Somersville Historic District
The Somersville Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
The Somersville Historic District is located on the western side of Somers near its border with Enfield. Encompassing the core of the industrial village of Somersville, the Somersville Historic District contains 204 resources, of which 179 (88%) are contributing. All of these resources are concentrated in a T-shaped area which includes two principal streets: Main Street (Route 190), the east-west spine of the district, and Maple Street, which extends to the south from the village center. The Scantic River, which once provided the waterpower for village industry, flows through the Somersville Historic District from east to west.
Among the Somersville Historic District's 136 principal contributing resources, which range in date from 1765 to 1940, are individual houses, tenements, stores, meeting halls, schools, churches, and a blacksmith shop. Near the center of the Somersville Historic District is an industrial complex of buildings, and one site, the factory millpond and its dam. Contributing outbuildings associated with these resources include agricultural buildings of various types and a number of early twentieth-century garages.
Non-contributing resources are limited mainly to modern auxiliary buildings built after 1940. Fifteen of the non-contributing resources are modern garages or sheds. Of the remainder, five are modern houses and there are also four commercial buildings classified as non-contributing either because they are of relatively recent vintage or because they were substantially remodeled in the modern period. Three of these are gas stations, all located on Main Street.
The time frame of the Somersville Historic District extends from the pre-industrial period into the early twentieth century, producing a variety of vernacular types but a limited range of styles. The overwhelming majority are associated with the historic industry here, either directly in the building of factories or mill-related housing or indirectly in response to its presence. The latter group includes privately generated residential and commercial buildings which sprang up in response to industrial growth, as well as new institutions to serve a growing population. As is typically found in a rural industrial setting, however, agrarian pursuits were not abandoned, and farming continued in tandem with industry, producing a number of nineteenth-century farmsteads.
The pre-industrial crossroads community here was quite small and produced a limited number of built resources. There were only 14 buildings constructed prior to 1835, the start of the textile mills here, with only three pre-dating 1800. The Federal style was briefly popular, as seen in the doorways of the Luke Billings House at 1 Pinney Road and the Alpheus Hurlburt House at 192 Main Street. In general, however, these early houses were enlarged or remodeled and now reflect the prosperity of the later nineteenth century. One important commercial building from near the end of this period is Loomer's Blacksmith Shop (75 Maple Street). Built of local brownstone rather than the more ephemeral wood, it has survived long after it ceased to function.
From about 1840 through the antebellum period, the Greek Revival style was a strong influence, but most nineteenth-century houses were plain vernacular types, such as the Widow Allen House on Maple Street or the later two-over-three bay house down the street, a farm worker's house updated with a Colonial Revival portico in the early twentieth century. As the century progressed, other houses were occasionally embellished with Victorian detail, such as the one found on the c.1865 Ralph King House (128 Maple Street) and 1899 William Hemenway House, also on Maple Street, (120 Maple Street). Both have retained their open Victorian porches.
The Greek Revival buildings that remain in the Somersville Historic District include 13 houses and one commercial building, the Arnold Store built at 28 Maple Street adjacent to the factory, which still functions as the village post office. Probably the first domestic example of the Greek Revival style is the Chaffee-Keeney House, which served several mill owners and is located just across the street from the mills (39 Maple Street). With its ridge-to-street orientation, it has a colonial appearance, but its high plate, wide frieze board, and stylish doorway are concessions to the style.
Three houses, built more conventionally with facade pediments and trabeated doorways by members of the same family, illustrate the evolution of the Greek Revival style in the Somersville Historic District. The earlier Solomon and Horace Billings House has the temple-form main block with recessed kitchen wing of farmhouses built in this style (193 Main Street). The later houses of Henry Billings (179 Main Street) and Sanford Billings (63 Maple Street) are taller and narrower versions that utilize a cross-gable plan. By the time Frederick Loomer, the blacksmith, built his new house at 100 Maple Street in the 1850s, its projecting pedimented gables were only one or two bays wide, instead of the standard three.
