Mills and Migrants

Jamie H. Eves


This tombstone in the Old Willimantic Cemetery in Willimantic, CT, is evidence of the great migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries that brought workers from all over the world to labor in eastern Connecticut’s textile mills. The lettering on the stone is from the Russian alphabet.

As the new textile mills sprang up along the rivers of eastern Connecticut after 1820, thousands of workers – men, women, and even children – arrived to labor in them. Some came from foreign shores, while others were native born. But all were migrants, responding to a combination of push and pull – pushed out of their old homes by economic decline, overcrowding, crop failures, or political repression, and pulled to the mill towns by jobs and the promise of better lives.

The first migrants to come to the mills were native-born, rural Yankees. They were either poor, landless farm families, or the teenage children (mostly daughters) of middling Connecticut farmers. By the 1820s, most of Connecticut’s rural communities were overcrowded, with population densities reaching 60 people per square mile. Land became scarce, and even middling farmers had trouble providing for all their children. The surplus population had little choice but either to migrate to the frontier or move to the mill towns looking for work. Yankees continued this rural-to-urban migration throughout the 1820-1980 industrial era.

Because rural Yankees had little or no experience with industry, from the beginning the mills also imported experienced and highly skilled workers – engineers, machinists, foremen, and fixers – from mill towns in England and Scotland, where the Industrial Revolution was already underway. Relatively well paid, these British migrants provided the expertise and know-how needed get the mills up and running and to train the Yankee workforce. They continued their urban-to-urban migration throughout the 1800s and early 1900s.

In the 1840s and 1850s, large numbers of poor, rural Irish joined the Yankees and British in the mills. Pushed out of Ireland by the devastating potato famine, destitute Irish farmers were pulled to eastern Connecticut by the prospect of new lives in America. Like the Yankees, theirs was a rural-to-urban migration. Although many initially worked on the railroads, once the tracks were laid they moved into the mills as poorly paid unskilled and semi-skilled labor. Like the Yankees and British, they continued to come to Connecticut throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. But while most of the Yankees and British were Protestant, the Irish were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and their arrival added to the religious diversity of eastern Connecticut. Not all of the Yankees and British welcomed their coming.

From the 1870s, following the Civil War, to the early 1920s, numerous other groups came to work in the mills. Dubbed the new immigrants by historians, these newcomers came mostly from Europe, French Canada, and the Middle East. Roman Catholic French Canadians escaping the grinding poverty of rural Quebec were by far the most numerous of the new immigrants, but there were also substantial numbers of rural Poles, urban Swedes, Italians, Lebanese, Eastern European Jews who spoke Yiddish as their primary language, Germans, Greeks, and Russians, with smaller numbers of Slovaks, Hungarians, Finns, French, Arabs, Dutch, Belgians, Latin Americans, and Asians. According to the United States Census, in 1910 twenty-nine percent of Windham residents – 3,702 out of 12,604 – were foreign-born, and 26 different nationalities lived in town. If the children of immigrants are also counted, approximately half of the people in Windham were either immigrants or children of immigrants

Symbolic of all of the immigrant groups who came to work in eastern Connecticut’s textile mills are the diverse churches of the region. This early 20th-century postcard shows St. Mary’s Church in Willimantic. Willimantic has three Roman Catholic churches. St. Mary’s attracted French Canadians. St. Joseph’s attracted the Irish, Polish, and Italian immigrants. Sacred Heart was primarily for Latinos. In addition, Willimantic has a Ukrainian Catholic Church, a Latvian Lutheran Church, an Ebenezer Lutheran Church (Swedish), a Congregational Church, two Baptist churches, several Pentecostal churches, a synagoge, a Greek Orthodox Church, and several others. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Willimantic, CT, from an early 20th-century postcard. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

The “new immigrants” were a diverse mixture of peoples. Some, like the French Canadians and Poles, were primarily rural in background. Others, like the Swedes, Eastern European Jews, and Germans were mostly urban. Some, like the French Canadians and Italians, came fleeing grinding poverty. Others, like the Jews and Lebanese, were fleeing oppressive governments. They spoke many different languages, and practiced many different religious faiths. Some were well educated, while others were not – although about 87% of the European immigrants to America from 1870 to 1920 could read and write in at least some language. Some, like the Jews, planned to stay. Others – most notably the Italians and French Canadians – sometimes intended to return to their homelands.

Immigration from Europe and Asia slowed after the early 1920s, when Congress passed the restrictive National Origins Quota Act, which severely limited the numbers of new immigrants allowed into the country. But the act did not apply to people coming from countries in the Western Hemisphere, such as Canada or the countries of Latin America. And, of course, it also did not apply to U. S. citizens, such as Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, and people from other states.

After World War II, in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, large numbers of DP’s (Displaced Persons, or war refugees from Europe), Puerto Ricans, African Americans from the South, and northern New Englanders came to Willimantic looking for work. Like others before them, many of the Puerto Ricans who came to Willimantic were recruited by the mills, which had employment offices in San Juan. Their experiences mirrored those of earlier migrants: they sought jobs and the opportunity for a better life, they maintained strong ties to their homeland, the brought their language, customs, and religious traditions with them, and they faced discrimination as the “newest” arrivals. But the mills were closing, and by the 1980s most of them were gone. The industrial era came to an end, and although migrants from many places still came to Willimantic, it was no longer to find jobs in the mills.

Sociologists use the term ethnic salience to denote aspects of a community that make its ethnic origins obvious or apparent. In eastern Connecticut, ethnic salience is perhaps best represented by the city’s numerous ethnic churches.

From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

By the early 20th century, children of “new” immigrants appeared among the names of high school graduates. Delia Lyon graduated from Windham High School. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.