In the countryside near the Still River in the northeastern corner of Connecticut, the state’s industrial past has been reimagined. Situated on a peaceful rural road in Eastford, Still River Fiber Mill is not a place that brings thoughts of industrial mills of the 19th century. It’s not a huge brick complex—shoddy and vacant—with a towering smoke stack and shattered windows. It’s picturesque, quaint, and small. From the road, the property looks like a small farm. A few sheep graze behind a white-picket fence. Set back on the property, a rustic barn houses the new mill. An old wooden mill and, before that, a woolen mill once existed here; the historic mill owner’s home still stands. Today, Still River Mill carries on the tradition. It is an anomaly—a functioning remnant of America’s golden industrial age—and part of a renaissance of old mill complexes across New England that are being refurbished and repurposed by teams of developers, conservationists, and enterprising entrepreneurs.
Inside of the mill, sunlight streams into the lobby onto glossy hardwood floors and white-washed walls. The humming of turning gears reverberates from the wall behind the plushly upholstered couch. In this homey seating area, Deidre Bushnell hosts occasional social events for knitters. That’s a well-earned luxury. Most of her time is spent running this small textile mill owned by her and her husband, Greg Driscoll.
Behind these lobby walls, Bushnell and her staff get their “workout”: washing, drying, steaming, and feeding fibers through machines. Bushnell roams energetically from one station to the next as she gleefully describes the thread-making process. She is dressed in a homemade, denim smock and striped shirt; her bobbed, brown hair swings softly at her shoulders. Machines align fibers, then stretch, twist, and bind the rovings, coiling them multiple times into thread. At the stations, Bushnell meticulously picks through raw animal fibers—from sheep, bison, alpaca, llama, and arctic musk ox—stored neatly in metal bins. Then, she gestures at the machines, explaining how each one works. The technical conversation is interspersed with some giggles. The finished product of this entire process is skeins of yarn. Bushnell’s customers either use the yarn for their own knitting or create finished products for sale.
Contrary to the stereotypical portrait of glum, sweaty faces laboring over roaring machines, Bushnell looks fresh-faced, as if she has just returned from the best vacation of her life. Feelings are important to her: how her customers feel about the product and the satisfaction of her work. She thinks of fiber processing as an art form, an expression of herself “that other people can identify with, but it’s a finished product, something that people can look at. They can see; they can touch; and they can feel.” Also, she loves the sense of self-reliance that the property and the business provide—being her own boss, making her own clothes, and raising animals.
But behind the scenes, there are sobering aspects to this business.
The human factor in such a small mill business plays a crucial role in its success. Attention to one’s craft and a cohesive staff with the same dedication can make or break the business. “It’s difficult to find somebody who’s interested in the nuance of fiber processing. It seems very romantic on the surface. That wears away—the glamor wears away pretty quickly. It’s a little bit of a dirty job that there’s no equation to fall back on.” Hiring new employees is risky because of the steep learning curve and concerns about employee retention. So, the staff is kept small: two full-time employees and one part-time employee.
While profitability issues restrict the boundaries of operations, Bushnell describes the experience as an economic “give and take” between the mill and consumers. The small scale remains essential. “If we were any larger, I’m not sure it would be any more profitable. We can’t be smaller, because that’s not profitable.” Production of a quality product, but keeping it within profit margins, seems tricky. The true cost of production is a concept somewhat alien to most consumers, especially the hyper-cost-conscious. “People look at a skein of yarn, and there’s sort of a mismatch as to what it really costs and what people perceive it to be. You can go to Michael’s and buy wool yarn for two dollars. Why would I spend twenty-five dollars when I can get it for $2.50?”
Yet, despite these challenges, Still River Mill is booked with orders. Since COVID, increased demand for quality, niche textiles has driven demand. Yet, the skill and knowledge to fill those orders efficiently keeps the looms spinning. Bushnell’s background in mechanical engineering gives her an edge. “It’s like everything I had ever done in my entire career prepped me for doing this. I’m always running the numbers. It’s like, what did it weigh before it got washed? What did it weigh after it got washed? Data’s important for making the decisions.”
Bushnell’s commitment is fueled by a purpose. She felt inspired to begin this business in response to a basic need that farmers have in getting small amounts of their own product processed—something larger mills are not often willing to do. With a perceptible sense of fulfillment and pride in her voice, Bushnell’s face beams with a huge smile as she reflects on the satisfaction people have touching their own fiber. The origins of her business reflect her passion. She recalls her discovery of yarn spinning in the 1980s as “serendipitous.” She realized this was her calling. Years later, while on a tour of a mill in Tennessee, she and her husband said to each other, “We can do this!” It was the quintessential aha! moment when she decided to follow her American textile dream. From this, Still River Fiber Mill was born in 2004. For Bushnell, the joys of self-reliance, accomplishment, and contribution to community offset the hardships.
