Wauregan Historic District
The Wauregan Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Wauregan is a small manufacturing village located in the northwestern corner of the town of Plainfield, Connecticut. Built around a large mill established for the production of cotton cloth, the boundaries of the Wauregan Historic District include all of the structures (with the exception of some scattered farm buildings) directly related to the mill and its economic and social activities. These structures include: several ancillary industrial buildings around the mill, a store, a large boarding house for single workers and another for supervisory personnel, a church and its parsonage, two large residences where the mill's owners once lived, eight supervisor's houses, and 86 dwellings constructed to accommodate the mill workers and their families. Modern intrusions are limited to eight structures; and, generally the village retains its nineteenth-century dimensions and appearance.
The mill is located on the east bank of the Quinebaug River, with the remains of its now ruined dam and large mill pond to the north. The village extends eastward up a gently rising slope towards Route 12, a major north-south highway which runs along the crest of a ridge here. Another state highway, Route 205, crosses the Quinebaug between the mill and the dam site and proceeds southeasterly through the village and up the hill to its Junction with Route 12. The most important local thoroughfares, Walnut Street and Chestnut Street, parallel each other and the front facade of the mill in a north-south direction; and along these streets are ranged most of the workers' houses. The company store and the houses of the supervisors are located above these dwellings, with the church and the homes of the mill owners higher still to the east, an arrangement which expressed both the economic and social reality of the village. Across the river and outside the district lies West Wauregan, a "free enterprise community" established in response to the needs of the workers which the company could not or would not satisfy. Here were located the Catholic church and several stores which competed with the company-owned emporium.
The boundaries of the Wauregan Historic District enclose the village but exclude a good deal of open land that the company once owned. The western boundary is the western bank of the Quinebaug River (although it has been necessary to include a parcel of land on the far side of the river to encompass the western abutment of the dam). To the north, the former high water mark of the mill pond designates the general point of termination. Along the east and south boundary, the line follows property lines or road curbs rather than artificial lines drawn between two points. Thus the easterly limit of the district is the rear property line of the Atwood mansion on the eastern side of Route 12, and the southerly limit is the southern property lines at the end houses on South Walnut and South Chestnut Streets. Finally, there is a detached portion of this district located about 1/2 mile to the east of the village along Moosup Pond Road which includes a brick building used for storage on a former rail siding.
Wauregan's nineteenth-century organization is plainly evident today. The number of modern structures within the Wauregan Historic District's boundaries is limited, and most of the buildings constructed by the company remain and are in reasonably good repair. There have, however, been several grievous losses. First, a large "Shingle-style" residence was destroyed by fire in 1976. Second, the company's schoolhouse which stood on the northeastern corner of Route 12 and All Hallows Road was removed five or six years ago. Third, a boarding house was demolished and a "package store" erected in its place. And, finally, the village's trolley station (the line ran through Wauregan on its way from Central Village to Danielson) was moved from its original site in front of the mill to Moosup in the 1930s. It can still be seen today on Ward Avenue where it houses a pizza shop.
Besides these losses, threats to several other historic buildings must be noted. Early in January, 1979, the remaining "Shingle-style" mansion suffered a severe fire. The owners have decided to demolish the house rather than to restore it, and a salvage company has already begun to strip the interior. As of May 1, the outside shell of the building was still standing; but its complete removal can be expected within a few months. Also, the Congregational church, built by the company in 1873, is greatly dilapidated. Much of the tower has been taken down, and town officials have issued an order condemning the remainder of the structure which they consider an eyesore and a hazard. To be blunt, only a miracle will save this building too from eventual destruction. Further, the village as a whole is threatened to some extent by a proposal to build an industrial park on the open land to the southeast. Such development would have considerable impact on Wauregan, and great care would be necessary to avoid degrading its nineteenth-century ambience. Finally, the mill houses, now in private hands, continue to undergo alterations and changes, including in some cases the installation of aluminum siding which obscures architectural details.
