History of Manufacturing in Willimantic

Colonel William L. Jillson and Captain John H. Capen early associated themselves as partners in business, under the firm name of Jillson & Capen, for manufacturing cotton-making machinery. They carried on the business to a large extent, giving employment to a large number of mechanics, and thus adding to the prosperity of the village. In 1845, having purchased at some previous time the premises and water rights where the first cotton mill in Willimantic was built, they, in connection with Austin Dunham, formed the Wells Company, and named this location Wellsville, which was considered an improvement on the former cognomen of” Sodom,” by which it had been known for a long time. A three-story mill and a number of dwellings were completed and in use early in the season of 1846.

During the summer of 1845, Messrs. Amos D. and James Y. Smith, of Providence, purchased of Hill & Arnold what was known as the Deacon Lee property, which had been in their possession for some years without any extensive improvements. They were known as the Smithville Company, having associated with them Whiting Hayden as their local agent and manager, he having located here about three years previous. Under his efficient management a large stone mill was erected, and the following season a large store house and three large tenement houses on Main street.

The business of the Windham Manufacturing Company having been successful, they decided in the fall of 1827 to erect a larger mill than was in operation in this county. Preparations were made accordingly, foundations were prepared, materials contracted for, and by the 1st of April, 1828, work was commenced upon their east mill. In connection with the mill the company built the four houses on Main street, and all were completed and in use before the close of the year. The company also built a substantial stone dam across the river the same season. A. C. Tingley, who was at first local agent, was succeeded by Hartford Tingley, and he in turn was followed by John Tracy, a careful, conservative businessman, who retained that position until his death in 1874. Mr. Tracy was a liberal contributor for the maintenance of religious institutions, a warm friend to education, and in his death the corporation with which he had been associated for over forty years, as well as the community in which he lived, sustained a great loss. The company have from time to time made additions and improvements to their premises. The present local agent is Thomas C. Chandler. The present owners are Robert W. Watson, son of the original Matthew, Thomas C. Chandler and Matthew Watson, son of Robert W. The main office of the company is in Providence, R. I. The mills are built of stone, and contain about eighty thousand square feet of floor space. They are furnished with eighteen thousand spindles and four hundred and sixty-eight looms. To drive the machinery their water wheels have three hundred and forty horse-power, and they have engines of three hundred horsepower for use in dry times. About two hundred and fifty hands are employed. Lawns, twills, forty-inch sheetings, pocketings and crinkle goods are manufactured equivalent to one hundred and twelve thousand yards of print cloths a week. Thirty-eight bales of cotton are consumed weekly in this manufacture. The original mill of 1822 is the south half of the present west mill. Spur tracks from the New England and the New London Northern railroads run to the store houses to accommodate shipping. A reservoir at Bolton, covering about five hundred acres, is owned by this and the Smithville and Linen Companies about equally.

Just below the Windham Company’s works are situated the works of the Smithville Manufacturing Company, of the early building and operations of which mention has already been made. This concern was largely owned by Whiting Hayden, the former resident agent, but in October, 1887, it passed into the hands of the present company; most of whom belong in Providence. The treasurer of the company is Mr. O. A. Washburn, Jr. Cotton goods are manufactured here, and 275 to 300 hands are employed. The mills are fitted with twenty-one thousand spindles and five hundred and eight looms. Three water wheels are used, and when water fails, a double steam-engine of three hundred and fifty horsepower stands ready to drive the machinery. Forty bales of cotton a week are used, and the annual product is about four and a half million yards.

