Mill Communities

While the town green and its surrounding churches, civic buildings and houses is a widely known symbol of agrarian life in Connecticut, the mill village speaks to the transformations that resulted from industrialization in the 19th century. Mill villages were economic and social communities unto their own, where workers and their families lived, labored, shopped and worshiped.

Over 150 surviving worker housing developments built by or for manufacturers have been identified and located. In some cases, only a few residential buildings remain; in other cases, entire neighborhoods retain historic fabric from decades of mill operation. In several instances, housing is all that remains of a mill community where the factory itself has been demolished. Sometimes historic company housing is adjacent to mills which themselves have been converted to residential use.

As you travel through Connecticut’s towns, be on the look-out for rows or clusters of 19th century houses, typically repetitive in form, near a mill or former mill site. They are artifacts of mill village life circumscribed by long days of labor in the name of production.Masonville c1826Tariffville c1840Baltic c1857Willington c1872CT Gables 1917Bantam 1942 

Early Mill Villages

Colonial mills provided basic needs such as grain, lumber, cider, and small-scale ironworking, usually serving and operated by members of the local community. As the economy developed and manufacturing expanded in the 19th century, local manpower alone often was not sufficient. Mills were erected along rivers and streams to harness water power and were often far from established town centers and available labor. By the beginning of the 19th century, mill owners began constructing manufacturing villages that included not only the mill but housing to attract workers. These were typically small, as the average workforce was no more than twenty men, frequently fewer, though they might be built up over the decades as production expanded.

In Hamden, Eli Whitney (1765-1825) began to manufacture guns in 1798 at his armory on the aptly-named Mill River, and soon thereafter started to provide housing for his skilled work force (only the 1827 boarding house at 940 Whitney Avenue survives and houses the offices of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation). David Humphreys (1752-1818), soldier, politician and gentleman farmer, raised sheep for wool and in 1806 erected a mill on the Naugatuck River in present day Seymour, as well as worker dwellings; it is thought to be the earliest planned factory village in Connecticut, though no buildings remain.  In 1825, the Tariff Manufacturing Company built a carpet mill and more than twenty multi-family residences for its workers in Simsbury; many of these survive in Tariffville today, along with c.1840 Greek Revival manager’s cottages (the current mill dates to 1867).

The largely intact village of Collinsville was established in 1826 by Samuel Collins (1802-1870) whose Collins Company built not only a mill on the Farmington River to manufacture axes and machetes but, beginning in 1827, houses and tenements for workers recruited to meet product demand. The company also built a church and hotel, provided utilities and fire protection, and fostered temperance in the community. At the same time, in 1827, the Masonville Company built a stone factory across the state in Thompson to produce cotton sheeting, along with a row of stone houses to accommodate the workers. Mill and housing still stand along Riverside Drive in what is now called Grosvenordale. The manufacture of cotton cloth in Brooklyn started in 1820, and between 1827 and 1830 the first of several generations of housing for workers was erected by what later became the Quinebaug Company; while the main mill and early buildings are gone, several generations of 19th-century multi-family tenements survive.

Nineteenth Century Industrial Growth Requires More Labor

After the 1840s, rail lines provided easier access to both raw material sources and markets beyond Connecticut, which, together with the increased mechanization, led to vast growth in production. Mills grew in size and capacity, as did mill villages with boarding houses, houses, company stores, and occasionally churches and public gathering places.  Employees could thus work, buy provisions, socialize and sleep all within walking distance of the mill. These mill villages were expressions of the sometimes paternalistic, and often controlling attitudes of owners more interested in keeping production at the highest possible level than in promoting workers' health and safety. Owners could and did impose restrictions to daily life such as curfews and payment in company scrip, redeemable only at the company store.

Among the best known mid-19th century villages is the expansive Cheney Brothers Manufacturing Company complex in Manchester, which comprises several hundred single- and multi-family residences built or acquired by the company between 1850 and 1920. Cheney Brothers also fostered loyalty and stability by providing schools, libraries and a recreation hall (Cheney Hall, still used today) and through programs such as death benefits and accident insurance. Another paternalistic mill operation could be found in the Ivoryton section of Essex, where Comstock Cheney & Company made ivory goods and, starting in the 1870s, built worker housing, a school, library, community hall and general store. At the heart of these planned mill communities was the belief that if workers were treated well, they would be hard-working and reliable, creating profit for the factory owner.

While the urban location of the Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company in Hartford meant that there was a labor force to draw upon, the company nonetheless built two neighborhoods of dwellings. As the new armory neared completion in 1855, a group of ten brick multi-family houses went up, presumably for highly skilled workers. Later, having planted willow trees to secure the dike protecting the mill from the Connecticut River, Colt erected the more elaborate c.1860 ‘Potsdam’ single-family houses for German workers recruited to produce willow-ware furniture in a new manufactory. Starting in 1872, the Grosvenor-Dale Company constructed the massive cotton sheeting mill in Thompson, together with a boarding house, and five neighborhoods of worker housing. Each neighborhood was defined in part by the terrain, and in part by its occupants: c.1872 brick houses near the mill for supervisors and duplexes to the south occupied by French-Canadians; c.1872 tenements originally housing French-Canadians but by 1910 home to unmarried immigrants from Greece, Turkey and Albania; and c.1880 frame dwellings for Swedish immigrants.

The Twentieth Century Sees Model Worker Housing

The development of mill housing wound down in the 1880s, but increased again in the early 20th century and during the industrial expansions that accompanied the World Wars. Until this time, most mill housing was based upon a limited number of vernacular types, which outwardly displayed the hierarchy of the labor force: simple, unadorned forms for worker tenements and houses, modestly grander single-family dwellings for supervisors, and stately owner homes.  As a spirit of social reform emerged in the early 20th century, some company owners sought to improve living conditions for their employees. In 1909, the Connecticut Mills Co. built a mill to make woven material for tires in the Danielson village of Killingly. The firm contracted architect W. H. Cox to design worker housing that would inspire contentment and a sense of community. Promoted as ‘the Village Beautiful,’ this development comprises Tudor and Colonial Revival houses and Connecticut Gables, a stone Tudor Revival apartment complex erected in 1917. Across the state in Derby, five multi-family row houses were designed by architect Henry Killam Murphy for employees of the Union Fabric Company at the direction of owner Frances Osborne. Completed in 1916, the ‘Osborne Cottages’ provided what was described as pleasant and convenient living space rented to her workers.

During the ramp-up of production for the Allied forces in World War I, several major manufacturers, such as the American Brass Company and Scovill Manufacturing Company, both in Waterbury, Bristol Brass Company and New Departure Manufacturing Company in Bristol, and Remington Arms in Bridgeport developed housing. Many offered modern conveniences and parklike settings to be attractive to workers coming from across and beyond the state. After the United States entered the war in 1918, the United States Housing Corporation (USHC) was established and sponsored programs to accommodate workers in cities where major government defense suppliers were located, such as Bridgeport, New London, and Waterbury. The USHC was a federal manifestation of the progressive notions of social reform, and its developments were intended as exemplars of improved housing for workers.

By the 1920s, companies’ investment in worker housing decreased due to post-war industrial contraction. The trend accelerated in the 1930s as mills closed in the Depression and public relief programs sought to increase home ownership by the working class. However during World War II the federal government once again built defense worker housing in Litchfield, New Britain and New Haven to support military contractors in those towns.

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Disclaimer: Content for these properties has been compiled from a variety of sources and is subject to change. The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation makes no representation or warranty that the information is complete or up-to-date.