A Complex of Buildings
Each one more interesting than the next
Barges, Trains and Bikes
The founding directors of the Cheshire Manufacturing Company did not choose the site for their venture randomly. Two years before, in 1848, the New Haven & Northampton Railroad began service along the path of the former Farmington Canal adjacent to the site. At the time, this transportation corridor was one of the most important transportation routes in Connecticut.
The Farmington Canal, Connecticut's largest pre-railroad engineering project, grew from the rivalry between merchants in Hartford and New Haven in the push for "interior improvement" in the New England states. At issue was control of trade with the upper Connecticut River valley in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. Hartford, on the bank of the river, was advantageously situated for this trade. By the early l820s canals had been built to bypass all the rapids on the Connecticut River except for Enfield Falls, just north of Hartford. New Haven interests hoped to take advantage of Hartford's position below the falls by building a canal over an inland route between New Haven and a point on the river in Northampton, MA.
In 1822 the 17 Connecticut towns on the route hired Benjamin Wright, engineer for the Erie Canal, to survey the proposed line. On the basis of that survey Connecticut's General Assembly chartered the Farmington Canal Co. to construct and operate the canal. Hartford representatives in the General Assembly, unable to block passage of the charter, were able, however, to prevent state subsidy of the project. Except for some assistance from New Haven, the company had to rely on private subscriptions and occasional bond sales for capitalization. In 1823 the Massachusetts legislature chartered the Hampshire and Hampden Canal Co. to build the Massachusetts section. Construction began in 1825.
The canal ran approximately 80 miles, with 58 miles in Connecticut. Over most of its length it was 4' deep, 20' wide at bottom and 36' wide at top. Towpath and embankments totaled some 30' in additional width. For most of the route the walls were simply soil banks with no shoring or capping. The 213' rise between New Haven and the Massachusetts line was taken in 28 locks. There were 3 aqueducts and some 15 culverts crossing rivers and creeks. The Connecticut section opened in 1829, the Massachusetts section in 1835; the two were merged into the New Haven and Northampton Canal Co. in 1836.
Operations were troubled from the start due to technical inadequacies and insufficient capital. The porous local soils used were not watertight; banks were frequently undercut, or simply collapsed from excess weight due to the amount of moisture absorbed. There were not enough spillways or wastegates to drain excess flow, so relatively minor rises in water level resulted in bank-destroying floods. Some locks were initially built of dry-laid sandstone blocks with timber facing. These had to be replaced with masonry laid in hydraulic cement. At the time, many of the bank cave-ins were attributed to vandalism by farmers who owned land along the canal and who were unsatisfied with reparations paid for damages to their fields caused by construction.
Traffic was substantial when the canal was navigable, even though Farmington Canal never became the predominant trade route for the upper Connecticut River valley. It was the first means of transport, besides roads, to reach much of west-central Connecticut, and canal-shipping was important to developing industries in the region. Furthermore, the traffic in freight and passengers created opportunities for private carrier services, wharf and warehouse facilities, hotels and taverns. Towns such as Plainville grew in response to canal traffic opportunities. New Haven prospered most from the canal, which began at Long Wharf and enhanced the city's position as a distribution point for New England goods bound for East Coast markets.
The plague of collapsing canal banks continued to generate repair costs exceeding revenues. The canal company had little opportunity to increase revenue in operations, since it was not empowered to operate boats, to build and lease storage facilities, or to participate in any of the ancillary functions that proved profitable to others.
In 1845 the company surveyed the route for the purpose of building a railroad. Following necessary charter revisions, the New Haven and Northampton Railroad was completed north from New Haven to Plainville in 1848, and to Simsbury in 1850. For most of their course the tracks ran on the former towpath, although in New Haven the canal bed itself became the track bed.
The problems of the Farmington Canal seem traceable to its legal origin in the General Assembly, when the Hartford interests blocked approval of state funds for construction. Capable engineering talent was available, as shown by the hiring of Benjamin Wright for the initial canal survey. But no matter how fit the designs were the company could not pay for the proper construction, so waste-water facilities were minimal and embankments were built from whatever material was immediately at hand. As the effects of these shortcuts in construction pushed maintenance costs higher, the company's resources were drained. These costs could not be recouped in operation, again because of the charter, which strictly limited the means by which the company could generate revenue. Thus the metropolitan rivalry that spawned the canal also established the pattern for its eventual failure, if conversion to a railroad can be so described, but not before the canal opened opportunities for manufacturing in inland Connecticut, and not before the canal solidified New Haven's position in the transportation networks of New England.
Portions of the canal survive today in various states of repair. The former rail bed is the site of a major rails-to-trails project that will once again connect New Haven with Northampton. For more information, visit the web site for the Farmington Canal Rail to Trail Association
[Connecticut: An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites; published by the Society for Industrial Archeology, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560; 1981]
The original factory was a two-story, 4,350 square foot, wooden framed building built along the Farmington Canal and the recently completed New Haven and Northampton Railroad. The company bought sheet brass in narrow-width rolls and performed all the fabrication operations to create buttons. A 35-horse-power coal-fired steam engine powered six presses and five stamping machines that formed blanks and impressed designs on the button fronts, and 120 foot presses, operated mostly by women and children, that attached the pressed fronts to backings and wire-eye hooks. The tool room had six machine tools. The census of 1870 showed a workforce of 15 men, 25 women and 20 children.
Much of the over 65,000 square feet of built space currently on the site was constructed during the company’s greatest growth period from the late 19th century through the 1920's. The first major addition to the property after 1850 was a "fireproof" brick and steel building, the Press Room Building, constructed in 1899. It is the oldest extant building on the site.
The original wooden buildings were demolished (or moved? see below) and new brick buildings were constructed from 1907 to 1917, including the front office and buildings for lacquer, paint, tumbling and plating operations, and others for storage and packing. An extension to the 1899 Press Room Building was added for the eyelet presses that made snap fasteners.
When the Ball & Socket Manufacturing Co. ceased operations in 1994, many machines that were acquired in the 1907-1917 expansion were still in use, including 8 presses made by E. J. Manville Co. of Waterbury, 6 presses made by Waterbury's Draher Machine Co., several Waterbury-Farrel eyelet machines and 12 Baird presses. By that time, all had been fitted with individual electric motors, powered by an on-site electrical generation plant.
The Front Office: This impressive and charming building was designed by Ball & Socket Manufacturing Co. President John Doe based on the Jacobean architecture he saw on a visit to Great Britain. The crest over the front entrance is that of the county of Cheshire in England. It features diamond paned leaded light windows, an oak paneled boardroom and two fireplaces. Completed in 1917, it was built by the H. Wales Lines Company of Meriden, which also built Sprague Memorial Hall and Day Library at Yale, the Curtis Memorial Library in Meriden, and Edmond Town Hall in Newtown.
The Red Building: This simple wooden building is an enigma waiting to be solved. It looks remarkably similar to the original 1850 factory building, but it is in the wrong place! If it is the original building, or portions of it, it must have been moved to the Willow Street side of the property when the Front Office building was constructed. Further research will yield more information, we hope. In its current location, it served as space for storage and shipping. For a while, the front room housed the West Cheshire Post Office.
The Main Factory Building: The interconnected structures that sprawl south from the Front Office Building were constructed over a period of 70 years. The oldest is the Press Room Building, built in 1899, which replaced the wooden structures erected by the company in 1850. Over the years, els were added, spaces between buildings filled, and floors added. The building reached its current configuration with the last addition in 1968.
More information is forthcoming on the Wood Shop, the Garage and the Power House.