POST #41 The Silkmills in Chaffeville
About 1830 Joseph Conant, one of the partners in the Mansfield Silk Company in Gurleyville, built another small silk mill on the Fenton River in the area now known as Chaffeeville. He named his new silk venture Conant & 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 sons-in-law Orwell S. Chaffee and Earl Dwight Swift.
In 1842, Orwell Chaffee returned to Mansfield and 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. Then 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.” The cause of the fire was never determined.
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 these evangelical gatherings had originated decades earlier, they were a new phenomenon in the Willimantic area.
The Willimantic Camp Meeting Association’s inaugural camp meeting was held on September 3, 1860 and extended through the week. Folks came from near and far, hauling their bedding, tents, and provisions with them. It was reported that the largest audience of the week reached between 4,000 and 5,000 people. Chaffee’s mill workers were among the crowd.
The disastrous mill fire could have been the end of the Chaffee silk business. Instead, it 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. Silk dress goods were produced at the Willimantic factory, while silk thread and trims were manufactured at the Chaffeeville mill. Over 100 operatives were employed at the two sites. After Orwell S. Chaffee died in 1887, Joseph Dwight then formed a partnership with Charles Fenton to form the Natchaug Silk Company in Willimantic. Olon, Joseph Dwight’s brother, took charge of the Chaffeeville mill and ran it until 1902 when the operation moved to Montville. In 1912, Alfred Oden bought the vacant mill to use as a canning factory.That venture was short-lived and around 1920, the old mill was torn down.