Windsor Historical Society collections are made up of objects of all kinds, from postcards and scrapbooks to dresses and farm implements and more. We receive them via individuals and organizations making generous donations, or through purchasing items of particular uniqueness and historical value. When these materials come in, our primary jobs as archivists and curators are to determine the importance of the objects, and figure out if and how they fit into the history of our town. While that is simple enough to say, the process can be painstaking, alternating between fulfilling and frustrating, but always fascinating.
For example, a few months ago a rare book dealer alerted us to the availability of an account book purported to have belonged to John M. Niles and his brother Richard Niles. John Milton Niles is a relatively well known Windsor native who founded the Hartford Times newspaper, became a U.S. senator in 1835, and served as Postmaster General in President Martin Van Buren’s cabinet. On the face of it, anything belonging to this man would be of great value to the Society and to the town.
Account books by their nature usually provide a rich look into what people did on a day-to-day basis, the kind of information that doesn’t always make it into a biography or a genealogy. An entry showing that someone’s rent has been paid in the form of three cords of wood can give us an idea as to what both the tenant’s and landlord’s lives were like.
However, this particular account book had few clues as to the part it played in the Niles brothers’ lives, due to it mainly showing monetary figures and dates rather than spelling out what each transaction was comprised of. So, in order to determine whether this would be a worthwhile purchase for the Society, I had to figure out what the account book was for, and to whom it belonged. Exactly the kind of detective mystery archivists love to delve into.
The dealer’s original ad for the book says it’s “probably largely that of Richard,” and that account information spans the years 1841-1843 and includes many names from the Poquonock area. Using that as a starting point, I first sought to learn more about who Richard Niles was, how long he and his family lived in Windsor, and, most importantly for the purposes of the account book purchase, what kind of business he was in.
Who Was Richard Niles?
It didn’t take long to discover that not only did Richard have a famous brother, but he also had a famous granddaughter in Christine Ladd Franklin, who was a noted 19th- and early 20th-century mathematician, logician, and psychologist. Even more surprisingly, all of these family members were born in the same house in Windsor, 1257 Poquonock Ave., a house built by Richard and John’s father Moses Niles in 1776, a house that is still standing today!
Richard was a leader in the community. In his book History of Ancient Windsor, Henry Stiles says of Richard Niles: “Was an active business man; frequently a member of State Legislature; possessed great energy and perseverance, and was prominent in advancing the interests of the community.” Indeed, as early as age sixteen Richard was already active in the community, serving as constable, and later as town selectman, justice of the peace, and state representative.
Having confirmed the Niles family’s significance to the town, I moved on to questions about what specifically was being recorded in the account book, whether it would complement or duplicate our collections, and what kind of business it documented.
Early Mill Owner
In my research on Richard, I learned that beginning in 1825 he ran a number of businesses in Poquonock, including several iterations of mills—first paper, then silk, later grist and saw—and associated stores. He partnered with other Poquonock residents, running his businesses under the names Niles and Marshall (with David Marshall), Niles and Soper (with Arunah Soper), and R & JM Niles (with his brother John Milton). It was very likely that this book was a ledger for one of his mills or stores, and the book dealer had surmised as much in his ad.
But what kind of mill did the ledger refer to?
I proceeded to look through our collections to see if anything we already have relating to the Niles family could enlighten me. It turns out that we have a small collection of items, including a portrait of Christine Ladd-Franklin and her diploma from Vassar College, furniture from the Niles homestead, and most intriguing of all, other account books attributed to Richard Niles. One was a personal account book of his dating from 1822-1829, and the other was a daybook for the Niles and Soper general store with entries from 1829-1831. While both of these books pre-date the ledger for sale by at least a decade, they help paint a picture of a hardworking and meticulous businessman who had lovely penmanship. A handwriting comparison helped prove that the ledger for sale is, in fact, in the hand of Richard Niles.
Richard built his first paper mill at the mouth of Phelps Brook (then called Stony Brook), off the Farmington River. This spot was across Poquonock Ave. from the Niles homestead. According to secondary sources, Richard soon sold this mill and immediately built another one down river. Primary source tax records validate these claims and show that Richard and his brother together ran a mill and a store from 1838-1841, plus a manufactory in 1838 as well. Tax records from 1843 show that they no longer had the mill, but Richard owned the store and the two of them owned a manufactory.
I still couldn’t verify the nature of the account book. Based on timing it appeared I could cross paper mill off the list, which left silk and saw as my most likely options. Even though I knew this was a valuable item worth purchasing, I still had stray puzzle pieces wanting to be put in place. I had hit a research wall.
The Last Puzzle Pieces
But by chance, I happened to be in the Society’s South Gallery opening drawers that, though I had worked here for several months by that point, I had never opened before, and lo, on display were spools and skeins of silk from the Richard Niles silk mill dated circa 1840. The puzzle pieces had finally come together!
Of course I wanted to double check this information before calling it definitive so I went back and found accession records for the silk, donated in 1940 and 1963. The 1963 donation record didn’t have the Niles name associated with it even though the display label did, indicating a previous curator had done some of her own research on this topic. The record listed “box containing spools and lengths of sewing silk manufactured in Poquonock in 1842”, but in the many years and moves of storage items since then, I wasn’t able to find the original boxes that contained the silk spools to corroborate the date.
However, this clue led me down the path of researching silk manufacturing in Windsor, and I came across a Daily Courant (now the Hartford Courant) newspaper article from 1839 that reported the establishment of the Connecticut Silk Society, and listed John M. Niles as a vice president for Hartford County. These bits of information together led me to believe that at the time they were keeping the account book in question, the Niles mill was processing silk.
This ledger fills a hole in our Niles family collection during the later period of Richard Niles’ business career, shortly before he died in 1846. It documents the commercial activities of a prominent Windsor citizen and his brother and business partner John M. Niles. The ledger also provides good historical perspective on early manufacturing in Windsor. And in doing this research, I found that even though you can be methodical in tracking down sources, sometimes it takes a bit of serendipity to find the answers you’re looking for.
by Michelle Tom, librarian/archivist, 2016