Windham County occupies the northeastern corner of the state of Connecticut, bordering Worcester county, Massachusetts, tying on the north, and Providence and Kent counties in Rhode Island on the east. New London county bounds it on the south and Tolland on the west. Its greatest length, from north to south, is twenty-seven miles, and its greatest width, from east to west, is twenty-three miles. Its north, east and south sides are nearly straight lines, while on the west side its territory interchanges offsets with Tolland. The greatest. variation in the line made by these offsets, however, does not exceed six miles. This occurs on the northwest corner, where the town of Union makes an advance of about the distance mentioned. We may explain that the longest north and south line would be drawn from the northwest corner of Thompson to the southwest corner of Plainfield, and the longest east and west line would be drawn from the northwest corner of Windham to the Rhode Island line, about the middle of Sterling.
The county contains an area of six hundred and twenty square miles and a population, by the last census, of 43,866. This number, however, comprehends the population of Voluntown, then 1,186, which has since been set off from Windham to New London. The population at present would doubtless still exceed that of the census year, since the rapid growth of several of its manufacturing villages would several times make up the deficiency caused by the loss of that town. The county as now constituted contains the towns of Ashford, Brooklyn, Canterbury, Chaplin, Eastford, Hampton, Killingly, Plainfield, Pomfret, Putnam, Scotland, Sterling, Thompson, Windham and Woodstock, fifteen in all; and included in these towns are the incorporated boroughs of Danielsonville and Willimantic.
The surface is rugged and broken. But few spots of level land to any considerable extent of area may be found in the county. The most noticeable is the stretch of tolerably level valley that extends in a northeasterly and southwesterly direction through the heart of Plainfield and southern part of Canterbury. This covers a length of perhaps ten miles, and, though in some parts of the country it would be called decidedly rolling, its character is by comparison with its surroundings so nearly level that it was called by the early settlers the ” plains,” and so gave name to the town of Plainfield.
The rugged character of the surface, of which we have spoken, while it is, opposed to the most felicitous, advancement of the arts of agriculture, affords two features of great advantage to the county, and which are indeed the main sources of prosperity, either realized in the present or expected in the future. These are the copious streams and rapid falls, which have invited the numerous manufacturing industries for which the county is noted, and the never ending variety and natural magnificence of its scenery which have fascinated thousands, and for which the county is equally celebrated. Although the hills have no regular grouping, yet in general they are cast into ridges running north and south, and down the valleys so formed numerous streams flow in a generally southward direction. So numerous are these streams that hardly a square mile can be found in the whole county but upon it may be found a site for a saw mill or some more considerable manufacturing enterprise. With a very slight exception,-in the northwestern part of Woodstock, the entire county is drained by the Quinebaug, Natchaug, Willimantic and Shetucket rivers, the waters of all of which finally empty into the ocean through the Thames.
Along the valleys of these streams the soil is fertile, and upon the hillsides in years gone by agriculture was successfully carried on. This industry, however, has in many parts of the county greatly declined, and the agricultural population has decreased in numbers, while the manufacturing population in the villages has largely increased. The agricultural interests of the county are still important. The value of farms, with improvements and buildings thereon, is about nine million dollars, and the county contains one hundred and ninety thousand acres of improved farm land, divided into three thousand farms. It is estimated that these farms annually produce about one and a half million dollars worth. The most important of these productions are annually about 180,000 bushels of Indian corn, 140,000 bushels of oats, 275,000 bushels of potatoes, 50,000 tons of hay, 20,000 bushels of buckwheat, 17,000 bushels of rye, 4,000 bushels of barley and about $15,000 worth of orchard fruit. The dairy products consist of about three hundred and fifty tons of butter and eighty tons of cheese. In the last mentioned product it exceeds any other county in the state except Litchfield. There are employed on farms some five thousand horses and about half the number of working oxen. The facilities for grazing accommodate about twenty thousand head of cattle, twelve thousand of which are milch cows. Sheep husbandry receives some attention, about seven-thousand sheep being kept, and their annual fleece amounts to twenty-nine thousand pounds of wool. About seven thousand hogs are annually fattened. The forest growth of the county is considerable. Besides wood for various manufacturing purposes considerable lumber, including shingles, is obtained from the forests which cover large areas of the hills. The most common kinds of wood are the hickory, oak, elm, beech, pine and other trees.
