From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 54, No. 2, May 2018
One of Willimantic’s leading milliners of the early 1900s, Matilda J. O’Neill (1867-1952), grew up in Mansfield. As a young girl, she lived with her Irish-born parents Michael and Joanna and her four brothers and sisters in company housing in Eagleville, where her father worked in the mill. When she was about seven years old, her father bought a 96-acre farm at Spring Hill, just south of where Farrell Road joins Storrs Road. This was a typical small Connecticut farm of the period: fields planted for hay, corn, oats, buckwheat, and potatoes, an orchard with 100 apple trees, a team of oxen, a plow horse, four milking cows, and lots of chickens.
When Matilda was about fifteen, her father sold the farm, bought a house in Willimantic, and went to work as the sexton for St. Joseph’s parish. Matilda found employment first in the Holland Manufacturing Company silk mill and then in one of Willimantic’s several millinery shops.
By 1905, she had her own business, in the United Bank Building at 783 Main Street (now the site of the Burton Leavitt Theatre). In her first advertisements, she proudly proclaimed that “now Willimantic has an up-to-date millinery shop,” promising street-level access, the most exclusive styles, and “correct” prices. In a later ad, she picked up on a word then in vogue (1912), telling her customers to “Be Progressive, Buy your Millinery at O’Neill’s.”
Matilda ran the business until she was in her early 50s, at which time she retired to keep house, first for her aging mother and then for her brother Felix, pastor of the Catholic church in Stafford Springs.