Workers' riots, trade with Japan part of Manchester history

By Brenda Sullivan - ReminderNews
Manchester - posted Wed., Oct. 2, 2013
Manchester 35th Annual Walking Tour of Cheney Brothers Historic District
Manchester Historical Society member Dennis Gleeson stands beside one of the looms on display in the former Cheney mills machine shop, now home to the historical society at 175 Pine St., with a group touring the Cheney Brothers Historic District on Sept. 21. Photos by Brenda Sullivan.

The 35th annual walking tour of Manchester’s historic Cheney Brothers District on Sept. 21 included tales of labor riots, travels to Japan and other dramatic moments in this city’s eventful history. The tour was hosted by the Manchester Historical Society and Manchester Community College and was chock full of rich details.

The walk encompassed several mill buildings, as well as other important structures including the mill workers’ bath house, the silk vaults, the theater/Cheney Hall and some of the homes workers bought from their employers on Cedar, Pleasant and High streets.

The tour was narrated by MCC professor Dr. Chris Paulin, with assistance from the historical society’s Susan Barlow.

The two-hour walk began at what was once the Cheney’s office building, now home to Fuss & O’Neill, on Hartford Road. Behind this building runs Hop Brook, which powered the first modest mills built in 1838 by the Cheney family – a grist and saw mill, and a 32-by-45-foot silk mill called the Mt. Nebo Silk Manufacturing Co.

Paulin noted Manchester was originally known as The Five Miles, and then Orford Parish, until being renamed Manchester in 1823. Timothy Cheney – who also fought in the American Revolution – was the first of his family to build his homestead in The Five Miles, in 1757, on East Center Street (later demolished).

The tour continued to Cheney Hall, built in 1867, which served as the main socializing place for the mill workers who came from 14 different countries.

The tour also included a walk past today’s Cheney Mill Self Storage, to follow the former Hartford-Providence-Fishkill NY rail line, the longest privately-owned line of its day. Built in 1869, it was used to transport silk, mill workers and silk clients from New York and Boston and to take Manchester students to a Hartford high school.

In this area also is a multi-level building with heavy-duty metal doors that served as a silk vault, and a small brick building where the train car was secured – the result of an attempted heist by a New Jersey gang and a resulting shoot-out that left a popular sports figure dead.

In 1870, the Cheneys dramatically increased their business by constructing a 208,000-square-foot spinning mill, notable for its majestic clock tower, and thus began a half century of success in the silk/textile industry.

The Civil War would prompt the Cheneys to begin producing broadcloth and other products that boosted their profits.

To underscore the extent of the Cheneys’ expansion, Paulin said the first Hop Brook mill employed six women. When the new mill opened in 1870, there were 551 workers. More buildings were constructed, and by 1920 there were 18,370 workers, or about 70 percent of Manchester’s working-age residents.

Paulin described how Frank Cheney developed an impressive list of inventions to rival someone like Thomas Edison. Cheney was the first in the country to find a way to use “waste silk,” the result of silk worms eating holes in their cocoons as they were shipped to the mills, which saved the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of today’s dollars.

Frank Cheney also is noted for traveling to Japan, after it first opened its doors to foreign trade, where he bought 25,000 pounds of raw silk.

However, one of his innovations sparked a strike in 1902 by the velvet weavers that unleashed months of violence among workers and sympathizers and required calling on Hartford police for help. Paulin added, “there was a lot of labor unrest” in the country, with more than 3,000 labor strikes that year.

For more information about the Cheney district and Manchester Historical Society events, visit The historical society also has a Facebook page.

Coming up, at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26, the historic society hosts “Food in the Time of the Cheneys,” at the Keeney Schoolhouse at 106 Hartford Road.

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