Some of the most stylish examples in the Somersville Historic District were built or remodeled in the prevailing styles by the mill owners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are generally clustered in the vicinity of the Somersville Manufacturing Company at the center of the district and were owned by several generations of the Keeney family, who ran the company after 1880. In addition to the Chaffee-Keeney House already mentioned, which was a home for Rockwell Keeney, the first president of the company, another Greek Revival house was owned by Lafayette Keeney (57 Maple Street). He updated the house in the Colonial Revival style about 1900, but its stylistic antecedents are still obvious. Another Greek Revival residence remodeled by Mayro Keeney at the southern end of the Somersville Historic District at 147 Maple Street in the Queen Anne style has an unusual square tower. Although Leland Keeney built a Colonial Revival style house just south of the mill in 1915 (58 Maple Street), the grandest house in the village by far was built in this style in 1912 by Ralph Keeney at 87 Main Street.
Workers' housing was built in the Somersville Historic District from about 1850 to 1934 by both the factory owners and village residents. The first were multi-family houses built about mid-century on School Street (20, 32, 36, 46, and 52 School Street). One or more of these tenements was built by the Holmes & Reynolds Company, the second firm to operate the mill in the district. Several were later owned by the Somersville Manufacturing Company, including one known as the Long Block since it was composed of two separate houses which were attached as one building (46 School Street). By 1860 the Arnolds, who owned the village store and lived on lower Maple Street, built two small mill houses nearby to rent to workers (27 and 29 Maple Street), and other privately sponsored multi-family rental housing was built on Main Street in the twentieth century.
A concerted building program by the Somersville Manufacturing Company that started about 1885 and ran until 1934 produced a large number of multi-family workers' houses and boarding houses, of which 29 survive. A number of types were identified in the 1991 survey of Somersville, but the basic plan of these multiple-unit workers' houses is rectangular with a ridge-to-street orientation. The earliest were located on Main Street (132, 133, 134, and 136 Main Street). A few years later eleven larger ones were built on the western approach to the district and several of these were used as boarding houses (53, 54, 57, 58, 61, 64, 65, 68, 69, 73, and 84 Main Street). More housing was built in the early twentieth-century on Quality Avenue, a street laid out for this purpose. The first were three single-family overseers' houses at the beginning of the street (14, 17, and 18 Quality Avenue). Quality Avenue was extended in 1928 and two more types were built there. The first group were comparatively stylish with either full facade porches or small entrance porticos decorated with Victorian trim (38-40, 41-43, 42-44, 45-47, 46-48, 49-51, and 50-52 Quality Avenue). In 1934 the street was extended further for three much larger tenements (54, 60, and 64 Quality Avenue).
By the late nineteenth-century commercial and institutional development stepped up in the district, producing a full range of resource types. They were concentrated especially on Main Street, in the block between Maple and School streets. Although all contributing examples of historic commercial buildings they have retained their essential form, several, such as Homer's Store (104 Main Street), built in 1901, have been resided with asphalt or aluminum. The best-preserved example is Delaney-McMullen Store (111 Main Street), a wood-frame structure built in 1892, still with its original clapboard. These were mixed-use buildings, with the owners living on the upper floors or renting them out, but there were exceptions. For example, John Spencer, the village barber, who built a house at 116 Main Street in 1901, two years later built a separate barber shop next door (118 Main Street). Forester's Hall, a fraternal and union meeting hall built in 1921 which later served as a movie house, is another large building on the south side of the street which has been resided (154 Main Street). It is similar in form to the smaller 1928 Legion Hall at 55 School Street.
Interspersed between commercial buildings and workers' housing in this block are a number of multi-family houses, both duplexes and tenements, built from about 1880 through 1928. Like the earlier farmhouses on Maple Street, most are vernacular examples of Victorian styles and their detailing is generally limited to porches or doorhoods; a number have been sided with asbestos or other artificial sidings. A group of single-family houses was built by John Wood on the north side of the street in the last decade of the century.