Mills like Still River operate unassumingly, outside of the mainstream textile industry. The dilapidated mill buildings across New England give the impression that mills are crumbling remnants of a bygone era—a time when America reached heights of industrial prosperity and Americans could earn a living wage in manufacturing jobs. Yet, the same driving factors of industry are still at work today, as part of a cycle of growth and contraction.
The history of the Connecticut mill industry is preserved at the Windham Textile & History Museum, the Mill Museum, in Willimantic, a once thriving mill town nicknamed the “Silk City”. Exhibits of Industrial Revolution textile machinery stand silent, but plaques and posters pinned to the adjacent walls document how mill life shaped the fabric of life in Connecticut towns. Senior curator, Professor James Eves, elaborates on this. Standing beside the painted-blue spinning machine that takes up a large section of the machine room, Eves thoughtfully touches its spindles, wound with roving. As he describes the function of the machine’s varied parts, he speaks candidly about the labor conditions for the workers who operated it. He drifts into an extensive assessment of the events surrounding this industry.
From the early 19th through mid 20th Centuries, Connecticut mills thrived as a vital part of the colossus of American industry. The rise of textile factories began when New England entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to build waterwheel-operated mills along rivers, near seaports. In the late 19th century, steam-powered mills blossomed in the South. Environmental contamination in the hollers of Appalachia displaced men, creating a surplus of cheap laborers who worked for rock-bottom wages—twenty percent lower than in the North where workers belonged to strong trade unions. These developments gave the Southern mills technological and economic advantages. In the meantime, Connecticut mills operated—business as usual—blinded to the big changes looming on the horizon.
The North did have its own lucky breaks in labor. The Irish Potato Famine and other economic situations in Europe drove a mass migration to the Northeastern United States. By the mid-20th Century, mill workers could achieve a middle-class lifestyle. Workers viewed mill labor favorably—as means of upward mobility, employment, and provided housing for entire families. Life was prosperous for mill workers.
Eves and museum executive director Kira Holmes talk about former factory workers who have visited the museum to reminisce about old times. Holmes describes them as proud of the work they did. “They boast about it; they come back; and they’re like, ‘I remember this building,’ or ‘I remember this piece of machinery’.” Pushing up her glasses slightly, Holmes gazes intently at a poster: an assemblage of tiny photos of former American Thread mill workers. She points at individual photos as Eves stands facing the poster and shares stories about them. Lightheartedly, Holmes says, “They were excited. They were smiling. They were happy.” Eves adds in an optimistic, but somewhat matter-of-fact tone, “They (the women) came in skirt, blouse, makeup, because they were afraid they wouldn’t be recognized as middle class. They were staking out their territory.” It seems the mills represented their chance for upward mobility.
Ultimately, this golden age of industry in the North precipitously declined as the developments in the South, from decades earlier, caught up to the New England mills. Eves states, “In the 1920s, there is a sudden realization that Southern cotton mills are catching up with Northern.” With rising intonation in his voice, Eves mimics the factory owners. “Oh, it’s not happening! We have plenty of labor here. We’ll be fine,” he summarizes, “It won’t really be until the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s—That is the collapse of the textile industry.”
Around the same time that the South was gaining an edge on Northern mills, The Great Merger Movement took place. Many of Connecticut’s manufacturing companies were sold to outsiders. Willimantic Linen Company—located up the street from the Mill Museum near the banks of the Willimantic River—was the first to be absorbed into a foreign entity in 1898, at which time it was renamed American Thread Company.
Retired Central Connecticut State University history professor Donald Rogers wrote about the consolidation in his article, “American Thread Plant—A Multinational Takeover” for Connecticuthistory.org. I met Rogers on his former campus to discuss the trend. Rogers pinpoints the landslide of Connecticut industry: “Largely after World War Two, the Great Departure took place. These industries did move away, because they had parent owners that lived outside of the state.” Rogers stresses the importance of local ownership, using a small silver manufacturer in Meriden as an example. “It helps for the owner of the company to have a vested interest in the community. If you look at who is on the board of directors of International Silver, it’s the local businessmen. So, it really is important that you have this local representation.”
This past forms a thread that is inextricably bound with the present state of the mills and the textile industry in the state, because the same forces that drove former industrial cycles are at work today: emerging technologies, people looking for employment opportunities, and corporations looking for profits. This waxing and waning of prosperity could be viewed in a positive light if the downcycles are imagined as a latent period to reassess where to go and how to get there. Currently, that reassessment involves real estate development and redefinition of Connecticut’s identity with respect to business and industry.
