Making Straw Into Gold: The Story of the Dewing Family

Historical Article Series May 17, 2020 > Making Straw Into Gold: The Story of the Dewing Family

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 55, No. 3, September 2019

This article is a follow-up to Rudy Favretti’s article about significant stonewalls in Mansfield that appeared in our April 2019 newsletter.  This past July Irene Sheehan brought an interesting artifact to the museum that she had discovered while metal detecting on a permissioned property on Browns Road.  It was a small gold cylinder, perhaps part of a pen, that was inscribed “L.H.D. 1887.”  I recognized the initials as belonging to Leonard Hiram Dewing who had commissioned and financed the extensive stonewall on Browns Road that extends about a mile up the road from the congregational church.  She wanted to know more about the owner of the artifact and that prompted an interesting research journey to learn more about the life of Mr. Dewing and the source of his wealth.Ann Galonska, Museum Director

Leonard Chapin Dewing, the firstborn son of Ebenezer and Catherine (Chapin) Dewing (and future father of Leonard H. Dewing), was born in Woodstock, Connecticut on July 6, 1811.  He married Susan Maria Storrs on October 22, 1844.  She was the second daughter of Zalmon Storrs, one of Mansfield’s most prominent citizens. He was judge of probate, postmaster and the first to manufacture silk by machine in Mansfield Hollow.   The newlyweds soon moved to New York City where Leonard Dewing and Henry Thayer, also of Woodstock, started a business manufacturing and selling straw bonnets and hats.  

During the first half of the 19th century, Tuscan straw bonnets were much in vogue.  American women craved the fashionable bonnets but few could afford the expensive imported hats.  Enterprising women began to experiment with plaiting straw and soon succeeded in creating a more affordable alternative to the Italian imports.  From small cottage industries to eventual factories, the straw bonnet business would provide employment opportunities for thousands of women from about 1800 through the 1850s.

New York City became one of the hot beds of the straw goods business. Leonard C. Dewing and Henry Thayer were not the only Connecticut men to go there seeking opportunity in this thriving new industry.  In the 1830s and ‘40s, several Mansfield men also set up businesses in New York making straw bonnets.  In a letter dated May 22, 1838, Robert Porter Barrows wrote:  “Herbert Campbell has gone to N. York again to work at his old business preparing Bonnets, he gets 30 dollars per month.  Otis Freeman is in company with a New York man has 200 girls at work for him upon Bonnets.  William Simons is in the same business he has 30 girls.  How the Mansfield boys go ahead.  The Tuscan business is as good as it ever has been.  If my health would admit it I would go on there without delay.” 

Indeed, it might have been Herbert Campbell who enticed Leonard Dewing and his new bride to move to New York City to enter the straw goods business.  Just two years earlier, he had married Cynthia S. Storrs (known as Selima), the older sister of the new Mrs. Dewing. The Campbell family and the Zalmon Storrs family were neighbors in the close-knit community of Mansfield Center.  The Campbells lived in the house originally built for Eleazer Williams, Mansfield’s first minister.  The Zalmon Storrs house was located a short distance away on the other side of the road, adjacent to the congregational church.  The two Storrs sisters remained as intimately connected in New York City as they were in their hometown.  And every summer, both the Dewing and Campbell families would escape the sweltering heat of the city and return to their beloved family homesteads in Mansfield Center.

Established in 1845, the firm of Dewing & Thayer became a very successful enterprise.  Leonard Dewing’s younger brothers also joined the business.  In 1846 Clark Dewing opened a millinery store in New York City that marketed the company’s straw bonnets.  The store was later managed by Seth Dewing following Clark’s death in 1854.  Dewing & Thayer expanded again in 1849 and opened a second mercantile establishment in Charleston, South Carolina that was managed by Hiram Dewing.  That store sold millinery, fancy goods and jewelry and was a thriving business until the breakout of the Civil War.  

Through this family business, Leonard C. Dewing truly made straw into gold.  When he died on March 18, 1866, his wife became a very wealthy widow with two sons to raise, Edwin Storrs Dewing (age 17) and Leonard Hiram Dewing (age 8). 

