The Mills on Mill Brook

Mill Brook postcard, c1910s. WHS collections 2014.42.27.

Mill Brook today flows gently and quietly through Windsor, but it was once the busiest industrial area of town. In the early days, before the larger mills came to the Farmington and Connecticut Rivers, the small mills along the local streams were an important part of the town’s local economy.

The brook’s source is Barber’s Pond, which is partly in Windsor and partly in Bloomfield. It meanders across Bloomfield Avenue and flows down through the meadows south of Pigeon Hill Road. It then runs southeasterly through where the Tradition Golf Course used to be. At this point it goes under Poquonock Avenue, previously known as “Mill Road,” and then empties into the Farmington River near Bart’s Drive-In. A gently flowing stream like this was a natural resource to dam up and create ponds with waterwheels for power.

Lloyd Fowles, former chairman of the history department at Loomis School, spent many hours researching the mills on Mill Brook. In 1964 he presented a lecture on the topic to Windsor Historical Society members. His talk was recorded and is the basis for much of the information in this article. The transcript is in the library’s Oral History Collection.

Weir (small dam) at Barbers Pond, 1897. WHS collections 2013.66. Gift of Janet Bedortha Moran.

At Barber’s Pond there was a good-sized dammed up pond. There was said to have been a sawmill on the site, but unfortunately nothing is known about who ran it. In the early 1900s this same pond was used as the town water source. It was necessary to build a forebay or small reservoir with a 108,000 gallon capacity at the corner of Mountain Road and Bloomfield Avenue to hold the water pumped from Barber’s Pond. Later on a standpipe was built close to the pumping station; it was demolished in 1953. The town began purchasing water from the Hartford Water Bureau (later the Metropolitan District) in 1925 because Barber’s Pond had been condemned.

In the Burns’ family pasture just west of I-91 between exits 37 and 38, there was a dam approximately 15 feet high which held back another good-sized body of water. There might have been two waterwheels there. It is thought to have had a paper mill on it, but it is not known who operated the paper mill. Mr. Fowles believed this mill burned down just before the Civil War. The chimney and foundations remained there for many years, and he had measured them to be about 40 by 50 feet. Until recently you could still see this site from I-91 with cows roaming around the pasture. Now it is all overgrown along the highway and this scenic view is lost.

“A Sawmill on Mill Brook”. Artwork by Don Lang, 1964. WHS collections 2010.1.14.

On the east side of I-91, where the brook runs along the golf course, there was another dam and a pond with an undershot wheel that powered an 18th-century stave mill. It is likely that thousands of barrel staves were fashioned here to be made into barrels for storing and shipping food and other products. Then just below were another dam and another pond which had a sluiceway running along the western side. A sawmill was situated here with an overshot waterwheel. The water went over the wheel and then came back into the brook. This larger pond was known as the Warham Mill Pond. The sawmill was operated by the Barber brothers, Nathaniel Hayden Barber and John Henry Barber, probably in the first half of the 19th century.

At this point the brook split in two with one stream running under the grist mill and one running to the north of it, both passing under Poquonock Avenue. It rejoined itself beyond the grist mill. Just north of the split is where the Windsor Canning Company was located. It was established in 1894 by Horace Ellsworth, R. N. Fitzgerald, and H. Sidney Hayden. The plant was used seasonally for the canning of tomatoes, apples, squash and pumpkins. Immense quantities were put up during the season which lasted from the middle of August to the middle of December. Most of the products were packed under private labels.

The cannery was built near the site of an earlier business, a tannery. This was run by Jerijah Barber Sr. and later by his son Capt. Jerijah Barber Jr. during the latter half of the 18th century. The Barber millstone can be seen in the courtyard of the Society’s museum. The millstone was used to crush oak or hemlock bark to produce the tannic acid necessary for processing leather. The Society also has account books from their tannery business and other ledgers which show that the Barber family was into a little bit of everything: tanning, brick making, shoemaking, sawing lumber and, last but not least, supplying their neighbors with moonshine from their cider mill.

Millstone from Jerijah Barber tannery in Society courtyard, 2017. WHS collections 1968.11.1, gift of Mr. & Mrs. Kenneth Barber. Photo by Michelle Tom.

Just south of the cannery was William Shelton’s hat mill. His brick house stands on the corner of East Street and Pleasant Street. During the 1830s Shelton was in partnership with Walter Pease Jr. They made hats of wool, sheep skins, muskrat, rabbit, mink and beaver in a manufacturing shop on the property behind his house near Mill Brook. They also had a retail store in Hartford.

The original Warham Mill stood on what is now the corner of East Street and Poquonock Avenue. This mill was established in 1640 when the town gifted it to Rev. John Warham, the first minister to the Windsor church. Tradition says it was the first grist mill in Connecticut. It also is the basis for the name of this old brook; it is probably the oldest “Mill Brook” in the state. John Warham wore two hats — on Sundays he supplied his flock with spiritual food and during the week material food.

Inside Bedortha’s Mill, shortly before its demolition, 1963. WHS collections 2013.66. Gift of Janet Bedortha Moran.

Moving easterly down the stream you will find the site of the last mill on the brook, Bedortha’s Mill. This was established about 1870 by Lawrence Bedortha and was in operation for nearly a century. It was originally a wheelwright shop, but then it changed to the manufacture of levels and cutting tools for cigars. The buildings were demolished in 1963, the last remnants of all the small mills which had existed along the brook.

Today as Mill Brook flows gently down to the Farmington River, it is almost a forgotten brook. However, it saw a lot of history along its banks during the nearly two centuries that it was the hub of Windsor’s economic life.

The Mills on Mill Brook (map created by Bev Garvan; not to scale)

  1. Saw mill
  2. Forebay and standpipe
  3. Paper mill
  4. Stave mill
  5. Barber saw mill
  6. Windsor Canning Co.
  7. Barber tannery
  8. Shelton hat factory
  9. Warham gristmill
  10. Bedortha mill

 

By Beverly Garvan, Historian, and Barbara Goodwin, Librarian, 2010

2017-10-12T14:19:18+00:00