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Windham’s Second Century ­ Early Willimantic

By Allen Bennett Lincoln

Windham’s Bi-Centennial 1692-1892; A Memorial Volume of the Bi-Centennial Celebration of the Town of Windham, Connecticut, containing the historical addresses, poems, and a description of events connected with
the observance of the two hundreth anniversary of the incorporation of the town, as held in the year 1892." Published by the Committee, Hartford, CT, 1893

Windham’s Second Century ­ Early Willimantic:

With the loss of the county seat, attention centered at once upon the growing settlement at Willimantic as the hope of the town. The years 1822-1827 were big with prophetic events. As early as 1806 a machine for picking and carding sheep’s wool had been set up at “The Falls,” in the mills of Clark & Gay, to supplement the saw, grist and
paper mills, But Eli Whitney’s great invention marked a new era of manufacture, and Willimantic, in common with all the valleys of Eastern Connecticut, was soon attacked with the cotton fever. The rapid fall of the river,--about ninety-one feet between the Windham Company’s and the Shetucket Junction,--had given the place its early name and now proved a rare attraction to manufacturers.
First came from Providence in 1822 Perez O. Richmond, who with the financial aid of Solomon Loring, father of A. Dunbar Loring, built a little cotton spinning mill near the present site of the Linen Company’s No. 3. Then came the Jillson Bros., William from Rhode Island, and Asa and Seth from Dorchester, Mass., and built three mills, one now remaining, (the present spool shop), also the old Duck mill and another three-story structure, both of which stood next east of the spool shop, but were later removed for the Linen Company’s present structure. The
Jillsons built in 1825 the “old stone row” of tenement houses which used to stand along the north bank of the river about where the N.Y. & N.E.R.R.’s south spur track now runs. Tingley & Watson of Providence started the Windham Company’s mill at its present location in 1823, building the main mill, and the new east mill was built in 1828. Deacon Charles Lee of Windham had meanwhile started a little mill on the site of the present Smithville Company’s plant, and built the row of white tenement houses north of the mill on Main street, and in 1827 the stone
store and boarding house, still standing at the corner of Bridge and Main streets. But Deacon Lee’s enterprise never obtained a foothold, and not much was done at this site until the Smithville Company was organized in 1845, by Messrs. A.D. and J.Y. (afterwards Governor) Smith of Rhode Island, who put Whiting Hayden in charge and built up a prosperous industry. [Corrections & Additions in back of book stated: Deacon Charles Lee built only two of the houses of the present Smithville White row, Gen. L.E. Baldwin the others.]
The building of these mills in the early ‘20s was the one theme of conversation for years. Fabulous stories were told of the wealth of the men who could rear such stately structures! The employees of those days were of the native stock. Interesting recollections of the polling places of the early part of the century have come to hand. After the county seat was removed, the voting was done in the church at Windham Centre until the Townhouse was
built in 1835. Contention soon arose from Scotland on the one side and Willimantic on the other that it was not convenient to travel to Windham to vote. For a time, therefore, it was arranged that the voting should be done by turns, one year at Windham Green, the next at Scotland, the next at Willimantic, and so on. But of course this plan was still more unsatisfactory, especially for the extremes of Willimantic and Scotland, so the polling place was returned to Windham Center, and there remained until removed to Willimantic about 1862. The town records were removed about the same time, William Swift, son of Justin, and the leading merchant and citizen of later Windham Center and for many years town clerk, was succeeded by Allen Lincoln, one of the most active promoters of the rapid upbuilding of Willimantic after the war of ‘61-‘5, and who remained town clerk, 17 years. Scotland foresaw that Willimantic was destined to overshadow Windham Center, and not wishing to go so far for her public conveniences, began to agitate for separation, and in 1857 became a separate town in all but probate privileges, for which latter she still looks to Willimantic.
