History of Industry in Putnam, Connecticut

Killingly hill was now an important center, with its reconstructed meeting house and military gatherings, its common being one of the amplest and finest in the county. Doctor Robert Grosvenor, now established there in medical practice, was the leading physician and surgeon. Justice Sampson Howe had opened its first store. Its tavern was kept by Captain Aaron Arnold.

Putnam’s cotton manufacture dates back to remote periods, the factory opened by Mr. Smith Wilkinson below the High Falls of the Quinebaug, in 1807, being the first of the kind in Windham county, and one of the first in Connecticut. Experimenters in Rhode Island had succeeded after much labor and trouble in constructing machines for spinning cotton by water power. Ozias Wilkinson and his ingenious sons had established a factory in Pawtucket, in 1798, and then sought a wider field of enterprise. The Quinebaug Falls and valley was the site selected, and the Pomfret Manufacturing Company formed January 1st, 1806. Its constituent members were Ozias Wilkinson, his sons, Abraham, Isaac, David, Daniel and Smith Wilkinson, his sons-in-law, Timothy Green and William Wilkinson, and James, Christopher and William Rhodes. James Rhodes, of Warwick, R. I., had previously purchased of John Harris a half interest of his share of the Cargill property. All this interest, with the remainder of the privilege and much other land in the vicinity both sides the river, were now secured by the Pomfret Manufacturing Company, and its charge and the care of building the projected factory, and superintending the various works, entrusted to the youngest brother, Mr. Smith Wilkinson, who soon proved himself master of the situation.

The lonely vale, with its rocky hills and heavy forests, rang with the busy clatter of the numerous workmen. With happy forethought Mr. Wilkinson selected the Fourth of July for raising the frame of the factory, when a great concourse of people from all the adjoining towns came together to help about the work and satisfy their curiosity in regard to this novel enterprise. The work of building and reconstruction went rapidly forward. The solitary walk ” laid out by Mr. Knight was less attractive to the young manager than a brisk ride to Killingly hill, where he found agreeable society in the hospitable home of Captain Sampson Howe. In a few months he married bliss Elizabeth Howe, and began housekeeping in a small house east of the river (Site now occupied by Putnam Bank). Machinery and all needful appurtenances were hauled up from Providence, and on April 1st, 1807, the first cotton factory in eastern Connecticut was set in motion-a four story wooden building, 100 by 32 feet in dimensions. Its business was to spin cotton- yarn to be woven on hand looms into coarse cloth and bed-ticking. Its working force was a few children picked up in the neighborhood, with a man in each room to help and oversee them. The boys and girls were delighted with the new employment, and thought the glittering machines ” the prettiest things in the world.” When a heavy snowstorm blocked the roads one morning the little girls put on men’s boots and waded through the drifts in their eagerness to work. They were paid about seven shillings a week.

The children were not alone in rejoicing over the new industry. To the women who wove the cloth it was a boon beyond expression. It is hard to realize the scarcity of money in those days, especially in farming families, when produce was cheap, markets few, business openings rare and wages low. The privilege of earning things for themselves was thus most joyfully welcomed by hundreds’ of active women. A store promptly opened by the company, offered all manner of useful and ornamental articles in exchange for weaving. Women of every rank, the well-to-do as well as the poor, hastened to avail themselves of this golden opportunity. The impulse given by the new mill was felt in many ways. Many workmen were needed for teaming, farming, mill tending, house building and other purposes. The grain mill was kept busily at work. A handsome house opposite the mill was soon built by Mr. Wilkinson, for his own residence, and other houses for operatives and new residents.

So rapid was the increase of population that in 1812 Mr. Wilkinson found it needful to build a school house for his village. A neat brick building was erected on a steep hill east of the river, which was also used on Sundays for a house of worship. Though himself a member of the Congregational church at Killingly hill, and a regular attendant upon its service, Mr. Wilkinson was on friendly terms with all other denominations, and most willingly accorded them the use of the school house. The Methodists held service every alternate Sabbath for some years, under the charge of the Thompson circuit preacher. On other Sundays the Baptists “held the fort,” under Elders Grow, Crosby, Nichols, Ross or Cooper. Reverends Daniel Dow or Elisha Atkins or Eliphalet Lyman would often carry on “a five o’clock meeting ” in the brick school house. So sober and substantial was the character of the Pomfret Factory residents that there were but two families in fifteen years which habitually refused church attendance. The singing, according to a trustworthy reporter, was as varied as the sect of the preachers. When the Methodists held service choristers like John M. Sabin and Augustus W. Perrin led such a volume of male and female voices as would shake the rafters of the house and waken the soundest sleeper. The Baptist singers were led by Artemas Bruce, especially on funeral occasions, and the Congregationalists by Mr. Jedidiah Leavens, unless Mr. Dow preferred to set his own favorite tunes-Windham, Mortality, Florida or Hebron. Sunday was Sunday indeed under Mr. Wilkinson’s forcible administration, and any deviation from its proper observance was promptly noted and punished, and even those audacious youngsters who presumed to play ball upon the day of the state fast had the law enforced against them and were made to pay legal fines.

