From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 44, No. 5, November 2008
On the day before Christmas 1882, the P.G. & J.S. Hanks silk mill was destroyed by fire. “The fire which occurred at about 1 o’clock a.m. was not discovered until it was bursting through the roof and it was then beyond any possibility of being extinguished with the means at hand. The mill, a building 28×60 feet and two stories high, was completely consumed. It had but a short time since been thoroughly repaired and in it at the time was a large amount of stock and machinery. The loss comes very heavy on the owners as the insurance was in the vicinity of $5,000 while the value of property destroyed was over $10,000. The first building in this country in which silk thread has been manufactured by machinery stood nearby but this was unharmed” (The Willimantic Chronicle, Dec. 27, 1882). The article below was published in The Willimantic Chronicle on April 18, 1883 when the mill was being rebuilt. It contains some interesting information about the village of Hanks Hill and the local silk industry.
This is a silk manufacturing village, and is a busy little place. It is located in the eastern part of the town, between Spring Hill and Gurleyville somewhere about equidistant from each place… It is situated on a small plateau, gradually rising towards Spring Hill on the west, and gently sloping to Fenton river on the east. It is neat and tidy in its appearance and bears evidence of taste and refinement. Here no dilapidated old buildings are to be seen and no useless debris is found lying carelessly scattered around, but everything about the premises appears in perfect order, (we are speaking from a general observation before the destruction of the mill by fire). The power required for operating the machinery in the mill is obtained from a small stream on which there are two reservoirs, one across the street opposite the mill, on the margin of which is a grassy walk which add to the beauty of the surrounding scenery. The other is located father up stream, and is sometimes used as a baptistry by the church on Spring Hill.
This pleasant little village is historic in the annals of silk manufacture. It was here that the first successful attempt at its manufacture by machinery was made on the Western Hemisphere. Here remains the little mill 12×14 (removed from its original site) wherein the attempt was made a success and wherein started the germ of this great and prosperous industry. Here the Grandfather Rodney Hanks who started and made it a success, lived and died. Here the father George R. Hanks still lives and takes an interest in the business and here the sons John S. and P.G. Hanks were until the recent fire pursuing the same occupation. Therefore the name of Hanks Hill, is more than appropriate and well recognized throughout the surrounding country.
One thing in connection with this village wherein it differs from most other small manufacturing places, it is now, always has been, and according to present indications, always will be, in politics, – Democratic.
The first church bell ever cast in America was cast by a member of the Hanks family in this place. Previous to the manufacture of silk by machinery, Horace Hanks a relative of the same family invented the “double geared wheel head” which was used on the common spinning wheel and which proved a valuable invention, and a great help in the manufacture of silk by hand. Some of your older readers well remember the busy whirr and whiz of this old fashioned institution the relics of which can be found in many an old-garret at the present day.
In those days silk and twist were sold by the skein and formed an important medium of change, amounting almost to a standard currency in the silk-producing districts. The raw article was of home product and a source of revenue to such as engaged in its cultivation. The mulberry flourished spontaneously and the business furnished employment alike for young and old of both sexes. The younger part usually gathered or “picked the leaves” from the trees, in which occupation the boys and young men were compelled either from their superior agility, or motives of modesty to gather from the topmost branches, while the gentler sex gathered from the lower. The leaves were gathered in a strong cloth wallet suspended in front by shoulder straps with a string to tie it about the waist to keep it from flopping about. A hundred pounds a day in ordinary picking was considered a fair day’s work. The silk worm developed rapidly in growth, shed its skin three times and then crawled into the bushes conveniently placed for that special purpose spun or “wound” its silken insides into a “ball” or cocoon completely enveloping itself in a hard fibrous shroud preparatory to emerging in the form of a miller [moth]. It was during this intermediate state after the “winding” that the silk was reeled from the cocoon. The worms were lively at feeding time other than that they were quiet and orderly insects; lying about half their length horizontally with their heads raised to nearly a perpendicular, apparently in deep and pensive meditation. They were harmless but possessed a cold, icy feeling when taken in the hand, and as they required removing and handling several times during their growth this part was left with and performed by the “wimmen folks…”
But we have drifted away from our starting point and will return to Hanks Hill. George R. Hanks the elder and John S. one of his sons have both represented the town in the state legislature both of them sent there by the democrats in the face of a strong republican majority thus giving evidence of their popularity as citizens. If we mistake not George R. Hanks was associated with his father Rodney in his early attempt to silk manufacture by machinery and they also in company at one time carried on an extensive business in the manufacture of cannon swabs for government. After it became an established fact that silk could be manufactured by machinery, curiosity and speculation were rife to witness the operation. The doors of the mill were kept closed against strangers and the process kept a secret as far as possible. On one occasion while George R. Hanks then quite a young man was super of a small mill at Gurleyville a stranger entered the mill when Mr. Hanks politely but firmly ordered him out. The stranger subsequently proved to be the Hon. Wm. L. Marcy then governor of New York and afterwards member of the cabinet under Martin Van Buren.
From the foregoing it will be seen that from Hanks Hill and from the Hanks’ family sprung this great and prosperous industry requiring nameless millions of capital and giving employment to an unnumbered multitude of operatives. On last Christmas the Hanks had the misfortune to lose their mill, machinery stock manufactured and raw, in fact everything appertaining to their business, by fire. The loss was partially covered by insurance but to an amount far from adequate to rebuild and restock with machinery. Still in the face of this difficulty with characteristic energy and enterprise which marked the career of the family at the outset, they have commenced to rebuild and will soon start in business again. May they be successful, and may the memorable spot where originated this gigantic industry continue to thrive in this business long in the dim and distant future.