Industry of Windham, Connecticut

The town of Windham takes the lead in being the first in the county to send out that great modern educator, the newspaper. The first effort of this kind was made in 1790. During that year John Byrne, of Norwich, set up a printing press in the lower room of the court house in Windham Green, and early in the following year began the publication of The Phenix or Windham Herald. His office was now removed to a location just north of the court house. The first issue was dated Saturday, March 12th, 1791. It was a modest little sheet, printed on coarse, bluish-gray paper, but in most respects, if not all, fully equal to the average newspaper of its day. General and foreign news was furnished with customary promptness-foreign news three months after date, congressional reports in ten or twelve days, and full reports of Connecticut elections three weeks after they took place. These, with advertisements, short moral essays, humorous anecdotes and occasional casualties, made up the table of contents. But few items of local events were printed. Meager as was the paper, it satisfied the public. It was accepted as the organ of Windham county, and in a few years was supported by some twelve hundred subscribers, being distributed in all directions by post riders.

We can hardly withdraw our gaze from the Windham of a century ago without noticing for a moment the taverns of the olden time, and some of the scenes of festivity and mirth for which they were famous. With the amount of business which came to the merchants and mechanics of Windham by reason of its prominent position, its taverns might well flourish. Nathaniel Linkon, John Flint, David Young, John Keyes and John Parish entertained the public in different parts of the town; Nathaniel Hebard, John Staniford and John Fitch performed similar offices on Windham Green. The “Widow Cary,” later the wife of John Fitch, brought to her new home the jolly image of Bacchus, occupying a conspicuous perch on the signpost of the “old Fitch Tavern.” Travelers, court attendants and fellow townspeople found agreeable entertainment beneath his beaming countenance, as well as in the other village taverns, famed as they all were for their flow of wit and liquor, as well as for their more substantial fare. Many revolutionary veterans who resided in the vicinity were habitual frequenters of these resorts, and here fought over their battles, telling marvelous tales of hair-breadth escape and harrowing adventure. There were quaint old characters, whose odd sayings and doings furnished exhaustless merriment. There was one of whom it was said that he could not go past Hebard’s tavern without stopping to get a drink of rum. A friend remonstrated with him, and finally made a bet with him that he could not do so. The old man took the bet, and bracing his nerves and muscles to an erect and dignified bearing, he walked triumphantly past the tavern.

He then returned to the tavern, saying to himself, “Now I’ll go back and treat Resolution.” Once, when in a bewildered condition, he wandered off into the fields and went to sleep, and on rising forgot to pick up his hat. A boy found it and brought it to him. But instead of manifesting any confusion, he blandly asked where he found it. The boy replied “In Mr. White’s pasture, near the bars.” With patronizing dignity the reply came: “Well, boy, go take it right back. That is the place where I keep it.” Another old wag had a turn for rhyming. Meeting one day a rough looking countryman with tawny hair and beard, and butternut colored coat, riding on a sorrel nag, he flung up his hat at the sight and exclaimed: “Colt and mare, coat and hair, all compare, I swear!” Staniford’s house was a great place of resort, an exchange place for all manner of .quips, pranks and witticisms, each one striving to catch or outdo the other in a joke or exaggerated tale. We can preserve here but a single specimen of these old-time tavern stories. This is in relation to the well-known cold winter of 1779-80. Snow lay on the ground three feet on the level, as the story runs. On a certain day it began snowing very hard, flakes falling some of the time as large as small birds. All-day snow fell rapidly, but during an hour and a half of the time it made depth an inch a minute. It was related that on a very cold Sunday of that winter one family went to meeting, two miles away, leaving meanwhile the big dinner pot on. the fire filled with vegetables, boiling over a big fire of logs in the old fashioned fireplace. During their absence the kitchen door had blown open so as to let in a cold blast of air, and on their return they found the steam rising from the pot had formed a large inverted cone of solid ice upon the pot, while the contents were still boiling away within and the fire burning lustily below.

A large number of waiters, hostlers, drivers, purveyors and the like attendants, occupied at court times, had little to do but lounge around and tell stories during the remainder of the year. They hung about the taverns and stores; and added to the general merriment. Negro men and boys were very numerous, and made much sport for all classes with their droll mimicry and endless tricks and capers. Change of status made little difference to this class. A few went out into the world as freedmen, but the larger number, even when set free, clung to their old masters and were always supported and cared for.

The great industry that has built up and given prosperity to the town of Windham is her manufacturing. The locality possesses remarkable facilities for this in the Natchaug and Willimantic rivers, which are here considerable streams and afford abundant power. The power thus offered by Nature was soon recognized by the early inhabitants, and they soon began to utilize it for such purposes as they wished to serve, and to such extent as their means were sufficient ~to make it available. Special favors were granted to such as would undertake to establish grist mills and saw mills in the early days of the settlement. In 1692 the grist mill was made a town charge throughout the town. Ginnings Hendee, Jeremiah Ripley and James Birchard were granted the privilege of the stream at Beaver brook for building a saw mill, with half a mile adjoining for timber and pasture, provided the mill was completed within one year, and when the mill should be. abandoned the land should revert to the town. In the following year Jonathan Ginnings and the Ripleys were granted liberty to set up a sawmill at “No-man’s-acre brook.” In 1700 liberty to build a sawmill on `Goodman Hebard’s brook, and the privilege of the stream for damming or ponding was granted to several petitioners, with the privilege of taking any other stream if that should not prove satisfactory. The town miller was required to grind for the inhabitants of the town every Monday and Tuesday, and if more grain was brought than he could grind in those days he was to keep on until it was finished.

