From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 38, No. 5, September 2002
Colonel Benjamin Hanks (1755-1824) of Mansfield was known for his mechanical skill and ingenuity. These traits seemed to run in his family. During the Revolution, his father, Uriah, had invented a wire-drawing apparatus that was operated by horse-power. Following the war, he also developed new forms of screw augurs and steelyards. Inventiveness was a characteristic shared by a number of Uriah’s siblings, children and grandchildren.
Colonel Benjamin’s family was also among the pioneers in Connecticut’s early silk industry. His uncle, William (Uriah’s oldest brother), imported white mulberry trees from England and was one of the first in Mansfield to raise silkworms. Other family members made significant contributions to the industry as well. In 1800 Benjamin’s son Horace invented a double-wheelhead that greatly increased the speed of the silk spinning process. He and his uncle Rodney (the youngest brother of Benjamin) utilized this invention in the silk mill that they established on Hanks Hill in 1810. This mill, was the first water-powered silk mill in this country.
While other family members dabbled in silk, Colonel Benjamin applied his mechanical skills in other directions. As a young man he apprenticed with Thomas Harland of Norwich to learn the trade of clock-making. In 1776, he made a beautiful tall clock for his father, Uriah. This clock remained in the Hanks family until 1963 when it was presented to State Department in Washington, D.C. It still chimes and can also play six different tunes – “The Lass o’ Patty’s Mill”, “Shady Bowers”, “Minuet” by Handel, “Lovely Nymph”, “Mr. Hale’s Minuet” and a psalm tune. In 1778 Benjamin Hanks moved to Litchfield where he established himself in business as a clockmaker. While there, he was commissioned to make the first city clock in New York City. It was installed in the old Dutch Church at Nassau and Liberty Streets. It was a unique clock that utilized a windmill attachment for winding. Benjamin Hanks was granted a patent for this invention in 1783 and is thus credited with inventing the first self-winding clock.
In 1785 he returned to Mansfield where he established a foundry on Hank Hill and cast the first church bells and bronze cannon in this country. The Windham Herald of August 20, 1791 reported “On Saturday last was completed, a very elegant Bell, of about 700 lb. Weight, cast by the ingenious Mr. Benjamin Hanks, of Mansfield, for the __fe of that town. Though the business of Bell Foundery has been considerably practiced in this country of late years, yet the ingenuity of Mr. Hanks in this branch is so conspicuous in crafting this Bell, that we dare announce he can equal, if not exceed European Manufacture. We hope that the meritorious _______ of this gentleman to render himself useful to his country, will meet with a proper reward.”
Among the cannon cast by Colonel Hanks were two bronze four-pounder pieces made in 1797 for the First Company of the Connecticut Artillery. These cannon are now on display at the Museum of Connecticut History in Hartford.
Later, in 1808, he established his son, Julius, in the bell and brass founding business in West Troy, New York (then known as Gibbonsville). Julius had been well trained by his father and soon had a widespread reputation for his bells and cannon. His business, which later became the Meneely Bell Foundry, developed into one of the most celebrated bell foundries in this country.
We were unaware any surviving Benjamin Hanks bells until earlier this year when we were contacted by Wayne H. Kempton, Archivist for the Episcopal Diocese of New York. He wrote to us inquiring about a bell in St. Johns Church in Getty Square, Yonkers, New York. Their bell is inscribed “B. Hanks, Mansfield, Con. 1803.” Joseph Howland, the donor of the bell and church tower, and Major Ebenezer Baldwin, the builder of the tower, were both from Norwich, Connecticut.
Restoration of the bell and belfry of St. Johns Church was recently completed and the restored Hanks bell rang for the first time on June 1, 2002. We are assured that its sound is wonderful! The church will be celebrating its 250th anniversary on September 22, 2002.