and Preston, was retained by the Mohegan’s. Although Connecticut’s major centers of Native American population in the historic period were outside Preston, a small number continued to live in the area into the 20th century. Impoverished, they managed to eke out a subsistence living by hiring out their labor or producing baskets and woodenware for sale.
In 1646, New London was settled by colonists from Massachusetts. The first English settler within the bounds of modern Preston was Jonathan Brewster who acquired land from Uncas at the mouth of Poquetanuck Cove on the Thames River, later called Brewster’s Neck.
Norwich was founded in 1659 at the mouth of the Connecticut River by settlers from Saybrook. The original territory, purchased from Uncas, was roughly square in plan, with each side about 9 miles long. This included a strip of land on the east side of the Thames, Shetucket, and Quinebaug Rivers, part of which is now in the town of Preston. While fields were laid out on the east side of the rivers early in the history of the settlement, permanent occupation did not take place until after King Philip's War of 1675-1676. Following the war, the Indian menace over, settlement began in earnest.
As Norwich settlers moved eastward across the Shetucket River, a number crossed the boundaries of Norwich to land farther east, still in the possession of the Mohegan’s. In October 1686, 19 persons petitioned the General Court for the incorporation of a new town. This was granted in January 1687. On March 17 of that year, Owaneco, son of Uncas, deeded the area of the new town to the English inhabitants. Preston received its name from the English home of the Park family, early settlers. The town then included most of the present town of Griswold and the eastern half of the present town of Preston.
The settlers of Preston were English colonists who migrated from already established towns, the most prominent of which was Norwich. This was primarily an internal migration of families within the colony of Connecticut, many of whom were children or grandchildren of immigrants from England. More desirable land tended to be settled first, particularly that around Preston Plains and to the west of Preston City. The English character of these settlers is evident in their surnames: Amos, Avery, Crary, Meech, Park and others. Place names within the town often reflect these early names or those of later settlers.
Town government had much the same form as today. The major town officers were the townsmen, later called selectmen, and the recorder, later the town clerk. Other town officials such as fence viewers, branders, and surveyors reflected the concerns of a rural, agricultural community.
A second village within the town of Preston, Long Society, had its origins in the beginning of the 18th-century. As early as 1698, the residents of Norwich living east of the Thames, Shetucket, and Quinebaug Rivers petitioned the General Assembly for permission to establish a new Congregational society. In 1786, Long Society was transferred from Norwich to Preston by act of the General Assembly. The result of these complex transactions was that Preston's boundaries had altered dramatically by 1815. The geographical center of the community shifted towards Norwich to the west. Long Society was now nearer both the center of population and the geographical center of the town. Town meetings, which had been held at Preston City, were moved to the Long Society meetinghouse in 1856. In 1889, town meetings were moved across the street to the former district school, a small brick schoolhouse. This building functioned as the Town House until the construction of the present Town Hall off Route 2 in 1974.
With the annexation of Long Society to Preston in 1786, the village of Poquetanuck became part of the town of Preston. Unlike Long Society and Preston City, which had their origins in the location of meetinghouses there, Poquetanuck developed around industrial activities centered on the two brooks that flow into the head of Poquetanuck Cove and was influenced by the establishment of an Episcopal Church and parish early in the 18th century. A gristmill was established here in 1685. About 1707, Samuel Whipple established an ironworks on Forge Brook, now either Cider Mill Brook or Joe Clark Brook, at the head of the cove. This location was actually in the town of Groton at that time. In 1725, Walter Capron established an ironworks on Poquetanuck Brook in the town of Norwich. Other activities soon followed. Shipbuilding, the export of potash and other products of the countryside, and a variety of handcrafts flourished. Saint James Episcopal Church moved to the south of the village in the late 18th century, just south of the border between Norwich and Groton, later the division between Preston and Ledyard.
Except for the areas later incorporated into Norwich, Preston experienced little growth in the 19th- and early 20th-centuries. As with many rural communities, Preston witnessed an outflow of its rural population to urban centers or to Western farmlands. There was immigration as well, particularly of recent European immigrants from northern European countries. Some inflow of "Yankee" stock from other area towns also occurred. The basic ethnic character of the town appears to have been relatively stable.
Demographic change seems to have accelerated in the early 20th century. An increased outflow of older established families was matched by an influx of new immigrants. From rural European backgrounds, the new arrivals helped maintain the established character of Preston by continuing to farm the land. Italians and Poles made up a substantial portion of the newcomers. Also notable were Jewish farmers, who began to settle in Preston shortly after 1900. The Jewish Agricultural & Industrial Aid Society, Inc. of New York assisted many of Preston’s Jewish population by extending loans for land acquisition.
