Friday, July 03, 2020

Rat Pack Motorcycle Club

There was a rally at City Hall yesterday intended to draw attention to the problem of racism in society today. The lineup of speakers included familiar names, Waterbury residents who frequently speak out on issues that are important to them. I figured it would be a pretty straight-forward event, exactly as billed, a series of speakers at a peaceful gathering. I wasn't able to attend, but I was curious to see how it went, so I went on social media last night to look for images and videos.

As soon as I saw the Rep-Am report that the Rat Pack Motorcycle Club (RPMC) had staged a counter-protest at the rally to "protect" the statue of Christopher Columbus, alarm bells went off inside my head. Members of the RPMC doing their best to look tough and intimidating towards Black people holding a rally at City Hall is something Waterbury has seen before. The past is repeating itself, and not in a good way.

News coverage of the clashing groups outside City Hall, Rep-Am website, 2 July 2020. Photo by Jim Shannon.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Horace Weston, World's Greatest Banjo Player

During the 1880s, Horace Weston was the world's greatest banjo player. He toured the U.S. and Europe, wrote music, endorsed a line of banjos, and influenced countless musicians. Weston spent a formative portion of his childhood in Waterbury, and it was here that he first learned to play musical instruments, setting him on the path to stardom.

Horace Weston, c. 1880
Harvard Theater Collection, HTC Photographs 1.1073

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Waterbury Clock Company Complex

As announced in the Rep-Am on June 26, the former Waterbury Clock office building will soon be demolished, along with portions of the factory complex. The buildings have been crumbling apart for decades. The factory complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Properties.

The former Waterbury Clock Company office building in 2007

Aerial View of the former Waterbury Clock Company factory complex, 2020

The Waterbury Clock Company was formed in 1857, a spin-off of the Benedict & Burnham Manufacturing Company. It became a highly successful company, selling its products all over the world.

Although the name of the company specified clocks, they also produced watches, most notably the "dollar watch" starting in the 1890s. The watch was an oversize pocket watch with a mechanism based on alarm clocks. The company teamed up with Robert H. Ingersoll, a retailer in New York City, to improve and market the watch under the Ingersoll name. By 1910, Waterbury Clock was producing 3,500,000 dollar watches each year for Ingersoll. The watches were so ubiquitous, Ingersoll declared the product to be "the watch that made the dollar famous."

Despite the popularity of the dollar watch, Ingersoll went into bankruptcy in 1922. Waterbury Clock bought out their holdings, continuing the use of the Ingersoll name for a line of cheap watches. They later added a line of Disney character watches, including a highly collectible Mickey Mouse watch.

Waterbury Clock is also known for the devastating effects of radium on its employees. Radium was used in the early 1900s by several companies to highlight the dials on clocks and watches, making them visible in the dark. The radiation that made the dials glow in the dark also sickened and killed many of the young women hired to paint the radium onto the dials. All of the buildings in the North Elm Street complex have been tested for radiation hazards.

Waterbury Clock Company was purchased by Norwegian investors in 1942 and was renamed United States Time Corporation in 1944. The name was changed again in 1969, to Timex.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Hall Memorial Chapel

Located next to Route 8, at the entrance to Riverside Cemetery, is a small Victorian chapel in need of repair. Built during the 1880s, the Hall Memorial Chapel was actively used for funeral services until 1971. The Friends of Riverside Cemetery is currently trying to raise money for the building's restoration, saving it from destruction and allowing it to be put back into use as a community resource.

Photograph by Lisa Hendricks, Wikimedia Commons, 2013

Waterbury's first burial ground was located on Grand Street, where the Silas Bronson Library is today. By the 1840s, as Waterbury was transforming itself from a small farming community to a growing industrial city, it became clear that a new cemetery was needed. In 1850, the Riverside Cemetery Association was formed.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Porter House

One of Waterbury's most underappreciated buildings is the Porter house on East Main Street, across from Hamilton Park. The history of the house, from its construction to its role as a station on the Underground Railroad, make it worthy of recognition and preservation as an important historic property.

The Porter House, April 2020

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Influenza Pandemic of 1918

As we slog our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, I have found some reassurance from studying the 1918 influenza pandemic, the worst pandemic of the 20th century. While the parallels between the two pandemics are frightening, the 1918 pandemic didn't last forever, and this pandemic won't either. We also have some huge advantages that didn't exist in 1918, from ventilators to a drastically better understanding of how to respond to a virus. There's a lot we can learn from what happened in 1918, both from the mistakes made and from the community spirit and volunteerism that emerged to defeat the epidemic.

U.S. Public Health Service Broadside, 1918
Library of Congress

General Overview

The 1918 influenza pandemic was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Approximately one-third of the world's population was infected by the virus, leading to the death of 50 million people worldwide. Approximately 675,000 in the United States were killed by the pandemic, of which approximately 9,000 were in Connecticut and more than 1,000 were in Waterbury. Most of Waterbury's deaths happened in a single month.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Unidentified Civil War Veteran

Every so often, I visit the Library of Congress website to see what new Waterbury material has been digitized. My latest search pulled up a photograph of an African American Civil War veteran whose photograph was taken in Waterbury. His name is not on the photograph, so his identity is currently unknown.

