Monday, May 30, 2011

Between Wings


Death Rattle

Like an empty tarmac, 
the work floor lies,
a broken promise.
Windows covered 
in corrugated tin 
rattle like machine gun fire
in a distant bay,
chatter nearby, 
but there are no machines, 
no fire,
only two column lines 
to carry 
the stacked 
under production
and beyond the din.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Factory Stair, Torrington

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The 1845 potato famine in Ireland coincided with the building of the railroad up the Naugatuck Valley, and so it was hungry and mostly illiterate, unskilled men with brogues who leveled the roadbed and laid the track along the river all the way to Winsted. Completed in 1848, it opened the valley to industry and carried the products of those industries to Bridgeport and the world. Trains brought coal, copper, zinc, tin, jobs and cheap labor and took away buttons and kettles, pins and pipes, clips and clocks. Brass was the plastic of its time; uses were burgeoning, and the Naugatuck Valley was competing with Birmingham, England, to be the brass-making center of the world.

How can I touch those struggles in the crumbling brick and rusting ducts that remain of this industrial empire? Where can my camera catch reflections of the imaginations fired by new engineering challenges and devising machines, procedures and new metallurgy to make things faster, better, cheaper? Where do the halls still echo the machinists' practiced craft and confidence? Where does the floor still creak from the daily passage of unskilled, buggy-luggers and grunts working 12-hour days and six day weeks or sometimes not working at all? Can photographs get near any of these?

Output at the mills fluctuated but industry boomed during the Civil War, and after the war the rest of us came and the Valley began to fill up. The trains brought Italians, and Lithuanians and Russians along with the coal and the copper and the tin. Like the Irish, many of us were illiterate and unskilled. In addition, we spoke no English.

Mill owners built villages to house us and systems to provide water and food, to keep the peace, and to manage town affairs. It was a massive undertaking to create civic institutions that would support the growing population. They hired prestigious designers like Cass Gilbert, McKim, Meade and White, Olmstead Bros. to design civic buildings and public spaces that would reflect the confidence of the region and provide a foundation of hallowed permanence. The policemen and firemen and the apprentices on the way up were mostly Irish, but we all formed clubs, gangs, factions and unions, and we were encouraged to back political candidates and vote. Banding in groups of our own kind, we struggled over identity, flexed muscle and sometimes rumbled.

Much of what the trains brought was pumped out into the Naugatuck or up into the air. It settled into everything, made the river smell and the air taste bad, and in Waterbury and Naugatuck people with money lived upwind, west of its stench. In Derby, whenever we passed the Hull Dye Works our children guessed at the river's color that day, but we worked hard and raised families as best we could. Those who worked at the pickle tubs got metal fume fever and called it spelters' shakes, and rollers lost arms, but workers with experience argued over the best cures - whether oatmeal or hot cider and pepper cured Spelters' Shakes better and warned us about how much of our arm we'd lose on each machine.

During the Great War there were plenty of jobs, 24 hours a day, and after the war there were strikes and violence in the Valley and in 1920 the National Guard was called in. There was bloodshed, and some were called subversives, but the mills kept growing, and some of us became foremen.

In the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. are prototype models of many of the machines that operated in these factories. There are thousands of them. They look like sophisticated toys, but they actually run. What's left today in these hollow spaces where the actual machines ran? What memories echo here? One must listen closely to hear the past behind the sound of the river and the wind.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

High Iron No.2, On the Bridge at Shelton

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL, "Wolcottville Brass and Battery": 

They claim it was all about buttons, mostly brass ones. I picture retired colonels from the recently won Revolution wanting something a bit spiffier than they wore at Valley Forge and chagrined to realize the best brass buttons came from Birmingham, England.  However, think of what you're wearing and imagine removing every button, clip, or fastener, every bit of elastic, every buckle, zipper or inch of velcro tape. Take off your suspenders. Now think about how you're going to hold your clothing on, and appreciate the importance of victory.

Button making had been a cottage industry in the U.S., a sideline for some farm blacksmiths especially in the Naugatuck Valley. If the a farmer-blacksmith didn't peddle his wares door to door, he paid a peddler who traveled a broader area with a wagon full of goods. Brass smiths concentrated in the Naugatuck Valley formed companies and alliances. Sometimes companies merged. They established trade agreements, controlled prices, fixed market shares, developed sources for copper in the west, but in the 1830s their cottage industries couldn't satisfy the craze for economical, attractive, brass buttons the way English buttonmakers could.

