As many days as I commuted to Willimantic to teach last fall, I didn’t realize that it and Windham are gifted with so many Victorian and even older homes. Because of the mills, these towns thrived with the Industrial Revolution, particularly after the Civil War. Now, as with most other post-Industrial cities, life is a struggle.
So here’s to the brave homeowners who fight to keep the vintage alive, one going so far as to house his carpenter on the 3rd floor! That’s really taking home repairs to hearth, all puns intended.
I started by visiting one of the mills that brought great wealth to Willimantic, an east coast train hub (who knew?). The Willimantic Linen Company made its fortune, go figure, with cotton. After all, attempts to grow flax for making linen really wasn’t practical, and why import when cotton was grown in the States?
Civil War military demands made the first wealth for the company. As you know, I love the origins of words. So the Union Suit, what now we call onesies for infants and long johns for adults, came into being as the cotton underwear for under those scratchy Union Army uniforms.
And “all the bells and whistles.” That comes from the bells and whistles in the mill’s tower to communicate with the workers.
This mill clearly no longer has all the bells and whistles. Mill #2 has been converted into office space, but I was more taken with the “ruins” on site. Who needs Europe? Just tour post-industrial towns. Imagine what Detroit looks like…
I visited 6 of the 10 houses on tour and was completely surprised that the Nelson Daniels House was built as a factory. Yes, really. From about 1902 to 1927, the Thread City Collar Company operated out of the building/house. Like a cottage industry, although no doubt much more machine based, the 20 to 40 employees turned out men’s collars and cuffs, as well as tuxedo vestibules. I wondered what that stiff stomacher of men’s tuxes was called. Now we know–vestibules.
The Willimantic homes were definitely on the strolling path of neighbors, and I adore how the George Tiffany House’s porches were named. The ground level porch is called the “carousel porch” because of its shape and the passion for carousels in the 1890s when the house was built. Lounge on the carousel porch to let everyone know you are feeling sociable.
The upstairs porch is called the “gossip porch.” Why? When you sit up there, you are communicating to passersby that you do not want a visit. Instead, you can hide and listen in on the conversations to catch the latest gossip.
I also learned a new term at the Wilton Little House, built about 1896. The house style was described as Queen Anne-Folk. Hmm. Not too sure what Folk means, I said to the owner. The example he used to make the point are these original stained glass windows.
Originally, I wanted to go on this tour because the Impressionist artist J. Alden Weir’s house was open in Windham Center. Weir Farm in the Western part of the state is a wonderful national site that I’ve written about here. At the current Weir exhibit, curated by wonderful Anne Dawson, at the Lyman Allyn, I learned that Weir also lived in the Quiet Corner of the state, in Windham. When his first wife died, he married her sister, and they split their time between the two farms.
I really enjoyed seeing 3 viewing stations, where the scenery could be compared to Weir’s paintings. Weir bragged about his “hollyhocking,” changing scenes for aesthetics, adding a hollyhock, moving a mountain, etc. So those tweaks were fun to actually see. Others have been transformed by modern life and more than 100 years.
The Great Frog Battle of 1758 is a Windham Colonial legend, and one of its key participants lived at the Eliphalet Dyer House, built in 1704. Colonel Dyer was called out one night during a dry, hot summer, when loud, strange noises led residents to conclude they were being attacked by Native Americans. Cautiously waiting until morning to check out the cause of the ruckus, the Colonel found that frogs had ferociously fought to the death over the remaining water in a nearby pond. Sheesh.
On that note, on this hot day, I thought it was time to exit before I encountered an aggressive frog. I like my frogs cute and cuddly.