The largest river of the county is the Quinebaug. This rises in Worcester county, Mass., and flowing the entire length of this county, joins the Shetucket in New London county. Its course is through the eastern part of Windham county, where it forms the entire western boundary of Killingly and the eastern boundary of Brooklyn, as well as partial boundary of Plainfield, Canterbury, Pomfret and Putnam. In its course through the county it receives numerous tributaries, the most important of which are Muddy brook from Woodstock, the Assawaga or Five Mile river from Thompson, Putnam and Killingly, the MashaMoquet from Pomfret, Blackwell’s brook from Brooklyn, and the Moosup river from Plainfield and Sterling. The western part of the county is drained by the Natchaug river, which receives the waters of several brooks from Ashford, which form Mount Hope river, as well as several other branches from Woodstock, Ashford and Chaplin. The Natchaug Joins the Willimantic a short distance east of the village of the latter name, and the union thus formed takes the name Shetucket. Little river, draining Hampton and the west side of Canterbury, flows into the Shetucket beyond the limits of the county. These streams afford power for a large number of manufacturing establishments of various kinds and magnitude, from the large cotton, silk and thread mills, employing hundreds of operatives, down to the Woodside saw mill tended by a single pair of hands.
Windham county has extensive manufactures of cotton, woolen, silk and linen thread, besides various other kinds. The last census shows 288 establishments engaged in this branch of industry-. The capital employed in manufacturing was $14,026,975. The number of operatives employed in these establishments was 4,759 men, 3,296. women, and 1,643 children and youth under the ages of sixteen years for males and fifteen years for females. The total amount of wages annually earned by these operatives was $2,607,418. The value of material used was $7,951,403; and the value of products annually finished was $14,022,290. The principal manufacturing villages are Willimantic, Danielsonville and Putnam. The villages of Moosup, Central Village, Wauregan, Dayville and North Grosvenor Dale are also prospering under the stimulus of this industry.
The county is fairly supplied with railroad facilities, especially through the central, southern and eastern parts. An exception to this remark must be made for the northwestern part. The towns of Woodstock. Eastford and Ashford are not touched by any railroad. The same is true of Brooklyn, though it is almost surrounded by railroads but a short distance beyond its borders. Canterbury, Scotland and Chaplin each have a railroad cutting across a corner of the town. Altogether the county is traversed by about one hundred miles of railroad line. The New York & New England railroad traverses the county diagonally from the southwest corner to the northeast corner, a distance of about thirty-five miles. This is a well equipped, double track railroad. The Norwich & Worcester railroad traverses the eastern part of the county, from north to south, making a length within the county of twenty-eight miles. The Hartford & Providence railroad crosses the southeastern corner of the county, making within it a distance of thirteen miles. The New London Northern railroad has about seven miles of its length in the southwest corner, and the Stockbridge railroad has about five miles of its line in the northeastern corner.
It is largely to these railroad facilities that the present prosperity of the county is due. A native writer of prominence says ” Modern Windham dates its birth from the first whistle of the steam engine. That clarion cry awoke the sleeping valleys. Energy, enterprise, progress followed its course. At every stopping place new life sprung up. Factory villages received immediate impetus, and plentiful supply of cotton. Larger manufacturing enterprises were speedily planned and executed, foreign help brought in; capital and labor, business and invention rushed to the railroad stations; innumerable interests and industries developed, and in less than a score of years the county was revolutionized. The first had become last and the last first. The turnpike was overgrown, stage coach and cotton team had vanished, the old hill villages had lost the leadership, and new railroad centers held the balance of power and drew to themselves the best blood and energies of the towns.”