But of all the manufacturing establishments of this town the Willimantic Linen Company’s works are the most conspicuous and important. They occupy the stream next in cider of position below, or eastward, from the Smithville Company. This company has a capital stock of two million dollars, and a skilled force of two thousand employees. Here are manufactured the celebrated linen thread and spool cotton which bear the name Willimantic like a household word all over the civilized world. They occupy four large mills designated by number. No. 1 is the oldest one of all, and stands near the heart of the borough, next below the Smithville works. This is a stone mill, and is surrounded by other buildings-a spool shop, store houses, tenements, etc. Main street crosses the river just at the lower end of this mill. Just below this stands No. 2 mill, a handsome stone structure, about four hundred feet long, sixty feet wide, and five stories high, with wings at the west end about one hundred and fifty feet long and two stories high. Still lower down the stream stands mill No. 3, a wooden building of much smaller size. This is about one hundred and seventy-five feet long, forty feet wide, and has five floors, including the mansard roof. The three mills thus far noticed stand on the left bank of the stream, between it and the main street of the- village. On the other side of the stream stands No. 4, the mammoth cotton mill of all, and one of the largest in the world. It is for the most part a one-story building, but in some of its parts one or two additional stories beneath were required to accommodate the inequalities of the surface. This mill is claimed to be the largest cotton mill on the ground floor in the world. It is 820 feet long, 174 feet wide, and has two wings 81 by 48 feet each, and four porches 45 by 32 feet each. It is built of brick with stone foundation. The boiler house is 80 feet square. The building presents 303,000 square feet of floor surface. In its construction 5,500 cubic yards of stone work were laid up, and 1,900,000 bricks were used. The wood work also required 450,000 feet of timber, 1,500,000 feet of lumber, and in building it 30,000 cubic yards of earth were removed. Power is furnished by five pair of engines of 250 horsepower each, and water power also may be applied to the extent of 1,100 horsepower. The mill is supplied with 50,000 spindles.

The yards of all these mills are contiguous, and Nos. 1, 2 and 4 mills are connected by a private railroad, with small locomotive, which runs from one to another as occasion requires, supplying each with material or taking away the products to points of shipment by one or another of the railroads which concentrate in this town. Each of the mills is furnished with steam engines sufficient to run it when the water power fails. Besides the numerous houses erected by the company for the accommodation of their operatives, Dunham Hall, a substantial stone building, has been provided for the intellectual benefits of employees. It is situated at the lower junction of -Main and Union streets. Here is kept the company’s library of about 2,500 volumes, which is free to all. It also contains assembly rooms where meetings and evening schools are sometimes held. The company’s interest in and endeavors to elevate the moral and social condition of their employees are practically shown in their elegant and wellkept library and reading rooms in this building, which are finished in natural woods and warmed and lighted, and liberally supplied with books, magazines, and the scientific and daily papers. The use of it is free to all, including residents of surrounding towns. The library is at present under the efficient care of Miss Jenny L. Ford, librarian. The company’s homes for the operatives are models of cottage architecture, while the streets and all the surroundings are kept with scrupulous care. Mr. E. S. Boss is the efficient and public spirited agent of the company at Willimantic. The fairness with which this company treat their employees is further evidenced by the fact, equally creditable to employers and employees, that no labor strike has ever occurred in the history of their operations. The company was incorporated in 1856. Their main office is at 389 Allyn street, Hartford. The officers of the company at present are Lucius A. Barbour, president and treasurer; Austin Dunham, vice-president; E. H. Clark, secretary; E. S. Boss, agent; John Scott, superintendent.

The Holland Silk Manufacturing Company is one of the important industries- of Willimantic. In 1865, two brothers, James H. and Goodrich Holland, came here from Mansfield and commenced building a factory. They were already engaged in the manufacture of silk in Mansfield. They erected. in Willimantic a building one hundred by forty-two feet, on the northeast corner of Church and Valley streets. This building was opened for business January 25th, 1866. They employed at that time from fifty to sixty hands, and produced 250 pounds of silk per week. The style of the firm was then J. H. & G. Holland, and in that form the name continued until 1868, when, owing to the death of the senior partner, the firm name was changed to Goodrich Holland. The death of the latter occurred in 1870, and the business was then conducted under the name of the Holland Silk Manufacturing Company, as it is now known. In 1873 they erected a brick building, similar in size to their old building, on the opposite corner of Church and Valley streets. They now employ two hundred hands and manufacture one thousand pounds a week, which is finished and made ready for the market in their own factories. They make sewing silk and machine twist for tailors, dress makers, boot and shoe makers, harness makers, and the like craftsmen and women. The principal office of the company is at 561 Broadway, New York, with branches at 19 High street, Boston, and 428 Market street, Philadelphia. Power to run their machinery is furnished by two engines, one of forty and the other of sixty horse-power. The works are lighted by electricity. The treasurer and resident agent is S. L. Burlingham; superintendent of the works, John A. Conant. In connection with the last-named gentleman the following item of history is of general interest, and we give it as we find it in a Hartford paper:

” One of the early inhabitants of old Windham was Mr. Exercise Conant, a native of Salem, Mass., who came to this town and bought a house and 1,000 acres of land. He subsequently went to Lebanon, thence to Boston and finally came back to this town, where he spent the remainder of his life. His grandson, Shubael Conant, was licensed to preach by the Windham County association, but did not assume any charge. He represented Mansfield (then of Windham county) in the legislature thirty sessions. He was a member of the governor’s council from 1760 to 1775 and member of the council of safety at the breaking out of the Revolutionary war. From these early settlers sprang the Conants so numerous in Mansfield and Superintendent John Conant of the Holland silk works in this place.”

