Part 6 of Built to Last: Reusing Industrial Age Buildings in a Postindustrial City: The Case of Willimantic, Connecticut

Jamie H. Eves

Preserving the Past: From Company Store to Museum

   The first stores in industrial Willimantic were not the small, narrow shops that lined Main Street and the various side streets. Rather, the first stores were company stores, owned and managed by the mills themselves to provide workers with groceries, dry goods, and other necessities. Early industrial Willimantic had at least three company stores, and perhaps more: the Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company store on the corner of Main and Bridge streets, the Smithville Manufacturing Company store on the opposite corner, and the Willimantic Linen Company store at the corner of Main and Union. The mills built company stores for three reasons. First, when the mills arrived in the 1820s, there were no other stores in the vicinity. Second, company stores allowed the mills to recapture some of the wages they paid their workers. Third, in at least one case, a mill created a company store as a lever to influence city politics.

   One of the treasures in the Windham Textile and History Museum’s archives is the 1829-30 ledger from the Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company’s company store. Measuring 16” x  6 3/4”, bound in brown leather, and containing 269 ruled pages, the ledger is written in faded ink. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone in the nineteenth century had elegant handwriting, and the ledger proves it: some of the entries are very difficult to make out. In addition, the bookkeeper did not separate debits from credits: purchases at the company store are intermingled with  payments made to suppliers. Furthermore, the Company seems to have run its mill profits through the store, as there are entries of several hundred dollars each made out to the mill’s owners, most likely profits on their way to deposit. The eclectic nature of the ledger makes it even more valuable as a source of history.

   Every customer who did business in the store was assigned a number. The numbers run through the 500s, which indicates a lot of customers. Many of the names listed in the ledger were employees of the mill, but some — Daniel Sessions is an example — were simply people who lived in the vicinity. Clearly, the store was the economic hub of the whole neighborhood, serving a diverse population.

   What did people buy at the Windham Company store? Pretty much everything that people bought in general stores in those days: school books, flour, molasses, spices, silk cloth, yarn, breeches, glass, sugar, snuff, tobacco, butter, hair combs, gingham, bed ticks,   buttons, fuel wood, crackers, ribbons, paper, tea, cheese, gloves, sheeting, calico, beef, rope, squashes, salt, cornmeal, soap, caps, oil, turnips, candles, shoes, potatoes, diapers, cedar pails, pork, coffee, mutton, rye, stockings, and brooms are all listed. The store purchased potatoes, onions, apples, wood, and pelts from local farmers, and sowed its own oats, probably as feed for the Company’s draft animals.

   The ledger reveals that rent in one of the Company’s tenements was $1.00 a week, or about $20 in today’s money. A schoolbook cost 38 cents, 25 pounds of flour cost $1, a gallon of molasses 38 cents,  1/4 pound of soap 16 cents, 3 pounds of butter 50 cents, a pound of sugar 13 cents, 7 pounds of cheese 21 cents, 10 1/2 pounds of beef 65 cents, and 1/4 pound of tobacco 6 cents.

   Wages, however, were even lower than prices. Although the ledger does not reveal the hourly or piece rates paid by the Company, payments in cash to workers (probably reflecting weekly take-home pay after rent was deducted) were generally $2.00 or less.

   By the end of the early industrial period and the beginning of the Gilded Age, most of the company stores in Willimantic had closed, put out of business by the dozens of  independent shops and stores that offered good prices and ready credit, but did not deduct debts from the workers’ pay envelopes. But in 1877, the city’s largest mill, the Willimantic Linen Company, opened its own company store, an imposing, two-story, Victorian edifice that was more akin to a department store. The big store was the brainchild of the mill’s general manager, William E. Barrows, a firm believer in industrial benevolence. During his time in Willimantic, Barrows would build a library for workers and their families (on the third floor of the company store), organize classes in literacy, institute coffee breaks, and erect a new mill village — the Oaks — comprised of attractive, free-standing, six-room Victorian cottages. But the purpose of the store was less to provide for his workers and more to exact revenge on the downtown merchants who controlled the borough council, which had just raised the Linen Company’s taxes to $345,000 a year. He wanted to build a giant store that would take business away from the merchants. 

   The Linen Company store was big. It had 17 clerks. The first floor sold meat, oysters, and groceries. The second floor had dry goods, boots and shoes, and clothing. In 1878 the store turned over $125,000 in sales. Barrows used the Linen Company’s immense buying power to purchase goods at bulk prices, and passed the savings along to his customers. But he also prohibited workers from paying in cash, requiring them to buy on credit using a system of order cards and pass books, a form of industrial paternalism. Workers resented the system, despite the good prices.

   Angry downtown merchants responded with a price war. Despite Barrows’s best efforts, the store lost money. In 1882, he was forced to cut inventory in half, close the dry goods department, and convert the millinery shop into office space. Barrows was pushed out of the Linen Company in 1883, and the store closed soon after. The company tried leasing it between 1885 and 1892, but it was just too big for the era, and no one could make a go of it. The era of company stores in Willimantic was over. The merchants had won. In 1893, the Company converted the first two floors into office space, although it maintained the third-floor library until the 1940s. It remained an office building even after the American Thread Company bought out the Linen Company in 1898, and until ATC left Willimantic in 1985.

   In 1986, the Eastern Connecticut Industrial Park Associates, headed by Jonathan Dugan, acquired the entire sprawling ATC mill complex, including the former company store. The next year, Dugan transferred the building to the Windham Textile and History Museum. Extensively renovated in the late 1980s, it remains the Museum’s headquarters, a culture and education center for postindustrial Willimantic. (28)