The Norwich & Worcester railroad was commenced in the year 1835, and was opened for traffic here in the early part of 1839. The Hartford & Providence railroad was completed as far as Willimantic and opened for use December 1st. 1849. That portion of the road which extends eastward from the latter point to Providence was completed and opened for use October 2d, 1854. The New York & New England main line, a, later enterprise, was completed between Willimantic and Putnam in 1572, and opened for use in August of that year.
Before the advent of railroads raw material was brought into the county, and the manufactured products sent out by means of heavily loaded teams hauling long distances over the numerous turnpikes and public roads which were then much frequented thoroughfares, but are now many of them almost deserted roads. Great lines of travel for stage coaches, mail routes and hauling goods from Boston to Hartford and New York, and from Providence to Hartford, and from Worcester to .Norwich and New London, lay through this county. These roads in those days presented scenes of considerable activity. Heavily loaded wagons, sometimes with eight draft horses before a single wagon, made a business of hauling goods back and forth and were constantly on the road. The principal manufacturing village of this county was then as now Willimantic, and stock and goods were interchanged in this way between that village and the three outlet cities of Hartford, Providence and Norwich. The round trip to Hartford or Norwich and return was made in two days, while that to Providence occupied five days. Three different routes were used by the through travel from the eastern cities to Hartford and New York; a southern one, passing through Plainfield, a central one through Windham Centre and Scotland, and one more northerly passing through Brooklyn and Danielsonville. Then there were other routes intersecting some of the more northern towns.
As might naturally be expected houses of “entertainment for man and beast” were frequent all along these routes. These old time hostelries were commodious and afforded the means of making guests comfortable without much assumption of cold formalities. However, it must not be supposed that the entertainers of those days were such boorish rustics as not to be able on occasion to display such dignified graces as were appropriate to the position. But the material cheer to be found in the well supplied table and full stocked bar-room, with the ample accommodations at the barn for their horses, was what the traveling public looked for with more interest than graces of manner_ Many of these old inns remain, in different parts of the county, to remind us of the customs of our fathers and grandfathers. Very few of them, however, are still occupied as public houses_ The spacious stables, often capable of accommodating twenty to forty horses, which were a necessary accompaniment to these houses, have in most cases been removed or are in an advanced stage of dilapidation. But whether occupied now as private dwellings or half deserted hotels, they have their own several memories and legends which are faithfully preserved, and many are the noteworthy traditions related by their occupants, of the general character of the house, the arrangement of its accommodations, the entertainment of some distinguished guest, the jokes of some regular patron, the enactment of some hair-stiffening tragedy, the excessive jubilations of some disciple of Bacchus, or the winter night revelries, when the moon was full and ” the snow was crusted o’er,” of the young blood of generations whose scattered remnant are now in their decay. A few of these old thoroughfares were “turnpikes,” and had toll gates upon them, while others were public roads exacting no toll. But the tollgate pike, the stage coach, the long line freight wagons and the roadside inn are things of the past.
