Where Glastonbury’s J.T. Slocomb Factory Used To Be

An old factory in my hometown has been demolished. It sat by a brook amid woods and colonial houses, a textile mill-turned-industrial complex of interconnected brick, concrete, and steel. Today, nothing but a tall smokestack and a skeletal slice of the original mill’s foundation loiter in the middle of a 22-acre mud field.

I run by this lot often now that I’ve moved back home. It’s just past the public pool I spent grade school summers in, and down the hill from the house that hosted my first boy-girl sleepover in high school. The factory crumbled there in the periphery of my youth in Glastonbury, an eyesore tucked around a bend on the drive to or from friends. I remember peering out a backseat window and imagining that fugitives hid behind its dilapidated walls. Later, in my own driver’s seat, I thought its ruins might be fun to mouse around in on a date.

By the time I left for college, I viewed the factory as nothing more than a suburban incongruity, as dismissible as it was exotic.

I was surprised, then, when I saw it  missing for the first time a few months ago and the smallest pang of sorrow danced up my throat, like something important had gone. I blamed my sadness on a loss of town history; most of the town’s isolated factories have been torn down or turned into condos in recent decades, so this one stalwart complex had been a testament to Glastonbury’s industrial roots – a reminder that for almost two centuries before me, a factory in Glastonbury didn’t seem exotic at all.

While industry’s disappearing place in my town’s culture is sad, I’ve realized it’s not the ghosts of looms and textiles that haunt me when I pass that lonely smokestack. Something more than the town’s history has been lost.

 

The factory’s original mill was built by South Glastonbury Manufacturing Company in 1836 to follow the booming industrial trend of equipping Colonial-style mills for large-scale textile production. It had a granite basement, three wooden stories, and a gable roof, and specialized in satinet, an inexpensive woolen fabric popular in men’s pants at the time. The mill’s employees spent their days reducing raw wool to fibers, carding the fibers into roves, spinning the roves into yarn, then weaving the yarn into the final fashionable product.

New owners brought new construction to the lot, and the mill passed hands frequently enough to accumulate pieces of every stage of industrial development in America. Naog Manufacturing Company took over in 1848 and added equipment to more than double output by 1860. Franklin Glazier renamed the mill Hopewell Woolen Mill when he bought it in 1861, replaced the original water wheel with a pair of turbines, and switched production to a popular twilled fabric called Kentucky jeans. After the American Woolen Company dominated New England’s wool-related textiles in the post-Civil War era, he switched production again to a variety of high end materials, including women’s dress fabrics, uniform cloth, and automobile upholstery.

Glazier’s son then gained control of the mill in 1890 and ordered the first of three major expansions; he extended the main mill, added a tower, and enlarged the complex’s ancillary facilities. Later, while most New England textile mills were downsizing after the Great Depression, Hopewell Manufacturing Company purchased the land and constructed more buildings, including a big steel framed one for weaving. Finally, in 1956, the J. T. Slocomb Company bought the tangled complex to manufacture micrometers, small metal measuring instruments that have nothing at all to do with textiles. Slocomb discarded the old looms, knocked down most of the original mill, and stacked new construction on top of the remaining buildings until the factory’s closure in the late 1990′s.

Industry today is the frumpy kid sister of the Glastonbury’s pinup heritage, agriculture. Farming sustained the community in the Colonial era, and the town still has over 20 farms, orchards, and nurseries. Every year an Apple Harvest Festival is the town’s biggest event, a corn maze grows downtown each fall, and locals brag to distant friends in the summer about the fresh fruits they get at farm stands (“Like any good berry snob,” a high school classmate just posted on Facebook, “I’m risking being late for my flight in favor of picking up native glastonbury strawberries to bring to dc”). Factories’ grit and grime, meanwhile, reek too much of Hartford, the neighboring urban capital, for Glastonbury’s sparse industrial relics to have a place in its polished agrarian aesthetic.

It seems strange that a town with its own historical society would destroy a complex that embodied 180 years of often-ignored local development, but the factory wasn’t demolished for lack of “local historical significance” – a quantifiable term, in fact, used by the lot’s surveyors. Glastonbury bought the factory in 2007, and hired the architectural firm Schoenhardt (now Fletcher-Thompson) to evaluate the site two years later. The firm reported that the factory clearly was historical; its “association with events that have made a significant contribution to broad patters of Glastonbury’s history” matched the definition of historical significance set by the National Register of Historic Places, whose standards, says the firm, are used by all federal agencies and state governments.

