Potsdam Worker Houses
The nine “Potsdam Worker Houses” on Curcombe Street in Hartford, Connecticut were once part of a much more expansive project of redevelopment by arms manufacturer and industrialist Samuel Colt in the 1850s. The houses were each built in 1859 to house Colt’s German willow-ware workers, who labored for him at his willow-ware furniture factory built behind the houses. There were ten houses in total (one has since been demolished) and a second row of houses next to the remaining nine. Each is styled after similar “Swiss”-style weaver houses in Potsdam, Germany. The cottages are built in a half-timbered or modified chalet style and are one and a half stories with gabled roofs. Only two retain their original 1859 look, and they are most prominently the ones with exposed first story, red brick walls set into the half-timbered frame. They each had outdoor staircases with porches on both levels and a small balcony on the second story window. The buildings are still privately owned, though their original German immigrant families have moved out since the days of Colt’s willow-ware factory.
Backstory and Context
Samuel Colt was a Hartford native who made millions as the founder of the Colt Firearms Manufactoring Company. In 1855, Colt decided to build a new arms factory in Hartford, as his original Hartford plant on Grove Street had grown too small to fill demand. He embarked on a redevelopment project in the South Meadows of Hartford, building an entire industrial town out of an area that had once been known by residents only for its seasonal flooding by the Connecticut River. His new industrial village, which earned the name "Coltsville," would be more than just a workspace, as he bought up land to build worker housing, entertainment halls, a reservoir, train stations, and much more. Colt even tried to incorporate Hartford history into his new industrial town as a way to bridge the gap between the past and the progress he hoped to create. Colt named the streets around Coltsville after important people in Hartford history. Curcombe Street, where the Potsdam Houses would eventually be built, was named in honor of Curry Combe, a Wangunk or Tunxis, who was among the original Native American inhabitants of Hartford. Combe had signed one of the land transfer treaties that ceded land to the original English colonists in 1637. Through his homage to history Colt hoped to connect Coltsville to the past, yet he saw Hartford's future to be immigration and hoped to attract more to the South Meadows. German gunsmiths and mechanics were world renowned firearms experts and workmen, and Colt sought them to improve his product.
Colt knew of the German reputation for skill and craftsmanship well before his building of Coltsville. As early as 1847 Colt was recruiting German gunsmiths from Eli Whitney Jr.’s Whitneyville Armory to help him build a firearms empire. By 1860, almost one-third of Colt Firearms’ employees were German immigrants, and Colt was looking for ways to attract more immigrants at less cost. Colt had built a dyke in 1855 to help stop the Connecticut River from flooding the South Meadows, and he planted willow trees to keep the flood waters at bay. This idea was taken from Hartford history, as similar dykes were built by Dutch settlers in the area centuries before. Now that Colt had an abundance of willow trees, he saw an opportunity to attract German workers and make money.
Wicker furniture was widely popular among Germans and Westerners in the 19th century. It was considered tasteful, cheap, and light, meaning that it could be transported easily by Westerners who seemed constantly on the move in the 19th century. Colt’s hope was that these reminders of home would make it easier for skilled laborers from Germany to immigrate. Colt sent his German agents to recruit workmen from basket weaving districts of Prussia. He was convinced that the key to increasing immigration was by importing the character and form of German village life, and so Colt gathered descriptions of a weaver’s village near Potsdam, Germany, and decided to replicate its housing and cultural amenities in Coltsville. In 1859, Colt built his “Potsdam Houses” and his project to import more skilled workers began.
Colt’s attempts to attract skilled German immigrants did not stop at Swiss-style houses and a willow-ware factory. He expanded to other facets of German life, building livestock pens, vineyards, gardens, a newspaper, a beer hall, a Dutch style windmill along the banks of the Connecticut River, and a big brass band he called “Colt’s Armory Band,” dressed up in Prussian style military uniforms with the Colt symbol emblazoned on them. Colt had built a Germanic subculture in Coltsville that was successfully attracting German workers long after his death in 1862. Although willow-ware was his pet project, Colt cared little for the profit of the factory. It merely served as a means to an end. Still, Colt’s Willow-Ware Manufacturing Company achieved the lowest manufacturing costs for the industry and gained a market in the South and West.
The nine Potsdam Worker Houses are all that remain of Colt’s immigration experiment and Hartford’s thriving Germanic subculture in the South Meadows. The willow-ware factory was destroyed in 1873, erasing one of the major contexts for the buildings purpose in city. Over time, the German community assimilated and the Colt Firearms Company moved to West Hartford. By the middle of the 20th century the context for these foreign buildings had dissolved and they stood as outliers in a neighborhood filled with traditional New England style architecture. Though time has changed the physical appearance of the houses they still stand as an example of Hartford’s diverse cultural past and present. Thankfully, they have been included within the boundaries of the newly created "Coltsville National Historical Park," which tells the story of Colt and his factory, and will hopefully restore some of that missing context they desperately need.
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