The population of the town of Brookfield has grown five-fold in the last half a century, as fertile farmland gave way to family homes, creating a new chapter in the town’s once-quiet history.
The town, which is nestled between two lakes — Candlewood and Lillinonah — was home to 3,405 residents at the time the 1960 census was taken. By 2010, the number was up to 16,452, a 383-percent increase, making Brookfield the town with the largest group in the last five decades, when compared with all 31 towns and cities in Southwestern Connecticut.
Brookfield began to come awake from its sleepy existence in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to the completion of Interstate 84, which brought a surge of traffic through the area in the early 1960s.
“When I first moved here, it was like the end of the era for the farmers,” said Jon Furlong, 79, a former member of the town’s school board and current president of the historical society. “Brookfield evolved as a farm community, and by 1965 when we came here, farming was at its dead end.”
When Furlong and his wife moved to the town from Ohio, they chose the area because of its proximity to his office in Danbury, at about the same time other young couples were flocking to the former farming community in an effort to find a quiet place to call home with accessibility to business hubs.
“In 1965, there were a lot of people coming in, and golly gee, they were moving in for the commuting — commuting to White Plains or Poughkeepsie, even New York City,” he said, noting that the completion of Interstate 84 and Route 7 made Brookfield a viable option for a young professional bedroom community for the first time.
And it was affordable: In 1965, he paid $2,800 for a one-acre lot.
“Of course, coming from Ohio, I thought you bought the farm for that. But five years later, it was into the high 3000s, and today of course, you’re a thief at $100,000 an acre,” he said.
Kathy Schatteman, 62, and her husband were attracted to the area for that affordability, back when they were married in 1976. After looking around lower Fairfield County, near Norwalk where she grew up, the young couple decided that “at 26 years old, we just didn’t have the money for a downtown house,” she said. So they bought a house on a quiet street in Brookfield in June of 1979 and began their life as a family in the town, almost two decades after the growth spurt took off.
“Surprisingly there were an awful lot of people in my age group who also moved up there,” she said.
And the town was ready for them; between 1966 and 1970, Brookfield added two new schools in preparation for its boom.
Over the years Schatteman said she saw her neighborhood change from sparse streets to what she called a “well-traveled road,” with subdivisions and plenty of neighbors.
By the time the Schattemans’ son was born in 1980, the town’s population had ballooned to 12,872 and what was once a patchwork quilt of settlements had become an All-American suburb, full of families and a growing school system.
These days, Brookfield’s demographic makeup mirrors the idyllic New England atmosphere that harkens back to Norman Rockwell images of the area. The average family size of 3.14 people is the exact same as the national average, and the percentage of husband-and-wife households is significantly higher than elsewhere at 63.2 percent, compared with 48.4 percent nationally and 53.1 percent throughout Fairfield County. Of the roughly 16,500 residents, more than 4,000 are children under age 18.
The town has grown more affluent over the years, as real estate prices rise along the lakes and the area became known for stellar schools and New England charm, but for the most part, First Selectman Bill Davidson said the flavor of Brookfield’s residents has not changed much as the town has grown.
“We’re like the rustic side of suburban,” Davidson said. “Other than a fair number of condo developments, housing is still spread far apart, and in many places we don’t see our neighbors so much.”
While Brookfield may be the poster child for what Furlong called “controlled growth” over the past two generations, the town has not grown in a bubble.
Across Southwestern Connecticut, the population increased by 42.2 percent in the past half-century. Most of that growth has occurred in towns near Brookfield. New Fairfield, for instance, has quadrupled in that time, and Danbury more than doubled, growing from 39,382 people in 1960 to 80,893 in 2010, according to census figures.
Now, the growth in the tiny, wooded town of Brookfield has petered out, and the First Selectman said the district’s schools have seen a drop in the number of children passing through as the town ages. In 2010, the median age of the town’s residents was 43.5 years old, about eight years older than the median age had been in the 2000 census, when it was recorded at 35.2 years old.
Between 2000 and 2010, Brookfield only grew by about 5 percent, which is slightly higher than the Southwestern Connecticut average of 4 percent, but only about half the growth of neighboring Newtown, where the population increased by 10.1 percent during that time.
There is still more growth among the towns in the northern part of the area than the shoreline towns have seen in recent decades. For instance, even as Brookfield stalls out, the small town of Oxford has grown by 29.1 percent in the last decade, and Danbury has continued to expand, adding 8 percent to its population between 2000 and 2010. At the same time, shoreline towns such as Stratford and Greenwich have grown by 2.8 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively.
First Selectman Davidson said he thinks rapid growth is in the rearview mirror for Brookfield.
“We don’t have much more developable land, and out development these days is focused on resuscitating the part of Federal Road we call Four Corners, to create the village that Brookfield never was,” Davidson said.
After decades of expansion, Brookfield has grown into its own.
“Really the town hasn’t changed much, only grown,” said Davidson, adding that he hopes the town continues to keep its small-town, down-to-earth profile as it marches into the future.