The “Frog” Notes of Windham, Conn.
Reprinted from Paper Money, Vol. XVII, No. 6, Whole No. 78
As a dealer in United States obsolete currency and collector of Connecticut obsoletes, I have seen quite a few odd vignettes and heard many interesting stories surrounding them. Perhaps the strangest vignette I have encountered comes from my own back yard, Windham, Connecticut. The old bank notes of the Windham Bank featured a vignette of a frog standing over the dead body of another frog. Now, anyone seeing this can’t help but wonder what ever possessed a bank to put a dead frog, or even a live frog, on its currency. To find the reasoning behind such an act, we must travel back in time to the small eastern Connecticut town of Windham and the year 1754.
The Battle of the Frogs
With a population of about a thousand inhabitants, Windham was one of the leading towns of the day. The times were hard, though. A disease had recently struck the town, and the French and Indians were a constant threat. Rumors of massacres and atrocities ran rampant while many of the men were away fighting the French or with Putnam fighting Indians. Windhamites often thought about the possibility of an attack, so it’s no surprise that on a hot, dark, June night in 1754 they thought their worst suspicions had come true. What they expected and what actually did happen, however, are two different things.
A black servant of parson White’s named Pomp was returning home around midnight, after seeing a lady friend at a nearby farm house. As he walked down the dark road, he neared the Windham Green. It was there he began to hear a strange and terrifying sound echoing through the night air. The noise seemed to come from everywhere at once. Pomp rushed home to awaken his master, shrieking all the way. Parson White then proceeded to sound the alarm, waking those who had not already been aroused by this awful sound or by the screaming of Pomp. As the noise continued, most thought it was an Indian ritual and by morning they would surely all be dead.
People began running about. Women shrieked, children cried, and men prepared for battle as the strange and mournful sound continued. A makeshift, ragtag army assembled on the green. Men were running about armed with pitchforks, knives, clubs and old swords, while a few actually had guns. Confusion and fear swept the village as the Windhamites listened and waited. Some claimed to have heard the savages calling, “We’ll have Colonel Dyer, Colonel Dyer, Elderkin too, Elderkin too.” Well, both Elderkin and Dyer were prominent lawyers in Windham who had recently planned a colonization project in the Susquehanna Valley, which would greatly irritate the Indians. This scared the townspeople even more. Many claimed to have distinguished Indian chants and drums among the noise. Others said there was nothing on earth that could make such an outlandish commotion and contended that it could only mean one thing; it is the judgment day and nothing could be done to save them except prayer. They waited and waited, expecting that they would all be dead by morning, but the savage army never appeared.
Colonel Dyer, Colonel Elderkin and a Mr. Gray then rode their horses up Mullin Hill toward the strange sound to determine just what it was. As they approached a small pond, they found that this was the source of the commotion. Some reports contend that the three actually fired shots toward the pond. Whatever happened that night is not clear but what they found were—thousands of dead and dying frogs, some still making their war cries. No one is sure why the frogs died. The theory held at the time was that they died fighting each other, possibly for the small amount of water in the lowered pond.
When the three men returned and reported their find, the townspeople were humiliated. “Some were pleased, and some were mad, some turned it off with laughter, and some would never hear a word about the thing thereafter. Some vowed that if the De’il himself should come they would flee him, and if a frog they ever met, pretend not to see him.” Although the area did not have a newspaper, the story quickly spread from town to town and eventually across the land. Windhamites became the butt of jokes and lawyers in particular were harassed with the bullfrog story. Even the clergy couldn’t help but laugh as indicated in this early reference to the frog battle, in a private letter from Reverend Stiles of Woodstock to his nephew, a law student:
Woodstock, July 9, 1754
As the years wore on, future generations learned to take the jokes and eventually became proud of the incident. This strange event was now an important part of Windham’s history, which should not be forgotten. It has since been immortalized in poetry and song, such as “Lawyers and Bull Frogs” and “The Epic of Windham”, and to top it off, a frog eventually became the central figure of the town seal.
The “Frog” Notes
The Windham Bank was chartered in 1832 and opened in what is now known as Windham Center. Its business was small and development slow. The first bank notes issued by it are currently unlisted and are extremely rare. The only denominations I know of are one, three, and five dollars. Later on, the bank issued new notes, all of which have a vignette of a frog standing over the dead body of another frog. The frog vignette appears on the $1, $2, $3, $5 and $10 notes in the lower right corner. The old notes reminded everyone that touched them about the then-famous battle of the frogs, as exemplified by this poem by the Reverend Theron Brown, a famous Windham poet:
As the years passed, the focus of attention gradually moved from the old hub of Windham to Willimantic Falls, which is located in the southwest corner of the town of Windham. Willimantic, as it is now called, is at the junction of the Natchaug and Willimantic Rivers, and their tremendous waterpower was quickly put to use.
Industry was attracted to the rivers and the area began to grow. In 1849, the New London, Willimantic and Palmer Railroad came through, followed by the Hartford, Providence and Fishkill Railroad in 1850, and the Boston, Hartford and Erie Railroad in 1872. In 1879, the Windham Bank also moved to Willimantic and was known as the Windham National Bank. With the coming of National Currency, it issued notes charter numbered 1614 and could no longer put frogs on its currency.
In 1955, the Windham National Bank merged with the Connecticut Bank and Trust Co. of Hartford. This bank was bought out by Fleet Bank and Fleet was in turn bought out by Bank of America which still has a large office in Willimantic. There are now several banks in Willimantic.
Although the frogs are no longer on currency, they are certainly not forgotten nor is Windham’s banking history. The old Windham Bank is still standing in its original location in Windham Center near the green. It is now the Windham Free Library and also serves as a miniature museum. On display among other local oddities are several Windham notes including a one-dollar with the frog vignette. About a mile from the old bank on Route 14 is the famous pond where the frog battle took place; it is still known as Frog Pond. A granite boulder erected in 1924 with a bronze plaque marks the historic battlefield; it reads:
THIS TABLET IS ERECTED BY
ANNE WOOD ELDERKIN CHAPTER, DAR
TO COMMEMORATE THE LEGEND OF THE BATTLE
OF THE FROGS
MRS. FRANK LARRABEE, REGENT
There are varied accounts of what actually happened that dark night in 1754. Whether the tale is an accurate description of that night’s events or is blown all out of proportion may never be known. But the legend of the battle of the frogs will forever come to life whenever someone is shown a note from the Windham Bank.
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