Comstock, Cheney and Company was organized by Samuel M. Comstock and George A. Cheney in 1860. By this time both Comstock and Cheney had significant experience in the ivory cutting trade. During the 1830s Comstock worked for his older brother’s ivory products firm, known Joseph A. Comstock and Company, in Saybrook, and then in 1838 he partnered with Edwin Griswold to form another ivory processing mill, the Comstock and Griswold Company, in the Centerbrook village of Essex. In 1848, Comstock took sole control of this company and the newly-organized firm, S.M. Comstock and Company, was moved to what is now Ivoryton. Cheney, on the other hand, spent over a decade working as an ivory purchasing agent on the African island of Zanzibar and was a principle in the notable New York-based ivory importing firm Arnold, Cheney and Company.
Like Comstock’s earlier ventures, Comstock, Cheney manufactured a variety of ivory goods including combs, toothpicks, and piano keys. The company was incorporated in 1872, and in 1873, a second plant was erected roughly one-third of a mile west of the original Main Street plant. The new (upper) mill was equipped for the manufacture of piano keyboards and actions, while the lower mill and the numerous bleach houses that surrounded it were devoted to ivory curing, cutting, sorting, matching, and finishing. The average adult African elephant tusk weighs 75 pounds, from which Comstock, Cheney could produce the thin ivory veneers for the keys of 45 pianos. Between 1891 and 1903 the firm processed 1.25 million pounds of ivory.
Comstock, Cheney soon added additional ivory products to its catalog. These included billiard balls, dominoes, spatulas, letter openers, toiletries, and various ornamental goods. As the operation grew the upper plant was continually expanded. The company’s workforce soon numbered in the hundreds and the firm moved to build a village of employee tenements, a company store, meeting hall, and grammar school.
The early 1900s, however, soon presented new challenges for the company. Sales of pianos peaked in the United States in 1910, and the onset of the Great Depression struck a hard blow for all manufacturers of luxury goods. In 1936, Comstock, Cheney merged with local rival Pratt, Read and Company (which had origins in Deep River dating back to 1816) in an effort to maximize efficiencies and streamline costs. The combined firm was organized as Pratt, Read and Company, Inc., however, by 1938, all manufacturing had been consolidated in the upper Ivoryton plant (the lower mill was sold to the Ernst Bischoff Company, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, in 1937). World War Two found a new use for both the Ivoryton and idle Deep River plant as both were retooled to manufacture gliders for the United States Army. The Deep River plant was sold at the conclusion of the war.
Pratt, Read and Company expanded and modernized its Ivoryton plant during the late 1940s and early 1950s in an effort to remain competitive in the changing landscape of piano production. While the firm briefly manufactured helicopter blades for the Bloomfield-based Kaman Corporation during the Korean War, after the ivory trade was banned during the 1950s the company ventured into the new field of plastics. While continuing to produce piano hardware and keyboards for electric organs, Pratt, Read and Company also aggressively acquired a variety of firms through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in an effort to diversify. By the 1980s, however, the overall decline of the American piano market forced what was by then known as the Pratt, Read Corporation to close the Ivoryton plant.
Roughly sixteen (16) adjoining primary blocks.
ca. 1900, ca. 1905, ca. 1920, 1948-1957.
The former Comstock, Cheney and Company Upper Mill is comprised of approximately sixteen primary adjoining blocks located on the south side of Main Street immediately east of Cheney Street. The complex stands on the north bank of the Falls River and remnants of a mill pond are located 800’ west of the factory. The mill was established in 1873 and enlarged throughout the late-19th century, however, these wood-frame blocks were removed during the mid-20th century. The oldest surviving block is the plant’s engine room, which was erected ca. 1900. This is a one-story, 138’ x 81’ red brick block with later concrete block walls on its north (front) elevation, a mix of flat and gable roofs, and a 100’-tall round red brick chimney. A two-story, 50’ x 48’ red brick generation plant was erected adjoining the east side of the engine room ca. 1920. This has tall, segmental-arched window openings with concrete sills, multi-pane metal sash with hopper-style openings, a corbelled brick cornice, brick parapet, and a flat roof.
Several notable blocks were erected west of the engine room ca. 1905. These are all of red brick construction and include a five-story, 84’ x 58’ manufacturing block; a three-story, 46’ x 138’ manufacturing block; a three-story, 28’ x 40’ shipping building; and a seven-story, 25’ x 16’ stair and water tower. These share similar details including segmental-arched windows openings with stone sills, double-hung wood windows (generally either eight-over-twelve or paired six-over-six arrangements), and low-pitch gable roofs with exposed rafter tails. The upper story of the tower has stone belt courses, a molded stone cornice, and a pyramidal roof. Large, clockfaces are centered on all four elevations.
Except for a one-story, 40’ x 75’ red brick garage built at the southwest corner of the plant ca. 1920, the remainder of the complex was largely built as part of a modernization effort between 1948 and 1957. Of particular note are four large manufacturing blocks erected on the south side of the mill along the Falls River. These are all two-stories in height and are of steel-frame construction with red brick curtain walls, multi-pane metal sash, and low-pitch round-arched roofs. From west to east they measure roughly 92’ x 322’, 94’ x 158’, 62’ x 185’, and 60’ x 184’, respectively. Three more conventional red brick buildings were built at the northeast corner of the plant in this same period. These are one-story in height and have rectangular window openings with concrete trim, multi-pane metal sash (many in ribbon arrangements), and flat roofs. From east to west they measure approximately 75’ x 130’, 122’ x 50’, and 75’ x 46’, respectively.
The complex is in overall fair condition. The exterior walls of several of the older buildings are in need of some repairs, however, the majority of the plant appears well maintained. Many of the original windows (both wood and metal) throughout the complex have been retained. A number are in need of maintenance or repairs
One legal parcel (158 Main Street) totaling 18.47 acres located on the south side of Main Street immediately east of Cheney Street, and on the north side of the Falls River.
Located in Ivoryton Historic District (2013). https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/pdfs/13000895.pdf