The Wauregan Historic District possesses four areas of significance. First, the architecture of the late nineteenth-century homes of the mill owners and the village church are important examples of individual styles (Stick style and High Victorian Gothic); while in the mill, the workers' housing, and other buildings constructed by the company, one sees the use of certain stylistic details (Greek Revival and Italianate) to embellish what are essentially utilitarian structures. Second, the Wauregan Historic District illustrates an important chapter in the industrial history of New England, highlighting both the triumph and decline of textile manufacturing. Third, the physical organization of the village is an early example of community planning whose virtues are still apparent. And, finally, the Wauregan Historic District is a monument to the social and humanitarian ideals of Wauregan's builders who created a community in which the general welfare of their employees was conscientiously promoted.
The earliest buildings at Wauregan — the mill, the boarding houses, the first workers' houses, the store, and the home of J.S. Atwood — contain elements of the Greek Revival and Italianate styles. These structures are mainly utilitarian (even Atwood's large home reflects more the desire for a comfortable residence than it does for a "High-style" mansion); and stylistic elements are clearly used as ornamental additions to essentially plain designs. The mill building, for example, is a plain, solid structure made interesting by the Italianate belfries on the two stair towers facing the village. Also, the workers' houses and the boarding houses built in the 1850s are simple, rectangular structures ornamented with such Greek Revival details as corner pilasters and projecting crossettes at the upper corners of the door frames. The best example, however, of a utilitarian structure embellished by stylistic ornamentation is the company store. Here, both Greek Revival elements (paneled corner pilasters) and Italianate details (cornice brackets and bracketed door hoods) are combined to embellish a straightforward commercial design.
Later buildings in Wauregan reflected changing tastes and attitudes. On the one hand, the houses built for the workers after the Civil War lost their Greek Revival ornamentation; while the Congregational Church and the mansions built by the sons of J.S. Atwood show a good deal more interest in current architectural styles. The church, built in 1873, was constructed in the High Victorian Gothic style with much of its wooden trim carefully worked to represent stone buttresses and corbelling. The two mansions, built about 1890, were examples of the popular Shingle style to be seen at nearby Newport and other Rhode Island resort communities. In conclusion, it is not difficult to recognize that these changing architectural tastes reflected a shift in social sensibilities. That is, the building of plainer workers' houses at the same time that a high-style church and mansions were being constructed symbolically represented the widening class differences between workers and owners.
Wauregan Historic District is also a tangible reminder of New England's industrial heritage. The mill and the village are a textbook example of a textile manufacturing community organized under the "Rhode Island System." The main elements of this system, in contrast to the "Waltham system" of organization used in Massachusetts and other areas, were shaped by geography, economic organization, and the use of labor. Geographically, southern New England is an area of swift moving but relatively small streams. The infant textile industry of Rhode Island, begun on the banks of the Pawtucket River by Samuel Slater and his partners, quickly expended up such streams as the Pawtucket and Blackstone rivers, building individual mills at every available power site. Soon, Rhode Island entrepreneurs were looking at the Quinebaug River and its tributaries in eastern Connecticut for further expansion; and, in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, they built a number of mills at such places as Danielsonville, Williamsville and Moosup. Thus, in eastern Connecticut as in Rhode Island, geography determined that there would be only one or two mills at each power site surrounded by a small village, in contrast to the numerous mills built under the "Waltham system" at sites where power was much more abundant, such as Lowell, Lawrence and Manchester (New Hampshire) where large towns quickly sprang up and grew into cities.
The mills built by these Rhode Island capitalists were generally organized as partnerships which, in turn, fostered family control and a close relationship between particular families and mills, the homes of the owners often being within walking distance of the mill office. The mills built under the Waltham system, on the other hand, were usually owned by absentee investors in Boston and elsewhere who had little interest in the mill community beyond the profits it generated. There were inherent strengths and weaknesses in each type of organization. Rhode Island style partnerships tended to be undercapitalized and were much more vulnerable to periodic economic declines, as the numerous bankruptcies and closings throughout the nineteenth century reveal; while investor-owned companies were more likely to have the wherewithal to ride out temporary problems. Partnerships, however, usually were able to react faster to technological changes and to diversify more rapidly into newer products; while larger concerns were generally more conservative and remained wedded to the output of one or two traditional products.
Finally, mills built under the Rhode Island system were also usually accompanied by the building of small villages to house their workers. This was because Slater and his fellow capitalists wanted to recruit families to work in their mills rather than attracting groups of unattached young people from surrounding farms as was done at Lowell. The Rhode Islanders felt that by encouraging families to settle and work in their mill communities, they would have a better chance of securing a stable, highly-skilled labor force controlled, partially, by the internal mechanism of family life. Thus, the typical mill village in southern New England consisted of large numbers of duplex and four-tenement dwellings, with boarding houses providing limited space for single men or women until they married.