Whatever drove the need for better American buttons, there were rumors of kidnappings and men smuggled out of Birmingham, England - English platers, rollers, die sinkers whisked away in the cover of darkness, sealed into barrels, brought to the Naugatuck Valley in the New World to work their alchemy.

A story passed down from those who were there may say more about the Yankee brassmasters' character. First, it wasn't only buttons for your trousers but kettles for the hearth. In 1834 all kettles were imported from Birmingham, England. That was the year Israel Coe a local farmer, John Hungerford a local merchant, and New York entrepreneur Anson G. Phelps became partners in Wolcottville Brass & Battery to manufacture American buttons and kettles. Phelps had purchased the site high up on the Naugatuck River in Wolcottville (now Torrington) where in 1813 Frederick Wolcott had built a woolen mill, attracted a large work force, and created demand for goods and services.

The process for manufacturing kettles was known as the battery process. Israel Holmes had a share in the business and was in charge of the manufacturing. He needed expertise and equipment for rolling the brass. The story is told in an old history of Waterbury:

Mr. Holmes went to England for the purpose of procuring machinery and workmen. His efforts in this respect were hindered by every possible ingenuity and power of those interested in the same kind of manufacturing in that country, but after a time he sent two battery men to Philadelphia, one of whom died the next day after his arrival. Subsequently he procured others and thirty-eight men, women and children in one vessel  arrived in New York. Considerable trouble was experienced in transporting them without a railroad to Wolcottville. When they were landed here, the mill was not ready for operatives, and thereby the troubles were multiplied.  The men received their pay and, having nothing to do, most of them gave themselves to dissipation and the disquietudes of disposition. In the meantime Mr. Pope [one of the skilled workers] bargained with other parties for a rival concern and took three of the men with him. This was at first thought to be an injury but eventuated an advantage as these men proved to be worthless in the business. However, some of the workmen remained, and the quick eye and ready hand of Wolcottville Yankees soon secured experts in the making of brass.

In any case, the battery process for making kettles was a loser for Wocottville Brass & Battery after Hiram W. Hayden invented a method for making brass kettles by spinning disks of sheet brass through a die. The brass-spinning process revolutionized the kettle-making industry.  What should be made of the observation that Hayden was working for Israel Holmes at Scovilles Mfg. in Waterbury when he made the discovery that disadvantaged Holmes work at Wolcottville Brass & Battery in Torrington?

As I've immersed myself in these old stories of the Valley, the entanglement of individuals and corporate entities seems to be a constantly fluctuating thing like the river itself, and the same Yankee names keep reappearing along the shores as owners and partners in different combinations through expansion & consolidation and new processes and new products and new dams, and as industries like clockmaking and cabinet hardware are spun off by the same brass families, and the Naugatuck Valley begins to fill up, and then the railroads come.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Back Office, Shelton, CT


Sheldon Smith's Birmingham project was a success. By 1836 he had attracted a range of independently owned, small industries to the site including, a first-hand source tells us, "one factory for making sheet copper and copper wire; one for making augers; one for making carriage springs and axles; one for making nails or tacks; one for flannels and satinets, with some other minor manufacturing establishments." Omitted and most important was the presence of the Birmingham Foundry which manufactured machinery and equipment for using river water to power mills.

Other sources suggest the brass mill was owned by Smith and Phelps and built with their own capital. It was one of several in the valley where Phelps had invested.  Their millwright was Almon Farrel. Bigger dreams lay ahead, so it's unclear what made Sheldon Smith choose this moment to sell his interests and move on.

Phleps went on building. When expansion became difficult on the west side of the Naugatuck, Anson Phelps bought land on the east side to be called Phelpsville. In 1844 with Almon Farrel to engineer the new enterprise, Phelps began a new water project with a dam across the Naugatuck and a new company and in, not Phelpsville (there was already another Phelpsville in the region) but Ansonia.  Anson Phelps and his new company, Ansonia Brass and Battery eventually spun off Ansonia Clock Company. Clocks use lots of brass parts. He was also partners in a kettle factory in Wolcottsville (now Torrington) near the source of the Naugatuck. Phelps was investing widely.

