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Monroe History Is Such A Load of Carp

Did he say carp? Yep, he did, and he meant it too. Wait a minute, is this another one of those Monroe history fish stories? Yes it is, but this one is actually true! Today’s history lesson takes us to the southeastern corner of Monroe, right at the shared town borders where Monroe, Shelton & Trumbull meet, specifically a triangle of land formed by lower Elm Street, lower Moose Hill Road and the southern leg of Richards Drive. I’ll give everyone a few moments to call up and review their Google Maps. Is everyone ready? Okay, let’s get to fishing then.

Back in the 1880s a visionary farmer from Newtown named Andrew Nichols grew tired of farming in the traditional sense, and rather than sink the blade of his plow into the soil as his forebears had, he instead cast his sights on an entirely new form of farming, fish farming – in particular, carp farming. And with that unique and enterprising idea in mind, he immediately established six ponds for his hatchling in the Taunton district, the largest pond being 2-acres. Carp happen to be a very prolific and fast-growing breed of fish, and in short order Nichols’ local ponds grew from a healthy population to dangerously overpopulated.

A thriving exclusive crop is a nice problem for any farmer to have, and thankfully Andrew Nichols had the insight and business acumen to have already secured markets throughout Bridgeport and New York City to sell his booming crop. It wasn’t long before his carp were the talk of the town and curious consumers lined up to buy this locally-raised economical fish in quantity. Under the right conditions a carp can grow from hatchling to greater than 10-pounds in just under 3 years’ time. Mr. Nichols’ business was very good indeed, but he had an immediate need to establish additional ponds to keep up with his ever-multiplying and fast-growing crop. That’s when Mr. Nichols came to Monroe in search of aquatic expansion opportunities.

In the winter of 1887, he leased a massive 55-acre pond on the Far Mill River at the lower end of Elm Street, near the home and workshop of a local blacksmith named Parsius Sharp. Finally, he’d found a significant body of water that was large enough to stave off his population explosion. His immediate plan was to stock the pond with 40,000 carp transferred from his Taunton ponds. It was here in the waters of Monroe where they would grow to maturity and brought to market. Nichols raised three varieties of carp, one of which was the very exclusive Meyer breed, a golden-brown scaleless carp that he imported from an undivulged source in Ohio. These would command a premium as not even our government hatcheries had this variety.

You may wonder just how Mr. Nichols managed to harvest this unique crop. Surely picking carp wasn’t as easy as picking apples. Actually, the solution was more akin to bobbing for apples. Days before the harvest, the dam that formed the pond was temporarily breached to slowly lower the water level. He could then easily wade out into the concentrated sea of mature carp and hand-pick only the choicest examples for market. How’s that for quality control? And with the day’s harvest complete, the breach was closed off and the pond would once again swell to capacity, providing ample room for the fish to spread out comfortably.

Of course, it wasn’t long before his stock was outgrowing even this impressive body of water and he was forced to establish additional ponds in Monroe on Pepper Street and Jockey Hollow Road. But even with his early success and insightful plans for expansion, all good things must eventually come to an end. In time, consumers began to lose their taste for locally farmed carp. Carp are a bottom feeding fish, and as a result can take on a bit of a muddy flavor that doesn’t appeal to everyone’s palate. There were also competitively priced saltwater varieties coming in daily from Long Island Sound and other farm-raised freshwater varieties coming in daily from the west by rail. The consumer soon began to entertain and appreciate other milder varieties of fish from Andrew’s competition. The seafood market was rapidly changing, and Andrew’s supply was suddenly outweighing the demand.

Another wrench in Andrew’s gears was that the ever-expanding population of Bridgeport was quickly outgrowing its local water supply, and the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company was soon surveying the higher elevations north of the city to build new reservoirs to meet the city’s increasing demand. The first of 4 planned reservoirs to be built was Trap Falls in Shelton, which went into service in 1905 with an impressive 2.3-billion-gallon capacity. Local watershed lands were purchased en masse and every dam on our local streams and rivers was destroyed so the water could flow freely and be routed to fill the new reservoirs. This included the Far Mill River of course which was routed to Trap Falls, and that dam-busting spree was officially the end of Andrew Nichols’ famous carp pond on Lower Elm Street. He had no choice but to return to the family-owned sawmill to make his living.

It’s hard for us to imagine today there was once a time in Monroe when many of our significant local ponds were teaming with massive carp being raised for market. And you thought all we ever raised here were dairy cows! Not so. So, is this the end of our Monroe history fish story? Not exactly. If you look closely you can still see evidence of the swampy remains of the once great carp pond. If you’re driving on lower Elm Street between Purdy Hill and Moose Hill Roads, look carefully to the east for the towering trees that have no bark or foliage. I’ve included a couple of aerial photographs and other images that will help you home in on the location.

I hope you enjoyed this unique 19th century Monroe history lesson. It’s easy to get hooked isn’t it? By the way, the State of Connecticut stocks the Far Mill River each year with a variety of farm-raised fish, but not carp, as a number of carp varieties today are considered extremely invasive to the environment. But should you happen to magically hook one on the Far Mill River this spring, you’ll have Andrew Nichols to thank for your dinner.

Please like and share this history with your family and friends if you think they’d enjoy it. I’d be surprised if even life-long Monroe residents are aware of this chapter in our history. Remember to keep your eyes open history lovers. In Monroe our past is always present.

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