Antebellum Industrial Willimantic: A Chronology
Jamie H. Eves
Windham Textile and History Museum
1706 Colonists constructed a sawmill and gristmill at Willimantic Falls in Windham, where the Willimantic River dropped 90 feet in just over a mile.
1822 Rhode Island businessman Perez “Perry” Richmond built a cotton mill just below the falls, where Recreation Park is now. It was “a small structure of wood some 35 x 65 feet, one and a half stories in height.” The factory neighborhood of Richmond Town (later known as Sodom and Wellesville) formed around the mill. The mill’s success stemmed from both the waterfall and its proximity to Providence, Rhode Island.
1822 Charles “Deacon” Lee opened a cotton mill a half-mile upriver at what is now Bridge Street. “With commendable energy and perseverance he built [a] dam flume and wheel pit and erected a three-story and attic stone mill, with 36 looms.” The factory neighborhood of Leesburg (later known as Smithville) formed around the mill.
1823 Mathew Watson and brothers Nathan and Arunah Tingley formed the Windham Manufacturing Company and opened a cotton mill a few hundred yards upriver from Lee’s mill. The factory neighborhood of Tingleyville formed around the mill.
1824 Dorchester, Massachusetts, businessmen and brothers Asa, William, and Seth Jillson came to the falls and built two small cotton mills on the north bank of the river just above Richmond Town, where the 1916 ATC concrete building now stands.
1824 Eighteen-year-old Origen Hall of Mansfield went to work for the Windham Manufacturing Company. He would remain until 1839. He would later (1840s and 1850s) own a mill of his own in Willington – the Willington Thread Company – which became the first American mill to finish thread with glaze, a process that Hall learned from his German employee, the engineer John Heck.
1825 The Windham Manufacturing Company employed 376 workers. Most of the men were full-time, while most of the women were part-time. Male weavers earned about $2.50 a week, and made a little less than $200 a year. Female workers earned about half of that. The Company often paid workers in produce such as rye whisky, rum, gin, brandy (6 cents a shot), geese (40 cents each), nails, sugar, cheese, wood, lard, flour, potatoes, mutton, apples, cabbages, cinnamon, and salt as well as cash. The Company owned a boardinghouse, and the boarders’ rents were deducted from their pay. The Company spent more than $1,400 for food for boarders, $340 for new looms, and $165 for a schoolhouse. The Company purchased most items from local merchants.
1827 “Deacon” Lee and partner Royal Jennings opened a dry goods store in a stone building – still standing at the corner of Main and Bridge streets – to serve the residents of Leesburg and Tingleyville.
1828 The Windham Manufacturing Company built a second, stone mill, 46 x 118 feet. It also built “a substantial stone dam across the [Willimantic] river,” along with a wooden bridge – Bridge Street.
1828 A Congregational church was erected on Main Street between Richmond Town and Leesburg. A time capsule placed in the church stated that more than 1,000 inhabitants lived near the falls, and that the Willimantic area, from Richmond Town to Tingleyville, now boasted “six cotton factories, six stores, three groceries, two shoe shops, one druggist, five blacksmiths, one millinery, two schools, two taverns and forty houses.”
1840 When Arunah Tingley retired to Providence, the Windham Company hired John Tracy as agent to manage its mills.
1842 The Windham Manufacturing Company’s agent, John Tracy, organized the Willimantic Savings Institute to “encourag[e] operatives to lay up their earnings and make solid investments.”
1845 The Windham Manufacturing Company expanded its mills, adding a 50 x 100 foot extension. It also built 62 brick tenements on 37 acres along the river, known as “Yellow Row.” It also opened a company store.
1845 Providence, Rhode Island, businessmen Amos and James Smith formed the Smithville Manufacturing Company and bought Lee’s mill. They hired Whiting Hayden, a prosperous local landowner, as agent.
1845 Forty-one-year-old Lawson Ives – born in Bristol, Connecticut, but recently of Hartford, where he manufactured woolen goods, sewing machines, and steel – and forty-year-old Austin Dunham – born in Mansfield but lately of Hartford, where he sold cotton goods – formed the Welles Manufacturing Company with William Jillson and John Capen and built a new cotton mill on the site of the Richmond mill. They also constructed some company housing.
1847 The Boston, Hartford, and Willimantic Railroad reached Willimantic. Irish laborers helped build it, and they “lived in shanties near the then dense pine woods on North Windham Road.”
1847 Facing a shortage of Yankee workers, the Windham Manufacturing Company’s agent John Tracy hired five Irish laborers from the railroad. More Irish workers followed, “like an army of grasshoppers. Shanties were set up wherever they could find a footing.” Irish culture appalled many of the Yankees, especially “hog killing time” and “blood puddin’.”
1846 The Smithville Company expanded its buildings.
1850 The Smithville Company employed 136 workers (81 females and 55 males), had 176 looms, and manufactured $85,000 of cloth.
1852 The Smithville Company again expanded its buildings.
1853 The Smithville Company constructed stone cottages as company housing.
1854 Lawson Ives and Austin Dunham, along with Elisha Johnson – Origen Hall’s partner in Willington – formed the Willimantic Linen Company and began manufacturing linen thread in Asa and Seth Jillson’s old stone mill, with a capital of $75,000. When linen proved unprofitable, they switched to manufacturing cotton thread, using the Heck technique to finish it.
1857 The Smithville Company again expanded its buildings. It was now the largest cotton mill in Connecticut.
1857 The Willimantic Linen Company (now manufacturing cotton thread rather than linen) constructed a new stone mill, the ATC Mill Number One. A new stone bridge replaced the old Iron Works Bridge across the Willimantic River.
1858 Austin Dunham bought out his partners Jillson and Capen and renamed the Welles Manufacturing Company the Dunham Manufacturing Company. He expanded the mill.
1861 The Dunham Manufacturing Company employed 44 hands and produced 352,000 yards of cotton warp.
1861-1865 The Civil War.
Sources: Thomas R. Beardsley, Willimantic Industry and Community: The Rise and Decline of a Connecticut Textile City (Willimantic: Windham Textile and History Museum, 1993), passim.