Sunday, April 30, 2017

Early Industries of Chatham and East Hampton

I thank you for your attendance and participation (April 29, 20117), and the East Hampton Library, the Chatham Historical Society and the East Hampton 250th Anniversary Committee for hosting a series of lectures and presentations about various topics illuminating our town's rich history during this milestone year. And thanks to Debbie Day who was most persuasive asking me if I could talk about aspects of East Hampton's early industrial history from its founding to the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s.

In my own mind there has been a question or puzzle gnawing at me for a long time. Through reading and research to prepare for this gathering and for many of the articles I've written, I thought I would attempt to answer this burning question WHY? We all know Chatham / East Hampton became the bell capitol of the world, but WHY? WHY here of all places?

My quest and my own interest in East Hampton's history began as a 5th grade student of Mr. Moore at our own Memorial School. Assigned to write a report, one of those school chores we probably all detested at one time or another, I was stymied for a topic to research. Talking about my dilemma with my grandmother, Rose Markham, it was she who suggested looking at Carl Price's book Yankee Township, especially the chapter on "The Bells of East Hampton." She thought I might find it interesting as my parents Don and Pauline had recently purchased the William Barton house at the crest of Barton Hill....... From that book I would find a certain kinship, not only to the founder of our bell industry, but the historical significant of the house we lived in and our town as a whole. I still remember the title of that report - "Mr. Barton and His Bells." That school report has fostered a lifelong interest in our history, collecting information, studying what others have researched and written, and has manifest itself in recent years to writing about East Hampton Past in letters to the Editor of the Rivereast. I also preserve in greater depth these articles in my blog.

I guess one of the other reasons that my report held such relevance is that my friendship with my 5th grade teacher, Bob Moore, remained thorough his life. He passed several years ago, but we had a mutual interest beyond East Hampton history. We were both active politically and Democrats.

At the April 3rd event held at Angelico's Lakeside on Reminiscing about East Hampton's Bars, Taverns, Inns and Resorts, I spoke about our town, and what I characterize as its creation by water and fire - both important components critical to our industrial development.

What greeted settlers of Chatham in the late 1730s was predominantly hilly and rocky terrain. Most of those receiving proprietor rights as Middletown land owners, found minimal farming opportunities which probably explains why the town had been surveyed and lots parceled out by 1721 yet didn’t experience settlement in significant numbers until after 1737, long after many of the original owners sold their property without ever venturing east across the great river. Most of the historical record on settlement centers on people beginning to occupy the land, construction of homes, and petitioning the General Assembly for the establishment of Congregational Church parishes. Our earliest industries primarily catered to the settlement of the town itself. It was related to the construction of homes. Processing materials was key. Water played a significant role as at least 3 mills were built along Pocotopaug Stream: grist mills to process grain and sawmills to cut and finish lumber. In all there were 13 or more mills in the Middle Haddam and 3-Mile Division. Other areas of the town (East Middletown) experienced similar ventures using the abundant forests for a steady supply of raw material. Although I've seen a number of references to quarries in the 19th century, I noted little or nothing to the 1700s. One must assume that quarry work was quite significant as every home constructed has huge granite blocks of which the cellar walls are composed.
What really advanced settlement was not the land for farming, but rather water, and then fire!

