Patches From the Past
Scraps of Fabric, Sewing & Quilting History

THE REAL STORY BEHIND
"THREAD CITY"
Windham, Connecticut

by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD ~ Quilt Historian and Collector

A destination on my A Quilter's Journey through New England Tour, is the old Willimantic Linen Company in Willimantic, CT. This small, but wonderful, museum is housed in an old boarding house where the workers once lived. This was one of the first companies to take a caring attitude toward their workers. The upstairs was a library, where they also taught English to the immigrants. They gave 10 minute breaks to the children and served them juice and muffins in the1870s. Christmas was declared a day off in 1878. They had their own baseball mill team, which played the other textile mill teams. All of this was done with the idea that it would increase their production.

The thread mill was started in 1850 by Mr. Dunham and three other businessmen.. It was the first mill to put in electric light (in 1878), and Thomas Edison put these in himself. He was friends with Dunham and used this factory as a testing ground, so to speak. The use of electricity in the factory lead to the development of double shifts of workers. It also made the Mill a safer place to work. This was the fourth largest factory building in the country between 1880-1884. They had tunnels and 27 buildings. Each building housed a different process. In 1898, the Willimantic Linen Co. became American Thread, which was British owned, not American as the name implies.

The Willimantic Linen Company in Willimantic, CT., was nicknamed the Thread City because they produced so much thread and sold it nationally. Every kind, weight, and color available. They made linen thread, cotton, and eventually they developed synthetic thread, using polyester. The Thread City was a bustling place and we have a lot to thank them for in the world of thread.

But what's the real story, the important, enduring, albeit legend, behind the Thread City's seal and mascot? Here's a clue- as we drove into the town there were two gigantic cement spools of thread adorning each side of a bridge, like gargoyles. They were tall spools with a huge green frog sitting on top of each one! The answer lies in the legend of Thread City.

It was the middle of the 18th century in this small eastern Connecticut town. It was a dark and cloudy night in July and many were fast asleep. Suddenly a sharp noise rang out that sounded to the towns people like the yelps and cries of the Indians. They listened awhile, fearful, but unable to move until they heard names they knew called out. The names were of two well-liked town lawyers. The people ran out of their homes toward the noise, with guns in hand.

They ascended the hill that bound the village on the east, and waited. As the morning sky came up, the sounds died away. Now they could see that is was not Indians by the nearly dry mill pond, but thousands of bullfrogs situated, as in a battle, on the opposite banks. Were they fighting with each other over the little resources that were left? It was silent for quite awhile until one frog lifted its voice and then all others joined in, and the names of the loved lawyers could once again be heard.

News of this spread far and wide. The town's people might have been quite embarrassed by their folly (as it was also told that many of them ran out of their house in their birthday suit, or in 18th century lingo "in puris naturalibus"). Instead, they chose to rally around this "Battle of the Frogs," as it was called, and adopt the frog as the town symbol. As the thread mills also became a symbol of the town, they placed their beloved frog on a spool of thread.

If you would like to tour the old Willimantic Thread boarding house and museum, where they have many artifacts from the mill, join me on my A Quilter's Journey through New England Tour in August 2004. The tour includes Images Quilt Festival in Lowell, and many museum, textile mills and antique quilts in 4 states. Get the details on two different tours being offered in June and August at http://www.antiquequiltdating.com/tours.html . The tour in June goes through the Amish and PA-German country and museums, there are five that we will see and have private tours through. This tour runs along the Hudson River Valley and up to Cooperstown NY. See the site for more information on each. There is something for everyone. Teachers love to take my educational tours, and so do new quilters and those interested in America's history more than quilts. We learn from each other and have a fabulous time. There are testimonies from previous guest that you can read on the website as well.

2004 by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author.)

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