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Working Museums

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England as adjunct faculty at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University.

The Windham Textile and History Museum – a.k.a., the Mill Museum – is what I think of as a working museum, meaning that the staff and volunteers are continually engaged in doing actual history. The Museum accepts, preserves, and catalogs new artifacts. It engages in ongoing historical research. It frequently changes its exhibits. It is dynamic.

I got to see another kind of museum a few years ago when my wife Kit and I took an organized bus tour of seven national parks in and near the Rocky Mountains. Because interstate highways in the Rockies tend to run east-to-west, and not north-to-south, our bus spent a lot of time navigating back roads as we traveled from Glacier National Park in the North to the Grand Canyon in the South. The bus made frequent stops for food, gas, restrooms, and shopping. Among the many stops were several little museums in small towns. Typically, each of these museums had a gift shop staffed by elderly volunteers, restrooms, and an exhibit room featuring professional signage and artifacts of local history sealed inside hermetical glass cases. Occasionally, there was also a small theater with a professionally made film. There were no paid staff, no archives or collections department, and no changing exhibits. The museums had been created by federal grant funds, but they lacked the finances to operate as working museums. They were static, with exhibits frozen in time.

These static museums were disappointing. Kit and I noticed that our fellow travelers rarely bothered to explore the exhibits. Other than being neat and tidy, the exhibits did little to engage visitors. They attempted to tell a version of each town’s founding by settlers in the nineteenth century. The artifacts all looked the same. There was rarely any attempt to depict change over time. Instead the exhibits presented a “bipolar” history of then and now. Now was visible outside the museum. Then was inside. None of the volunteers were doing any kind of ongoing research. Exhibits never changed. History was presented as unchanging.

Working museums are the opposite of these static museums. They portray history as dynamic. Change over time is depicted as constant, with different eras blending into each other. A collections department continually seeks out new artifacts, and then builds new stories around the new acquisitions. Changing exhibits find new stories to tell. Staff and volunteers discuss and debate what happened in the past. Community members join in lively discussions. History is continually reinterpreted and represented, as new information comes to light.

Compared to static museums, working museums can appear noisy, chaotic, and sometimes messy. Sometimes new acquisitions pile up faster than the staff can catalog them. Exhibits rooms are in flux, as new artifacts are added to permanent exhibits (which are never really permanent), and as older changing exhibits are dismantled and replaced with new ones. There is bustle and excitement.

Working museums are not as neat and tidy as static museums. Here at the Mill Museum, volunteer curators constructed a changing exhibit that included an artificial crow. When they struck the exhibit weeks later, they forgot about the crow. It was a few months before a visitor noticed it and asked what it had to do with the current exhibit. In another example, visiting school children were given tufts of raw cotton; most kept their pieces of cotton, but others tossed them on the floor, and it would not be until later that day that volunteers had the time to pick them up.

Working museums share spaces. The staff has to explain to visitors that today they will be sharing the museum with seventy-five active third graders, that the exhibit they came miles to see has already been taken down (savvy museum goers known always to check the website for dates), or that the artifact they most want to see is currently in storage (although, if the volunteer collections manager is there that day, it can be pulled out for inspection). Working museums change their signage frequently, which increases the chances of stray typos. Guest speakers may say something controversial (which is kind of the point of having guest speakers), and attendees might find themselves face-to-face with people who disagree with them. Working museums serve both the local community and visitors from away, each encountering the others’ narratives in the same space. Folks taking lessons in the weaving classroom chat animatedly as they clack their looms. School children sitting in a circle excitedly (and noisily) speculate about what that rug beater might be (a common guess: a swatter for giant flies). Different languages are spoken. All the while, staid elders glide quietly from room to room, self-guided tour booklets in hand.

Working museums are not neat, tidy, quiet static museums. They are so much better.  

The Methodist Melee on Main Street

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England an adjunct instructor at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University.

Angry and despairing, in August 2017 I attended a rally in my town of Willimantic, CT, to protest the violence in Virginia, where a gang of Neo-Nazi thugs invaded the home of the University of Virginia, shouted white supremacist slogans, threatened those who disagreed with them, and murdered a counter-demonstrator. I am proud of the 700 or so folks from Willimantic and surrounding communities who stood together in Jillson Square Park and insisted that they would fight back. Several speakers pointed out that Willimantic, Connecticut, and the entire United Sates, too, have long histories of racism and racial violence, that we should not point fingers at Virginia, and that local as well as national conversations about these issues are needed. This is, of course, true. But history is complicated, and our history — our local history, Willimantic’s history — has produced both heroes and villains, homegrown white supremacists and principled resisters. We must condemn the former, but we should also praise the latter, for both speak to what we can be.