In 1850, Amos D. Lockwood who was involved at the time with the Quinebaug Mill at Danielsonville, and a group of partners (including Oray Taft) purchased the water privileges at Wauregan and some land there; and, after petitioning the Connecticut legislature for a charter, they began in 1853 to construct the first mill (now the northern section of the front mill). Lockwood, the mill's first agent, engaged J.S. Atwood, then twenty-two years old, as his superintendent, and placed in his young hands the burden of setting up all machinery and starting production. In 1858, Lockwood sold his interest in the mill and Atwood became agent, a position he was to hold until his death in 1885, gradually acquiring a substantial amount of the company's stock. Under his leadership Wauregan prospered. The mill was expanded, new workers' houses were built, and a number of amenities were added to village life. J.S. Atwood was a remarkable man; and, because of his close connection with Wauregan, his life deserves particular recognition.
Born in 1832 in Scituate, Rhode Island, Atwood was the son of a man who had worked his way up from textile machinist, to overseer of weaving in several mills, and eventually to a partnership in the mill at Williamsville, Connecticut, where he was manufacturing agent.
At fifteen, Atwood became a clerk in the company store; and, later, to familiarize himself with the manufacturing process, he worked at every job in the mill in turn. In 1849, he assisted David Whitman, an early textile mill engineer, in the remodelling of the Williamsville mill and the introduction of new machinery there. One of the tasks Whitman set young Atwood to was the calculation of the figures for Whitman's Tables which were afterwards used by many cotton manufacturers to estimate production time and costs.
It was probably through Whitman that Atwood met Amos D. Lockwood; for, after Whitman's death, Lockwood took over his business and with his partner, Stephen Greene, established the firm of Lockwood, Greene and Company, which eventually became one of the most noted textile engineering firms in the country. Whatever the circumstances of their introduction were, Lockwood was so favorably impressed by young Atwood's talents that, as we have seen, he made Atwood his superintendent at Wauregan.
As agent of Wauregan Mills, Atwood quadrupled the size of the factory, adding the south mill of the front block (in 1859) and the entire rear block (in 1867-68). Eventually the mill reached a capacity of 56,616 spindles and 1,464 wide looms. The principal product was cotton sheeting, and the annual output was eleven million yards. The mill's payroll was around 750 persons, most of whom lived in the surrounding village.
It should also be noted that Atwood was intimately connected with Ponemah Mills, once the largest cotton mill in the United States which was built on the Shetucket River about 20 miles south of Wauregan by a group of investors led by the Slater and Taft families. They chose Atwood as their agent, and it was he who oversaw the construction of the majestic Mill No. 1 and the surrounding village, putting to use all of the experience he had gained at Wauregan and undoubtedly contributing a great deal to Ponemah's success as the pioneering "fancy" cloth producer in the country.
After J.S. Atwood's death, management of Wauregan Mills passed into the hands of his sons, James Arthur and John Walter Atwood. Under their leadership, the company successfully responded to the competition of the newer, steam-powered mills in the Fall River-New Bedford area and the South by moving away from sheeting and into the production of finer quality cotton goods such as shirting and, later, synthetic cloth (rayon). Indeed, Wauregan Mills was a pioneer in the use of synthetics and established a close working relationship with DuPont. Eventually, in the late 1930s this relationship led to the development by Wauregan Mills of the technology necessary to produce fine suiting made of a blend of wool and rayon. Undoubtedly, the flexibility inherent in the economic organization of the company and the ability of its owner-managers allowed Wauregan Mills to change its product mix quickly to meet the demands, of competition from newer textile centers. In contrast, many larger, corporate-owned mills, organized under the Waltham system in Lowell and Lawrence, remained wedded to the output of traditional products and, in consequence, suffered declining products. Rather than diversify and find new markets, the response of the directors of these mills in the inter-war period was to close down and shift production to the South, a decision which had drastically harmful consequences for their worker's. Indeed, it may be said that Lowell and Lawrence entered the Great Depression ten years earlier than the rest of the country.
