by Pete Zizka
(Continued from last week.) Last week we focused on the need for tenements for the workers in Willimantic’s mills. But, to digress for a bit, we have to remember that there were manufactories in North Windham (Hall’s Mill, Harris Jewelry Manufacturers, Hartson Brothers) and South Windham (Smith-Winchester, Wood Type, Radial Thread Buff). While the number of employees at any of the firms did not vary greatly, many of them needed tenement type dwellings. In the villages, the number of available tenements appeared to sync well with the need for them. A Chronicle report from North Windham reported, “The prospects for this section of country appear very bright. Several new families have moved into the village, and nearly all the available tenements are occupied.” Another said, “Our empty tenements are rapidly filling, and business of all kinds seems to be good.” In South Windham, it was reported that, “Notwithstanding the fact that there have been several tenement houses built here lately, tenements seem to be about as much in demand as before, and a good one does not remain empty long.” In the 1880s, the Chronicle published many short reports of new tenements that were being built and oftentimes mentioned who was moving in or out. (This week’s photo shows the South Windham House which began as a private boy’s school known as Pine Grove Seminary. It became a hotel/tenement after it was purchased by the Smith and Winchester Company.)  In Willimantic, for a while, the number of available tenements was able to keep pace with the demand. Several announcements throughout the 1880s mentioned buildings being converted into tenements (e.g. the Frink Block and the Hanover Estate) and new ones being built as part of business blocks such as the proposed Congdon Block to be built on Church Street. Buildings built strictly as tenements were being put up. “E. Bugbee will erect a building containing four tenements and two stores on Valley Street. W.H. Lathan & Co. have contracts for four houses…” On the other hand, some tenement space was being lost. An interesting note appeared in 1881. “The Linen Company's row of stone houses near the railroad are having their intestines knocked out preparatory to use as store houses.” Willimantic was growing and prospering in the 1890s as the mills expanded production and the needed workforce. The mills were not the only ones contributing to the city’s growth. It was fast becoming an important railroad hub and in 1883, the Chronicle mentioned, “Good tenements are in demand by railroad men who will locate here during the period of double-tracking the New England railroad through this section.” Then, in 1898, the “Consolidated” rail system announced that the city would be the terminus of all the freight crews’ runs. This had already been started with many of the passenger runs as well. Under the plan, “the locomotives on all through freight trains will go through to Boston and East Hartford but the engineers and firemen will stop here". At the time of the announcement, there was no set number of people mentioned but it was felt that a significant number of crews would be “compelled” to make their residence in the city. The rail system was in the process of finding housing for the crews and promised that as more housing became available, more crews would begin to reside in the city. Continued growth in the city presented continual problems of housing. A 1903 article mentioned the growth of American Thread’s workforce and asked, “(W)here will the newcomers be housed?.  Never before has there been a time when it was so difficult to get desirable tenements”. It was reported that whenever a tenement was vacated, it did not remain vacant for more than two days. One of the problems was that there were many people in Willimantic who had the resources to build but did not do so. They claimed that rising labor and material costs made it impossible to build a dwelling, equip it with modern conveniences and to expect a return when people were used to paying $12-15 per month ,”which is about the extent of the ability of the ordinary laboring man to pay”. From 1903 through 1920, the shortages continued and then there began to be more and more reports of poor and/or unsanitary conditions in many of the tenements. We’ll take a further look in some future articles.

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