One of the resisters was Orrin Robinson of Willimantic, and this is his story, the story of what I call “the Methodist Melee on Main Street,” the story of how Robinson and the congregants of the Willimantic Methodist Church faced down a proslavery mob, of how they physically fought back in the dirt streets of the emerging Thread City, of how they defended freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, of how Robinson went to jail for his beliefs and became Willimantic’s — and Connecticut’s — very own Thoreau.

I found the story of Orrin Robinson and the Methodist Melee on Main Street in an 1895 article in the Willimantic Journal, a long-defunct newspaper. The article was one of a series written by Lloyd Baldwin, then an 85-year-old retired carpenter, builder, and contractor, about what Willimantic had been like in the years before the Civil War, when he had been a young man establishing himself in business. Baldwin moved from Norwich to Willimantic in 1828, as an apprentice carpenter hired to work on the construction of one of the Thread City’s new, big, granite textile mills, the Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company on Bridge Street. He stayed on to build scores of houses, churches, stores, theaters, and mills. Active in community affairs, he knew the vast majority of the city’s residents and was friends with most of them. Although himself an ardent Jacksonian Democrat – and thus presumably not inclined towards abolitionism – Baldwin nevertheless respected the integrity of his neighbor Orrin Robinson, an outspoken antislavery activist. Baldwin’s account of the Methodist Melee on Main Street is what historians call a primary source, a first-hand account of events by someone who lived through them. A secondary account of the Melee also exists, written by Allen Lincoln, a polished 19th-century local historian. Lincoln was too young to have any personal memories of the Melee, but he had heard the story from the old timers, probably including Baldwin himself. Lincoln wrote down what he had heard in 1892, as part of a (very long) oration on the history of Windham, CT, which he delivered at the town’s bicentennial.

As elsewhere in Connecticut in the 1830s, antebellum Willimantic and Windham (Willimantic is part of Windham) were sharply divided on the issue of slavery. Slavery had a long history in Connecticut. Africans had first been brought here to be slaves in 1639, only a few years after the earliest English colonists arrived. Of the first two non-Native Americans to settle in Windham, one was a slave owner, John Cates, and the other was his black slave, Joe. Slavery remained largely intact in Windham and Connecticut until 1784, shortly after the Revolution, when the state legislature provided for the gradual emancipation of Connecticut’s slaves, declaring that all slaves born after March 1 of that year were to be freed on their 25th birthdays. The process was agonizingly slow, however, and slavery did not completely end in Connecticut until 1848. As a result, most of the state’s antebellum Democrats and Whigs (the two major parties in the 1830s) remained ambivalent towards slavery, fearing that challenging it openly might create an irreparable breach between North and South, splinter their national parties, and result in secession or even civil war.

There were also economic reasons for Connecticutters to tolerate slavery in the South. Southern slaves planted, tended, and harvested most of the cotton that Willimantic’s (and Connecticut’s) textile mills manufactured into thread and cloth. Abolition might imperil local jobs and profits. And even those Northern whites who did favor abolishing slavery often shared the insidious prejudice against African Americans that characterized the era. As Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jennifer Frank of the Hartford Courant pointed out in their book, Complicity, white Connecticutters were as complicit in American slavery as anyone else in the United States. A lot of them were willing to tolerate it, just so long as it remained in the South, safely out of sight. Northern whites as a group did not have clean hands.