The main settlements of early date in many of the towns of this county_ are located on hilltops. This remarkable feature, while it is not without some advantages, has also its disadvantages. Among the latter may be mentioned difficulty of access from neighboring towns or even the surrounding ‘-alleys, as well as exposure to the cold winds of winter. On the other hand the magnificent outlook thus afforded to the residents is a ” thing of beauty ” on a grand scale, and therefore must be a ” joy forever.” It is said that those who planned these settlements considered such elevated locations more safe from the attacks of Indians than valley sites would be. Certainly an approaching band of Indians could be more readily discovered from the hilltop than from the low ground. But though no such necessity for precaution exists at this time, we think it would be with reluctance that the people would remove their homes from these commanding sites to the valleys below. These villages are of the true New England type. A wide street, which might with more propriety be-called a lawn, is lined on either side with comfortable and commodious dwellings, sufficiently separated to give each some sense of retirement. Shade trees that have grown to massive proportions wave in luxuriant stateliness over broad. stretches of the greenest and smoothest lawn, that lie on either side of the beaten roadway. In the central part of the village this velvet lined street widens into , a sort of public square, of the same green carpeting and under the same canopy of dark foliage. Here one or two churches and sometimes a town hall appear. Looking from the immediate surroundings, which seem too pure and guileless and restful-like a hallowed Sabbath crystalized into living realization-to come into contact with the contaminating arts and usages of trade and business, the prospect as the eye sweeps almost the circle of the horizon, is one which the citizens of many sections of our country would make long pilgrimages to see. The most elaborate description of the distant objects-winding stream, darkening vale, hillside woods, cultivated farms, nestling cottages, factory village and mill, railroad trail through cut or over embankment, moving trains, tell-tale church spires, and numberless other points upon which the eye rests as we sweep the circle, all of which are half enshrouded in the mist of distance, that distance which “lends enchantment “-the most elaborate description of all these, we say, cannot give the charming and inspiriting impression which this cycloramic view inspires.
Abounding as it does, in some of the most enchanting scenery that picturesque New England can present, the local story and circumstance and character of its people, of former as well as present generations, are no less full of enrapturing interest. The part that Windham has played in affairs concerning the state and nation has ever been an honorable one, and the sons of Windham have inscribed their names high among those whom Columbia delights to honor. Well may those whose nativity, is here be proud of their honorable birthright, and those who at later periods have made this county their home may safely feel that they have gained a place in a grander society than that to which men aspired in ancient times when “with a great price ” they purchased the liberty of Roman citizenship.
The geological resources of this county are not rich. The valuable minerals which add to the wealth of many sections in the central and western parts of the state are almost entirely wanting here. The surface is of secondary formation, and contains no minerals such as are found in the ranges of trap rock which pass through the central and western parts of the state. It may be that underlying the surface formation at considerable depth there are layers of red sandstone or freestone such as appear on the borders of and underlying the trap ranges along the valley of the Connecticut river. It is not probable that coal formation exists at all beneath the surface of this county. Widely differing from the ridges of western Connecticut, so rich in their varied deposits of building stone, micaceous slate, copper, lead, silver, bayrites, hydraulic lime, cobalt, hematite iron ore, monumental limestone, slate and marble, this whole section is granitic and metamorphic, and is thrown into gentle and sometimes rugged hills which are capable of cultivation to their very summits. Clay, suitable for the manufacture of bricks, is found in different parts of the county, and this is being worked to some extent, especially in the valley of the Quinebaug. In the valleys may be seen evidences of glacial action, and immense drift deposits. One of the most curious examples of this kind may be seen in the valley just northeast of Hampton hill, where an almost perfect dome of earth an acre or more in extent rests upon the bosom of the deep valley, plainly showing that it was deposited there by the settling of a glacial burden beneath the flood of pre-historic waters, and then its sides were smoothed and rounded by the action of those waters as they receded. This mound is now beautifully occupied as a burial place for the dead. The azoic rocks, which are of granitic or gneissoid character, are with very few and inconsiderable exceptions, buried many feet beneath the surface with these drift deposits.
The general trend of these hills and valleys is north and’ south, though they are in many places so very irregular as hardly to have any perceptible uniformity in this respect. They are generally composed of sand, varying in fineness, gravel and coarser stones, all of which bear evidences of attrition with water. In some of the valleys a loamy soil appears, and as we have previously stated beds of clay are found in some places. These hills rise to a height of from fifty to three hundred feet, and their western slopes rise gradually from the average level, while their eastern slopes are generally more decidedly abrupt and sometimes precipitous.
Source: History of Windham County, Connecticut, Bayles, Richard M.; New York: W.W. Preston, 1889