Knowles Landing rested on the banks of the Connecticut River in the village of Middle Haddam. It didn't go unnoticed to those first residents, beginning around 1720, of the value of the river for commerce and trade or how exceptional farm land was at a premium. From its shipyards starting in the latter 1700s, 51 schooners, brigs and sloops were built and launched. Margaret Faber will tell (or has told) you about that great industry.
Inland, to the east of Middle Haddam, was Pocotopaug Pond, the beautiful crystal clear body of water from which a stream flows southwesterly through our current village center. My great-grandfather, Newton Markham, always referred to Pocotopaug as a pond, probably because in his youth its high water mark was 15 or 20 feet from the current shoreline. Then it was comprised of almost two distinct bodies of water - the main with today's twin islands and Markham's Bay with a roadway connecting Spellman and Markham Point. It became Meeks Point in the 1940s when George Meeks from Meriden purchased the point.
The first dam was constructed in 1903 by the Pocotopaugh Water Power Company, a consortium of 5 mill owners including Bevin Bros., Gong Bell, Summit Tread, Starr Bros. and N.N. Hill Mfg. Those industrialists desired a way to more efficiently harness water to power machinery in their factories and that happened through a series of 7 or 8 mill ponds, remnants of which remain. Ironically, it was the dam, raising the level of the lake that fostered our tourism and resort industry.
Our earliest entrepreneurs had a similar use for the water exiting Pocotopaug. At a site where the American Distilling driveway is located on the channel of Pocotopaug Stream, Giles Hall and his partner Jabez Hamlin, influential Middletown land owners and members of the General Assembly, acquired the lots directly south of the outlet and in 1740 built an Iron Works, forge and smelting factory with a Great Hammer driven by water power to form and shape the ingots. Although no local source of iron ore, our Iron Works processed and refined pig iron mined in Salisbury CT and ore shipped as far away as West Point. We had one of the few forges not located directly at the raw material source, but ours flourished and ultimately spawned our infamous bell industry. Its great mechanically driven hammer was able to pound and shape the iron, much of which was used in the shipbuilding industry. The fire that stoked the forge of the iron works came from another local industry - charcoal - produced from nearby abundant hardwood forests.
Abijah Hall, an iron worker from Lyme, and probably a relative of Giles Hall, was first brought in to run the forge. His son Abijah Hall, Jr. ran the forge from 1784 until 1812. In 1825 Jedidiah Barstow build a new forge and scythe factory on the site of the old iron works, having acquired a half interest in the "Iron Works" standing on Pocotopauge Stream near the Pond and an equal one half of land and buildings standing on or near said premises with all the appurtenances and "privileges" thereto belonging. Although not defined in the land records, the "privileges" most likely relate to harnessing the flow of water out of Pocotopauge to run water wheels as well as the rights to the forge. Many have speculated that the Bevin's always owned the dam and rights thereto, but that is not substantiated from the land records. Bevin Bros., founded in 1832, began acquiring the land and old forge rights once associated with the iron works on East High Street in 1850, 18 years after formation of their bell company. The Bevin Bros. factory had always been located just off Summit Street until the horrendous fire in May 2012. Acquisition of the old iron works site filled a strategic need to incorporate water power to drive machinery for their factory. To do so, control of the water flow was crucial. Initially, small mill ponds retained the water and the flow from them turned water wheels. The idea of a larger reservoir retained by a dam on the lake came later. The concept was quite simple - more water - more power. The flow from the Lake would be restricted during the day. At night the water would be released which would fill the mill ponds. The factories would then release the mill pond reservoirs during working hours to drive the waterwheels and machinery.
Also, Bevin Bros. never owned the Lake as others have speculated. They did purchase the land at the outlet which allowed them to construct the 1903 dam. A gate and apparatus does allow them to control the lake's water level. Today there would be a public out roar if someone just tried to construct a dam. State regulators from DEEP, our Inland Wetlands and Planning and Zoning Commissions would be putting the brakes on such a project. In 1903 and again when rebuilt in 1953, I suspect citizens were grateful the mill owners undertook the construction at no cost to the taxpayers. Remember - the dam and size of the lake benefited everyone.
But getting back to the question WHY? Until recently I pondered why did East Hampton become the center for the bell industry? We know William Barton settled here after first crafting bells in Cairo, New York, but why East Hampton? I've read books or papers by Carl Price, Olive Adella Clark, Martin Roberts, and the Middlesex County Preservation Trust, among others. None ever really addressed the WHY. After a fair amount of research and reflection the answer became rather simple. Although little has been written, East Hampton had become a metal working center with its Iron Forge, and this was likely the attraction to one William Barton in 1808 when he settled here and began making bells. Barton with his father, had been instrumental in the development of interchangeable rifle parts during the American Revolution. In the early 1800s Barton turned his talents to the casting of sleigh bells. As many of you know, the uniqueness of his process was a single piece casting with a clapper cast inside - a process devised with wet sand - and one that did not require welding two halves of the bell together - a vary labor intensive and costly process. Instrumental to the founding of the bell industry was the iron forge which developed into the use of other metals, especially brass, a good metal, clean and bright, well suited for clear-toned bells that emerged from East Hampton's charcoal fired furnaces. The other reason for Barton settling here was skilled labor - we already had trained iron and metal workers. Just after Barton opened his first factory to the east of his house on Barton Hill, the first Iron Works Forge closed. As Barton and his apprentices expanded with bell manufacturing, their own plants had forges. Those skilled men from the Iron Works moved to more lucrative jobs in the emerging bell industry, many becoming apprentices to William Barton. Barton's unique single cast design eliminated the inefficient and costly process of welding two halves with a clapper. Coupling the metal working forge and skilled labor, Barton found a winning combination with his casting design which he generously shared with any willing young man. From that first shop came the whole array of bell manufacturers.
Advances came when Abner Bevin brought John Hodge from Scotland, who introduced the Hodge Furnace which could take slag and sweepings of the foundry and separate dirt and impurities from the mass, efficiently and cost effectively, yielding a pure metal, well suited for bell making. From William Barton's design and apprentices, over 37 bell companies formed, producing millions upon millions of bells.
The second Iron Works constructed in 1825 did not share the same success as it predecessor. Each of the bell manufacturers built their own forges and smelting operations within their shoppes and factories. Iron was produced more efficiently near the raw material source thus the cost of transportation fixed its demise. Bevin Bros acquired the Iron Works, not for the factory, but to control the flow of water. Bells were made of brass - an alloy of tin and copper. Specialization and technology propelled East Hampton to earn the reputation - "Bell Capital of the World!"
Thus, the WHY was quite simple! Technology from the Iron Works Forge, Skilled Labor from the metal workers at the Forge, and one other important component, our River Port in Middle Haddam that provided the means to market and distribute our precious bells throughout the East Coast and ultimately the world.
That my friends is a much abbreviated history of our early industry. I hope it provided some insight on WHY this seemingly out-of-the way town with few apparent resources achieved such notoriety.


  1. Dean - Great post! Although far way from East Hampton, I check your Blog every day. To commemorate 250 years of East Hampton in my own mind, I am rereading Carl Price's Yankee Township and the Postscript (I have kept a signed copy given by Carl to my dad, Eaton E. Smith). I look forward to your future posts as we move through 2017, and beyond! Geoff Smith

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