A Legacy in Steel: Billings & Spencer Co.

May 1, 2014 · Collections ·

While it can be argued that these days Hartford is thought of as primarily a center of insurance and financial services, anyone driving through some of the neighborhoods just beyond downtown will be quick to note an impressive array of old industrial buildings. These brick and stone structures, some empty and unloved, others hosting a wide variety of modern dreams, offer very real clues to one of the city’s earlier incarnations—an industrial hub specializing in metal products. In addition to iconic Colt firearms manufactured at the complex along the Connecticut River in the city’s south end, there are other buildings just bursting with stories of technological innovation and daring, many of them strung along the Park River. Weed sewing machines, Underwood typewriters, and Pope’s Columbia bicycles (and later automobiles), are just a few of the products that come to mind. Close by stands the remains of yet another hometown industrial giant—Billings & Spencer.

Charles Billings and Christopher Spencer each cut their teeth in the firearms business, a prime example of 19th century precision manufacturing. Shortly after the Civil War they partnered in the short-lived Roper Sporting Arms Company, but in 1873 they reorganized and, as Billings & Spencer Co., turned to the production of wrenches and other hand tools. Multiple examples of their products in the CHS collection testify to their inventiveness. The emerging drop forging industry provided another opportunity and the firm not only employed this technology in their operations, but also manufactured drop forge equipment for other firms. In time the plant grew to cover the better part of a long city block at Russ and Lawrence streets in the city’s Frog Hollow neighborhood. The heat of furnaces, the steady drum beat of drop forges and the constant stream of smoke from multiple stacks testified to the success of the partners’ vision.

In 1898 Hartford illustrator Hiram P. Arms created a very large watercolor painting of the complex, probably for display in the company’s main office. Arms’ careful depiction of the facility, probably based on an earlier published view, captures not only the frenetic activity of the factory, but clearly shows its proximity to Hartford’s political and educational centers visible in the distance. Yet this painting also includes vignettes of pedestrians and cyclists, a subtle reminder that the plant stood in a largely residential area. By 1915 the firm had expanded and relocated many operations to a site on Laurel Street along the Park River.

The surviving original Billings & Spencer buildings are not abandoned, but rather home to Billings Forge Community Works, an innovative organization providing job assistance and training, plus agricultural, culinary and cultural offerings, among other services. Just as the factory once provided employment to residents of the Frog Hollow neighborhood, so too it continues to serve the greater Hartford community as a great example of adaptive reuse.

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