Electa (Woodbridge) Cheney: A Brief Biography of the Mother of Eight Cheney Brothers and One Daughter by Bettylou Sandy

Electa Woodbridge was born on 1781, and was the first daughter born to Deodatus (1757-1836) and Esther (Wells) Woodbridge (1759-1820). The family owned the Woodbridge Tavern on Middle Post Road, which was mid-point on the rout from New York to Boston. There at home and in the tavern, Electa would develop management skills and a wider view of the world than most young woman of her time.

As the eldest daughter, it would have fallen to Electa to care for her younger siblings, do the bulk of the household chores with her mother, and then help at the tavern as needed. Her parents were not always well, so this young girl would take up the challenge of managing the tavern in their absence. She managed the staff as well as the horses and carriages; she ordered the foods and beverages and waited on the guests.  This “urban” and demanding childhood and adolescence would have been an excellent training ground for her future marriage to and family of George Cheney when she was 17 and he 27 years of age in 1797.

When Electa married George Cheney in 1797, and moved to the “rural” part of Orford Parish in East Hartford, now known as South Manchester, the area was primarily farms and farmland, with George’s farm having a grist mill and saw mill on the property. This farmhouse was built into a hillside for heat and cooling, which allowed for two levels of entry: one for everyday usage on the lower level, and one for customers and visiting friends and family on the upper level. A driveway around the homestead from the main road was accessible to both entrances. On the lower level of the homestead was a wraparound porch with a built-in bench that provided an opportunity to relax and a view the beautiful valley of their farmland. This porch also provided a chance to watch the activity of the grist mill and the sawmill. George was a fine farmer and businessman, like his father Timothy Cheney, who built the homestead in 1785 and willed this farm and mills to his second son, George. This was the place Electa would now call home for the rest of her life, and from all indications, she was quite happy.

George and Electa shared the small bedroom on the first floor, off the “Keeping Room”. The Keeping room was the large room on the first floor and entry point of the house and the primary space of their family life.

Their first-born son was born in 1799 and given the name George Wells Cheney. The baby would stay in the bed with the parents for the first 2 months, then move to the cradle near the bed. There the baby would spend the nights until he was about 14 to 18 months old. At that time the child would graduate to a small bed. Since babies came along every 18 to 24 months, the children would move along until two were in the little bed, one in the cradle and one more on the way. At that time George decided it was time to increase the size of the homestead!

George and Electas’ bedroom would also be where their children would be born and sleep, until the first addition to the homestead was completed in 1806, called the “dormitory”. This would be a sizable bedroom, on the first floor, off the keeping room, for the growing boys and the future sons. Adjacent to the dormitory would be the new kitchen with a wood burning stove and more space to prepare food and do laundry in inclement weather. To have a wood burning stove would be so much more efficient and enjoyable than cooking over the hearth, as she had been doing since moving to the homestead.  The pantry, in a space behind the hearth, was wonderful, but was becoming a bit cramped as well. Cooking on the hearth required changing her work table into a family dining table for meals. Then on wash day, if the weather was inclement, washing and drying clothes, especially all the diapers, was getting in the way of the otherwise relaxing evenings in the “keeping room”. The new kitchen, with the woodstove, the dedicated work table and the proximity to the outside well pump was a great improvement for Electa’s schedule and work load!

One more part of the first expansion of the homestead in 1806 was to add a master bedroom above the dormitory and kitchen rooms, to give more space to George, Electa, and their growing family. This made three rooms and an additional stairway for the first expansion.

Creative, forward-thinking and caring parents of a farm family made it possible for their eight sons and later one daughter to grow up to be successful adults in the careers of their own choosing.   Each was taught to help with farming and household tasks to participate in the family business of living. As each child showed interest in a task, he or she would be taught the skill at his own level to help the parent.