Other institutional development took place elsewhere in the district. By mid-century, the Somersville Grammar School was built (18 School Street). A wood-frame structure, now a residence, this district school was the forerunner of the much larger Somersville School built of brick across the street in 1931 (41 School Street). Its facade is now partially hidden by an addition. Two major religious groups built churches in the district within a few years of each other. The Congregationalists built their Queen Anne/Stick style church on lower Maple Avenue in 1888, the first of this denomination in the village (22 Maple Street). Its original stickwork and variety of sheathing have been covered with aluminum siding but its basic form and many of its features remain in place, including the square bell tower and the bank of narrow arched windows on the facade, which are bordered with small panes in the Queen Anne manner. A later Gothic Revival example, today known as All Saint's Catholic Church, was built at 21 School Street in 1892; its rectory next door, built in 1915, has a broad Colonial Revival portico (25 School Street). Although also resided, All Saints still displays Gothic features, such as the pointed-arch windows and the bartisans at the outside corners of the roofs of the aisles.
The textile mills at the center of the Somersville Historic District are located on both sides of Maple Street. The complex on the west side of the street, which is quite extensive (a footprint of 115,000 square feet), developed between 1835 and 1928 and incorporates the full range of mill architecture (40 Maple Street). The earliest extant building is completely built of wood and its single-ply wood floors are supported by wood columns. Its cupola with a bell has been removed and the walls have been sheathed with vinyl, but a clerestory dormer remains on the south slope of its gabled roof. To its south is a brick mill with a brownstone foundation and a stairtower capped by a mansard roof. Several additions in the twentieth century extend to the west and connect to the earlier buildings around an internal light shaft. All the brick mills have typical, regularly spaced windows with segmental arches and often display brick corbelling detail under the eaves. Buildings on the east side of the street next to the dam, built about 1880 as a pumphouse and pickerhouse (used for preparing raw cotton for spinning), also display these features (49 Maple Street). The last additions to the main complex are brick or concrete pier construction with the larger windows associated with this type and date from the early twentieth century. A detached brick warehouse with a near-flat roof and brick corbelling built at this time behind the main complex can be viewed from Quality Avenue (27 Quality Avenue). The millpond is now retained by a 90-foot stone and concrete dam, enlarged over the years from the original sawmill dam here in the mid-eighteenth century to produce more power. By the twentieth century the dam powered an electric generator and water was carried under the road to the main plant in a large brick and tile penstock.
Encompassing a full range and variety of resource types, the Somersville Historic District illustrates the development of a rural textile mill town in nineteenth and early-twentieth century Connecticut. Neither a planned factory village nor exclusively a company town, Somersville still exhibits all the changes wrought by a century of industrial growth and further illuminates the role of family-based capitalism during the Industrial Revolution. Even though the level of integrity and architectural significance is not uniformly high, the Somersville Historic District contains good examples of industrial, residential, commercial, and institutional architecture and includes a substantial group of well-preserved mill workers' housing, as well as a number of well-preserved examples of the Greek Revival style.
The role of the family in early industry is well known. Many early factories and mills were started by relatives, as was the case here, but more often than not, this important aspect of Connecticut's Industrial Revolution was simply the initial growth stage, one that later succumbed to more successful and sophisticated corporate development. The few family-run industries that sustained growth over time are either isolated individual companies in more urban settings or fully-fledged company towns that were more isolated from their agrarian setting, such as the better-known community run by the Cheney family in Manchester, Connecticut. Though many aspects of both types are present here, what is unusual about Somersville is how industrial and private investment capital worked in tandem to produce a viable self-sustaining industrial-agrarian community that prospered for more than a century under the paternalistic leadership of four generations of the Keeney family.
Settlement began in Somersville in the colonial period. A sparsely populated crossroads community sprang up around Billings Mill, named for the saw-and gristmill located there. After 1750 Samuel Billings added a fulling mill at this site on the Scantic River, an unremarkable pattern found throughout Connecticut. The village center of Somers to the east was the institutional center of the town and Somersville remained a satellite of the larger community well into the nineteenth century. Even after the Spencer & Chaffee Company made the first attempts to weave woolen goods here in 1835, this firm continued to operate the gristmill here, as did their successors, Holmes & Reynolds. Neither firm was very successful, although Holmes & Reynolds prospered briefly during the Civil War.
