Exploring Connecticut's legacy as an industrial powerhouse

In 1818, Benjamin Gilbert started the industry of making curled-hair and haircloth sieves in the basement of his Wilton home.

In 1828, Mr. Gilbert partnered with his son-in-law Sturges Bennett to create the Gilbert & Bennett curled-hair and sieve manufacturing business.

Within about 10 years, Gilbert & Bennett’s business grew from a local Connecticut industry into a national one.

In 1830, the company moved out of Mr. Gilbert’s basement and purchased the first factory in Georgetown, which came to be known as the Old Red Shop.

Four years later, as the company continued to grow, Gilbert & Bennett purchased property along the Norwalk River.

A mill dam was built on the property, as well as a two-story shop with a basement, which came to be known as the Red Mill.

Like many 19th-Century Connecticut business leaders, such as Eli Whitney and Sam Colt, Gilbert & Bennett established products that were not only the first but the best in their fields:

  • The first wire sieve in 1834, which in turn led to the nation’s first woven wire cloth, which led to the creation of cheese and meat safes.

  • The use of wire hex netting to dry glue in 1850, which revolutionized the glue-drying industry.

  • The first insect wire screening in 1861.

  • Galvanized after weaving poultry netting in 1865.

Gilbert & Bennett stayed in business for approximately 170 years before it ceased operations in 1989.

On Sunday, March 16, the fourth installment of this year’s scholarly series will focus on Connecticut’s industrial heritage and legacy as a 19th-Century industrial powerhouse.

Presented by Wilton Library and the Wilton Historical Society, the “Silicon Valley of the 19th Century” lecture will take place in the library’s Brubeck Room, with William Hosley, principal of cultural resource development firm Terra Firma Northeast, as guest speaker.

“There’s a lot of history here in Connecticut. All you have to do is open your eyes,” Mr. Hosley said. “Our cities are by-products of the industrial age. We made things here, and we made a lot of really interesting things.”

In the 19th Century, said Mr. Hosley, almost every Connecticut town had some sort of manufacturing business.

“Some of it was internationally significant and some of it was the largest and most successful in their fields,” he said.

With Gilbert & Bennett as one of the few, there weren’t many industrial manufacturers in 19th-Century Fairfield County.

“Fairfield County was basically made up of farm towns. Agriculture was what they were about,” said Mr. Hosley. “Most of the industrial manufacturers were in cities like New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport.”

Because of this, Mr. Hosley said, his presentation and lecture at Wilton Library will have a lot of emphasis on Connecticut’s cities.

Mr. Hosley said some of Connecticut’s most significant 19th-Century industries were textiles, typewriters, guns, and sewing machines.

Connecticut was also known for its machine tool industry.

“Connecticut made the machines that made machines, and those machines made the stuff that fueled the Industrial Revolution,” said Mr. Hosley, “and Connecticut excelled in that.”

During the industrial era, said Mr. Hosley, one Connecticut city was the center of the United States carriage industry.

“New Haven made the carriages for the horse and buggy age, which was another huge industry,” he said.

New Haven’s carriage industry died once the automobile industry came into the picture, said Mr. Hosley, but that didn’t stop Connecticut’s industrial power.

“There were at least half a dozen companies that made cars in Connecticut, including Corbin in New Britain and  Hartford’s Pope Manufacturing Company,” said Mr. Hosley.

“All of them eventually failed, but they were right in there on the ground floor with the rest of the nation’s automobiles.”

When industries die, said Mr. Hosley, it’s very crippling to the economy of those places.

Mr. Hosley said he believes one of Connecticut’s biggest challenges has to do with the state’s economic success in the industrial era.

“We have all these broken, damaged places where their economies have never quite come back, and they haven’t quite figured out what to do next,” he said.

For example, Mr. Hosley said, despite the challenges it faces today, Bridgeport was once a rich, prosperous and highly successful city.

“One hundred years ago, you wouldn’t even recognize Bridgeport,” he said. “It was a major hub of everything — culture, business, employment, immigration — all kinds of stuff. Great stuff.”

Mr. Hosley said he gets very emotional about these post-industrial places.

“If you look at some of these cities’ buildings and neighborhoods, you can see that there was real affluence and prosperity and a progressive, optimistic outlook at one time,” said Mr. Hosley.

“Today, you look at these places and they seem fragile and broken down, and there’s a fair amount of poverty. You have to wonder what’s next for these places.”

Mr. Hosley said he intends to not only teach people about Connecticut’s industrial heritage but also introduce them to “the wonder, variety and interest of our state.”

“One of the big things that I’m always promoting is what I call ‘backyard tourism,’” said Mr. Hosley.

“I always hope that people will spend a little more time poking around their own back yards, and by ‘back yard,’ I don’t just mean in their own towns.”

If people took the time to explore other areas of Connecticut, Mr. Hosley said, he believes they would find that it’s full of endless enjoyment.

“There’s not a single town in Connecticut that has nothing to offer,” Mr. Hosley said. “There are dozens of places that are completely fascinating.”

Mr. Hosley said the fact that Connecticut was at the forefront of an international industrial revolution fascinates him.

“We had an internationally significant community of business leaders and entrepreneurs who were taking the gold in one category after the next in that period of time,” he said.

“Sam Colt, Oliver Winchester, Eli Whitney — you look at these personalities associated with the industrial age, and they are the stuff of legend and they deserve to be.”

The hour-and-a-half-long lecture on March 16 begins at 4.The event is free, and registration is encouraged.

Information: wiltonlibrary.org or 203-762-3950.