Historic Manchester


BY 1790 ORFORD PARISH had about 1,000 residents, clustered in small settlements such as Buckland on Tolland Turnpike, “the Center,” and “the Green” located on Middle Turnpike on the way to Bolton. There was a Congregational Church and a Methodist Church, five schools, four taverns, five saw and grist mills, an unsuccessful copper mine, woolen and cotton factories, and three paper mills. 

Some 70 men of Orford Parish had fought in the Revolution.  Captain Richard Pitkin and his sons had produced gun powder for supply to the Continental Army.  As a reward for this vital service, the new State of Connecticut granted to the Pitkins in 1783 a 25 year monopoly for the manufacture of glass.  The Pitkin Glass Works manufactured bottles, flasks, and inkwells until about 1830.  Residents of Orford Parish began agitating for incorporation as a separate town as early as 1812.  Their petitions were not successful until 1823, when Orford Parish was incorporated as the town of Manchester.

Map of South Manchester, Circa 1860.

THE HOCKANUM RIVER and six brooks ran through Manchester in the early 1800s – providing a ready source of water power for manufacturing.   Woolen mills were in operation on Hilliard St. from 1780 until the mid 20th century.  When it closed in the 1940s, the Hilliard Company was the oldest family-owned, continuously operated factory in the U.S. 

The first successful cotton mill in Connecticut (begun in 1794) was taken over by the Union Manufacturing Co. in 1819.  By 1850 cotton ginghams were made at the Union Company mills in North Manchester by nearly 200 women and men, including many Irish immigrants. 

The first Catholic Church in town, St. Bridget’s, was built in 1858 to serve this new population.  

A railroad line linking Manchester to Hartford was completed in 1849, making Depot Square a hub of commercial activity.

CHENEY BROTHERS, founded in South Manchester in 1838, gradually became world famous for premium quality silk thread and fabrics – as well as for the invention of innovative silk processing techniques.  While an employee of Cheney Brothers, young Christopher Spencer (inventor of the Spencer repeating rifle) won early fame as a mechanical genius by inventing a silk spooling machine.  Cheney Brothers were renowned as well for their generosity and public spiritedness – building over the course of 50 years a “model community” of workers’ housing, schools, Cheney Hall, a public library, the Hall of Records, public utilities, and land for churches and parks.

MOST CHILDREN attended one- or two-room schools in town but left formal schooling after learning how to read and write in order to marry, work on family farms, in factories, or at a trade.  In the mid 1800s, Manchester had 2 short-lived private academies for older children whose parents could afford to pay tuition.  There was no public high school.

THE CIVIL WAR disrupted many lives, taking 268 young men from Manchester; 48 never returned.  After the war, a time Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age,” people in town launched many new commercial enterprises such as the stores of Watkins Bros., J.W. Hale Co. and C.E. House & Son, Inc (later known as House and Hale).  Manchester had been called “Silktown” because of its famous silk mills, notably the immense Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Co. in South Manchester. 

In the 19th century, the town could just as well have had the nickname “Papertown,” since there were 5 successful paper mills in operation: the Rogers Co. at several locations; Case Bros. at Highland Park; Adams Paper Mill in Buckland; Lydall & Foulds at Parker Village, and Oakland Paper Co. near the border of South Windsor.  Everything from soap, needles, specialty carts, machinery to melodeons was made in Manchester.


MANCHESTER WAS A “BOOMTOWN” by 1900.  Cheney Brothers employed about 25 per cent of the residents and still actively recruited new European immigrants to work in the mills. Cheneys’ corporate generosity included the cost of construction of “Educational Square” (now occupied by the Bennet Academy for sixth graders) and also the first public high school, built in 1904 (now the Bennet Apartments) at the south end of Main Street. There were still many farms in town, but some were sold and turned into housing tracts for the expanding population.

Manchester’s first banks were incorporated. Utilities such as electricity, telephones, piped water, sewer lines; and services such as extensive trolley lines, volunteer fire departments, and 2 town newspapers improved life for town residents. 

Citizens enjoyed music and other entertainments at Apel’s Opera House and Cheney Hall; there were dozens of social and fraternal clubs for men and auxiliary and other groups for women; and sports such as baseball and harness racing. The town was governed in the old New England tradition of “town meeting” until 1907, when the town adopted a new charter, creating a more efficient method of governing, with a Board of Selectmen charged with the responsibility of running the town. 

Main Street as it appeared in 1932. The trolley is making its way past the Watkins building. McLellan’s Stores Company, a variety store, occupies 975 Main Street. and can be seen in the upper right.
This photograph, taken by Leon Fallot, appears through the generosity of Sylvian Ofiara as part of the Ofiara Collection.

MANCHESTER CELEBRATED ITS CENTENNIAL in 1923 with a huge parade and weeks of special activities.  The town could pride itself on a century of progress in education and public benefit, and could applaud such commercial advances as the innovative Hale’s Store – one of the first self-service grocery stores in the United States.  “Made in Manchester” was one of the mottos of the Centennial; products in that category ranged from precision industrial gauges through fine silk fabrics to Bon Ami cleansing soap – a familiar household name, worldwide, for many years.

THE GREAT DEPRESSION of the 1930s hit Manchester hard, especially with the decline of Cheney Brothers. There was a modest upswing in house building as workers in Hartford moved to Manchester to live. An offshoot of Cheney Brothers, Pioneer Parachute, helped in the defense efforts in World War II.

MID-TWENTIETH CENTURY The post-WWII era was a time of house building again, as many people commuted to work at places like Pratt and Whitney Aircraft, Hamilton Standard, and insurance companies in Hartford. An 85-unit housing project, Vet Haven, was built on East Middle Turnpike. The Historical Society published a booklet about Vet Haven, available for sale, and you can read most of it online at: Vet Haven Story. Manchester adopted a new charter providing for the council-manager type of government.

The period from 1950 through the 1970s saw commercial growth in town, improvements to the highways for the commuting public, the construction of many public and parochial schools, the first Jewish synagogue, and an industrial park. New nonprofit organizations formed to preserve the charm of Manchester: The Manchester Historical Society in 1965 and The Manchester Land Conservation Trust in 1972.


BOOKS ABOUT MANCHESTER HISTORY – Two comprehensive books have been published about Manchester: the 1923 History of Manchester, Connecticut by Spiess and Bidwell, available in the Reprints section of this website by clicking Spiess and Bidwell history; and the 1973 book A New England Pattern, The History of Manchester, Connecticut by William E. Buckley. Although these books are out of print, copies are available at the public libraries, the Historical Society, and online at used-book sites.

The Historical Society has published several books, listed at Books at Museum Store.

THE TOWN’S MOTTO, “A CITY OF VILLAGE CHARM” has a history of its own. To find out more, read this article in the “Reprints” section of this web site: Motto of Manchester.