After the Second World War, Wauregan Mills entered a period of decline from which it never recovered. It was the fate of James Arthur Atwood III, who took over the management of the mill after the death of his grandfather, to preside over this final chapter of the company's history. The underlying cause for the demise was competition from Japan in the production of fine cotton goods, such as shirting, in which the Wauregan Company specialized. As the 1950s wore on, it became increasingly apparent that the New England textile industry was to be sacrificed on the altar of "free trade," as Japanese cloth, produced on modern equipment shipped to Japan as part of the post-War economic reconstruction effort, and by workers whom wages were considerably less than their American counterparts, flooded (or was dumped on) the U.S. market. Wauregan Mills fought back as best it could, attempting to emphasise synthetic blend output and to reduce labor costs by negotiating with the textile union local to eliminate certain fringe benefits in the general contract.
Then, in August, 1955, disaster struck in the form of a flood caused by the torrential rains of a hurricane. Dams along the Quinebaug were broken and the one at Wauregan was breached, water flooding the mill to the level of the first floor ceilings. Workmen and their families from Wauregan and other people from surrounding communities rushed to the mill and managed to salvage a great deal of cloth, raw materials and machinery; but much was lost as well, and the financial blow to the company was more than $1,500,000. To resume production, a great deal of money was borrowed; and this put an increasing strain on the company's finances by reducing the amount of working capital available to keep the plant in repair and to modernize production.
Thus, in 1957, with the long-term outlook for the textile industry in New England so bleak, Mr. Atwood and the rest of the company's directors decided to cease all operations.
Mr. Atwood then took on the thankless task of disposing of the company's assets, so carefully built up and managed by his family for the past 100 years, to satisfy all creditors. Land, the water company, and other property were sold, and the mill rented to various tenants until by 1970 all the debts of Wauregan Mill had been cleared. Finally, in 1974, the mill building itself was sold to the C & M Corporation, a manufacturer of industrial wire and cable, which now uses much of the floor space for its own production and rents the rest to other concerns.
The mill and its surrounding village encompassed by the Wauregan Historic District are also significant as an example of community planning and, in turn, as an expression of certain humanitarian ideas about work, family life, and general social welfare. Unlike other mill villages which have since become merged into larger settlements, Wauregan remains a pure example of a planned industrial community, free, for the most part, from modern intrusions. Along the river bank lies the community's focal point, the long, buff-colored mill, with its tall stair towers and belfries where the bells were housed which regulated the village's everyday life. Ranged before the mill and extending up the slope of land to the east, is the orderly grid of streets containing in ascending order: the mill workers' houses, boarding houses, the company store, the homes of the supervisors, the church and its parsonage, and, highest of all, the mansions of the Atwoods and the village school. The entire village was surrounded by the company's farm, approximately 1,500 acres, which provided a buffer of open space between the village and the main road connecting Danielson and Plainfield.
Within the village the company was omniscient. Besides providing employment and a place to live the company furnished its workers with drinking water, a place (the company store) where they could buy wholesome food and milk (produced on the company farm) cheaply, a place to worship (the Congregational church, although most workers attended the Catholic church across the river in West Wauregan), and the school where their children were educated. Other services included an infirmary, a reading room and library, and the sponsorship and support of many recreational activities such as baseball teams, a local band, and the volunteer fire department (whose purpose, needless to say was not entirely social).
Why did the company and its managers involve themselves so intimately in the lives of their workers? One reason was that their, business sense told them that they would attract and retain a better, more highly skilled class of workers by providing good housing, cheap food, and educational and recreational opportunities. But beyond this economic motive, the managers of Wauregan Mills, in particular the Atwood family, were philosophically wedded to the doctrines of paternalism; that is, they believed that their wealth and control of property demanded that they attend to the welfare of those whom they employed beyond the mere payment of wages. Welfare, however, was defined from the point of view of control from above; and the values which the mill owners cherished in their workers: orderliness, sobriety, personal responsibility, and integration within strong family structures, were those which they tried to foster through their welfare programs. Thus, the school and the library and reading rooms were encouraged and supported because it was believed that they provided an antidote to laziness and ignorance; the mill houses were built to accommodate families because it was believed that family life made a man more responsible; and baseball teams and band concerts were encouraged because they furnished family entertainment and were an alternative to men abandoning their homes for alcohol and low associations in barrooms.