Still, there were some residents of antebellum Willimantic who openly challenged slavery — some because they feared competition from slave labor, some out of principle. Who was who is hard to tell. But among those in Willimantic who took a stand against slavery were the city’s Methodists, who had only recently organized a congregation and, in 1836, built a new church on Main Street. According to Lloyd Baldwin, in the spring of 1837, the Methodists invited “an abolition lecturer by the name of Phelps” to come speak at the new church. This was not the first time they had done so, and not everyone in town was happy about it. Allen Lincoln identified the speaker as Aaron Phelps, a well known Hartford abolitionist. According to Lincoln, it was the Methodist minister, Rev. Moses White, who had invited Phelps to speak to his Willimantic congregation on three different days. On the first day, all was quiet. On the second, an angry mob gathered outside the Methodist Church in noisy protest, and threw stones through the glass windows. On the third day, a larger mob gathered in advance at the nearby Congregational Church and then marched en masse to the Methodist Church, bent on violence. No sooner had the speaker commenced, than the mob — Baldwin called them “young hotheads, encouraged no doubt by older ones who should have known better” — entered the church and attempted to shut things down. The mob’s leader, Charles Schofield, Lincoln wrote, strode to the front of the Church, demanding that Phelps cease speaking, and threatening him if he didn’t. But to Schofield’s great surprise, the Methodists fought back. According to Baldwin, a “rough and tumble scrimmage” broke out between the two sides that soon spilled out onto Main Street.

Lincoln provided a few more details about what happened, but not all of them were correct, so we should take them with a bit of skepticism. According to Lincoln, “young Orrin Robinson, tall and strong,” stepped out of the congregation, grabbed Schofield by the arm, and marched him out of the Church. Robinson, however, was 46 at the time, hardly young — not as young as the “young hotheads,” anyway — and may not have been especially tall or strong, either. Baldwin wrote that it was the congregation as a whole that resisted.

I try to imagine the scene. Tough, angry, young men, possibly armed with clubs, loud and shouting, shoving open the doors of the church, threatening the speaker and the congregation. The congregation, unarmed, surprised, likely made up primarily of middle-aged and older men and women, as well as children, seemingly no match for the organized young toughs. The thugs probably expected the Methodists to back down. That they didn’t is amazing. I try to imagine these older, peaceable people, including Robinson, courageously standing up to the mob. It seems almost incredible. But they did.

Someone notified the Deputy Sheriff, who Baldwin said was James Webb and Lincoln said was Edward Clark, who hurriedly arrived with at least one constable – and likely more – to break up the fight. After restoring order, the Deputy chewed out the combatants (he presumably read them the riot act) and – probably to ensure that the two sides didn’t start fighting again after he left – arrested and fined 15 or 20 of the leaders on both sides.

All but one of those arrested sheepishly paid their fines and went home. However, standing on principle, Robinson, a “strong abolitionist,” refused and instead announced that he would go to jail. Again, I try to picture the scene, the angry, middle-aged farmer, incredulous that the authorities would arrest and fine him because he had defended his and Phelps’s right to free speech, free religion, and free assembly under the Constitution. I find myself wanting more details about Robinson and what he was thinking. But even close to two centuries later, I can feel his palpable anger and rising passion. I think I know exactly why he did what he did.

So Robinson and “Constable Hosmer” – who Lincoln said was William Hosmer, but also might have have been Stephen Hosmer, a prosperous farmer with extensive fields at the base of Hosmer Mountain, on the edge of the city, or Stephen’s son, John, a respected Main Street merchant – set off on foot, according to Lincoln, for Brooklyn, the Windham County seat and site of the county jail (the same jail, it turns out, that would later hold another Connecticut hero, Prudence Crandall). Apparently, Hosmer was reluctant to drag the stubborn old Methodist to jail – Willimantic was still a small community, barely more than a village, and the two families, Robinsons and Hosmers, would have known each other. So, as Baldwin wrote, “making an excuse that he had forgotten his papers, … [Hosmer] left Robinson in the road, supposing that would end it.” But Robinson had his gumption up, and he continued on towards Brooklyn on his own. Lincoln said he did so “cheerfully.” “Determinedly” might be a better adverb. Hosmer returned to Willimantic, picked up any paperwork that he may have left behind, and headed back towards Brooklyn. He overtook Robinson, still on his way to the county seat, accompanied him the rest of the way to Brooklyn, and “committed him to jail.” Again, I try to picture Robinson, perhaps sputtering and angry, perhaps “cheerful” as Lincoln said, taking himself to jail, now fighting not a proslavery mob, but his own government. But still not backing down.

