Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Monday, May 16, 2011

Back Office, Shelton, CT


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL, "Phelpsville": 

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 
here.

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?