History of Industry in Windham, Connecticut

In the revival of business following the close of the French war, Windham actively participated. Some enterprising local merchants opened commercial exchange with the West Indies, and by this means a market was provided for the products of the town. Under this stimulus much attention was given to wool growing, the culture of hemp, flax and tobacco, and the making of cheese and butter. – Great flocks of sheep and herds of cattle ranged over Windham pastures and commons. Wheat and other cereals were extensively grown and exported, and so the agricultural prosperity of the town continued until the foreign trade was choked by English exactions. Then the Windham people turned their energies to manufactures. John Brown of Willimantic, in addition to other branches of business, manufactured potash and refined saltpetre. Ezekiel Cary carried on his trade as tanner and currier in this vicinity. Colonel Elderkin, among his other avocations, interested himself in silk culture, and set out a fine orchard of mulberry trees in the south part of Windham. His efforts reached a moderate degree of success, and he was able to make a strong, coarse silk, which was used for handkerchiefs and vestings.

Through the gloomy days of the revolution Windham shared the hardships and burdens common to all the towns of the county. From her prominent position as the shiretown of the county, she saw much of the military activity and public demonstrations of the people, not only of this town but of other neighboring towns; and bravely did the people of the town of Windham maintain their prominent position as the banner town of the county. The conditions of the war have been so fully reviewed as to the whole county that it seems unnecessary to go over the ground as to the details of this particular town. After the war was over, and when the federal constitution was presented to the people for adoption, Windham, having appointed a day for its special consideration, after a lengthy and able discussion of the question, resolved that the proposed constitution, being a subject to be acted upon by a state convention, it was not proper for the town to pass any vote upon it. There were during several years succeeding the war- many returned soldiers about town destitute of employment, and many idlers hanging about the village without regular business, depending mostly upon jobs at court sessions, and the town considered it necessary to instruct its selectmen ” to attend vigilantly to the laws respecting idleness, bad husbandry and tavern haunting, and see that the same be carried into effectual execution against such of the inhabitants of the town as shall in future be guilty of a breach of said law.” With the revival of business and the improvement of finances this charge became less needful. The pressure of English restriction having been removed, the various industries initiated in Windham before the war were now resumed with redoubled spirit. Great attention was given to stock raising and dairy manufacturer. A large surplus of beef and pork was barreled on the-farms for market, and cheese became so plentiful that ” a speculator could sometimes buy a hundred thousand pounds in a neighborhood.” Wool was produced in considerable quantities, and many of the industrious women of the town found profitable employment in knitting stockings and mittens, which found their way to the New York market. It is estimated that this industry annually brought several thousand dollars into the town. As an instance of the business of importance carried on at Windham may be mentioned the drug business established by Doctor Benjamin Dyer, who claimed to have the largest assortment of goods in that line to be found in eastern Connecticut. Among his stock might be found at one time a hundred and fifty pounds of wafers, an article which was in every day use at that time, but now -almost unknown. His trade extended to all the physicians in the surrounding country. At one time he was accustomed to import goods directly from London. Manufactures were also progressing. u p to January 1st, 1795, the people were supplied with mail from Norwich, but on the date mentioned a post office was opened at Windham Green, John Byrne being postmaster. Residents of all the neighboring towns now received mail through this office. Letters for Ashford, Brooklyn, Canterbury, Hampton, Mansfield, Killingly, and even distant Thompson, were advertised in the Windham Herald, which had been started in 1791, and was published by the postmaster.

Thus for many years Windham maintained her position of prominence among Windham county towns; but in 1820 the courts were transferred to Brooklyn, as being a more central point in the county. This was not done without many years’ effort and agitation of the question. As early as 1817 public meetings were held and arguments presented for and against different sites. The question. was referred to a committee, and upon their report the assembly, May 29th, 1819, provided that as soon as a court house and jail should be erected in Brooklyn, without being any direct tax upon the county, and the buildings approved by the judges of the county and superior courts respectively, the courts should be held there, and at the same time the county buildings and land given up at the old county seat should be the property of the town of Windham. After considerable difficulty the necessary funds were raised and the buildings erected. They were approved by Chief Justice Stephen T. Hosmer and Judge John T. Peters, July 26th, 1820. Windham made a strong effort to obtain half-shire privileges, but without success. Then the glory of Windham Green began to fade. In addition to the loss of all the patronage brought to it by the county business, the upspringing of manufacturing enterprises at Willimantic Falls was drawing business rapidly away from the old to a new center. The Green,” however, still kept its place as the head of the town, exercising its ancient sway over the border villages. Their growth at first added in some respects to the importance of the mother settlement. Proprietors and managers of Willimantic factories found pleasant homes at Windham Green, and Windham’s six stores; bank, probate and town clerk’s offices, accommodated all the villages. But this favor was only temporary, for the demands of the growing center of Willimantic were rapidly growing stronger and she could not long withstand them. Gradually her stores, public offices and business interests lapsed to the borough.

The original territory of Windham has been reduced several times. In 1703 nearly one-half of it was taken by the formation of Mansfield; in 1786 the northern part was taken by the formation of Hampton; in 1822 it was further reduced by the formation of Chaplin; and again in 1857 a large part of its remaining territory was taken to form the town of Scotland.

During the early years of this town, the boundary dispute with Canterbury on the east was one of the chief sources of annoyance. From time to time the vexed question broke out afresh, with ever increasing bitterness and violence. Various legal decisions adjudged the disputed land to Canterbury, but were not recognized by Windham, who continued to retain it in possession, and kept an agent constantly in the field to defend the claim before the courts and the assembly. Another grievance was the diminution of its territory. The growing population could barely find room for the exercise of its energies upon its own soil. It is true there was land enough in the town, but much of it was unavailable hillsides, and still more was held by speculators, who then as now were a burden upon the development of the country. As a result, many of the young men, and even the growing families, emigrated to other localities where the conditions were more favorable. Many valued families were lost to churches and town by the rage for emigration. The children of Wyoming emigrants returned to Susquehanna valley, and gained possession of the lands claimed by their fathers. Representatives of the old Windham families were scattered abroad in all parts of the opening republic. Thus matters continued for half a century, until the census disclosed an actual decline in the population, amounting in the decade between 1790 and 1800 to one hundred and twenty.

During the long and trying struggle of the revolution the old town of Windham acquitted herself nobly, fully sustaining her reputation for patriotic devotion, and even gaining many fresh laurels to add to her already honorable reputation. When the port of Boston was formally closed by the British parliament the people of this town in public meeting passed vehement expressions of the popular sentiment, asking the general assembly to appoint a day of fasting and prayer, that the impending calamities might be averted,-calling also for a general congress of the colonies, and condemning the East India Company and their action in the East Indies in most extravagant terms, a single sentence of which we quote by way of illustration: “Let the Spanish barbarities in Mexico, and the name of Cortez sink in everlasting oblivion, while such more recent superior cruelties bear away the palm in the late annals of their rapine and cruelty.” The sentiment of that meeting found expression in language so noble and pathetic that we cannot refrain from preserving some of its most striking passages. ” Let us, dear fellow Americans, for a few years at least, abandon that narrow, contracted principle of self love, which is the source of every vice; let us once feel for our country and posterity; let our hearts expand and dilate with the noble and generous sentiments of benevolence, though attended with the severer virtue of self-denial. The blessings of Heaven attending, America is saved; children yet unborn will rise and call you blessed; the present generation will; by future-to the latest period of American glory-be extolled and celebrated as the happy instruments, under God, of delivering millions from thraldom and slavery, and secure permanent freedom and liberty to America.” At that meeting the people at once set about the practical demonstration of the sentiment which they so nobly uttered. Nine of their most respected citizens, from different parts of the town, viz.: Samuel Gray, Nathaniel Wales, Ebenezer Devotion, Ebenezer Mosely, Hezekiah Bissel, Joseph Ginnings, William Durkee, John Howard and Hezekiah Manning, were appointed a committee of correspondence, and authorized to procure subscriptions for the aid of Boston. Their appeal was most effectual. The fields and hills of Windham abounded with fine flocks of sheep, and the generous owners of them, whether rich or poor, were ready to contribute from them to make up a flock, which, within five days were on the road to. Boston. With them was sent a letter, abounding in expressions of sympathy and encouragement, exhorting the people of Boston to stand true to the common cause of opposition against the tyranny of the British parliament. This was the first contribution from outside towns to reach Boston in that hour of emergency, and thus to Windham belongs the signal honor of leading the towns of New England in a voluntary movement for the relief of oppressed Boston, and indeed we might say taking the first practical steps in the direction of American independence. The town of Boston received the gift with gratitude, as will be seen from the following vote of the town passed July 4th, 1774

“That the thanks of this town be, and hereby are given to our worthy friends, the inhabitants of the town of Windham, Connecticut colony, for the kind and generous assistance they have granted this town under its present distress and calamity in voluntarily sending two hundred and fifty-eight sheep as a present for the relief of the-poor, distressed inhabitants of this place, who by a late oppressive and cruel act of parliament for blocking up the harbor of Boston are prevented getting subsistence for themselves and families.”

In subsequent events the town of Windham participated with other towns of the county whose action in general has been already noticed in another chapter. In 1775, Windham was represented in the general congress at Philadelphia, by Colonel Dyer, and the action of that body was reviewed in town meeting December 5th, with the resulting vote ” That this town does accept, approve and adopt the doings of the Continental Congress held at Philadelphia in September last, and agree and oblige ourselves religiously to keep and observe the same.”

In 1777 the depreciation of the currency became a cause of great distress and general embarrassment, and regulations were attempted to stay the evils resulting therefrom. Windham voted March 24th, ” That the inhabitants of this town will with one consent join with, and support to the utmost of their power in carrying into execution the laws made for regulating and affixing the prices of certain articles.” The town also appointed a committee to provide necessaries for the families of soldiers belonging to the town, who should go into any of the continental armies. In the spring of the following year the quota of this town was thirty-seven men. A bounty of six pounds was offered every man who would enlist for one year, and this in addition to a like sum offered by the state, and twelve pounds at the end of the year, besides forty shillings a month, “all in lawful money.” To meet this outlay a rate of sixpence on all the polls and ratable estates was levied, to be paid in beef, pork, flour and other articles of produce.

Messrs. Elderkin and Gray had a powder mill in the town, an considerable supplies were manufacture here, and Hezekiah Huntington carried on the manufacture end repair of fire-arms at Willimantic, so it will be seen this town was an important factor among its sister towns in the great struggle. Town action was unanimous. No attempt was made to evade military or civil requisitions. The leaders kept their post and the people faithfully upheld them. That spirit of detraction and suspicion which often wrought such mischief in the patriotic ranks was here denounced and held in abeyance. Many anecdotes of remarkable performances are preserved, some of the more notable ones being ably told by Miss Fuller in another chapter of this work.

The ” grand list ” of this town in 1775 showed a valuation of thirty-two thousand two hundred and twenty-two pounds, ten shillings, seven pence. At that time the population consisted of three thousand four hundred and thirty-seven whites, and ninetyone negroes. Among this population were many honored names, but after the revolution they soon passed off the stage of action: having served their generation, they rested from their labors, while their works followed them.. Among such examples were Colonel Ebenezer Gray, who after suffering greatly from disease contracted in the service of his country during the war, died in 1795, greatly respected and beloved. With other Windham officers he was an honored member of the Cincinnati Society, an organization hating for its object the perpetuation of revolutionary friendships and associations, and the relief of widows and orphans of those who had fallen. His brother Thomas Gray, physician and merchant, died in 1792. Colonel Jedidiah Elderkin died in 1794, Deacon Eleazer Fitch in 1800, Elder Benjamin Lathrop in 1804 and Samuel Linkon, in the one hundred and second year of his age, in 1794. Arthur Bibbins, another centenarian, though he had never known a sick day, was thrown from his horse, receiving injuries which caused his death, as w e might say, prematurely, at the age of about one hundred and two years. Colonel Dyer, far advanced in years, but still hale and hearty, though retired from active participation in public affairs, might often be seen on Windham street raising his earnest protest against the alarming growth of radicalism, Jacobinism, infidelity and immorality. The new generation of men in active life taking the places of those honored veterans were Swift, the compiler of a famous ” Digest of the laws of Connecticut; ” lawyers Samuel Perkins, John Baldwin and David W. Young; Henry Webb, high sheriff; Charles Abbe, deputy sheriff; Phinehas Abbe, jailer; William Williams, chief judge of the county court, succeeded in 1806 by Thomas Grosvenor of Pomfret; and Samuel Gray, clerk of the courts. In the year 1800 the grand list” of the town amounted to $64,272.20, and the population was 2,644.

At Windham Green trade and business continued lively. The introduction of wagons with four wheels, which occurred about 1809, was an episode of wonderful interest. Roger Huntington owned the first one brought into town, and in September of the year mentioned he sent it up to Leicester, after a load of hand and machine cards. The lads who drove the horse, George Webb and Thomas Gray, found themselves the objects of great curiosity. People on the road everywhere stopped to look at them, and women and children flocked to the doors and windows as if a menagerie was passing. At Woodstock a crowd gathered around them to examine the new vehicle, that they predicted was destined to kill all the horses. One man had seen such a thing before, in Hartford, “and the horse drawing it was nearly fagged to death.” When Leicester was reached at three o’clock, the wagon having been driven from Pomfret that morning, it was found that the horse was neither dead nor badly tired. On their return the next day ‘Squire McClellan and other Woodstock people came out to see them, and as the horse had traveled over twenty miles with a load of cards and still appeared fresh, they decided that ” perhaps such wagons might come into use after all.”

Projects for village improvement excited much discussion in the early years of the present century. An Aqueduct Company was formed in 1807, which by bringing water into the town street by means of pipes laid under the ground, accomplished a great public benefit. The men composing this company were Jabez Clark, Benjamin Dyer, Elisha White, John and Charles Taintor, John Staniford, Jr., Benjamin Brewster, Samuel Gray, John Byrne and Henry Webb. The consent of the town to needed improvements in this central district was often difficult to obtain, consequently an act of incorporation was asked for and granted, with power to enact by-laws within certain limits and to maintain a clerk. This was accomplished in 1814. Cattle and geese were now forbidden the roads, and encroachments upon the highways were removed. Ancient grants allowing tanworks, shops and houses on the public highways were revoked. Shad and salmon were up to this time quite numerous in the Willimantic river, and fishing for them was a much relished and exciting sport.

But a few years later the energies of Windham were concentrated upon the vital question of the county seat. When this was decided against her, and the courts removed to Brooklyn, still Windham contended for half shire privileges, and long and earnestly was this contest maintained. But at last Windham was obliged to yield to the inevitable, and accepting the situation she then turned her attention to new channels of enterprise and new sources of prosperity, which were in a short time destined to prove far more fruitful than that which she so reluctantly surrendered.

Roads and bridges were among the most important public improvements for which the people of the town had to provide. The Willimantic was a vigorous stream and the preservation of bridges over it required vigilance and outlay of money and labor. The Natchaug was also a difficult river to cross. At first no attempt was made to bridge it, but it was crossed by a ferry. One of the first acts of the town on this subject was passed in August, 1692, to the effect ” That thirty-five acres of upland and five of meadow be sequestered upon the account of a ferry-land to be laid out between ye two riding-places.” Twenty-five acres on the south side of the river, above the upper ” riding-place ” were ordered to be ” measured and laid out to John Larrabee, upon condition that he keep the ferry seven years, with a good and sufficient canoe upon his own cost, and in case the towns shall see cause to make a boat, this likewise to be kept and maintained by him for the time aforesaid, his charge being two-pence a head for single persons; hors and man carried over in the boat-four-pence.” The conditions of the grant were probably carried out. But the ferry was probably not satisfactory. It was too slow, and its operation might be impeded or obstructed by too many circumstances. In February, 1695, a committee was appointed ” to choose a place on the Natchauge river for a sufficient bridge suitable for man and beast to pass with a load, the selectmen to agree with men to make it, lay a rate for the .same and find help to raise the bridge.” This bridge was built by Robert Fenton, for the sum of fourteen pounds.

Traveling facilities up to this time had received but little attention. This bridge had been built and the one road which passed over it had been laid out. The only other roads were those marked out by the first surveyors of the tract and as yet tut vaguely defined and unimproved. The road from the Crotch or Centre to Windham Green, it is said, was never regularly laid out, but gradually developed from an original foot-path. Rude bridle-paths and foot trails led from the settlements to the mills, the meadows, the cedar swamp and the outlying parts of the town.

In 1713 the highway surveyors were ordered to portion out the town for convenience in mending highways. Joseph Dingley was appointed ” to call out the inhabitants east of the Willimantic and north from meeting house; ” Stephen Tracey to call out those who dwelt west of the Willimantic and Shetucket; John Burnap and John Bemis were to warn all who lived east from John Ormsbee’s, the whole length and breadth of the tract; while to Richard Abbe was assigned all south of meeting house.” Liberty was also given to Plainfield proprietors ” to join their field with that of proprietors south and west of Shetucket river, so that the highway by that river to the mill and that over the upper riding-place to Norwich might be pent-ways -provided Plainfield makes and maintains good, handy gates.”

In 1746 the matter of the public highways appears to have fallen into neglect. In that year Isaac Burnap and Joseph Huntington were appointed a committee to provide suitable accommodations for all the people of the town to travel ” to the several places of public worship.” The bridge across the Shetucket, between Windham and Lebanon, which had for many years been maintained by private enterprise, was consigned to the care of Windham in 1735, by an act of the assembly. Robert Hebard, Jr., was chosen by the town to inspect and take care of it.

The burden of bridge making, always heavy in Windham, was greatly augmented by the increase of travel consequent upon the popular emigration to Wyoming and other new sections of the country. An extraordinary flood and great accumulation of ice in 1771 demolished and carried away nearly every bridge in the whole county, making a clean sweep of the Natchaug, Willimantic and Shetucket. As these bridges were upon public highways much frequented by trains of emigrants traveling from other towns of this colony, as well as Rhode Island, to parts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York, the authorities of this town refused to reconstruct them without aid from other quarters. Several roads were thus rendered impassable, travelers were compelled to go many miles out- of their way to find suitable fording places, and were then often flung from their horses and placed in imminent danger of drowning. Complaints were laid before the general assembly in regard to the refusal of Windham to rebuild her bridges. In answer the town replied that within a few years five large bridges had been built at an expense of £800, all of which had been swept away by the floods; that the floods seemed to be increasing in frequency and force, and that these bridges were more for the accommodation of other towns than Windham. Relief was therefore petitioned. This, however, was denied, and the town was ordered to rebuild and maintain a bridge over the Shetucket on the road from Windham to Hartford, known as the Old Town bridge, and another over the Willimantic called the Iron Works bridge. Mansfield was directed to rebuild the bridge over the Natchaug. In 1774 the town of Windham was ordered to ‘build and maintain a bridge over the Shetucket upon a road lately laid out to New Hampshire, to accommodate the travel to the new college in Hanover.

About the beginning of the present century considerable attention was renewed in behalf of the improvement of highways. The town was divided into districts for the purpose, these districts being made identical with the school districts, and authority was obtained to levy a tax to keep the roads in order. The organization of turnpike companies now began to agitate the public mind. The Windham Turnpike Company was organized in 1799, for the purpose of constructing a turnpike from Plainfield to Coventry, past Windham court house. The original members of the company were Jeremiah Ripley, Timothy Larrabee, Moses Cleveland, Luther Payne and James Gordon, the charter being granted to them and their associates. This turnpike became a part of the great thoroughfare between Hartford and Providence. Efforts were made by the town to compel this company to lay its road over the Shetucket where the bridge was already standing, so as to place upon the company the burden of maintaining the bridge to the relief of the town, but a new crossing was determined upon by the company, and the old town bridge was in 1806 abandoned. The Windham and Mansfield Turnpike Society was incorporated in 1800, having for its object the opening of a turnpike from Joshua Hide’s dwelling house in Franklin to the meeting house in Stafford, connecting with a turnpike leading from New London and Norwich. The leading men in this enterprise were Timothy Larrabee, Charles Taintor, Eleazer Huntington and Roger Waldo. Some other turnpike projects were opposed by this town with such energy that they were abandoned, or at least diverted from the designed course. A proposed turnpike from the Massachusetts line to New London was projected to run through Scotland parish, but this town opposed it so vigorously that it was laid out further eastward. Another road was planned to run from Woodstock through Ashford and Mansfield to Windham court house, but this also was defeated by Windham. The town, however, manifested a favorable spirit toward its local roads and bridges. At the request of Joseph Skiff and others, the Horseshoe bridge was taken under the charge of the town, and two hundred dollars were appropriated from its treasury for reducing the hills and mending the road from Scotland meeting house to Jared Webb’s.

Still, as the years advanced, additional responsibilities forced themselves upon the town, in the line of road and bridge maintenance. Five great bridges, requiring constant supervision and frequent repairs or renewal, were not sufficient to meet the wants of the growing communities. The growing village around Taintor & Badger’s paper mill required a new bridge and a better road to Willimantic. A new turnpike to Killingly, and other roads, were demanded. The petition for a bridge and road from the paper mill, referred to above, headed by John Taintor, was opposed by a committee appointed for the purpose in 1815, but without avail, and in 1818 the selectmen were authorized to contract for the building of Horseshoe bridge over the Natchaug river on the road leading to the paper mill. The six bridges thus maintained at the expense of the town were placed in charge of overseers, as follows: Manning’s bridge, Nathaniel Wales; Newtown bridge, Zenas Howes the Iron Works bridge, Alfred Young; the Horseshoe bridge, Waldo Cary; Badger’s bridge, Edmond Badger; the Island bridge, Joshua Smith. A few years later two new bridges over Merrick’s brook were granted to Scotland; one near John Burnett’s house, called Church bridge, and the other near Zaccheus Waldo’s mill. Willimantic manufacturers in 1826 petitioned for roads and bridges to accommodate more fully the needs of their growing business, but for a time such matters were compelled to wait while the entire energies of the town were engaged in the contest for the court house. But after that absorbing question was decided they were able to gain a hearing. Anew bridge was built to accommodate the Windham Company, and the old public highway was widened and transformed into Main street of the village of Willimantic, and along its sides buildings for stores and other public uses soon sprang up.

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

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