Now, although many of the goals of the mill owners were highly laudable if self-serving, the means they used to achieve them were certainly not democratic; and, thus, a description of their system of community welfare is unacceptable to our more equalitarian ears. However, that said, it is important to note that paternalism in Wauregan created what it set out to create to a remarkable extent: a well fed and housed community of generally contented people. This is not to dismiss the facts that within the mill hours were terribly long, working conditions (particularly noise) were poor, and accidents were a common occurrence. Yet, in the context of nineteenth-century industry generally, the workers at Wauregan Mills were not "exploited" but were treated fairly and conscientiously. They were not seething with resentment over their lot but were pretty much satisfied with their lives and work.
Perhaps the leaven that made paternalism acceptable and workable here in the best interests of all was the presence in the village of the Atwood family. J.S. Atwood lived the rest of his life at Wauregan after supervising the opening of the mill in 1853. His biographers have memorialized him as a humble man of great generosity who knew all his workmen by name and who could always be relied upon to help any Wauregan family troubled by illness or other personal problems. His son, J.A. Atwood is fondly remembered in the village to this day by many older residents. In 1947, on his retirement from the day-to-day management of the company, he wrote with much feeling: "Wauregan and its people have always seemed to me more like a family group working together for its best good, and I hope it may always continue as such...To Gordon Harrower [the company's treasurer and general manager]...I bequeath the management of the Wauregan Mills and the care of Wauregan and its people."
The continual presence of the Atwoods and their day-to-day attention to the needs of their workers seemed to forestall the growth of any organized discontent. Indeed, it was not until after World War II that the company's workers were organized by the Textile Workers Union of America. In comparison, Ponemah Mills in Taftville, where J.S. Atwood also served as manufacturing agent but did not reside (nor did any of the other owners), labor strife was evident in the mid-1870s and several times afterward. Most of the same services that were provided for the workers at Wauregan were also furnished at Ponemah; but the paternalistic system there was more bureaucratized and lacked the day-to-day attention of those who owned the mill. Thus, the system was made too impersonal and the community feeling that the owners tried to create lacked an authentic classlessness of men of all social ranks living and working together. The result was the workers' rejection of the "false community" of the owners and the creation of their own social organizations through labor unions.
Wauregan, then, was a rare example of a paternalistic community that worked to most members' betterment and satisfaction. The company was seen as a benign friend rather than a powerful engine of exploitation; and, for this reason most individuals were successfully integrated into the village's social system.
In conclusion, by designating Wauregan as a National Register District, we commemorate both what this area is now and what it was in the past. Wauregan today is an area of significant architecture whose overall design reflects the goals of its builders: to create a functional yet amenable industrial village. Wauregan yesterday was dependent upon the prosperity of its mill, a prosperity which provided wages, housing, a school, a church, a store, and recreational opportunities for all its inhabitants. The social organization of nineteenth century Wauregan was paternalistic, and it was right that such a system should eventually disappear. Yet, it should also be recognized that through the wise leadership of the Atwood family, a true community was created and existed here that fulfilled the needs of most of its members.
Atwood, J. Arthur. Personal Reminiscence. 1947 (typewritten).
Bayles, Richard M., ed. History of Windham County, Connecticut. New York: W.W. Preston & Co., 1889.
Burgess, Charles F., ed. Plainfield Souvenir. Moosup, CT: Charles F. Burgess, 1895.
Burgy, J. Herbert. The New England Cotton Textile Industry: A Study in Industrial Geography. Baltimore: The Waverly Press, Inc., 1932.
Commemorative Biographical Record of Tolland and Windham Counties, Connecticut. Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1903.
Green, Martin M. "125 Years of Continuous Textile Manufacture." Connecticut Circle Magazine, December, 1944 — January, 1945, pp.33-36.
Towbridge, W.P., compiler. "Reports on the Water Power of the United States," Part 1. Census Office. Washington, DC,: Government Printing Office, 1885.
Wauregan Mills Archive, Wauregan, CT. (personal property of Mr. J.A. Atwood III).
Zimiles, Martha and Murray. Early American Mills. New York: Bramhall House, 1973.
† Harry Keiner, Connecticut Historical Commission, Wauregan National Register District (Wauregan Historic District), Plainfield, CT, nomination document, 1979, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D. C.