Introduction: The Rise and Fall of Connecticut’s Textile Industry
Edited by Jamie H. Eves
Windham Textile & History Museum
In 1985, life in Willimantic, Connecticut – and in the other old industrial cities and towns of southern New England – changed forever. The American Thread Company, the city’s signature industry, closed its Willimantic Mills plant and shifted operations to North Carolina and later Mexico.
American Thread Co. and Carey Hill, c 1960
The closing exemplified a larger trend. Beginning in the 1960s, one by one, almost all of the giant New England textile mills that once had provided jobs for tens of thousands of workers had generated billions of dollars in sales closed their doors. For more than 150 years, the textile industry’s whirring spindles and thumping looms had symbolized Willimantic’s and New England’s industrial prominence. Now, almost all of them are gone. A way of life has vanished forever.
The Windham Textile and History Museum (also known as the Mill Museum of Connecticut) tells and preserves the history of the rise and fall of the textile industry in Willimantic and the rest of eastern Connecticut. (Although textile mills operated in the western part of Connecticut as well as the eastern, for the most part manufacturing in eastern Connecticut centered on textiles, while the western half focused more on making precision machines and tools like Colt six-shooters, Sharps rifles, Wheeler and Wilson sewing machines, Stanley tools, Columbia bicycles, Pope automobiles, and Seth Thomas clocks.)
The museum occupies the former headquarters of the American Thread Company’s once giant Willimantic Mills. Founded in 1854 as the Willimantic Linen Company, at its height in the early 20th century the Willimantic Mills was the largest factory in Connecticut and the largest thread mill in North America. It sprawled through nine separate factory buildings, two office buildings, a barn, three warehouses, and dozens of company-owned worker houses, which were arranged in three distinct worker villages, Iverton, the Oaks, and Carey Hill. It employed 3,500 workers. It was the first factory to install electric lights, and consequently the first to operate a second shift. It was the first factory to give its workers coffee breaks. Its massive buildings included the iconic Mill Number Four, the prototype of the modern factory building and at one time the largest one-story building in the world. The company manufactured the first thread specifically designed for sewing machines, and the thread in U. S. army uniforms, NASA spacesuits, and major league baseballs. The city of Willimantic – located along the Willimantic River in the town and county of Windham in northeastern Connecticut – boomed as America’s fabled Thread City.
Similar stories played out all across eastern Connecticut. In the early 1800s, entrepreneurs founded scores of textile mills in such places as Willimantic, Norwich, Taftville, Occum, Baltic, Jewett City, Plainfield, Moosup, Wauregan, Danielson, Pomfret, Putnam, Stafford Springs, Manchester, Mansfield, Coventry, North Windham, and other locations. For a century and a half, the mills thrived. Tens of thousands of people came from around the world to work in the mills, and to raise their families in the hills of New England. Urban life flourished. Connecticut modernized and industrialized. Technology, science, and education flowered. Then, in the late twentieth century, one by one, most of the mills closed. It is this story — the history of the rise, achievements, and eventual decline of the Connecticut textile industry and the people who made it — that the Windham Textile and History Museum — and this web site — tells.
What’s NEW in History?
The following pages have been recently added or updated. Check them out and see what is NEW!
Peoples of the Mill Towns: People of Color. Click HERE to read in-depth biographies of people of color who helped build Connecticut mill towns. We are continuing to add biographies to this page. Right now, it features Lyman Jackson, an early 19th-century cabinet maker, and his wife Clarissa Jackson, who lived in Willimantic, and Caesar Hall, a Civil War soldier and member of the 29th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry (Colored) from Hampton. NEW!
Voices of the Mills: Oral History Interviews with Mill Workers, Mill Managers, and Other Residents of Connecticut Mill Towns. We are digitizing our collection of oral history interviews and putting them HERE for you to hear. We will continue to add to this page. Audio. NEW!
What the Jillsons Ate. Click HERE to join us at the William Jillson House in Willimantic, CT, to learn what an early 19th-century textile mill owner’s family was having for dinner. Video. NEW!
Historical Atlas of Windham, Connecticut. Click HERE for the history of Windham, CT, told in maps. We are still adding content to this page, so keep checking back. NEW!
Murals of a Mill Town. As Willimantic, CT, metamorphosed from an industrial center to a postindustrial community in the late 20th and 21st centuries, various artists captured the transformation in public murals. Click HERE for a tour of Willimantic’s murals. NEW!
Connecticut’s Cotton Connection. Click HERE to learn about the impact of King Cotton on early 19th-century Connecticut. What was Connecticut’s connection to slavery, abolitionism, and the Civil War? NEW!
Sewing Revolution: The Machine That Changed the World. Click HERE for an illustrated history of sewing machines in 19th-century Connecticut. UPDATED!
A Builder’s Tale. Click HERE to read a 19th-century document. In the 1890s, near the end of his life, builder Lloyd Baldwin took readers on a newspaper tour of what Willimantic, CT, was like in 1850. NEW!
Willimantic Rails, Yesterday and Today. Click HERE to watch an illustrated talk by railroad historian Pieter Roos, when he visited the Mill Museum and described the history of railroads in a Connecticut mill town. NEW!
Built to Last: Reusing Industrial Age Buildings in a Postindustrial City. Click HERE to learn about how industrial age buildings have been repurposed in a former Connecticut mill town. NEW!
Latino Migration to Willimantic. Click HERE to watch four videos that tell the history of Latino migration to Willimantic, CT, from 1955 to the present. NEW!
The Irish in Connecticut. Click HERE for a musical history lesson on the Irish experience in Connecticut. Filmed at the Mill Museum when State Historian Walter Woodward and the Band of Steady Habits paid us a visit. Video. NEW!
To reach individual articles and pages in the History section of this website, either use the drop down menu at the top of this page, or follow these links.
Take a tour of the Mill Museum!
Haga un recorrido por el Museo de Molino!