Thus Orrin Robinson of Willimantic, Connecticut, dedicated abolitionist, middle-aged farmer, and devout Methodist, refused to pay a fine for the “crime” of defending an abolitionist speaker’s right to speak – and his own and his fellow abolitionists’ right to assemble and practice their religion the way they saw fit – against an angry proslavery mob. He also refused to take advantage of Hosmer’s implied offer to let him go home and forget the whole thing. Instead, he voluntarily went to jail, committing an act of antislavery civil disobedience more than a decade before Henry David Thoreau’s more celebrated night in Concord jail for the similar offense of refusing to pay his poll tax because it supported a war – the Mexican-American War of the 1840s – that Thoreau believed was fought to acquire new land for slavery.

I don’t know what happened to Robinson next — how long he stayed in jail, whether he finally backed down and paid his fine, how his neighbors greeted him when he finally got back to Willimantic. Sometimes, the historical record leaves out a lot of important stuff.

As for Phelps, according to Lincoln, he escaped Willimantic unharmed. In all the confusion, “Aunt ‘Rushy Robinson” tossed her cloak over him and quietly led him to safety in her home.

Why did Orrin Robinson become an anti-slavery activist? Why was he willing to go to jail for his beliefs? Why did he stand up to a mob? The historical record is silent about all of that. But here is a nugget that may — or may not — mean something. Old maps show that the Robinsons (they were a large extended family) were farmers, and their farms were located along Jackson Street in Willimantic at a time when most of the land along the street was still farmland. Jackson Street was named not for former President Andrew Jackson, but for humble Lyman Jackson, a tenant farmer who lived on it. Lyman Jackson and Orrin Robinson thus were close neighbors. They would have known each other well. And one more detail. Lyman Jackson, Orrin Robinson’s neighbor, was a free black man. There is not evidence enough to know anything else for sure. But it is suggestive.

I found Orrin Robinson’s weathered tombstone in the Old Willimantic Cemetery, not too far from Lyman Jackson’s. Both stones are modest, flat marble, with plain letters. Neither man was wealthy. Robinson died in 1864, before the end of the Civil War, which — legally, at least — decided the fate of slavery in the United States. But he did live long enough to witness the Emancipation Proclamation. In my imagination, I picture him smiling at that.

Our history in Willimantic is complicated, with white supremacist forebears who threatened to forcibly shut down an abolitionist speaker, and resisters who — for reasons we can only guess at today — staged a 19th-century version of a counter-demonstration. Maybe knowing someone personally, as a neighbor, was important, breaking down barriers. Maybe it wasn’t, and Orrin Robinson did what he did for reasons other than human decency. But when it comes to the Methodist Melee on Main Street, I know which side I am on. If the time ever comes when I have to make a stand, I hope that I have as much courage as Orrin Robinson.

I’ll give Allen Lincoln, the late 19th- and early 20th-century Willimantic local historian, the last word. Lincoln noted that folks in his own times, sixty years after the Melee and thirty years after the Civil War, had a lot to say about the bigotry of the old days. But it is the bigotry of our own times, he warned, that we all have to look out for.

My Experience with an Old Willimantic Building

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England as an adjunct instructor at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University.

My friend, Nicholas Khan, is working on an art graduate school project. He asked folks in Willimantic, CT, to write up their experiences with some of the city’s historic buildings. This is what I wrote.

MY EXPERIENCE WITH AN OLD WILLIMANTIC BUILDING

As the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum in Willimantic, CT, my job includes caring for the Museum’s main structure, built in 1877. The Willimantic Linen Company – a large cotton mill that specialized in various types of thread – constructed it as a three-story company store and library at the corner of what are now Union and Main Streets, then Willimantic’s two major thoroughfares. Local lore has it that the Superintendent of the Mill, William Elliot Barrows, decided to open a company store in order to compete with Willimantic’s many Main Street shops and stores, the owners of which dominated the City Council that had just raised the Mill’s taxes. As an added bonus, the previous structure on the lot (which was almost directly across the street from the Mill’s office building) had been a saloon, which Barrows – an ardent temperance advocate – was happy to demolish so as to no longer watch his employees head for drinks after work. The first floor of the new store — in essence, Willimantic’s first department store — was for groceries, the second floor was dry goods, and the third floor was a library. When the American Thread Company bought out the Willimantic Linen Company in 1898, it converted the first two floors into office space (the era of company stores having come to a close), but retained the library until 1940.

The Mill Museum today.

