Scholarly series to explore Connecticut’s brass industry
Retired Region 12 English teacher, lifelong photographer and Southwest Connecticut Arts Council member Emery Roth will lead the third installment of the Wilton Library Association and Wilton Historical Society 10th annual scholarly lecture series Sunday, March 12, at Wilton Library.
Deriving from his 2015 book Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry, Roth’s talk will focus on the rise and fall of the brass industry in Connecticut’s Naugatuck River Valley — also known as Brass Valley — and share historic and more recent images of the area to tell its story.
Roth was inspired to write his book after teaching in Connecticut’s Northwest Hills for 40 years and becoming fascinated with Connecticut’s old mill towns and their history. Roth began following tracks through old ruins until he was led to the last working brass mill in Brass Valley.
“My wife and I sometimes call ourselves time travelers. As teenagers, we became fascinated by an old tax map that showed people and houses, but which had no date,” he said.
“We began visiting cemeteries to try to date the map, and eventually began visiting and photographing the houses and interviewing the people who were living in them then.”
After he retired, Roth saw how the farms were vanishing in the Northwest Hills and began making friends with farmers and “photographing anything [he] could” to find out more.
“As I expanded my photo territory, I eventually became interested in the Naugatuck River Valley. When I asked about Brass Valley, people told me I was too late,” he said.
“However, a photographer friend and I began photographing whatever ruins or relics we could find of old Brass Valley.”
In 2011, the two got in touch with John Barto, of Ansonia Copper & Brass, and discovered the factory was still casting three-ton billets of metal at the old American Brass casting shop in Ansonia.
“The billets were trucked to an old American Brass factory in Waterbury, where ancient machines were used to turn the billets into specification-critical metal tubes for nuclear subs,” said Roth.
“We photographed in those mills and the adjacent empty buildings of American Brass until the company went out of business in December 2013.”
Roth said he quickly became aware that he had been given “a rare opportunity to photograph the end of an industry, which went back to the decades after the Revolution when Connecticut’s industry was just forming.”
“The geographic proximity of the brass industry and the old iron industry made clear that this geography had been central to giving Connecticut its predominance in the development of early and lasting dominance in metals and machine tools industries,” he said.
“New Britain was known as ‘Hardware City.’ Meriden was the ‘Silver City.’ Southington was the ‘Bell City’ — but brass had a whole valley.”
From Bridgeport and New Haven to Winsted, brass was made and transformed into things like “clips to clocks to the fittings for industry and weapons of war,” said Roth.
With his photographs, Roth created his book “to honor and raise awareness of this region,” he said.
“Its importance became a responsibility, as well as an opportunity. I am grateful to the men who proudly told me about what they did, and who gave me a story to tell in pictures and words.”
As a photographer, Roth said, “I’m led by my eyes, which are drawn to anything that speaks to me of the layers of time.”
“It can be a quality of light, a wilted flower, rust, peeling paint, old machines, or the technologies and skills demonstrated in making things,” he said.
“My pictures often lead me to think and write about the forces that shaped those layers and what they mean. What I found of special interest in the valley’s history was that as I was telling its story, I was telling the story of a civic culture that — even as it fought bitterly over ideas of what society should look like — forged relationships and laws and expectations of behavior that made society more civil.”
During his scholarly series lecture, Roth said, he hopes for an “interested and interesting audience” that will not only “ask good questions” but also “help put the phrase ‘Brass Valley’ back onto people’s lips and raise awareness of all that happened in this important region.”
This year’s scholarly series will run through April, with all talks taking place from 4 to 5:30, followed by Q&A sessions. The next lectures are:
- March 26: Navigating the New Digital Landscape of Knowledge, with Julia Adams at Wilton Historical Society.
- April 2: 9/11 and America’s World View, with Matthew Warshauer at Wilton Historical Society.
Receptions will follow each lecture. There is no charge, but registration for each lecture is required.