The average day for Electa was to wake, start and tend the fire, light the lamps, fill buckets of water from the outside well pump, and start the preparations for breakfast. With hearth-cooking, waiting for the coals to develop would allow for time to collect the ingredients for breakfast, the first of three meals of the day for her family and farm hands or visitors.  She would also set out the table and tend to the needs of their growing family. This would be followed by mending, weaving, spinning, tending the kitchen garden, monitoring the food supplies on hand and laundry day, all without electricity, all by hand.

The life of this growing farm family might seem hard, but was the average schedule for that time. It is important to remember that there was no indoor plumbing, electricity, other modern conveniences as we know them, no radio, TV or internet, etc. There was, however the satisfaction of providing for one’s family, contributing to a common effort, and the closeness of working together.

In the evenings, the family would gather in the “keeping room” to talk about the day and express their thoughts for the future while doing hand work.  This was also a time the boys would give hints about their aspirations for when they grew up. George and Electa seemed very supportive of the boys’ various interests, as George demonstrated when he gave John money for art lessons, when he was 18. This is very unusual and forward thinking for a farming father to do in those days!

The year 1818 was the last year that all of the boys were at home for the daily family times, as they started going their own ways to further schooling, or training, and starting their own families. Electa (Jr) was the youngest and born in 1821 with eight younger brothers, four still at home.

Each son chose skills and interests for the future from what they had been learning and experiencing at home. All of the boys learned the skills of farming from their father, but only their first son George Wells perused that trade. All the boys learned spinning, weaving and mending, darning and knitting from their mother, but it was Ralph who was most interested in being a weaver, which later drew other brothers into, what would become the family business. Art prints were on the walls of the Cheney home, providing John, then Seth, the inspiration of their art careers, with Rush also showing interest. All of the boys helped with the grist mill and the lumber mill, learned financial skills and mechanical skills and creativity from their father. That gave Frank the motivation to be an inventor, and each of them a strong business sense to peruse their various careers. And then, as it was said, Electa(Jr) married well.

With nine children born to Electa and George, from 1799 to 1821, Electa was fortunate to have the self-reliance and management skills she had developed in childhood! Imagine 24 years of breast-feeding and cloth diapers, while balancing each person’s needs. This is another reason for including each child in the tasks of daily life on the farm, as well as keeping up with their studies at their one room school.

As you can see, the whole family worked together, but additional help was necessary from time to time. In the early years, Electas’ family members would help when the children were born. Later, her cousin Louvisa Rich, or “Vicky”, came to live permanently to help Electa with the family, sharing the household duties. This became a lifelong bond that was especially needed when Electa’s beloved husband George died in 1829.

When George died, they had been married for 32 years, had nine healthy, successful children, with four young children still at home, while the others were starting their further training and developing their own interests outside the homestead.

Electa was given the full estate of the homestead and holdings to manage for the family. She and George were a team in all things and had complete trust in each other. Again, this was very unusual for any family at this time in history. It was Electa who provided the first building space for the new Cheney Silk business. It was Electa who dispersed the land for the boy’s future family homes, that became the “Cheney Mansions”.  It was also Electa who kept the family bond and emotional support for the growing family. Electa was also the moral compass of the family.

With generations of clergy in her family, Electa developed a great faith and reverence for the Word of God and studied it through her life. She and her husband George did not always have the same perspective on faith, but each held respect for each other’s views and were united in the morals lived and taught to their family, even to keeping the Sabbath day a quiet and restful day.

The family remained close through the years and through the generations. This was mainly due to the teamwork, mutual respect and openness of the parents to the children. They grew up as a team, supporting each other, with Electa being the glue along the way.

Electa Cheney, the mother of the early Cheney family of what we call South Manchester, previously known as East Hartford, Orford Parish, Hartford and “The Five Miles”.

Bettylou Sandy is a member of The Cheney Homestead Museum Committee, of the Manchester Historical Society in Manchester, Connecticut. At the Homestead she portrays and demonstrates Early American Life both inside the museum and outside in the historical gardens and grounds. Bettylou also portrays Electa (Woodbridge) Cheney at events and is working on the book version of this document. Bettylou lives in Manchester with her husband Bruce.


site by ardent design

{ back to top }