Ten years previous, her sister Selima had also been widowed when Herbert Campbell died at age 43.  At the time, their two daughters, Cynthia Eugenie and Delia were 10 and 7 years old respectively.  Following the death of Mr. Dewing, the two widowed sisters and their families moved in together.  They maintained a residence in New York City while continuing to summer at the family homes in Mansfield.  Selima had inherited the Campbell residence upon her husband’s death and Susan inherited their childhood home when their father died in 1867.

A family tragedy occurred in September of 1875 when Edwin Storrs Dewing died of pneumonia at the age of 27.  He had been a world traveler with a promising career in the import business.  His unexpected death left his mother and his brother Leonard (then 18) devastated.  

Zalmon Storrs House
The Zalmon Storrs House, built by Abner Howe in 1795. The house was inherited by Susan Maria Storrs Dewing, mother of Leonard H. Dewing.

Mr. Dewing also embarked on several public works projects, employing many of the local residents.  He restored and improved the stone retaining wall in the low area between the Dewing property and the church and had a fine walkway laid leading to the church and its vestry.  He also had the magnificent stone wall built on Browns Road that became known as the “mile walk,” completed in 1884.  It was so wide and finely built that people could walk or ride a bike on top of it.  Another pet project was a reservoir that he had excavated on the upper part of his property.  It was lined with stone and water from it was piped to the Dewing house and barns and also to the adjacent church. So much black powder was used to blast rocks from the earth for these projects that a powder house was constructed on the property.

On April 26, 1882, Leonard Dewing married Fannie Chandler Ames, a wealthy socialite from Oswego, NY.  Her father owned the Ames Iron Works and was also a founder of the Second National Bank.  The newlyweds settled in New York City and soon started a family, having four sons and a daughter born between 1884 and 1903.  Leonard’s mother came to live with them, while her sister, Selima Campbell, went to live with her youngest daughter Delia, who had married Warren Gilbert Chapin in 1874.  Mr. Chapin worked in the financial department of New York’s largest shoe manufacturer and distributor.  While there, he also invented and patented three calculating machines, one of which became a precursor of the modern hand-held calculator.

Dewing Mansion
The Dewing Mansion with the addition built in 1881. The Italianate tower, while incongruous to the 18th century main house, was considered the height of fashion in the 1880s. It featured an observation deck on top.

In 1890, Warren G. Chapin accepted a position as actuary at the Society for Savings in Hartford where his brother served as Treasurer.  Both the Chapin and Dewing families relocated there.  Leonard Dewing’s wife and mother soon established themselves among Hartford’s elite.  Their social engagements and charitable works were regularly reported in the Hartford Courant.  The elder Mrs. Dewing was also listed in the Courant as one of Hartford’s top taxpayers.  At the time of her death on November 23, 1905, Susan M. Dewing’s assets totaled nearly $5 million in today’s money.

While his wife’s and mother’s names regularly graced the society pages of the Hartford Courant, Leonard H. Dewing was rarely mentioned.  Sadly, in later life, he became an alcoholic and suffered from mental illness.  His decline was likely exacerbated by several personal losses – the death of his three-year old son, Allen, in July 1895, the death of his mother in 1905, and then the loss of the family’s summer residence in 1909.  He had poured his heart and soul and much of his wealth into improving the Mansfield property.

Dewing Mansion Piazza
Members of the Campbell and Dewing families on the piazza of the Dewing house, c. 1880. The two women on the left are the Campbell sisters, Delia and Cynthia Eugenie. The woman in the center is Mrs. Herbert Campbell (Selima Storrs Campbell). At the right are Leonard H. Dewing standing by his mother, Susan Maria Storrs Dewing. The two men in the top hats are unidentified.

On March 2, 1909, the Dewing mansion was destroyed in a spectacular fire, attracting onlookers from miles around.  At the time, the house was vacant and the Dewing family was at their Hartford home.  The Willimantic Chronicle reported: “The old Dewing homestead at Mansfield Center, opposite the store of Alfred Oden, was burned to the ground shortly before noon today.  The cause of the fire is unknown.  A few articles of furniture were saved from the lower floor, everything else was entirely consumed.  When the fire was discovered the entire interior was on fire and nothing could be done to save the property.”  Arson was suspected but never proved.

Leonard H. Dewing passed away on April 8, 1926, his death unnoted by the press.  His name may have faded from public memory but his legacy lives on in Mansfield.  The massive stone walls he had constructed still bear witness to his once significant presence in our town.

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