However, Anson G. Phelps is remembered mostly as the the co-founder of Phelps-Dodge which became famous for it's copper and tin mining operations and, after being passed to a new generation, infamous in 1917 for imprisoning 1300, striking, Texas, mine workers in cattle cars and kidnapping them through the desert without food or water 200 miles to New Mexico where they were left and warned never to return.  You can read about the Bisbee Deportation 

Anson Phelps lived in New York City and contributed heavily to The American Bible Association, overseas missionary organizations and to efforts to establish Liberia. In his will he left $5000 to each of his grandchildren with the injunction:
"I give and bequeath to each of my grand-children, living at my decease, the sum of $5,000, to be paid them as they severally attain the age of 21 years. This latter bequest I direct to be accompanied by my executors with this injunction:-That each of my said grand-children shall consider the said bequest as a sacred deposit, committed to their trust, to be invested by each grand-child, and the income derived therefrom to be devoted to spread the gospel, and to promote the Redeemer's kingdom oil earth, hoping and trusting that the God of Heaven will give to each of that wisdom which is from above, and incline them to be faithful stewards, and transmit the same to their descendants, to be sacredly devoted to the same object.

I know this bequest is absolute and places the amount so given beyond my control; but my earnest hope is that my wish may be regarded as I leave it, an obligation binding simply on their integrity and honor."

I am beginning to see more clearly the life of the early Valley and its emerging industrial shape, but who were these Yankees who mastered brass, and what exactly is their legacy?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Water Secrets


Sheldon Smith was also born in Derby, but he never got the fancy education at Yale. He never taught school or wrote poetry as did David Humphreys. Instead, after a basic education at the local schoolhouse, he apprenticed himself to a saddle and harness maker in Bridgeport and was eventually taken in as a partner. However, he had other dreams. In New York he met Anson G. Phelps an entrepreneur and former saddle maker who had been investing in copper and other minerals.

Smith went on to Newark, NJ, where he proved doubters wrong by envisioning and building a system bringing clean water to the city. What share he claimed in fostering utopian visions of society is unclear. What is clear is that he had a vision for water.

In the 1830s Sheldon Smith returned to his hometown, Derby, Connecticut, with a plan and a backer. Derby was in decline following the Revolution and in need of revitalization. Smith, who had bought the old grist mill, envisioned, "Smithville," and went to work. He and his New York City friend, Anson Phelps, laid out the streets and built housing to create what is today downtown Derby. They also built the reservoir, and channeled the Naugatuck River through a mile and a half canal system to power a considerable industrial village.

In the end the name that was chosen was not Smithville but Birmingham after the center of England's great copper and brass industry.

You can view an engraving of Birmingham, Connecticut in 1836 here. Sheldon Smith's home is the one at the top of the hill on the left.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Through Glass Darkly

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL, "Humphreysville"  

Previously called Chusetown, in 1804 the legislature designated the area by Rimmon Falls, four miles upstream of Derby on the Naugatuck as "Humphreysville." By then, David Humphreys was raising sheep. Born in Derby and educated at Yale, he had been a trusted aid, friend, and confidant of George Washington during and after the Revolution. He was honored for his bravery at Yorktown and chosen to receive the enemy's colors at the surrender of Cornwallis and convey them to Congress in session in Philadelphia. 

For a hundred years before the revolution the towns had employed local sheepmasters to oversee the breeding of sheep and the duties of the town shepherd, but yield and quality remained low. After the revolution Humphreys served for six years as our first ambassador in Spain and Portugal securing treaties. After Jefferson recalled him, and he finally disembarked at Derby Landing from his travels in Europe, he was accompanied by 91 Merino sheep and had an extensive knowledge of the strengths and evils of English, woolen manufacturing.

In 1803 on the banks of the Naugatuck River beside Rimmon Falls Humphreys began laying out what has been called the first factory village in the United States. There, using the power of the Naugatuck, the wool of his Merino sheep was converted to woolen cloth.  Soon there were houses for workers, a grist mill, a paper mill, a clothier, and surrounded by gardens to produce food to feed a work force. There was also a school to educate the children and a four-story factory producing both woolen cloth and cotton cloth in quantities for export. Humphreys paid the schoolmaster's salary and offered prizes for scholarship and prizes for outstanding job performance by his laborers. He went before the state legislature to lobby for bills to enforce factory safety and cleanliness. When Madison took his oath of office in 1809, he was dressed in a full suit of American woolens from Humphrey's Merino sheep, of which Colonel Humphreys's factory produced the coat.