During the war with Great Britain Pomfret factory flourished greatly, making one year a dividend of $86,00. By paying, large prices they were able to secure sufficient supplies of cotton from Philadelphia, the large profit more than reimbursing the heavy outlay. Thus solidly established the company met the reverses that followed without embarrassment, and succeeded in introducing power looms and other new methods of labor without serious inconvenience. Continued improvements were made in the village and surrounding country. The factory farms were brought under good cultivation. Mr. Wilkinson took much pride in the great mowing lot near the Upper Falls, and in other parts of his farm. It is said that thirty-five hay-makers might sometimes be seen on a good hay day swinging their scythes in time with each other. Methodical in all things, Mr. Wilkinson once announced “that he had upon count a cock of hay for every day in the year–365.” A village cow was taken from house to house every night and morning in summer that all the families might have a supply of new milk. Each tenant had a garden spot for raising his own vegetables, and laid up his own beef and pork for family consumption. Fresh meat was brought in- occasionally by farmers as they slaughtered, and meat, milk and ice carts were all unknown in those primitive days.

Upon the request of Mr. Wilkinson, a road was laid by the selectmen of Thompson from the old road over Parks hill direct to the village in 1818. The town voted to accept the road as laid out and also voted, ” That it is the sense of the town that the old road from Pomfret Factory, until it intersects the above reported road, be discontinued.” Bundy’s bridge was newly covered and a new road laid out to the Brick Factory. Sufficient travel passed through the village to support a respectable tavern under the old yew tree at the west end of Cargill’s block. Malachi Green is remembered among its landlords. In 1823 a new stone building was erected, to be used for the manufacture of woolen goods. Its foundations were laid by Asa White, a veteran mill constructor, who had overseen the building of some of the first factories in New England, but who died while this was in progress. In 1826 Mr. Wilkinson became chief proprietor, as well as manager, associating with Mr. James Rhodes in place of the former company. The new stone mill was now used for cotton manufacturing and the old mill for woolen goods. More houses and workmen were demanded and business operations extended. A new interest grew up at the upper privilege, with the building of a brick factory there by Mr. James Rhodes in 1830. Through the good offices of a former resident of this section, we are indebted for an unique Directory, giving a full report of the residents of the old Pomfret Factory between 18151830, viz :

“Smith Wilkinson-agent Pomfret Manufacturing company. Superintendents in their order-Augustus Howe, Thomas Dike, Gen. Reuben Whitman. Overseers of weaving shop-David Whitman, John N. Leavens. Machinists–Eden Leavens, Asa White, James Cunningham, A. Blanchard, Alpheus Chaffee. Blacksmiths-John Phipps, `William Phipps, Jonathan Clough. Overseers of carding and repairing-Arthur Tripp, P. Carpenter, Ira Graves, Almon Graves, Benjamin Morris, Jebediah Morris, J. H. Morris, Jr., George Morris, Thomas Chapman, Lyman Lawrence, G.. W. Eddy, William Andrews, Welcome Eddy, Benjamin Matthews, Charles Richmond, Joseph Cundall, Obadiah Grinnell, J. Keach, Charles Chaffee, J. Dike, D. Harrington, S. Harrington, Jr. Manager of Picker Mill and general painter -David Hall. Mule spinners-Green Capron, William Johnson, Jonathan Perrin, George B. Carey, Martin Leach. Clothiers and fullers—A. Thompson, J. Basset. House carpenters—Sylvester Stanley, Joseph Heath, Samuel Truesdale, Jr., Asa Park. Blue dyer—Jedidiah Leavens. Bleachers—Ephraim Conden, E. Chase, Jacob Mann. The clerks in the store were James Hopkins, William Arnold, S. Davis Leavens, George Howe, Augustus Wilkinson, Henry Wilkinson, Daniel P. Dew, Horace Whittaker, Edmond Wilkinson, William Warren, Sampson Howe. Clerks in the Domestic department were Lemuel H. Elliott, N. Aldrich, Jedidiah Leavens, Jr., A. W. Perrin. The keepers of the general boarding house were, in order, Stephen Stone, L. H. Elliott (afterward steward of Brown University), N. Aldrich, Willard Arnold, Asahel Elliott, Benjamin Warren, Eleazer Sabin. The grain miller was Frank Pearce; the saw miller, Isaac Moore; the butcher, J. H. Morris; the cow-herder was Thomas Richmond; the freight-teamer to and from Providence was Joseph Stone, with a yoke of venerable oxen, Bug and Bright, and a younger yoke, beside Hezekiah Converse (a grand bass singer) was farm teamer for many years; his successors were Harvey White and Reuben Hoar. There were `captain farmers’ also Darius Starr, William Martin, Elliot Hammond. Others in the vicinity who plied the plow, scythe and hoe, while their sons and daughters worked in the mills, were Messrs. Bean, Harrington, Chaffee, Faulkner, Brown, Keach, Cary, Weld, Willard, Herandean, Johnson, Kelley, Gallup, Maserve, Chamberlin. Among those who tried to keep them all with a good understanding (the shoe-makers) were S. Truesdale, A. Plummer, J. Harris, G. Glasco.”

Source: History of Windham County, Connecticut, Bayles, Richard M.; New York: W.W. Preston, 1889

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