In February, 1706, the proprietors granted to Joseph Cary, John Backus, Joseph Dingley and John Waldo the privilege of the stream at Willimantic falls to build a mill or mills at one particular place, wherever they might choose, on the north side of the river, and to hold it as long as they and their heirs should maintain a good sufficient “mill, with the privilege of raising a dam across the stream, also the improvement of forty acres of land near by, timber free, so long as the land should be left unfenced. This grant was not to exclude the proprietors from granting other sites to other parties for the water privilege, nor to obstruct highways, “nor damnify lots in ye Crotch.”

Soon after the revolution Colonel Elderkin enlarged his orchard of mulberry trees, which he had started years before, and put forward the work of silk manufacture, turning out annually some ten or twelve thousand pounds of hosiery silk to meet the demands for fashionable long stockings. Handkerchief and vest patterns were also manufactured there “in considerable numbers.” He procured a loom and weaver from Europe, and succeeded in fabricating sundry pieces of silk which furnished dresses for his daughters. He also expended much money and labor in constructing a dam and flouring works upon the Shetucket in South Windham. He also carried on a grist mill at the Frog Pond brook. Ezekiel Cary about this time carried on a tannery, which was supplied with water from the Willimantic river. Henry De Witt manufactured tacks out of such old scraps of iron as could be picked up about the town as of little value. The silk factory of` Colonel Elderkin, after his death passed into the hands of Clark & Gray, and soon passed into the hands of Mansfield experimenters who were making great efforts to increase and improve silk manufacture. Machinery for picking, oiling and carding wool was erected at the mills of Clark & Gray, on the Falls of the Willimantic, by Cyrus Brewster. They were in operation as early as June 20th, 1806. The price then charged farmers and others for breaking and carding, cash in hand,” was seven cents a pound; for picking and oiling, two cents a pound, cash; or one cent more in either case where barter was desired. Similar machines were introduced in other towns about the same time. A great saving of labor to the farmer in preparing his wool for domestic use was effected, and an improved condition of the :wool was secured. The most niggardly farmer, accustomed perhaps to work himself and his family to the bone rather than spend a penny, found that it was to his advantage to pay out money or barter for wool carding, while women everywhere exulted in the beautiful white, soft, clean-, fleecy rolls, which made spinning and weaving a positive enjoyment.

About the same time, or possibly a little later, a paper mill was established by Clark & Gray at Willimantic Falls. There were then the accumulated manufacturing industries at this point of a carding machine. a grist mill, a saw mill, a clothiery establishment, a blacksmith shop and a paper mill. The Spaffords and Allens at South Windham were experimenting in various directions. Jesse Spafford and Amos D. Allen procured a patent for an ingenious planing knife, making bonnet chip out of shavings. Joshua Smith carried on clothiery works at South Windham, assisted by his son-in-law, George Spafford, and made cloth for the army, the cloth having a high reputation for its indigo blue. Amos D. Allen carried on furniture manufacture at the family homestead, employing many assistants and gaining a high reputation for superior workmanship. Hundreds of tall clock cases, embellished with many quaint and curious designs, were sent out from this establishment, and found a ready market, especially at the South. The Taintor brothers, with George Abbe and Edmond Badger, formed a partnership for the manufacture of paper, about the year 1810. They built a mill on the Natchaug, in the north part of the town, which was then called New Boston. They made writing paper in three grades, of strong texture but coarse finish. Elijah M. Spafford, in 1814, set up new clothiery works at Willimantic Falls, carrying on carding, water spinning and weaving, as well as cloth dressing and dyeing.

From this time forward the manufacturing industry became the absorbing interest of this town. The manufacture of cotton was soon after introduced, and about the close of the first quarter century, cotton factories had been built at Willimantic and unique manufacturing industries were developing at North Windham and South Windham. In September, 1822, Perez 0. Richmond bought of Waldo Cary and Anson Young land and privilege on the Willimantic near its junction with the Natchaug, and soon built up a factory and a village. The brothers Jillson, of Dorchester, in 1824, purchased a site just above the old paper and grist mills, west of the iron Works bridge,’ and put up more substantial buildings. The Windham Company was next in the field, led by Hartford Tingley and Matthew Watson, of Providence, occupying a privilege farther westward. A small factory in the same vicinity was built and carried on by Deacon Charles Lee, of Windham. And from these beginnings have grown up manufacturing interests that have gathered together -and maintained one of the largest towns of eastern Connecticut, and gained for themselves individually reputations that are world wide. They will be noticed more particularly in connection with the localities to which they belong.

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

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