Dickinson's 'Witch Hazel' Will No Longer Be Manufactured in Essex

From Essex Events, Spring 1997

    "The recent announcement that Dickinson's Witch Hazel will no longer be manufactured in Essex brings to a close a significant epoch in the lower valley.  The Dickinson Company has been synonymous with Essex for almost 130 years.  Operations will be combined with another concern in East Hampton, Connecticut.
    "The first production of witch hazel locally was in 1846 by druggist and chemist Alvan Whittemore.  It was named "Hawes Extract" (after Charles Hawes, an Indian Missionary, who first really explored the effects of this medicinal product) or "Golden Treasure" at different times.
    "He shortly went into business with Charles Champlin, the son of the locally famous mariner/financier Henry Champlin and equally well known wife Amelia Prudence Hayden Champlin.
    "They manufactured this product in a building that still stands on the east side of Prospect Street.  This structure later became the Essex Town Hall, and is immediately south of the Essex Fire Department.
    "This partnership was dissolved in 1866, and Reverend T. N. Dickinson, in partnership with Lyman Pratt, took over.  Reverend Dickinson had been exposed to the production of witch hazel, for a small shop in which he had produced "shoddy," across from the current Copper Beech Inn, had been converted to witch hazel production by Nehemiah Hayden.  By 1870, Reverend Dickinson was alone in the production of witch hazel.
    "About this time, he purchased land and a general store at the corner of North Main and Little Point Streets, which subsequently became the location of the company's office buildings (there were three).

    *****Formula Was A Family Secret*****

    "Reverend Dickinson successfully coordinated the cutting and distilling of the witch hazel bush (Hamamelis Virginiana), to which was added a 14% solution of alcohol.  This formula remained a Dickinson family secret during their control of the company.  He centralized production in Essex and by his death in 1900, had made it the "center of the world," as far as witch hazel was concerned.
    "Between 1898 and 1902, the storage (and bottling) building was built by the railroad depot in Centerbrook, and the brick factory on the other side of the tracks was purchased.  His son, E. E. Dickinson, Sr., succeeded him, and was responsible for the huge growth of the company.  By 1914, there were more than 6,000 barrels of witch hazel stored in Essex.  This was at the beginning of the "Golden Age" of the product, and the expansion of the real estate holdings of Mr. Dickinson reflected this fact.
    "In the 1920s, a new office building on North Main Street, that currently houses the A. G. Edwards Co., was built, and the famous Dickinson homestead was redesigned and rebuilt into the structure that is visible today on the corner of North Main and Dickinson Lane.  In fact, all the property from Bushnell Street north to two houses past the Riverview Cemetery was owned by this family.  The old 1753 "West Indies" warehouse at the foot of Main Street was demolished for a new Dickinson boathouse.  This is the brown stained building in front of the Dauntless Club.
    "A final addition was put on the brick factory in Centerbrook which produced the witch hazel in 1929.  The finished product was conveyed to the bottling plant on the south side of the tracks by underground piping.  The E. E. Dickinson Company was very self sufficient, maintaining a complete machine shop, and even made the wooden barrels it used when shipping the witch hazel in "bulk."  Overall, the E. E. Dickinson Company had assumed a commanding local presence.
    "E. E. Dickinson, Jr. was the next family entrepreneur, and was followed in turn by his son, E. E. Dickinson, III, who died in 1979.  One of the more interesting local sights after World War II was Mr. Dickinson driving his 1946 green Lincoln Continental convertible.  It was said to be one of only three produced that year.  In the 1980s, M. K. Laboratories purchased the company from remaining family members."