The building of so many dams across the river ended the days of shad fishing. This had been a popular pastime for the old Windhamites in the first century of the town, and was the first attraction to the vicinity of “The Falls.” Not a few enterprising fishermen used to catch shad from the Willimantic and take them to New Haven when the legislature was in session, and sell them for fifty cents a pound. Fish stories of the first magnitude have come down to us from those old days, but I will eschew fiction and mention only one fact, which proves that handsome shad were caught in the Willimantic as late as 1830. Robert Brown, the veteran real estate agent, tells me that he recalls sitting under an old tree in front of ‘Squire Howes’s blacksmith shop near the “Iron Works bridge,” one morning in June, 1830, while his father went to the river with three other men, at a point near the end of the present No. 2 mill, to seine for shad; and in a short time they drew the net and caught thirty-one shad, weighing from three to five pounds each. They hauled frequently during the rest of the morning, but got only one more, and at noon they divided, eight shad each, and went home. Robert recalls that his father had some fresh-made butter in a pail to deliver at the store, and it was left standing in the sun during the fishing trip, to its great disadvantage, and his father got a sharp talking to when he got home; which incident is mentioned to show that men and women were much the same in those days as now. When the great dam at Greeneville, near Norwich, was constructed, the
builders agreed to place a certain number of shad above the dam each year, so as to keep the Shetucket and upper rivers supplied; but it appears that they used to comply with the letter of the law by placing the shad in a fish preserve above the dam, and then placing them in market for sale; and so the shad disappeared from the Willimantic by the greed of short-sighted speculators.
One of the most interesting recollections of early Willimantic appertains to the building of the upper bridge leading from the Columbia road to the Windham Co.’s mills. About 1830, Stephen Hosmer lived in the large white house still standing at the foot of Hosmer mountain, next east of the old Card road. He owned 500 acres or more of land, with a toll gate at either end, one on Post hill in Columbia and the other standing at the northwest side of what is now the junction of Bridge and Pleasant sts., and where the foundation remains of the old red tollgate house, only lately torn down, may still be seen. It used to cost six cents for a single toll when on business, but one could pass free to mill or to meeting; while for $1 a year, free passage at all times was allowed. The building of the Windham Company’s settlement and Deacon Lee’s plant made quite a village in that section and a demand arose for a bridge to reach it from Lebanon and Columbia without going away down around by the Iron Works Bridge. The fight for that bridge was a vigorous one. The town did not want to bear the expense. Appeal to the courts was taken and a special commission, after vigorous hearings, ordered the bridge. It was a wooden structure of course, and it was not
until 1868 that the present substantial stone arch was built by Lyman Jordan. The lower stone arch, by the way, was also built by Lyman Jordan and Norman Melony, in 1857. The story goes that Lebanon was a little longer-headed than Windham when she surrendered her shad-fishing privileges in return for being released from Windham, thereby escaping her share of the expense for building the many bridges that stage-coach development and the growth of manufactures demanded.

Many stories are told of the wealth that might have been this one’s or that one’s if he had only held the land in Willimantic now covered by costly buildings, but it is to be considered that had the land been held the buildings would not have appeared! But some did hold land to great advantage in early Willimantic. One of the best illustrations is the case of Jesse Spafford, who, shortly before 1820 and the appearance of the factories, was settling an estate, and he set off to one of the heirs, as equivalent to $100 in value, a strip of unoccupied land
stretching alongside the Willimantic river and south of the turnpike (now Main street) from about opposite the Hooker house to E.A. Buck’s present steam mill. The heir in question grumbled at the allotment and Spafford offered him his choice of the land, or $100 in cash, Spafford to take the land. The short-sighted heir seized the cash and Spafford took the land. Shortly afterwards came the factories, then the railroads, with the depot located on the Spafford tract. General L.E. Baldwin bought of Spafford the Franklin hall site, paying $600 for that alone. Spafford died worth about $40,000, practically all the outgrowth of his $100 tract.

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