The primary economic activity in the town of Preston has been that of agriculture. Landforms,soil types, and climate have influenced the agriculture practiced in Preston. Farmhouses with outbuildings such as barns, silos, and sheds comprise the bulk of Preston’s standing historic and architectural resources.
Poquetanuck village played an early and significant role in the export trader providing the area with a port facility close at hand. Preston, well-suited for the grazing of livestock and with a good supply of timber, prospered from participation in this trade. Furthermore, the growth of an urban population in Norwich and New London meant a ready market for foodstuffs in the towns.
Although farm production for market was certainly well-established by the 18th century, farms in Preston were non-specialized until well into the 19th century. Food and other goods were produced for domestic use as well as for the marketplace. Small sawmills and gristmills were also set up to process local lumber and grain. Some Preston farmer-craftsmen achieved high levels of skill in trades such as cabinetmaking, clock making, and gold or silversmithing.
Agriculture has had a major impact on the character of the town. The arrival of new immigrant farmers from Eastern Europe and other areas, together with improved transportation and technology and the increased specialization of agriculture, all contributed to the continued viability of farming in Preston. The present appearance of Preston has been profoundly influenced by agricultural use. Patterns of field and forest, stone walls, irrigation ponds, and farm buildings all reflect past and present usage of the land.
Industrial development in Preston has been limited in scope. Handcrafts were practiced at an early date, and water powered sawmills and gristmills were in use throughout the colonial period. The waterpower resources of Preston are restricted primarily to smaller streams. Large-scale industrial development occurred in Norwich rather than Preston. Industry did have an important role in the growth of both Poquetanuck and Hallville, however. Water powered gristmills and sawmills dotted the countryside of Preston in the 18th- and 19th-centuries. Iron making was an early industry centered at Poquetanuck. The first ironworks was established about 1707 by Samuel Whipple on Forge Brook (now either Cider Mill Brook or Joe Clark Brook), which forms the present boundary between Preston and Ledyard. Another local industry which proved longer lasting was the manufacture of bricks. Naturally occurring deposits of clay along Brickyard Road were exploited fairly early in the 18th century. The Long Society schoolhouse was said to have been built of Preston brick before 1744. The demand for brick rose dramatically in the late 18th century. Norwich and New London both encouraged brick construction in their congested waterfront areas to reduce the risk of fire. By the 19th century, there were three brickyards on Brickyard Road: the Kimball yard, the Harris yard (later the Hewitt yard), and the Standish yard.
The major industrial base of 19th-century Preston was the woolen industry. The origins of the industry are to be found in the late 18th century. The Scholfield family from England set up a water-powered carding mill in Montville in 1793. Later, the family was instrumental in helping start other factories in Stonington, Waterford, and Jewett City. This new technology was soon introduced to Preston. Indeed, it is claimed that Isaiah Cook introduced the woolen industry from England in the late 18th century, providing cloth carded, spun, and reeled, then hand woven, to Washington's troops at Valley Forge..
Another activity which utilized local resources was the birch mill. This industry was inaugurated in the early years of the 20thcentury by Carl Reynolds, who set up operations in New London, Waterford, and Ledyard. Birch wood under two inches in diameter, either saplings or the tops of older trees, was chipped and then distilled to make birch oil. This product was used in aspirin, food flavoring, and perfume making.
The 20th-century also witnessed the arrival of state institutions in Preston. In 1904, Norwich State Hospital was established on a large tract of land, part of which was in the Laurel Hill area of Norwich, the rest in Preston. Ironically, most of the State Hospital grounds are in Preston. Norwich State Hospital quickly grew to a large institution with several thousand inmates. A self-contained facility, the hospital had relatively little impact on the town, although staff and service personnel often established their place of residence in Preston.
Presently, this area, now known as Preston Riverwalk, is owned by the town of Preston and a Development Agency is working to market the property.
Preston finds itself dealing with modern problems. The town finds itself between two large casinos, Foxwoods, located in Ledyard, and Mohegan Sun, in Uncasville. The pressures on the highways and roads, as well as fire and emergency services, have been great. In addition, the loss of farmland to development continues to change the character of the town.
(Much of this information was taken from Historical and Architectural Resources of Preston, CT [Richard C. Youngken for the Connecticut Historical Commission, 1995} Compiled by Linda Christensen, 2011)