History

     This section of the website contains articles and other materials for researchers and visitors who want to learn more about the history of textiles, textile production, and textile mill communities in Connecticut, from the colonial era to the present.

     In the mid-1980s, life in Willimantic, Connecticut, changed forever. The American Thread Company, the community’s signature industry, closed its Willimantic Mills plant and moved operations to North Carolina. The closing was part of a larger trend: for decades, Connecticut’s textile mills — whose whirring spindles and thumping looms had for 150 years symbolized America’s Industrial Revolution — had been shutting down. Today, only one industrial textile mill — the American Woolen Company in Stafford Springs — remains in Connecticut.

     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 anda 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, it was to be a place where they could preserve, remember, and honor their industrial past. While western Connecticut had been dominated by the metals and precision machinery industries, 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, eastern Connecticut had formed the “cockpit of the American Industrial Revolution,” the industrial heartland of the new United States. By the 1880s the Willimantic Mills had become the largest thread factory, not just in Connecticut, but in the United States. For more than a century, Willimantic had boomed as America’s fabled Thread City. Its busy mills manufactured the thread in U. S. Army uniforms, NASA spacesuits, and major league baseballs. Its sprawling Mill No. 2 was the first factory in the world to be electrified, and its grand showplace Mill No. 4 — the first factory in the world to be designed specifically for electricity — was once the largest single-story building in the world. Willimantic was the home of the second shift and the coffee break. It was a history worth preserving.

     Second, the Museum was intended to become the cornerstone of a vibrant new Windham — a postindustrial community centered on arts, education, and culture. The hope was that, like a phoenix, a new Windham would rise from the ashes of the old.

     Follow the hyperlinks to read, see, hear, and discover the history of textiles, the textile industry, and textile communities in Connecticut.

Table of Contents / Menu

Part 1: Preindustrial Textile Production

     *America’s Best-Known Textile: The Star-Spangled Banner

Part 2: Swift Waters: The Industrial Environment

     *”Swift Waters” or “Cedar Swamp”: The Meaning of “Willimantic”

     *Preindustrial Mills: Exploring the Relics

     *The Early Industrial Ecosystem

     *Down Sodom: An Early Industrial Community

     *Transportation: Railroads and Highways

     *Population Growth … and Fires and Elm Trees

Part 3: The Din of Machines: Inside the Factories

Part 4: Captains of Industry: 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: The Lives of Mill Workers

     *Mills and Migrants

     *Yankee Mill Workers: the Decline of Agriculture

     *Yankee Mill Workers: Rural Communities

     *Life in the Boarding House

     *The Willimanytic Textile Strike of 1925

     *The Irish in Connecticut

     *The Puerto Rican Experience in Willimantic

     *Latino Migration to Willimantic

Part 6: Unraveled Threads: The Decline of Industry and the Postindustrial Transition

Part 7: Peoples of the Mill Towns: Individual Lives

     *People of Color

     *Abolitionists

     *Immigrants

Part 8: Historical Atlas of Windham, CT

Part 9: Murals of a Mill Town: Willimantic, CT Recreates Its History in Public Art

Part 10: Connecticut’s Cotton Connection: Mill Towns, Cotton Plantations, Slavery, and the Civil War

Part 11: Built to Last: The Buildings of the Mill Towns

     *Windham Town Hall

     *The Invasion of the Chain Stores

     *Capitol Theater

     *The South Park Street Plant

     *Preserving the Past: Repurposing Buildings from the Industrial Era

     *Endnotes

Part 12: Timelines

Part 13: Links

Part 14: Documents and Other Primary Sources

     *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