The factory was missing a second National Register criterion for preservation, though: “integrity.” According to Schoenhardt [1],

Integrity is the ability of a property to convey its significance, and in this case, the extent of demolition, alterations, and modern additions compromise both the complex’s ability to convey its associations with the development of industry in Glastonbury and its status as an illustration of typical industrial architecture from any historical period.

The history built into the Slocomb factory’s buildings and towers was lost years before the town got its hands on them. Renovations erased the complex’s historical legibility, so despite what the factory’s layers of construction represented, its tangle of broken windows and dilapidated walls only conveyed exactly what the rest of Glastonbury’s citizens and I saw in its last decade of existence: garbage from a previous era left by the side of the road.

Schoenhardt recommended the town save the factory’s smokestack and original granite basement to adumbrate the land’s former industrial uses, but otherwise leave historical commemoration to “interpretive materials” that could be installed around whatever the site becomes after demolition.

In my view, history is best left unreduced to inkjet-printed fiberglass information panels. I lament the process of alteration and decay that culminated in the town-sanctioned destruction of a much more tangible historical artifact. But I also recognize change itself as a process of history. In this case, progress might be worth the cost of a factory: town manager Richard Johnson leads a charge to transform the desolate lot into a public nature preserve, whose prospective information panels seem far more likely to educate Glastonbury about its past than the previous rubble heap of industrial detritus, crumpled beer cans, and dead squirrels.

 

Glastonbury’s history was not the only past cemented in the Slocomb factory’s layers, though. A line from Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place [2], a seminal study of humanistic geography, articulates why that empty pang of sorrow creeps back stronger than before each time I run by the muddy lot:

The passion for preservation arises out of the need for tangible objects that can support a sense of identity.

We all tend to hold on to things that remind us of who we are, no? This “passion” applies as much to individuals as to towns: museums collect old objects that show us how we used to live, monuments mark spots our ancestors stood, and we build shrines to ourselves in our closets with birthday cards, concert ticket stubs, foreign coins, trophies, faded books, and scratched toys. We hold on to places as well: the streets we grew up on are important to us not because they matter to others, but because of the memories we invested in them – the sidewalks where we first fell off our bikes, the alleys we sneaked off to with friends. The Slocomb factory lacked the integrity to tell Glastonbury something interesting about itself, but town interest was not the only thing at stake in preserving it. People cared about that factory, too.

On PracticalMachinist.com, a former Slocomb employee reminisced about his odd co-workers at the complex:

I worked at Slocomb’s (Glastonbury CT) in the 70′s, second shift for about a yea[r] and a half. The work I did was mostly BP and horizontal boring mill stuff, all sub contract for P&W. Interesting work but a slightly strange place to work. The night inspector had a mouse trained to come out of the wall and take treats from his fingers. The working foreman ran mostly lathes and when he would get cut (which seemed frequent) he wouldn’t miss a beat. Blood pouring out but never missed a beat. I learned that habit from him. Drives my student crazy. Mr. Groff!!! You’re bleeding. Yeah, I know, it will stop sooner or later. Always has anyway.

We can imagine the thoughts the factory conjured in this man if he ever visited after he left – blood spouting, rats leaping, and a bunch of strange friendships that evidently taught him a habit or two. Here, what Tuan says about objects supporting identity makes particular sense. The factory had generations of individual associations hammered into its crumbling walls, including this man’s. While he is who he is today even with the factory gone, he would not be who he is now without it; the factory lent physical credibility to these strange nights he worked through, a landmark to times passed and the moments that shaped him.

I inscribed myself into these ruins, too, without even realizing it. It’s harder to tell when your associations are indirect. I never set foot in the lot, but there it was from kindergarten past high school, tangled in the web of my Glastonbury childhood with swimming pools and sleepovers. When I see the empty lot now, before a picture of the colonial mill and my research of the town’s history comes to mind, I feel  flashes of the soft warmth of a towel in the sun by the crowded pool, the giddy swell of a sleepless night with friends, the galvanic romance of being out in my town by myself with the car windows down, stealing glances at the stars.

The factory’s absence darkens these associations, though. The reminder has been knocked down. In its place is open space – a negative reminder, the reminder of the reminder, which shows not what is but what is gone. Nature park or shopping mall, I am never going to shake the feeling of something missing.

To preserve a derelict factory for the sake of personal associations, of course, would be ridiculous. Yet that is exactly what makes its demolition sad. Change is a process of history. Now the complex is an empty field, and I am no longer what I used to be.

How do we commemorate that?

 

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[1] Schoenhardt’s full report on the mill, including a bunch of pictures, can be found here.

[2] Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977.