The W. G. & A. R. Morrison Company commenced the manufacture of silk and cotton machinery in Willimantic in 1875, under the firm name of W. G. & J. H. Morrison. They manufactured about $15,000 worth of machinery annually, and employed about ten hands. In 1878 the firm was joined by A. R. Morrison and the name W. G. & A. R. Morrison was adopted. The capacity of the works was gradually increased. In July, 1883, a joint stock company was formed under the present name, and they now employ about ninety men and turn out machinery to the value of about $150,000 a year. These products are shipped to all parts of the world. They occupy part of a new brick building, built by them in 1888, which is 150 by 50 feet on the ground and four stories high. Their works are driven by steam altogether, being supplied with an engine of 100 horse-power. The officers of the company are: Ansel Arnold, president; W. G. Morrison, vice-president-and general manager; A. R. Morrison, treasurer. These gentlemen, with Edward Bugbee and D. W. Chaffee, form the board of directors.

The beginnings of the firm of 0. S. Chaffee & Son date ‘back to 1828, when Joseph Conant became one of the first silk manufacturers of any note in America. In 1838 Mr. 0. S. Chaffee, a son-in-law of Conant, gained a partnership in the business. In the course of years he received into partnership with himself his son, J. D. Chaffee, and the present firm name was adopted. The plant was originally located in Mansfield Centre, but since about the year 1872 the headquarters have been in this town. From the start the business has had a steady and substantial growth, and in its present status constitutes one of the leading local industries. The firm now has three mills. Nos. 1 and 2 are frame buildings. No. 3 mill is an ornate five story brick structure embodying the best modern ideas in its arrangement and equipment. The motive force is supplied by steam and water, and 250 operatives are employed. The product comprises silk and mohair braids, sewing silk, button hole twist, dress silks and silk linings. The goods have a standard reputation in the market, and the annual -sales amount to something like $400,000. In the manufacture of dress silks this firm have achieved a signal success in direct and spirited competition with foreign producers who have heretofore almost monopolized the market. They have a large and growing patronage, and their goods are favorably received in all parts of the Union. Mr. J. D. Chaffee is a native of Tolland county, and has literally grown up in the business of which, since the death of his father, -he has had sole charge. He has represented his district in both branches of the state legislature, and is an ex-member of the governor’s staff.

The business of preparing what is known in the craft as “tram” and “organzine,” a department in the manufacture of silk, is carried on by Arthur G. Turner. The silk ” throwster,” as the craftsman in this department is called, is an important factor in silk manufacture, and a large business is done in supplying weavers with the materials mentioned. Mr. Turner has been for the most of his life identified with the silk trade. For a number of years he was a partner in a silk mill at Mansfield Centre. In 1885 or 1886 he started the business here in a shop on Centre street. Here the premises soon proved inadequate to the requirements, and in the latter part of 1888 be began to build a new mill, which is now about completed. It is a substantial three story and basement brick building of what is known as the ” Fall River” type of architecture, with a tower and engine house adjoining. There are in addition several frame buildings for auxiliary use. The mill is equipped with 8,000 spindles operated by an engine of 150 horsepower. Seventy-five hands are employed and the output is from 1,200 to 1,500 pounds per week.

The Natchaug Silk Company was incorporated in 1887. It grew out of the firm of 0. S. Chaffee & Son, being established here to carry on the manufacture of silk dress goods, serges and satins. J. Dwight Chaffee is president of the company, and Charles Fenton secretary and treasurer. They occupy the three upper floors of the W. G. & A. R. Morrison Company’s brick building on North street. Work began here in 1888. About fifty hands are employed.

