A HISTORY OF CONNECTICUT TEXTILES AND TEXTILE MILL TOWNS
Edited by Jamie H. Eves, Windham Town Historian
This section of the website contains dozens of articles and other materials for researchers and readers who want to go beyond the Mill Museum’s exhibits and programs for more in-depth learning about the history of textiles, textile production, and textile mill communities in Connecticut, from the colonial era to the present. Scroll down for a Table of Contents with hyperlinks. Our History section is constantly growing, so please come back frequently and see what is new!
In the mid-1980s, life in Willimantic, one of Connecticut’s many 19th-century mill communities, changed forever. The American Thread Company, the community’s signature industry, closed its last New England plant and consolidated operations in North Carolina. The closing was part of a larger trend: for decades, since the late 1800s, New England’s once ubiquitous textile mills — whose whirring spindles and thumping looms had for 150 years symbolized America’s Industrial Revolution — had been shutting down. Today, only one Connecticut textile mill — the American Woolen Company in Stafford Springs — remains of what were once dozens.
Yet, at the same time, something new was being born. Two of the eleven buildings of the old Willimantic Mills complex — the former company store and a 19th-century warehouse — became the Windham Textile and History Museum, also known as the Mill Museum.
The people Windham, CT and its former industrial borough of Willimantic founded the Museum for two reasons. First, the Museum was to be a place where Connecticutters and other New Englanders could preserve, remember, and honor their industrial past, to recall an era when Connecticut was a maker state, and New England was the cockpit of the American Industrial Revolution. While, in the 19th century, the western half of Connecticut had been dominated by the metals and precision-machine industries (making it the Silicon Valley of the 19th century), for 150 years eastern Connecticut had led the state in textile production. Indeed, combined with Rhode Island, eastern Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, and southwestern Maine, Connecticut had formed the industrial heartland of the United States. By the 1880s the Willimantic Mills had become the largest thread factory, not just in Connecticut, but in the United States, producing roughly 90% of the country’s cotton sewing-machine thread. Nearby Manchester, CT, was a silk manufacturing center; Rockville and Stafford Springs produced woolens; and mammoth factories in Norwich, Baltic, and elsewhere manufactured uncounted yards of woven cloth. For more than a century, Willimantic had boomed as America’s Thread City. Its busy mills manufactured the thread in U. S. Army uniforms, NASA spacesuits, General Motors seat belts, and major league baseballs. Its sprawling Mill No. 2 was the first factory in the world to be electrified, and in the 1880s its grand showplace Mill No. 4 — the first factory in the world designed specifically for electricity — was the largest single-story factory in the world. As a pioneer in electricity, Willimantic was the home of the second shift and the coffee break. The story of the Industrial Revolution in eastern Connecticut was a history worth preserving, and worth telling.
Second, the Museum was intended to become the cornerstone of a vibrant new Windham and Willimantic — a postindustrial community centered on arts, education, and culture. The hope was that, like a phoenix, a new Willimantic would rise from the ashes of the old.
At the same time, similar changes were occurring in the other former textile mill towns of eastern Connecticut: Norwich, Sprague, Plainfield, Killingly, Pomfret, Putnam, Mansfield, Willington, Vernon, Manchester, and others. The Industrial Revolution was passing into history. But it was a history that residents were determined not to forget.
Join us, then, for excursions into Connecticut textile history. Follow the hyperlinks below to read, see, hear, and discover the history of textiles, the textile industry, and textile communities.
Table of Contents / Menu
Part 1: Before the Industrial Revolution
- Making Textiles in Colonial Connecticut
- Tour of Atwood Farm, Including a Video Demonstration of Making Linen from Flax, Spinning Wool, and Weaving on a Barn Loom by Peggy Church. This video is on the website of Joshua’s Trust, which owns Atwood Farm, located in Mansfield, CT, only a few miles from the Mill Museum in Willimantic. This link has been added to the Mill Museum’s website with the permission of Joshua’s Trust.
- Preindustrial Mills in New England and New York
- Preindustrial Mills: Exploring the Relics
- America’s Best-Known Textile: The Star-Spangled Banner
Part 2: Swift Waters, Hot Steam, Electric Motors: The Coming of Industrialization
- The Industrial Environment in the Age of Waterpower
- “Swift Waters” or “Cedar Swamp”: The Meaning of “Willimantic”
- The Scene From Willimantic’s Blake Mountain: An Early Industrial Ecosystem
- “Down Sodom”: An Early Industrial Community Springs Up Along the Willimantic River
- Transportation: Railroads and Textile Mills in Connecticut, a History of Railroads in Willimantic, and Col. Albert A. Pope and Hiram Percy Maxim Introduce the Automobile to Connecticut
- Population Growth … and Fires and Elm Trees
Part 3: The Din of Machines: Inside the Mills
Part 4: Captains of Industry: Mill Owners and Managers
- Mill Owners, Mill Managers, and Other Entrepreneurs
- William Eliot Barrows: A 19th-Century Mill Manager
- The Jillsons: 19th-century Mill Owners
- Sewing Revolution: Mechanics, Entrepreneurs, and the Machine That Changed America
Part 5: The Sweat of Their Brows: Mill Workers
- The Lives of Mill Workers
- Mills and Migrants
- The Origins of Yankee Mill Workers: The Decline of New England Agriculture
- The Origins of Yankee Mill Workers: The Decline of Rural New England
- The Irish in Connecticut
- The Puerto Rican Experience in Willimantic
- Latino Migration to Willimantic
- Life in the Boarding House
- The American Thread Company Strike of 1925
Part 6: Unraveled Threads: The Decline of the Connecticut Textile Industry
Part 7: The Peoples of the Mill Towns: Individual Lives
Part 8: Mill Towns as Historical Places
- A Historical Atlas of Windham, CT
- Murals of a Mill Town: Willimantic, CT Recreates Its History in Public Art
- Connecticut’s Cotton Connection: Mill Towns, Cotton Plantations, Slavery, and the Civil War
- Built to Last: The Buildings of a Mill Town
Part 9: Timelines
Part 13: Links
Part 14: Primary Sources
- The Great Windham Frog Fight: The Battle of the Frogs, at Windham, 1758: With Various Accounts and Three of the Most Popular Ballads on the Subject, by William L. Weaver (Willimantic, CT: James Walden, 1857). An 1850s historian analyzes different version of Windham, CT’s folk tale.
- Voices of the Mills: Oral History Interviews with Mill Workers, Mill Managers, and Other Residents
- Loom and Spindle by Harriet Hanson Robinson, A Lowell Mill Girl
- A Builder’s Tale: Willimantic in 1850 by Lloyd Baldwin, A Carpenter and Contractor
- Girl Alone by Claire Meikle
- The Flight of the Cotton Fairies: A Fairy at School by Rose Terry Cooke
- Other Mill Town Documents