The first company was started by Chester Spencer, a local man who lived on the family farm built by his grandfather (79 Main Street) and ran a dry goods store in the village (no longer extant). He went into business with his wife's nephews, William and James Chaffee, to manufacture satinet (a relatively coarse woolen cloth with a cotton warp), constructing the town's first woolen textile mill, the wooden building now part of the factory complex on the east side of Maple Street. The small mill office across the street was also built by this firm (37 Maple Street), which by 1852 was known as the Somersville Company, the first time the name was associated with the mills. By then, the original owners had abandoned the business and it was a joint stock company owned by several families in town. Still using waterwheels to run the power train, at that time it had 20 looms and the other assorted machinery needed in the production of woolen cloth. The company also owned three dwellings, including the one at 39 Maple Street, which probably earlier housed one of the Chaffees and then became a boarding house for workers. The business was deeply in debt and heavily mortgaged, right down to the lumber and grain in the old saw- and gristmill, the machinery and contents of the wool mill, and even the 11 beds in the company boarding house. The remaining stockholders sold the company in 1853 to Holmes & Reynolds, both from Massachusetts, who enlarged the mill, almost doubling its capacity by 1860. Fifty workers were employed during the Civil War but the company shut down completely a few years later.
In 1879 Rockwell Keeney purchased the existing mill and its water rights and founded the Somersville Manufacturing Company. Keeney and his sons expanded the existing plant which his grandsons later fully modernized. By 1886 the company employed 200 workers and had built a new three-story brick weaving and spinning mill, which soon tripled production. It was powered in tandem with the original wooden mill with both steam and waterpower. By the early twentieth century, the plant had achieved its present size and fully converted to hydro-electric power; modern looms were installed which increased production capacity fivefold. Since investment in the community was necessary to attract a labor force and sustain growth, scores of workers' houses were built on company land. It can be estimated that at least 150 families and many single workers were housed in this manner, but company housing did not fully meet the demand. A number of rental properties were built by others, especially on Main Street. Some of the workforce lived outside the district; those who came from as far away as Enfield travelled to work by trolley.
The firm continued to specialize in heavy woolen cloth, such as kersey or melton, and supplied the military during two world wars. Expensive coatings and suitings, such as chinchilla or cashmere, were added to the product line in the twentieth century. Raw materials for these products came from all over the world. Wool from Australia and New Zealand and cashmere and camel's hair from China and Arabia were shipped to the port of Boston and carried by rail to the nearest depot, located in Enfield. Wholesale jobbers marketed these products, an unusual practice for a family-based firm. More commonly, such companies maintained sales offices in major cities run by a family member. After weathering the Depression and its attendant labor unrest, circumstances that forced many textile mills out of business, the Somersville Manufacturing Company prospered during World War II. Unlike many textile firms that closed or moved out of Connecticut in the postwar period, the company continued to grow. Much of its postwar success was due to Robert Keeney, a member of the fourth generation who returned after World War II to enter the business. Following the precedent set by his great-grandfather, one that was followed by every member of the family involved with the company, he chose to live near the mill, renovating the house at 63 Maple Street. By the 1950s production was ten times what if had been in the 1880s and 400 were employed. Rising labor costs and the expense of meeting new environmental regulations in the 1960s were finally the Somersville Manufacturing Company's undoing; it closed for good in 1969 and sold off all of its real estate in the village.
Even though the mill is silent, it still dominates the village. Together with the workers' housing, it is an obvious reminder of the industrial presence here for more than a century. But the dramatic changes in Somersville after the Keeney takeover were not limited to the physical landscape. In Somersville, as elsewhere, industry brought a greater prosperity and population growth, but more importantly, in the closed world of this rural community, it fundamentally restructured and polarized its society. From a relatively homogeneous village composed generally of a "middling" class of farmers and tradesmen, Somersville became not only more ethnically and religiously diverse, it developed a substantial working class whose lives were controlled to large degree by the Keeney dynasty. The "operatives," as mill hands were known, were largely dependant on the Keeneys not only for employment and basic necessities such as shelter, but for any educational, religious, or recreational opportunities. Despite the absence of the more typical hierarchical geography of a mill village and a seeming democratic proximity of the owners here, levels of socio-economic class are apparent and underscored by differences in architectural style.
Immigrant labor was actively recruited. The majority in the late nineteenth century came from French-speaking Canada or the Maritime Provinces, but there were also a number of Irish. Eastern Europeans and Italians came to Somersville in the early 1900s, most to work at the mill, but a few came to farm. Opportunities for advancement existed for both immigrants and local people and often several generations of the same family worked at the mill. Native fathers and sons who worked at the mill often had the family farm to fall back on during down times at the mill.
