|Willimantic, Connecticut: Historic Mill Town
by Patricia L. Cummings
Does any other town in the world have frog sculptures on the corners of a bridge? This sight is only one of the reasons we
love Willimantic, Connecticut! The story behind the frogs is as delightful as the history of the mills there.
A Frog Story for You
Without a doubt, the four large frog sculptures that are located at the corners of a bridge near the former mills in
Willimantic, Connecticut are the most charming part of any town that we have ever seen! The bullfrogs, each sitting on top
of a (cement) spool of cotton, commemorate an event now referred to as “The Windham Frog Battle of 1754.”
The story, based on a true event, calls to mind the night that residents were awakened from a sound sleep by a call to
muster. Hearing a cacophony of noise, they geared up for an attack by the French and Indians. In reality, the deafening
noise was being caused by bullfrogs engaged in middle of the night confrontations over a few remaining puddles of water at
a time of extreme drought. This heartwarming story is just a part of the lure and lore of Willimantic.
The Mills of Willimantic
We first became interested in learning more about Willimantic, after having found some Victorian trade cards in an antiques
store. The cards were from “Thread City,” as Willimantic has come to be known, and were made to advertise the quality of
the threads produced there. These kinds of collectible cards are miniature art chrome lithographs.
On the day that we traveled to Willimantic from our home in New Hampshire we had intended to try to locate the site of the
former mills. However, we discovered that new businesses now occupy the old mill buildings. Luckily, we spotted the
Windham History and Textile Museum which is right across the street from the old mill complex and is housed in two
neighboring buildings. Upon entering the gift shop area of the museum, we were warmly greeted by Beverly York, the
museum’s director, who doubled as a tour guide on that day.
First, Beverly escorted us to a brick building where old machinery and mill artifacts are stored. We were able to see an
imposing example of an early Jacquard loom, which appears to be positively lethal in its guillotine-like formation. Other
machines, such as the cotton carding machine and a cotton spinning machine, were quite a bit less daunting. Many
different samples of Willimantic thread, as well as tools for both carpenters and mechanics, are also on display. Bev
provided us with much information about Willimantic’s former mill populations and described the lives of workers when
the mills were a center of bustling activity.
The second stage of the tour was to return to the wooden structure next door. The Museum Shop, where we had first met
Bev, is on the ground level, but the multi-floored house contains extensive upstairs areas. On the second floor, there is a
room where account books were kept and where workers could trade their hours for goods, on account. On the same floor
room vignettes have been set up to simulate immigrant workers’ living quarters. These include home décor items that
certain ethnic groups might have had.
Next, we trekked up the stairs to the third floor where a very large room served as a library and meeting area for the
workers. This area was utilized for many purposes, including the instruction of English, as well as cultural events.
Thread Strong Enough to Hold Down A Giant
Upon returning to the Museum Shop, we found it a delightful place to browse. There is an array of items from which to
choose but the one that caught my eye is a tin sign with a decorative scene. Larger than a car license plate, the card depicts
Gulliver (of Gulliver’s Travels’ fame) tied down with “Willimantic’s Best Six Cord Spool Cotton.” This is the same image
as a Victorian trade card in my collection.
To my surprise, that Willimantic trade card is exactly the same as one produced by JP Coats which has only replaced the
trade name for their own. Trade cards were about the size of baseball cards. Given away free by companies to advertise
their products, they were collected in scrapbooks and were often traded by collectors.
The Willimantic trade cards of “Thread City” provide small clue to the former frenetic activity of these mills located in the
manufacturing district of Windham, Connecticut. The swift-flowing Willimantic River provided water-power for The
Willimantic Linen Co., whose name was later changed to the American Thread Company.
The year 1820 marked the arrival of the first immigrant mill workers to Willimantic. While some were seeking relief from
political oppression or were reaching for religious freedom, all were seeking a better life. As in other mill areas of the
northeast, immigrant workers hailed from such places as Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Italy, Lebanon, Ireland, and in
later years from Puerto Rico. For more than 130 years, the mills were the core of Willimantic’s community. The mill doors
closed for the last time in 1985.
Oral Histories of Mill Workers Captured in Print
The lives of immigrant workers come to life in the book Willimantic Industry and Community: The Rise and Decline of a
Connecticut Textile City by Thomas Beardsley because of the oral history interviews that he conducted with former mill
workers. The book is an invaluable historical resource because of its insights into the daily lives of 19th and 20th century
mill workers. There is no greater substitute than first hand accounts to help us to understand the lives and times of days
Innovations Led to Success
Silk thread, cotton thread, and man-made thread, as well as a limited amount of cloth, were manufactured by the
Willimantic mills. The success of the mills was due to the willingness of their owners to be innovative. An example of this
was the first-ever installation of electric lights in mill buildings. Another factor was the extensive use of humidifiers which
kept the cotton thread from drying out while it was being processed. As a result, the thread was more durable than other
domestic sewing threads and market-wise it was able to compete with the best threads made in England.
Strategically located along a major train route between Boston and Rhode Island, the Willimantic mills became a vital part of
the American Industrial Revolution.
William Eliot Barrows, a paternalistic overseer of the mills until 1883, is credited with helping the workers by instituting
educational resources, religious services, and voice and drama lessons, as well as, coffee breaks, free meals and quality
housing. He also initiated the playing of team sports, such as baseball, as a way to build camaraderie among co-workers.
There is so much more to know about Willimantic. The reader will find online resources and the many writings of Thomas
Beardsley to be of interest.
A Thank You
We certainly enjoyed our trip to Willimantic, Connecticut! We thank Beverly York for giving us her time and attention.
Connecticut History, Volume 42, Number 2, Fall 2003, “Willimantic: Textile City,” Thomas R. Beardsley, ISSN: 0884-
7177. p. 97-119.
Legendary Connecticut: Traditional Tales from the Nutmeg State, “The Windham Frog Fight,” David E. Philips, p. 215-
218. (Willimantic: Curbstone Press, 2001).
Willimantic Industry and Community: The Rise and Decline of a Connecticut Textile City, Thomas R. Beardsley
(Willimantic: Windham Textile and History Museum, 1999).
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