Back at the Mill Museum, Holmes gives perspectives on what’s going on with mills today—namely, the repurposing of abandoned mills for housing. Impediments for development run the gamut from capital generation to town ordinances. “If it’s an economic generating building, you have more options for restoration programs.” She waves with an open palm as she speaks in a high, airy sentimental tone about the Mill Museum, a unique brick structure with thick walls and cypress ceiling beams, built in 1877. Holmes is working diligently to modernize it with monitors that give a sensory experience—the sounds of the mills—and an educational experience, both on-site and virtual. The granite-walled Willimantic Linen Mill Complex has been converted into Artspace Windham, a mixed-use gallery and residential space. “These buildings really are very usable, it’s just you need to have the proper vision for it. And if you want to do it by historical standards, it does cost a little bit more, but you’re reusing the building. You have that beautiful historical legacy.”
Connecticut mills seem like numerous dimly-lit stars; almost every town has one or a few—mostly forgotten and abandoned, but with potential. South of Willimantic in Hamden, the non-profit Preservation Connecticut is working to resurrect and transform Connecticut’s historic buildings. Project manager Renee Tribert sits at her desk, typing on her computer keyboard. Tribert works with developers and owners to help connect people with these potential opportunities. Adjusting the computer monitor, Tribert shares the statistics on a recent project, the Montgomery Mills in Windsor Locks, which was converted into a 160-unit mixed-income housing complex. “This is all of the sources of funding that they used. Okay, it was basically $63 million.” A hefty cost for a building facelift. A brain-boggling figure. Tribert lists the complex array of funding that had to be arranged to make the project happen, among these are low-income housing and tax credits. The town of Windsor Locks undertook a massive effort to push this project forward, allotting Tax Increment Financing, a funding mechanism in which the government provides capital as incremental taxes are generated. This covers costs, including site infrastructure, such as water and sewer. “They really wanted to see something happen.” Summing up the Montgomery Mills project, “In that scenario, that was sort of a great example of how it takes a village.”
In some instances, property owners are willing to invest their own capital to renovate. Tribert reflects on a certain case, Hilliard Mills: “So that’s one where it’s an individual owner who owns the entire site. And he started working on the buildings, preparing them for rental. And he started doing the work by himself without looking to incentives, but just commercial loans. And then, Preservation Connecticut started helping him a bunch of years back.” Now, he funds the rehabs with tax vouchers. Tribert calls the funding methods “aformulaic”. There’s a “whatever works” logistically mentality to save these buildings.
However, there are some stipulations. To qualify for the funding, a building must be on the historic register. Certain mills are considered more desirable for renovations, specifically those near train stations; Transit Oriented Development (TOD) incentives apply to such properties. Generally, the farther they are from urban centers, the less desirable for renovations. In many rural towns, scattered bricks and partial walls of colonial mills have been reclaimed by forests. Also, if environmental clean-up and rehabilitation prove too costly, and the structural integrity is too far gone, developers and preservation liaisons, like Tribert, may make the call not to renovate. The investment would not pay off.
Economic feasibility is the crux of mill development, just as it was a hundred years ago. The same rules apply here as at Still River Fiber Mill; like Bushnell, Tribert and her colleagues must make logical profitability assessments before investing money and undertaking renovations of old buildings.
The good news is that Preservation Connecticut has had many success stories. Many renovations are mixed use, meaning they house diverse small businesses. Tribert recommends Southern Cotton Hardware Complex: “There’s a great little breakfast place in there. It’s right on the rail trail.” Another recommendation is the Velvet Mill in Stonington: “They’ve got a farmers market inside. They’ve got a brewery, bakery, and artisan shops.” Mixed use with many invested small businesses is a winning formula. The Preservation Connecticut website is a resource for finding these places; yet, the website also features mills that still operate as mills—both large and small in scale. So, what constitutes a mill? Today, mills form a patchwork quilt of residential, industrial, and diverse small business complexes.
Connecticut mills still live on, as part of an ongoing, evolutionary tale. They speak and have stories to tell to anyone who will listen. These are tales of the rise and decline of Connecticut’s industrial prowess and the American Dream. New chapters document small niche mills that operate safely, produce quality products, and fulfill the dreams of a community of small business owners. This mill revival is a hybrid of old and new that forms a network of narratives that will tell New England’s next manufacturing story.
Jennifer Kelm is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.
Header photo courtesy of Jennifer Kelm.