Humphreys' was a utopian vision put into practice on the Naugatuck River when Chief Joseph still lived along its banks, and it's waters still contained fish. Today, the town is Seymour, and the falls and several blocks of the town lie beside concrete pillars and under the shadow of the Route 8 overpass. In the shadows by the falls are the remains of an old sluiceway, and several times each day you can hear the commuter train pass along the track nearby, but amid the merged din of highway and falls, little else tells of the industrial past of the Naugatuck here, and fish are back in the river again.


"Oh, might my guidance from the downs of Spain,
Lead a white flock across the western main;
Fam'd like the bark that bore the Argonaut,
Should be the vessel with the burden fraught!
Clad in the raiment my Merinos yield,
Like Cincinnatus fed from my own field;
Far from ambition, grandeur, care and strife
In sweet fruition of domestic life;
There would I pass with friends, beneath my trees,
What rests from public life, in letter'd ease."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Hopper's Moved On

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The waters of the Housatonic had a different fate than those of the Naugatuck. In 1870 the Ousatonic Water Power Company, organized by Edward Shelton, great grandson of an early settler, built a dam just above the confluence and began generating electricity to power the factories and growing domestic needs. Eventually almost the entire Housatonic River where it flows in Connecticut was to be involved in the generation of electricity, and today the river is a series of dams and lakes as far north as New Milford.

And industry today has little need for any of the things the Naugatuck Valley provided. Local zoning, taxes, and labor most often determine where in the hills a manufacturer settles its presses and switches on its tin or block hanger.

REMINDER: This Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be the last days to see "Silage: Process in Process," at the White Silo Winery and Vineyard, (info above) On Sunday the Winery will also be holding their annual Asparagus Festival.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Naugatuck Spring

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: As happens so often in my wanderings, the tracks up the Naugatuck Valley lead into the past. The Naugatuck River flows into the Housatonic at Paugassett, the town now known as Derby. That was the top of the Housatonic River's tidewater and as far upstream as the old, ocean-going, cargo ships could reach. Early settlers praised the quiet beauty of the rivers' confluence and the richness of the fishing grounds there. They built a landing at the point between the rivers and built a double width road up from the shore and called the area, "Birmingham."

It was sheltered harbor, well upstream, and it became an early center of ship building and trade. Ships from Derby served much of the East Coast and as far away as the West Indies with local fish and produce. By 1730 there were major industrial mills operating not only in Birmingham (Derby) but on the eastern shore in the area that is today Ansonia and on the west in the area that is today Shelton. By the 1830s it was a hotbed of industrial innovation and a bustling manufacturing center producing cotton and woolen goods, paper, sheet metal, wire and anything in shaped metal from augers to pins.

Between the three settlements lay the valuable resources of the rivers' confluence and above them the energy of the Housatonic and Naugatuck headwaters. While the Housatonic River wanders the Naugatuck rises with unusual speed. It is the largest Connecticut river whose waters originate in the state. By 1849 the Naugatuck Railroad had mastered its inclines and narrow passes as far north as Winsted permitting water-powered manufacturing to thrive and providing new access to markets for farm goods produced inland. The building of the railroad brought Irish immigrants, and each successive wave of immigrants made productive lives there in both industry and agriculture.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

High Iron

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  Railroads, like vines, crawled up river valleys where factories were already planted - a confluence of opportunities. This valley is the Naugatuck, dotted with towns where many immigrants found work in Derby, Shelton, Ansonia, Seymour, Beacon Falls, Naugatuck, Waterbury and up into the hills to Thomaston and Torrington and WInsted and finally rural Norfolk, source of the river and early outpost of Yale University. I've lived near the Naugatuck Valley most of my life, sometimes shop in Torrington, but know far too little of its history and significance.

I know enough to know the history wasn't always pretty especially in the lower valley, that its decline to rustbelt came early and that it was made worse by massive flooding in 1955. I know also that the whole valley is one of the formative places of American industry, a powerhouse from pre-revolutionary times, and carcases of its growth and collapse are still often visible. In the lower valley the tissue of sprawl has had trouble healing over the shards of rusting tin and crumbling brick, even as environmental plans have had notable successes. There is an interesting article on the Naugatuck Valley here. For now, I'm following the tracks to see where they lead.