Collection of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The photograph is a carte-de-visite, a print mounted onto a card, with the name of the photographer below the photograph.The medal on the man's chest is the medal of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) veterans organization.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Old Houses at Bucks Hill, Part One

Bucks Hill (also spelled Buck's Hill) was far enough removed from the center of Waterbury to be considered a satellite settlement during the early 1700s. The origin of the name is unknown.
Bucks Hill District, 1874

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmases Past: 1870s - 1900s

During the 1870s, Christmas in Waterbury began to look more like it does today than it had in earlier decades (see previous post). Christmas trees were becoming a standard feature, as were wreaths and poinsettias. Merchants offered countless options for gifts, grocers sold produce from warmer climates, and holiday entertainments ranged from the spiritual to the bawdy.

Waterbury's population boomed during the late 1800s, with thousands of people moving here to work in the factories. From 1870 to 1900, Waterbury's population grew from 13,148 to 51,139. It reached 73,141 in 1910.

Waterbury's growth was directly connected to the growth of industry and transportation throughout the country. This was an era of expansion, innovation, and colonization.

The first Christmas cards in the United States were introduced in 1874 by Louis Prang & Co. The advent of chromolithographic printing made the production of colorful cards affordable for the masses.

Thomas Nast's iconic illustration of Merry Old Santa Claus, carrying an armload of toys, appeared in Harper's Weekly magazine on January 1, 1881.

Thomas Nast, Merry Old Santa Claus, 1881

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Christmases Past: 1840s - 1860s

Christmas is a time of nostalgia, with people reflecting on their happy memories from childhood, but the older history is just as interesting. Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas were adopted during the 1800s.

Washington Irving published a satirical story about St. Nicholas in 1809, writing "lo! the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. ... And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air, and spread like a cloud overhead." (Washington Irving’s Works: Knickerbocker’s history of New York, 1895 edition, p. 181-182)

An illustrated poem about "Old Santeclaus" was published in New York in 1821, the first known publication to depict Santa's sleigh and reindeer.

The Children's friend. Number III. A New-Year's present, to the little ones from five to twelve, 1821
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University / Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Taverns, Beer, and Civil Rights

I recently purchased a Waterbury token on a whim while looking for information about a Pete’s Tavern featured in a series of articles in 1949 (more on that below). I had no way of knowing whether the Pete’s Tavern on the token was the same Pete’s Tavern in the newspaper articles, but I impulsively placed a bid on eBay and wound up being the only bidder.

Pete's Tavern Token, front and back

Now saddled with a Pete’s Tavern token, I set about researching tokens in an effort to learn when it was made, trying to see whether or not the token was connected to the Pete's Tavern I had read about in the newspaper articles from 1949.

The available material about merchant tokens was entirely unhelpful, as it was all too generalized. From what I read, my token could have been produced anytime between the 1880s and the 1940s.

Next, I tried skimming the Waterbury City Directories for Pete’s Tavern. Here’s where things started to get interesting.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Rowhome Rehab

We've been trying to remodel our Scovill Row Home for over a year now, hitting endless obstacles from contractors who want nothing to do with us. The worst was Giordano Cabinets. The rep who came to our house took one look at the neighborhood (which is predominantly African American and Hispanic) and asked if his crew would be safe here, then gave us an estimate of $62,000 for cabinets and countertops for a 19 square foot kitchen. I can only assume that the estimate was excessively high because they don't want the job.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

The Spires of St. Anne's

As reported in the Republican-American on May 2, the iconic spires of St. Anne's Church will be removed by All Saints Parish this summer. The job will cost the parish an estimated $881,255. The plan is to remove the Vermont blue marble blocks carefully, so that they can be used to someday restore the spires if enough money can be raised. The dome of the church is also in need of repairs; parishioners have told me there is water coming in through the dome windows.

The twin spires of St. Anne in 2006

This is not the first time that stonework has fallen from the building. Major repairs were done in the 1980s and the 2000s, but the problems have continued.

I have, frankly, had trouble tracing all of the repairs done to the towers, as very little information is available, and what I can find seems contradictory in places. A newspaper article in 2004 stated that $329,000 had just been spent to repair the towers and dome, but in 2006 there was a chunk of stonework missing from the west tower. Another newspaper article, from 2006, stated that the parish had raised nearly $2 million for repairs to the building. When I curated an exhibit about Waterbury architecture in 2009, repairs to the spires and dome had just wrapped up the previous year, but in 2011, the parish was once again talking about raising money to repair the spires.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Waterbury and the Green Book

Thanks to the Oscar awards, the movie Green Book has been getting a lot of attention. There are plenty of good resources for learning more about the historical Green Book -- the New York Public Library has a good online resource, and there have been several short articles and videos looking into some of the Green Book locations. There is also a documentary on the Smithsonian Channel.

The Negro Motorist Green Book, 1939
Collection of The New York Public Library

Much of the focus has been on the southern states covered by the Green Book, but travel through the northern states was also potentially dangerous during the mid-20th century. Having a guide to hotels and tourist homes for African Americans in Connecticut made travel much easier and safer.

Between 1938 and 1950, the only Waterbury locations in the Green Book were in the North Square neighborhood (with the exception of an address on Bridge Street near the heavily Irish Abrigador neighborhood). Beginning in 1950, the Elton Hotel was listed in the Green Book. In 1961, the Putt Meadow Motor Court on Meriden Road was added.