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Destinations & Day Trips

Spinning a Yarn: The Windham Textile and History Museum

Windham Textile Mill
Written by Sean Henri

The Textile Mill and History Museum in Windham is a great way to learn about nineteenth century working conditions in American mills.

Located in the historic former headquarters of the American Thread Company of Willimantic, the Windham Textile and History Museum is well worth the visit.

Windham Textile Mill

History of the Textile Mills

Back when the American Thread Company was still in operation in the 1890s, 85,000 miles of thread were produced there each day. The company developed and produced thousands of thread products such as clothes, bedding, shoe laces, stitched baseballs, automobile interiors, and tea bags.

During this time unbearable temperatures, long hours, low wages, and cramped spaces were just a daily part of life. The company established mills in what became Willimantic and Milo, Maine, for the production of wooden spools. This was the Victorian era and the height of Willimantic’s role in the industrial revolution.

The company grew into one of the largest thread complexes in the world. The most famous structure was Mill No.4 which was the first electrically lit factory building in the world and thus eliminating the dependency on sunlight.

Today the remaining buildings are being refurbished for office space, light industry and apartments. The museum, located directly across the street, is where you’ll find recreations of the workers homes and working spaces, as well as some of the original equipment that was used in the factory.

The museum is open year round, and is an excellent destination for class trips, youth groups, or anyone interested in learning more about the history of the American worker.

During your visit you will have the chance to see exhibits and collections that the museum has preserved. Wander through the building and learn about the history of textiles, see textile arts, and understand the work of craftspeople, industrial workers, manufacturers, inventors, designers, and consumers. You will also leave with a greater understanding of major trends and changes in technology, economy, immigration, society, environment, and culture that shaped Connecticut, New England, and the United States from the colonial period to the present.

Windham Textile Mill

Permanent Exhibits at the Museum

On your visit, you can see the following permanent exhibits. While learning about Connecticut’s textile industry, you’ll also learn a lot about how the people and workers of the past lived and worked.

Thread Mill Square: A replicated home of a working family at the turn of the century in which you can view their lifestyle and furnishings. Step into the laundry room and take a peek at the products on the shelves. You will see Borax and Ivory Flakes which have been used for hundreds of years and are still in production today.

The Workers’ House: Here you can inspect the kitchen, in which you will see an 1880 cast iron sink, a kitchen table made in 1870 from drop leaf pine, and a coal burning stove for heat. You can also take a look at the bedroom in which you can see original cotton and wool blankets.

The Mill Manager’s House: Located in Victorian Mansions, you will notice the various styles of architecture made popular during Queen Victoria’s reign. On this part of your tour, you will see the luxurious lifestyle composed of copper gutters, stained glass, large rooms, and a soapstone sink.

The Brooke Shannon Antique Sewing Machine Room: In this room you will be able to explore the twenty cabinet models of antique sewing machines.

Dunham Hall Library: On the third floor of the museum you will find the library. Opened in 1878, the cozy fireplaces and vaulted timbered ceilings will welcome you inside. Here, you will see the unique collection of resources, children’s titles, craft books and much more in a reading room setting.

The Dugan Mill: This area mimics a textile factory floor with machines from the 1890s through the 1950s. It features an 1890s carding machine; a mill machine shop with wooden patterns, metal patterns, a machinist’s bench, and a machinist’s or fixer’s toolbox; a winding department with three working winders; an overseer’s office; a weaving department with two looms and a creel; a print shop; and a variety of mill tools and implements.

The Print Shop: This shop is where the American Thread Company printed their own labels for shipping boxes, display packages, and thread spools.

Overseer’s Office: This office is where the supervisor would work and includes a glass wall from which the he/she would watch over the workers.

If you are interested in visiting, the museum is open for self guided tours from Friday to Sunday, 10am to 4pm, with guided tours on Sunday at 2pm. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for students and seniors, and $4 for groups. The museum is located at 411 Main Street, Willimantic.

Note: This post was originally published in June of 2008, but has been updated for accuracy and style. 

About the author

Sean Henri

Sean is the founder and editor of The Connecticut Weekender, and CEO and Founder of Pepperland Marketing. He's a lifelong CT resident and frequently blogs about the outdoors, beer, food, family life and small business in CT. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanHenri.