History of South Windham, Connecticut

South Windham is a pleasant little village about three and a half miles southeast from Willimantic. It is beautifully situated, amid romantic surroundings of hill and marsh, cultivated field and wooded plain, winding through all of which the swift, dark waters of the Shetucket gracefully ripple on their merry course to the sea. It has stations on the Providence Division of the New York & New England, and on the New London Northern railroads. It lies thirteen miles north-northwest from Norwich. It is situated in the southern part of the township, not far from the line. It has a population of about six hundred, and is the center of considerable manufacturing interest. Many years ago the facilities offered by the stream at this point were appreciated and turned to account in various small ways. By the development of inventive genius on the part of men associated with the locality it was made the seat of manufacturing operations of great importance to the country. About 1827 George Spafford of this place, a man of much mechanical insight, having been employed in fitting up the Fourdrinier machine for making paper at North Windham, formed a partnership with James Phelps, and they set to work to construct a duplicate. They first began work at New Furnace, in Stafford, on account of the foundry facilities to be had there. Nine men, under Charles Smith as foreman, were kept at work within closed doors, with ordinary hand tools and a single power lathe. Yankee ingenuity triumphed over every obstacle, and. completed an improvement upon the original Fourdrinier machine. It was sold to Amos D. Hubbard, and put in successful operation at Norwich Falls, in May, 1829. A second machine was soon afterward completed and sold to Henry Hudson of East Hartford. Both yielded such excellent results that the projectors were encouraged to make preparations for the permanent continuance of the business, and accordingly erected suitable accommodations on the site of an old fulling mill at this place. Their works were ready for occupancy early in 1830. Here they built mills for customers in many different states, and supplied parts of machinery. This, it is claimed, was the first paper making machinery successfully working in this country. It should have been mentioned that the first Fourdrinier machine was brought to this country about 1827, from Germany, by an Englishman named Pickering, who employed Spafford to assist in setting it in operation. In 1830 the firm sent Charles Pickering, son of the first mentioned, to England to investigate the process of steam drying used in that country, and soon after that time Spafford invented the present paper cutter- The firm removed their works to South Windham in November, 1830, and commenced operations in the following February. They then employed about ten hands and finished six to eight machines a year. These machines were valued at from $2,000 to $3,500 apiece. About the year 1838, Charles Smith, .a millwright, and Harvey Winchester, a blacksmith, who had been employees of Spafford, Phelps & Co., were admitted into the firm, the capital stock of which at that time was $50,000. Owing to financial troubles during the years 1838 to 1840, the stock of Phelps and Spafford was sold to the other partners and the firm of Smith, Winchester & Co. was formed. George Spafford died soon after this, heavily involved. James Phelps invented Phelps’ patent washer-,-and accumulated some property before his death. Since that time the business has been conducted under the name of Smith, Winchester & Co. They employ about one hundred hands, and have manufactured machines that weighed one hundred tons each and cost $20,000. Where formerly machines were made from forty-seven to forty-eight inches wide and run forty feet a minute, they are now made one hundred inches wide and run two hundred and fifty feet a minute. The main features, however, remain the same as when their manufacture was first begun. The firm have again and again been compelled to enlarge their works and build new conveniences for storage. The Little Pigeon Swamp brook, which sometimes ran dry during the summer, was made permanently effective by the construction of reservoirs covering the former swamp. A prosperous village has grown up around this establishment, and other industries have been added.

Amos D. Allen was a manufacturer of furniture at South Windham. His son Edwin inherited a large share of the inventive genius of the family. Incidentally visiting a printing office at Norwich one day, he became interested in seeing a font of wood type, and at once conceived the idea of manufacturing it by machinery. He set to work and soon had the idea in practical operation, and with such success that about the year 1827 he established in a small way the business of manufacturing wood type at this place. Though many improvements have been made in the manufacture of wood type yet the principle of the chief machines used by Mr. Allen is still preserved. The business made fair progress under his control, there being at that time but one other establishment in the country engaged in the same work, that being Darius Wells & Co., of Paterson, N. J. In 1837 Mr. Allen entered into partnership with George F. Nesbit of New York city, who under his own name introduced the wood type to the trade, while Mr. Allen conducted the manufacture in South Windham. The business made fair progress, though encountering the opposition incident to new inventions. -Later on another man came upon the stage with an additional fund of inventive genius and executive ability in the person of William H. Page, of New Hampshire. He had served many years in the practical work of a printing office, and after considerable time spent in experimenting in that direction, he obtained the machinery which had been used in the. business by others and started a factory on his own account in 1856. During the next year many improvements were made in his machinery, and a much superior kind of type was produced. The business survived the panic of 1857 in a healthy state, and in the fall of that year was removed to Greenville, in the suburbs of Norwich, where it was carried on more extensively.

Following another line of the history of wood type manufacture in this town we will go back again to Edwin Allen. He was the originator of the business here, and started business in an old building which stood, near the. machine shop. He afterward erected a shop about one mile west, on his father’s farm, where he employed steam for power. His method was original and he kept it a secret to all except his employees. ” No Admittance ” was painted upon the doors of his shop and the rule was strictly adhered to. This was about the year 1840. Some twelve persons were employed, and type cases, galleys and other wooden materials used in printing offices were manufactured, as well as wood type, and block letters for signs were also cut out. Allen failed in business, and afterward moved the shop down to where he building now stands, being used by the present American Wood Type Company. John G. Cooley bought the business and removed it to New York city. In April, 1878, the American Wood Type Company, then composed of C. H. Tubbs, John Martin and George L. Kies, formerly connected with the Page Company, began the manufacture of wood type in the building which years before had been occupied by Allen. They ran the business for five years, and then the other partners turned their interests over to Mr. Tubbs, who now represents the company, and the establishment is in active operation. The shop has capacity and machinery to employ seventeen hands. They have patterns on hand to manufacture two hundred different styles of type, in all sizes ranging from two-line up to 100-line. The works are run by water power supplied-by the Pigeon Swamp brook.

The Radial Thread Buff Company of South Windham was organized in 1883, for the purpose of introducing a patent article invented by Robert Binns, which they commenced to manufacture in a small way. The patented article is a wheel from eight to twelve inches in diameter, made of cotton cloth, the filling being cotton rags. This wheel is used by silver platers to burnish their ware. The company also make wheels from whole stock, but in the manufacture of scrap wheels they are the only concern in the country. The present production is from fifteen to twenty thousand monthly, and employment is given to about fifteen hands. Robert Binns was born in Providence, R. I., January 9th, 1844, and is of English descent, being the eldest son of Robert and Hannah Binns. He is .a machinist by trade, and he came to South Windham in 1873. He married Mary Rue and they have six children: Mary, Nancy, Frederic, Bertha, Eva and Eugene.

There is also at South Windham a grist mill, owned by Mr E. H. Holmes. It is situated in the village, near the track of the New London Northern railroad. It was built by Mr. E. H. Holmes, the father of the present owner, about the year 1848. It has a capacity of about eighteen horse-power, and grinds from twenty-five to thirty thousand bushels a year. One room in this grist mill is occupied by Robert Binns in the manufacture of a patent slitter blade, which is self sharpening and has an improved slitter hub. Slitter blades are a pair of cutting disks with edges working together like the edges of a pair of scissors. This manufacture is a new enterprise, but it is meeting with deserved success.

The only church of this village is an offshoot from the Congregational church of Windham. For twenty-five years, more or less, services have been conducted here on occasional Sabbaths or on week-day evenings. The old Fitch school house is used for religious services. This, is a building once intended for a private school, and is rented of private owners for religious services. It stands near and is connected with the Warner House, a hotel of commodious size standing near the depot of the New London Northern railroad. It is now owned by Alfred Kinne. For a few years back religious services on Sunday have been omitted, but in March, 1888, a Society of Christian Endeavor was formed here, and in the following December a church was organized, which now numbers eighteen members. During the winter a revival occurred. Since December 7th, 1888, preaching services have been held every Sunday afternoon by the pastor of the old church at Windham Centre. A Sunday school is also maintained here.

South Windham is a pleasant village, with wide streets and elm-shaded walks, lighted with gas. The surrounding country is hilly, and on an eminence on the west stands a modern antique structure of respectable dimensions, just completed for a summer hotel. It overlooks the village. and surroundings, and is a conspicuous object for miles around. Its site affords charming landscapes of the Shetucket valley and the surrounding country. The road from South Windham northerly toward the old center of the town crosses the Shetucket over a covered wooden bridge 252 feet long, over the portals of which may be -read the usual legend of warning, in great black letters on a white ground, “The riding or driving any Horses, Teams or Carriages on this Bridge in a Gait faster than a Walk is by Law prohibited.” On the east side of the river is’ the depot of the Providence Division of the New England railroad, about one-eighth of a mile from the other. Cleared farms occupy most of the hills of the vicinity, which are somewhat bold and rugged, while among them the Shetucket, a beautiful stream, swiftly and gracefully glides in many a rippling curve.

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

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