From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 51, No. 3, November 2015
As one of his first volunteer projects, Daniel Allie organized a large collection of letters written by members of the Barrows family between 1837 and 1873. In addition to family news, some of these letters contain descriptions of local events and activities. Daniel pointed out one such letter that tells of a calamity that befell the Chaffeeville silk mill in 1860.
But first, a brief history of the Chaffeeville mill: About 1830 Joseph Conant, one of the partners in the Mansfield Silk Company in Gurleyville, built another small silk mill on the Fenton River about a mile downstream in the area now known as Chaffeeville. He named his new silk venture Conant and Company. The mill operated until 1839 when Joseph Conant moved to Northampton to serve as agent for the Northampton Silk Company. He was soon followed by his son-in-laws Orwell S. Chaffee and Earl Dwight Swift.
Following the demise of the Northampton Silk Company in 1840, Conant became involved with a group of radical abolitionists who formed the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. In 1842, the Association established a utopian community organized around a communally owned and operated silk mill. Members lived on the substantial mill property that had been purchased from the defunct Northampton Silk Company. Both the Conant and Swift families joined the Association but the short-lived communal experiment only lasted four years. (You can learn more about the Northampton Association in Christopher Clark’s excellent book, The Communitarian Moment: The Radical Challenge of the Northampton Association.)
Meanwhile, Orwell S. Chaffee returned to Mansfield from Northampton in 1842. He began a new silk enterprise in the former Conant & Company mill. He ran a successful business there for close to two decades, gaining a reputation for the fine quality of his silk products. However disaster struck during the first week of September in 1860.
Robert P. Barrows described what happened in a letter written to his brother Lucius, dated September 12, 1860:“Mr. Chaffee’s Silk factory was burned last week while nearly all hands were at Camp Meeting which [was] held about a mile south of Willimantic. His loss is supposed to be about twelve thousand dollars. There were no persons in the factory at work that day. As to the Camp Meeting, the ground was well prepared a little west of the South Windham Road not quite halfway to South Windham. They had good preaching and most excellent order all of the week…”
An article of “Historical Reminiscences,” published in the Willimantic Chronicle on October 18, 1882, provides some further details: “…the Chaffees suffered a great pecuniary loss by fire, which destroyed their mill, machinery and stock finished and unfinished. …The origin of this fire still remains a mystery.”
So what drew the mill workers to a camp meeting on that fateful day? It was likely a combination of both faith and curiosity. Although camp meetings had originated decades earlier, they were a new phenomenon in the Willimantic area.
Camp meetings were a major component of the evangelical movement known as the “Second Great Awakening” in the early 19th century. During this time, circuit preachers, such as the famous Lorenzo Dow of Coventry, traveled the country delivering sermons to large open-air assemblies. Camp meetings were especially common on the Western frontier where churches were few and far between. Itinerant preachers traveled from site to site and set up camp. Families would travel from miles around to attend their meetings, bringing their provisions with them. They would stay for days to listen to sermons, sing hymns, and take communion. The camp meetings offered not only religious inspiration, but a sense of community and a diversion from work.
The Willimantic Camp Meeting Association was founded in 1860 and was sponsored by the New London district of the Methodist Church. The Association initially purchased 11 acres located on the outskirts of Willimantic for its campground. The hilly site formed a natural amphitheater and it had several natural springs to provide water for the worshippers.
The Association’s inaugural camp meeting was held on September 3, 1860 and extended through the week. Folks came from near and far, hauling their clothing, bedding, tents, and needed provisions with them. It was reported that the largest audience of the week reached between 4,000 and 5,000 people and that “the unusual degree of divine influence which attended all services, resulted in the conversion of 75 persons.” Chaffee’s mill workers were among the crowd, leaving the unattended mill to burn.
The disastrous mill fire that seemed to be the end of the Chaffee silk business, instead, became a new beginning and an opportunity to expand. In 1863 Orwell Chaffee joined with his son, Joseph Dwight, to form the company O. S. Chaffee & Son. They engaged Edwin Fitch to build a new and much larger mill on the original site. A larger dam was also constructed.
Business boomed and in 1872, the company expanded and opened a second mill in Willimantic. Ten years later, the Willimantic Chronicle reported, “The two mills in Chaffeeville and Willimantic are connected by telephone. They have in their employ over one hundred operatives, with a pay roll of some four thousand dollars monthly. The firm has an established and wide commercial reputation for honesty and fair dealing, they also have the confidence of the community in which they live and that of the public generally.” From the ashes of that terrible fire in 1860, a stronger, more profitable business had grown.
Likewise, the Willimantic Camp Meeting Association also grew following its initial camp meeting in September 1860. As religious fervor swept the land during the Civil War and the post-war era, the popularity of the Association’s annual camp meetings increased. At its peak, daily attendance grew to as many as 15,000 people who came from all over Connecticut. To meet the increased demand, the campgrounds were expanded from the original 11 acres to 35 acres. Wooden platforms were soon built to lift the tents off of the ground and these were later replaced by some 300 small cottages that offered better shelter.
The popularity of camp meetings faded after the first decades of the 20th century and many of the campgrounds have since disappeared. However the Willimantic Camp Meeting Association is still active today. It maintains an active summer program featuring weekly prayer meetings and Vespers services and it holds an annual Camp Meeting Week each July.
The Association’s campground still reflects the character of a bygone era. About a third of the original cottages have survived; many have become year-round residences. It is considered to be the oldest, continuously operating, campground of this type in America.