Three generations of the Wood family, who came from Nova Scotia and worked at the mill, included James, Sr., a boss finisher employed there for 52 years. He and his son, J. Francis, one of the mill foremen, lived at 23 Quality Avenue, the latter man in Overseer's House #1 (14 Quality Avenue). Recognizing the importance of skilled technicians, the Keeneys brought several men from England and also provided them with a single-family overseer's house. Among them were Arthur Goldthorpe, who introduced several new textiles to the company line and after 1902 was superintendent of the mill (18 Quality Avenue). Another important employee was a French-Canadian millwright, Louis Boucher, who was provided with living quarters in the Long Block (46 School Street). His task was to set up the parallel power train for the first brick mill at the complex, which ran in tandem with the old water-powered weaving mill, and he may have had a hand in the design of the new building.
A number of immigrants who were upwardly mobile moved out of company housing and/or started their own businesses. After William Hemenway became one of the 16 foremen at the mill, he bought land from the Keeneys and built his own farmhouse at 120 Maple Street. His son was also employed at the company as a spinner. Christopher Mulligan, a weaver, was able to build a duplex at 15 Maple Street as did several others, including Fred Bouthere, a French Canadian worker, who built at 141 Main Street. Several new homeowners were women: Bridget Delaney (129 Main Street), an Irish-born domestic and the widow of an Irish mill hand, and Margaret Plamondon, a French-Canadian widow who built a rental tenement in 1920 at 119 Main Street. Alice Sunderland, the wife of a Yorkshire man, built a duplex in 1902 (23 Quality Avenue), which she later sold to the Somersville Manufacturing Company. One of the larger stores on Main Street, the Delaney-McMullen Store (111 Main Street) was built by two Irishmen who soon found themselves in competition with Homer's Store across the street, built by a Keeney in-law (104 Main Street). A dairy store started by a prominent farmer in Somers, was later owned by immigrants from Russia (114 Main Street). Barbershops were also a popular source of income. In addition to the one built by John Spencer, a local man, Arthur Johndrow, a French-Canadian barber, added an extension for his shop to the house he bought from John Wood at 155 Main Street.
Before industry geared up in the late nineteenth century, Somersville, although undeniably a Protestant community, was a bit unusual in its religious affiliations, and it would, of course, become even more diverse because of its largely Roman Catholic labor force. The Spiritualist sect apparently flourished there for most of the nineteenth century. They counted among their numbers Lambert Cady, one of the village blacksmiths, and when he died more than 500 attended his funeral held in the Spiritualist Hall on School Street (no longer extant). Until 1888, when they built their own church at 22 Maple Street, Congregationalists had to attend services in Somers; only the Universalists had their own church, which was once located on that site. Although the Congregational Church was built from a trust fund left by a wealthy member of the Billings family for this purpose, the land for the parsonage was donated by the Keeneys about 1910. Soon after the first immigrants arrived, Roman Catholic services were held by mission priests. By the late 1880s masses were held in a church, the former Universalist building. With the help of the Keeney family, it was moved to School Street and served until All Saints was constructed in 1892 (21 School Street).
With the growth of the mill and the large increase in population, farmers and artisans also prospered. There were cattle and dairy farmers, and grain crops, such as animal feed, and tobacco were grown in the district. Several tanneries operated on the Scantic River outside the district and shoemakers supplied the Shaker community in Enfield. Several members of the Gowdy family were well-to-do farmers. Theodore M. Gowdy, who lived in a Greek Revival farmhouse at 93 Maple Street, employed several laborers to run his commercial farm and provided them with housing. He bought the Widow Allen House (83 Maple Street) for this purpose and also built several small houses in the 1880s, including the one at 111 Maple Street. Before he turned exclusively to farming, Gowdy ran a cottage industry in the village, employing more than 100 men and women to make Shaker hoods, popular straw bonnets based on those worn by the Shakers. A prominent figure in town, he was selectman for 16 years and also represented Somers in the General Assembly. His uncle's house farther down the road was purchased by Mayro Keeney, one of the few Keeney sons who did not devote his life to the business. He left the firm in 1905 to become a gentleman farmer, turning the 160-acre property into a showplace where he bred prize Holsteins (147 Maple Street).