The Willimantic Brass and Iron Foundry is situated on Mansfield avenue, in the western suburbs of the village. It was built in 1871, and occupied by William M. Gorry in the fall of 1873. Here a great variety of castings for machinery is made. A patent plow is also manufactured here. Mr. Gorry is a native of Lowell, Mass., where he was born December 14th, 1841, and he is a moulder by trade. He has at times employed as many as twenty-five hands.

Messrs. W. H. Latham & Co. established on Spring street in 1776 and ’77 well arranged and commodious shops for the storing, handling and working of lumber. Steam power of ample capacity is employed for driving machinery, warming work rooms, heating the drying kiln and like uses, and the shop is supplied with modern wood working machinery. The firm do a general contracting and jobbing business, including painting and natural wood finishing. The court house, United Bank building, Hooker House and other prominent buildings in Willimantic are monuments to their reputation as practical builders. W. H. Latham was born in Eastford, Conn., September 21st, 1846. At the age of fifteen he went to Rhode Island and served as an apprentice to the joiner’s trade. He came to Willimantic in 1867, and has since resided here. He married Mary E., daughter of Edwin E. Burnham, and has two children, Edwin B. and Burnett W.

The builders’ facilities in Willimantic for doing good work at low rates are unsurpassed by any of the towns or cities hereabouts. The oldest and best known shop is probably that of D. E. Potter, who has done a general building, paint and oil business, but of late years, has confined himself almost wholly to shop work.

George P. Spencer, proprietor of Spencer’s handy mineral soap, has his shop and residence here, and ships quantities of his soap over a large territory.

Messrs. Jillson & Palmer, the inventors, patentees and proprietors of Jillson & Palmer’s cotton opener, the best machine ever brought out for the purpose (so claimed), reside in Willimantic and manufacture their machines here.

The Edson & Calkins Quarry Company have a fine quarry and constantly employ a large force of men and teams. With the aid of all the latest appliances, such as steam drills, derricks and electrical batteries, they get out and ship great quantities of stone, which is finding a large and increasing sale, and by its hardness makes the best foundation and bridge piers which can be made.

The wholesale business of Willimantic is well taken care of. The flour, grain and feed trade is represented. by the house of Ansel Arnold & Co., Main street; E. A. Bugbee & Co., corner Valley and Jackson streets, and E. A. Buck & Co., Main street. The last named firm have a steam mill, located between the railroad track and Main street, where they can receive and ship grain and feed without the expense of teams. The wholesale grocery trade is represented. by Durkee, Stiles & Co., who do a very heavy business. Willimantic is a trade center for many towns and villages within a radius of 15 or 20 miles. The coal and building material interest is in the hands of the firms of Lincoln & Boss, Geo. K. Nason and Hillhouse & Taylor, and that prices are lower here than in any place in eastern Connecticut is proven by the large shipments of lumber and other building materials into Norwich, New London, Putnam and other large places.

The saw mill of Messrs. Hillhouse & Taylor has been in operation for several years, sawing from one to two million feet per annum. Their wood working shop employs sixteen to twenty hands and uses water power to the extent of about sixty-five horse-power. Their shop is located on Main street, and here they manufacture all kinds of. doors, sash,, blinds, mouldings and like materials used in the builder’s art.

Believing in the strength of union in a common cause the enterprising business men of Willimantic organized a Board of Trade in February, 1887. The meeting was held in Excelsior Hall, and at that time eighty-eight names had been signed to the roll of membership at an initial fee of three dollars each. The officers then elected were as follows: President, Ansel Arnold; vice presidents, F. M. Wilson, H. N. Wales; secretary, W. N. Potter; treasurer, F. F. Webb; directors, A. T. Fowler, H. C. Murray, John Hickey, Marshall Tilden, H. E. Remington, W. C. Jillson, A. M. Hatheway; committee on trade and manufacturing, Geo. K. Nason, chairman, W. G. Morrison, 0. H. K. Risley, G. W. Melony, H. C. Murray; committee on membership, G. H. Alford, J. G. Keigwin, Marshall Tilden, J. C. Lincoln, A. J. Bowen; committee on statistics, F. E. Beach, G. A. Conant, W. H. Latham, A. B. Adams, J. D. Jillson. A constitution and bylaws were adopted and the Board of Trade started off with a bright prospect of accomplishing some good, and the indications thus far harmonize with those prospective promises. The officers remain at the present time the same with very few exceptions.

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

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