In 1818, 29-year-old Samuel Russell set sail for Canton, China, to become a merchant in the China trade - and to make his fortune. Within a decade. Russell and Company was a leading firm among American importers, and Samuel Russell was a rich man.
The Russell and Company clipper ships, flying their flags of blue and white triangles, set off to Canton where they took on cargoes of silk, tea porcelain. spices and sandalwood to bring home. Russell paid for the Chinese goods with American silver dollars as well as opium. While opium was legal in the United States and widely used in medicines, Chinese law prohibited its importation. Like many American traders, Russell ignored the prohibition, and routinely smuggled opium on his ships, a highly profitable enterprise.
Samuel Russell was living in Canton in 1828 when it came time to build his family home in Middletown. He entrust ed the project to his wife, Frances, and his
friend Samuel Hubbard. "I wish every part well built & furnished in a plain handsome neat manner," Russell wrote to Hubbard.
Hubbard, however, had more elaborate plans: he hired New Haven architect Ithiel Town, who designed the mansion in the Greek Revival style, consciously echoing the grandeur of a Greek temple. The Russells filled their home with exotic furnishings from China: lacquered
furniture, embroidered silk hangings, antique vases and ivory carvings. Envious neighbors referred to it as "the Chinese Palace."
In 1837 Russell retired from the China trade, his attention now focussed on manufacturing. His mansion remained in the family until 1937, when Wesleyan University acquired it and established its Honors College here.
Living The High Life
With its shady elms and beautiful views of the Connecticut River, High Street became Middletown's most fashionable neighborhood in the 19th century. Catering to the elite, Heth Camp in 1828 opened the Prospect House and Palestine Garden just south of here at the corner of William Street. For 12 1/2 cents admission, visitors could stroll through the fragrant flower gardens, take refreshing baths in the bathing rooms, savor fresh fruit and ice cream in the pavilion's secluded alcoves or just relax on the Prospect House's wide piazzas. On summer evenings, musicians filled the air with music, and visitors on Independence Day witnessed the ascension of a hot air balloon.
But Middletown's well-to-do were not enough to support such a grand venture. By 1833, Prospect House had become a boys' boarding school, and in 1889 Wesleyan University purchased the building as a dormitory for women students. Prospect House stood for just over a century, burning down in 1929.
Through the centuries, several American presidents visited Middletown. But two actually lived here on High Street - long before serving in the White House.
In 1837 and 1838, a young Rutherford B. Hayes attended boarding school at Isaac Webb's Private Seminary for Boys (in the former Prospect House). "I never heard of a school that I should like near so well," Hayes declared.
Decades later Woodrow Wilson and his wife took up residence on High Street, where Eclectic House now stands, while he taught history and political economy at Wesleyan from 1888 to 1890. He also served as advisor to the football team, whose practices he frequented, running down the side lines waving his furled umbrella and shouting encouragement.
Woodrow Wilson, 1889-90, while a professor at Wesleyan University
Courtesy Wesleyan University Library Special Collections and Archives