Although the building appears quaint and old-fashioned to today’s visitors, in 1877 it was ultra-modern. The Queen Anne-style architecture with faux Tudor beaming, gingerbread trim, and intricate brickwork on the first floor, were the latest style. The library had a high, pitched ceiling, with neo-gothic beaming, also in vogue in 1877. The ground story featured a poured concrete floor covered with linoleum – a new product at the time. The building had gas lights, and within a few years the Company installed steam heat and brass pneumatic tubes to connect with other buildings in the Mill complex. Two massive vaults protected both payrolls and the Company’s secret dye recipes.

The same building shortly after it was built in 1877.

Managing a 19th-century building poses challenges. Roofs leak. Heating and cooling systems stop heating and cooling. Ground water enters after every rainstorm. There is no insulation and the windows are very large, so heating bills are high. Floors slope. The brickwork needs repointing. And of course there is no elevator – heavy objects have to be carried up and down stairs. In the winter, pipes can freeze.

The third floor of what is now the Mill Museum was originally a library, as shown in this late 1800s photo.

The Museum is spookiest on dark, windy nights. The beams and windows creak. Lights flicker. Squirrels occasionally get into the rafters and scurry about. Keeping mice out in the winter is almost impossible, and they scritch and scratch as they prowl through the hollow walls. The building feels almost alive, creaking and shaking in rhythm to the passing city traffic – breathing in time with the pulse of the city, or perhaps beating as the city’s still living heart. Believers in ghosts are convinced the building is haunted, and the faithful have carried out numerous investigations. I have not yet met “Madeleine,” but I am told that she is here, watching over us, an ethereal – or imagined – link to the past, connecting the ages.

Despite the challenges, acting as steward for a historic building also provides a deep sense of satisfaction. The Museum is a public trust, an artifact from a bygone time, a relict of a golden age when Willimantic was thriving. As long as the building remains, some part of the city’s legacy still lives – some part which did not crumble into dust when the Mill left, but fought on, lived, and preserved the memories of a lively, pulsing mill city before it fell into the decline of deindustrialization, empty buildings, and urban decay. Repainted, re-roofed, kept in repair, and full of joyful people and activities, the venerable Mill Museum is evidence that life still courses through the city of Willimantic. It is, for me, the city’s beating heart, and being in it means touching life.

–Jamie H. Eves, Executive Director

Please Don’t Forget Me

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England as adjunct faculty at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University.

People often ask me why the Mill Museum does what it does, and the people who work here do what we do. Like school teachers, museum professionals work long hours for little pay. (And our volunteers don’t get paid at all!) So, a few years ago, I wrote this. It’s why I work here. No one should be forgotten.

Please don’t forget me.

I worked. I worked in the mills. I worked at home on hand looms and spinning wheels. I worked on the railroad. I was a laborer. I cleaned other people’s houses. I operated a sewing machine in a shop. I sewed by hand. I processed chickens, made capacitors, and wound cables. I worked….

I was Yankee, Irish, English, Scottish, French Canadian, Polish, German, Italian, Russian, Syrian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Guatemalan, Chinese, Indian, and many other ethnicities and cultures. I was Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim. I was a person….

I started working when I was 10 years old. I was a doffer, a spinner, a weaver, a carder, and a winder. I was an engineer, a dye master, a foreman, a machinist, and a manager. I worked in the print shop, machine shop, testing department, and box shop. I was a carpenter, a teamster, and a railroad hand. I worked at home. I was useful….

I worked eight, ten, and twelve hours a day. I lost fingers and hands in the machines. My lungs filled with fibers. My hearing was made faint by the noise of the machines. My eyesight dimmed. But I persevered….

I sent my children to school. I sent them to college. I wanted them to grow up to be foremen and managers. I wanted them to own stores, be police officers, fire fighters, teachers, bank clerks, farmers, and skilled workers. I wanted them to vote and hold office. I wanted them to have more than I had. I wanted them to be somebody….

I built the mills and mill towns of Connecticut.

Please don’t let them forget me.

–Jamie Eves

Mill Museum Blog

Blog posts by Jamie H. Eves, the Mill Museum’s Executive Director. A native of Maine, Eves moved to Connecticut with his wife and son in 1988 to complete a Ph.D. in History at the University of Connecticut. He began volunteering at the Mill Museum in 2005, and became the Museum’s Executive Director in 2011. Some of the content of this blog also appeared on the Mill Museum’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/WindhamTextileandHistoryMuseum/.

My Experience with an Old Willimantic Building

Please Don’t Forget Me