The Windham Textile & History Museum is a private, nonprofit, educational institution, incorporated in 1989 in the State of Connecticut. Located in the historic former headquarters of the American Thread Company in Willimantic, Connecticut, the Windham Textile and History Museum houses a museum, a library, and an archive. Through its exhibits, programs, and collections, the Windham Textile and History Museum preserves and interprets the history of textiles, the textile arts, and the textile industry, with special emphasis on the experiences of craftspeople, industrial workers, manufacturers, inventors, designers, and consumers. The Windham Textile and History Museum also promotes a greater understanding of the major trends and changes in technology, the economy, immigration, society, the environment, and culture that shaped the history of textiles, the textile arts, and the textile industry in Connecticut, New England, and the United States from the colonial period to the present.
In 1985, life in
Willimantic, Connecticut – and in the other old industrial cities and towns of
southern New England – changed forever. The American Thread Company, the city’s
signature industry, closed its Willimantic Mills plant and shifted operations
to North Carolina and later Mexico. The closing exemplified a larger trend.
Beginning in the 1960s, one by one, almost all of the giant New England textile
mills that once had provided jobs for tens of thousands of workers had
generated billions of dollars in sales closed their doors. For more than 150
years, the textile industry’s whirring spindles and thumping looms had
symbolized Willimantic’s and New England’s industrial prominence. Now, almost
all of them are gone. A way of life has vanished forever.
The Windham Textile and
History Museum (also known as the Mill Museum of Connecticut) tells and
preserves the history of the rise and fall of the textile industry in
Willimantic and the rest of eastern Connecticut. Although textile mills operated
in the western part of Connecticut as well as the eastern, for the most part
manufacturing in eastern Connecticut centered on textiles, while the western
half focused more on making precision machines and tools like Colt
six-shooters, Sharps rifles, Wheeler and Wilson sewing machines, Stanley tools,
Columbia bicycles, Pope automobiles, and Seth Thomas clocks. The museum
occupies the former headquarters of the American Thread Company’s once giant
Founded in 1854 as the
Willimantic Linen Company, at its height in the early 20th century the
Willimantic Mills was the largest factory in Connecticut and the largest thread
mill in North America. It sprawled through nine separate factory buildings, two
office buildings, a barn, three warehouses, and dozens of company-owned worker
houses, which were arranged in three distinct worker villages, Iverton, the
Oaks, and Carey Hill. It employed 3,500 workers. It was the first factory to
install electric lights, and consequently the first to operate a second shift.
It was the first factory to give its workers coffee breaks. Its massive
buildings included the iconic Mill Number Four, the prototype of the modern
factory building and at one time the largest one-story building in the world.
The company manufactured the first thread specifically designed for sewing
machines, and the thread in U. S. army uniforms, NASA spacesuits, and major
league baseballs. The city of Willimantic – located along the Willimantic River
in the town and county of Windham in northeastern Connecticut – boomed as
America’s fabled Thread City.
Today, the museum still stands and tells the story of
textile work and its history in the U.S. Visitors are encouraged to stop by and
learn about one of America’s most important and fascinating histories.