WILLIMANTIC - In the mill owner's house, the table is set with fine china and crystal. There is a piano in the elegant parlor, with its floral wallpaper and lace curtains. In the master bedroom an ornate sewing machine decorated with a gold sphinx sits next to a black lacquered case filled with ivory sewing tools.
Across the hall, a stark kitchen holds a sink, a coal stove, a washtub, and an ironing board. Dented and chipped cookware hangs on the walls. In the tiny bedroom, mattresses nearly cover the bare wood floor. This is how the mill workers lived, said Beverly York, director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, known locally as the Mill Museum.
Interpreting eastern Connecticut's textile history through the eyes of those who built and worked in mill communities in the late 1800s is the museum's mission, York said. In her tour, she pauses frequently to urge visitors to imagine working conditions: long hours, danger of flying shuttles, lung disease from exposure to airborne fibers, and the din of the massive machines.
The museum preserves two buildings of a complex formerly owned by Willimantic Linen Co., which became American Thread Co. Once the world's largest mill, it was also the first to be illuminated by electricity, thanks to owner Austin Cornelius Dunham's friendship with Thomas Edison. It was powered by the Willimantic River; in Mohegan, Willimantic means "fast-flowing water."
The main building was the company store. Visitors can see the vault where the paymaster tallied accounts. "Mill owners controlled everything - wages, prices, and working conditions," York said.
But it was also a period of industrial paternalism, the idea that mill owners should maintain a near parental relationship to workers and townspeople. The top floor of this building, Dunham Hall, was not only where workers learned English, but also Willimantic's first public library. Today its windows offer an expansive view of old mills being refurbished as offices, apartments, and artists' lofts.
This building also has a terrific collection of sewing machines dating from the mid-1800s, including many miniatures. When a Singer salesman sold a machine to a housewife, York said, he would often throw in a child's model for her daughter.
The second building attempts to replicate the various operations of the mill floor. Visitors can follow the process of turning cotton into thread: picking, carding, spinning, winding, dying, and packaging. One display shows how wood spindles were crafted, and in the printing shop visitors can see how labels were affixed to spools of thread.
York notes that most workers were women. "You could hire three women for the price of one man," she said. Most of them worked 12-hour shifts, then went home to cook dinner and clean house.
A Jacquard hand loom from the late 1700s was the first that could weave designs in fabric. The process begins with strips of paper with holes punched in it to make the design. The paper looks much like a player piano roll or punch cards used in early computers.
A recent acquisition is a working spinning frame, which pulls and twists cotton fibers into thread or yarn. Listening to the clatter of this small machine, it's hard to fathom the noise level of a mill in full production mode.
Unlike the red brick mills found in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, Connecticut's are made of local granite, or gneiss. The bright, nearly white stone looks like something you might see in a castle - or, York points out, a prison.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at email@example.com.