Everybody Walked to Work

December 9, 2014 · Collections ·
Employees walking from work of the Cheney Brothers Silk Mills

Cheney Brothers Employees Leaving Work. Photograph by W. F. Miller & Co., 1920s. The Connecticut Historical Society, 1979.25.62

In the nineteenth century, my father’s grandparents emigrated from Germany to work in the Cheney Brothers Silk Mills Manufactory in Manchester. In many ways, Manchester was a classic mill town. The mill owners lived in stately mansions along Forest Street and Hartford Road. The workers lived in boarding houses and modest homes that they rented from the company. My great uncle must have been pretty far up in the managerial hierarchy, because he was able to rent a big Victorian house on Pine Street with a large yard and garden. Everybody walked to work. My great uncle’s house was surrounded by mills, and when I would go to visit my grandmother, who lived with him, the sound of the huge power looms was always in the background. I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t even know what it was until, years later, I visited the textile museum in Lowell and they turned on one of the looms. I recognized the sound immediately.

Two mills of the Cheney Brothers Silk Mills

Pine Street Velvet Mills. Photograph by Ogden, ca. 1915. The Connecticut Historical Society, 1979.25.220

Aeroview of the Cheney Brothers Silk Mills

Aeroview of Manchester, Detail showing mills on Pine Street and workers’ housing. Lithograph by Hughes & Bailey, 1914. The Connecticut Historical Society.

Manchester in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a self-contained world, like many New England mill towns. You could walk to school and to the stores and library on Main Street. The Cheneys provided health care for their employees and vocational training for their children. Cheney Hall served as a social center. If you wanted to get out of town, you could take the trolley to Laurel Park, a local amusement park that later became the town dump and then a nature preserve, or across the river to Hartford. Virtually nobody had cars, even when cars became available.

In the 1950s, Cheney Brothers tore down my great uncle’s house to make way for a parking lot. The Cheney Brothers Silk Mills were still running in the 1950s, but they were struggling to survive. The workforce was changing. After World War II, people no longer wanted to live in boarding houses or rental properties within a few blocks of their place of employment. They wanted to own their homes and new homes were plentiful and cheap with housing developments springing up outside town in what used to be old tobacco fields and apple orchards. People wanted to drive to work and they needed someplace to park their cars. I didn’t understand this at the time. It seemed like a waste to tear down a beautiful old Victorian house with lovely gardens in order to create a parking lot. It didn’t work anyway. The mills closed and the factory buildings sat empty for years. Now the buildings are converted into apartments and condominiums. I suppose the parking lot must come in handy.

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