Since Somersville was off the beaten track and too far east to directly benefit from the major railroad lines of the Connecticut River Valley, the village was completely dependent on horse-drawn transportation until well into the twentieth century. As a result the services of Loomer's Blacksmith Shop (75 Maple Street) were in great demand by both farmers and the textile mill. Raw materials and finished goods were transported by wagon between the mill and the Scitico depot in Enfield until gas-powered trucks became commonplace; a number of men were employed as teamsters. After Loomer retired, the shop was run by his son, Otis, followed by a series of smiths, including Lambert Cady. Wheelwrights and wagonmakers were also in demand and they flocked to the village. Among them were Chauncey Hurlburt, a wagonmaker who lived at 79 Maple Street and had his shop across the street, and John Tyler, a wheelwright who had lived at 93 Maple Street before it was owned by Theodore Gowdy. Ralph King, who moved into a farmhouse down the road (128 Maple Street) after he married the first owner's widow, was an artisan of diverse talents. A carriagemaker with his father in Hartford before he brought the business to Somersville, King was also a wagonmaker and wheelwright. In the twentieth century he turned to painting automobiles after they came into fashion.
The primary architectural significance of the Somersville Historic District is collective. Few buildings here stand on their own merit, but together they embody the reality of almost two centuries of historical experience. It is notable that the community continued to thrive even after losing its economic base. Historic resources of many different types have been utilized for modern use and as an indication of its viability, new residences continue to be built in the Somersville Historic District. Although artificial sidings were used in the early twentieth century, especially on Main Street buildings, in general, the majority of the resources in the district have retained their original fabric and are well-maintained, a circumstance which is most apparent on Maple Street, where there are numerous representative examples of vernacular domestic architecture. In addition, many of these historic farmsteads have retained their barns and other outbuildings, contributing to the historic rural atmosphere, and one is still a working farm (100 Maple Street). The remarkably large and significant group of workers' housing in the Somersville Historic District is also generally well-maintained and those on Quality Avenue are especially well-preserved. No modern intrusion has been built on this relatively isolated part of the street, and several duplexes retain their original sheds at the rear of the property. Each still has its original clapboarding and intact Victorian detail.
Stylistic significance is generally limited to the many manifestations of the Greek Revival in the Somersville Historic District. Although this antebellum style was universally popular and there are many examples in Connecticut, the range of form and plan found in the district is exceptional. Numerous examples in the Somersville Historic District have retained their original form and detail. Among the finest and best-preserved are the Chaffee-Keeney House at 39 Maple Street and the Solomon and Horace Billings House at 193 Main Street. The several examples of the Greek Revival that were owned and enlarged by the Keeney family are representative of historic remodelings which produced some buildings of exceptional architectural interest. In the Mayro Keeney House (147 Maple Street), the introduction of the Queen Anne style is successfully accomplished by the use of a pilastered tower form that is compatible with the essential angularity of the original building. The Lafayette Keeney House is a fine early demonstration of Colonial Revival remodeling (57 Maple Street). It columned open veranda ties together the older Greek Revival main block with the enlarged wing and both are embellished with classical detail.
Although the fashionable Colonial Revival style predominated nationwide in the early 1900s, there are few examples in the Somersville Historic District. It is modestly expressed in several houses, such as the All Saints Rectory (25 School Street), but even the grandest example in the Somersville Historic District, the Ralph Keeney House, is not pretentious and relatively small in scale (87 Main Street). Probably designed by an architect (yet unknown), it was built in the Georgian manner and displays a number of classical details such as the modillions under the eaves and the Palladian window over the main entrance. Still relatively unaltered, the house has had only one major change, a sympathetic partial enclosure of its columned facade porch when it was renovated for office use.
Somersville: Historical and Architectural Survey (Intensive level).
Cunningham Associates Ltd. and Connecticut Historical Commission, 1991.
†Janice P. Cunningham, Cunningham Associates, Ltd. and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Somersville Historic District, Tolland, CT, nomination document, 1994, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.