Multimedia program at library to focus on Bristol's Rockwell family

Published on Thursday, 20 September 2018 21:31


BRISTOL - Local genealogist and writer Sheila Draper Orefice will discuss the history of Bristol’s Rockwell family and its estate on Oct. 4 at the Bristol Public Library.

“Reminiscing with Sheila: The Rockwell Estate” starts at 6 p.m. at the library, 5 High St. The multimedia presentation will include more than 100 slides and will focus on pictures, history and the presenter’s personal connections to the former estate.

It will feature pictures of “Bristol’s castle,” Brightwood Hall, and Rockwell Park and playground in their heyday.

Orefice said the program will be presented in three parts, the first of which will focus on Helen Atkins.

“She was 17 when she married Bristol’s first millionaire, Elijah Welch,” said Orefice. “She was a social butterfly and led an interesting life. Her dream was building a castle in Bristol and it took her 18 years to plan it, traveling to England to learn about castles. She also wanted to build a caretaker’s house and carriage house. But, she died before the mansion was finished and the Rockwell family took over.”

Orefice said the second and third parts of the program will focus on Albert and Nettie Rockwell, who, Orefice said, were “Bristol’s biggest benefactors” of their time.

“Mrs. Rockwell finished the interior of Brightwood Hall and Mr. Rockwell gave the city the land that would become Memorial Boulevard and the high schools,” said Orefice. “Albert Rockwell also gave 80 acres of land to have Rockwell Park built and started the New Departure Company. Nettie’s dream was to have a playground built. She started on this project in 1916 and it opened in 1917. My aunt was asked to be the first director.”

Brightwood Hall no longer stands today, though the carriage house and caretaker’s house still remain. The family tried to sell the manor starting in 1928, but after the stock market crashed the next year, no one wanted to buy it.

The mansion was torn down around 1934 and the Rockwell family paid $4,000 to have the stones taken to a church in New Britain.

“My grandfather bought the caretaker’s house and we grew up on Brightwood Road,” said Orefice. “There was a lot of high society entertainment that went on in the mansion. So many parties were held there with people from all over Connecticut and it was considered one of the greatest mansions in New England. My grandfather was heartbroken when it was torn down.”

Rockwell Playground still stands, although it has changed a lot since Orefice played there growing up in the 1930s and 1940s.

“It was the thing to do back then,” she said. “There were high slides, monkey bars, wooden swings on heavy metal chains and there was skating in the winter. There were dances at 3 p.m. on the playground and all of the boys and girls went out to the dance circle as soon as the bell rang. Mrs. Rockwell came every day with her chauffeur to watch them dance.”

Admission to the program is free. To reserve a seat, visit or call 860-584-7787, Ext. 3.

Brian M. Johnson can be reached at 860-973-1806 or

Posted in The Bristol Press, Arts, Bristol on Thursday, 20 September 2018 21:31. Updated: Thursday, 20 September 2018 21:33.