REPRINTS


Memoirs Reveal Manchester History
by Susan Barlow

Memoirs of Manchester abound! Historians are fortunate to have these personal reminiscences along with more formal histories and newspaper archives.

For example, Richard S. Childs (1882-1978) wrote an account of the early years of the Manchester Water Company, principal in which was his father, William H. Childs (1857-1928), a founder of the Orford Soap Company, famous for Bon Ami soap. The elder Childs organized the water company after a destructive 1889 fire in the North End. According to Richard, his father “…located the logical head waters and dam site, got engineering advice, learned about the rights of the down-stream owners…At the home table he recounted the successive events with joyous energy.”

“To those rural dwellers running water was a novelty, its installation in the household would cost money and although everybody would face the increase of taxes, many had no interest in the new-fangled convenience. Solemn old codgers averred, ‘What was good enough for my parents is good enough for me…Water through miles of pipe wouldn’t be fit to drink.’ Father delighted in the scrap, emerged buoyantly from defeats and delays in town meetings to turn up again with a revised proposal…” Eventually, the water company became a reality, and Richard comments, “In the households, pipes brought the installation commonly of only a faucet in the kitchen and in the barn, replacing pumps from a cistern or well…Toilets, bathtubs and bathrooms came slowly to North Manchester. We moved to New York three years later in 1892 without my having seen or heard of one in town.”

This memoir is quoted on page 225 of William E. Buckley’s “A New England Pattern, a History of Manchester, Connecticut,” published in 1973. Buckley explains that Childs’s comments appeared in The Manchester Herald, a former daily newspaper in about 1970. Buckley’s history book contains several vignettes and memoirs from a bygone era. Although the book is out of print, the local libraries have copies and you can buy copies online.

Buckland Memories, Long Before the Mall

In 1992, Herbert Keeney Seymour (1920-2007) published “Growing Up with Gramp Keeney, Recollections of a New England Family in the 1920s and 1930s.” Herbert describes Buckland, including his parents, grandparents, local farming, school, cars, etc. “When I lived there, except for a church, Buckland was a complete community with a general store, school, blacksmith shop, garage, barber shop, railroad station, and post office, and had fast, reliable public transportation to Hartford or Manchester and beyond via the electric trolley cars of the Connecticut Company. It was the headquarters of several large tobacco growers and showed on the map as a separate community. In fact, one said, ‘I live in Buckland,’ not, ‘I live in Manchester.’”

“At the end of Depot Street [where the Seymours lived next door to the Gramp Keeney] about 100 yards from our house, was the Buckland station of the Willimantic division of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford railroad where about a dozen trains a day carried passengers and freight between Hartford and Boston over a double set of tracks. Bagged fertilizer, manure, seed potatoes, and other heavy or bulky items were unloaded from cars that had been switched onto the siding near the station.”

You can still see Depot Street and the remains of the Depot near the railroad trestle on Adams Street, near its intersection with North Main Street.

In the chapter on animals, Herbert mentions his cousin Merv Thresher, who “always had a variety of animals…Early on in my years in Buckland, Merv had a pony, a Shetland…that was the first of many Thresher ponies and led eventually to the Thresher family being in the pony ride business in Buckland, West Hartford, and for a brief period in Bradenton, Florida ... Animals just liked Merv and responded to him well even though he was always demanding and firm with them.”

This passage points out a potential flaw in memoirs. What if we want to know more about the pony rides in Buckland? There’s no editor working with the author to ask for more details on particular topics, while suggesting that other stories could be shortened.

Alan H. Olmstead on Tolland Turnpike

Author and journalist Alan Olmstead (1907-1980), lived in the now-threatened historic farmhouse at 669 Tolland Turnpike, built circa 1776 for John Olds, known as the Father of Manchester. Olmstead wrote about the house, its gardens and wildlife, and his farming efforts there. He uses the editorial “we,” which gives his writing a more formal, essay-type format than most memoirs. In his 1977 book In Praise of Seasons, he describes the aftermath of that sudden chill in October that strips the colorful foliage from the trees. “We turned to watch the moon drifting through the now skeletoned ash, and traitor ourselves to the summer we love above all seasons, thought we had never seen anything of such pure beauty as that chill geometry. In New England, every season woos, and wins.”

In a subsequent chapter, he makes fun of regulations banning an old-time autumn custom. “The practice of burning leaves – a relatively innocent offender – will have come under complete control in this country long before any of the other pollutants of our air have been properly dealt with. This, aside from the obvious aesthetic deprivations it entails, uncovers the weak side of all crusading that makes a big show while it attacks the gentlest, least offensive enemy first, and leaves the real villains for some unnamed date…Municipalities run their public works collection equipment on regular leaf-pickup schedules, and homeowners are…driving leaf vacuuming machines up and down their lawn – one sees the possibility that the various motors employed in collecting and transporting the leaves may pollute the neighborhood air as much as the burning itself might have done.”

Environmentalists and firefighters don’t have the opportunity to respond, but that’s another feature of memoir-writing – you can present your own opinion as strongly as you like.

E.L. Bidwell in the Post-Civil War Era

Edward Lincoln Bidwell (1859-1932) wrote about his youth in articles published in 1921 in The Manchester Herald. These columns have been published as a booklet, available for sale at the Manchester Historical Society’s museum stores. Bidwell says, “In 1868 a juvenile temperance society called the Band of Hope was organized. The members were pledged to abstain from the use of liquor, tobacco and profanity. It was under the management of the late Mr. George Easton. Probably a better or more efficient manager or organizer never existed in this town. He was an active, earnest and a most determined opponent of rum. He knew boys from A to Z and knew how to interest them. The society held meetings in the hall and they were very interesting and instructive…After his death the society went out of existence for want of leadership. He was the first librarian of the South Manchester Library…An outgrowth of the Band of Hope society was a military company of boys under sixteen years called the Temperance Zouaves. Their uniform was a red kepi, blue jacket cut zouave style, baggy red knee pants, blue stripes on the side, and white canvas leggings. Their armament consisted of wooden guns with wood or tin bayonets, manufactured at Cheney Brothers’ carpenter shop (then called the “mud mill”) and presented to the boys by that firm. They had a drill room in the hall and paraded on all public occasions. Their music was generally furnished by drums, supplemented occasionally by a fife. The fact that the fifer could play only one tune did not phase us any. With Byron Eaton rolling the drum, Tom Hutchinson shrilling “The Girl I Left Behind Me” on the fife, and arms at right shoulder shift they would march up the street ready, like the patriot on March 17th, to face the devil, friend or foe. A temperance society for adults called the Good Templars was in existence at the same time and the two societies kept things moving in the line of entertainments in the hall, and also by having picnics.”

Ruth Cheney Goodwin in the South End of Manchester

In 1949, Ruth Cheney Goodwin (1884-1952) privately printed “Under the Family Tree,” dedicated “to all the young in our family in the hope it may give them some idea of the source from which they sprang.” Ruth was the twelfth child of Frank Woodbridge Cheney and Mary Bushnell Cheney, a marriage that connected the silk mills of Manchester to the Reverend Horace Bushnell of Hartford, for whom Bushnell Park was named.

Of holidays in her youth, Goodwin says, “Christmas and the Fourth of July gave full vent to the family capacity for doing things on a large scale. And Thanksgiving was the miracle of the loaves and fishes in reverse. The largest number of people I remember dining in the house on that day was seventy-two – my sister says eight-nine. Thirty would have been considered few. When we wanted to get the whole clan together we hired Cheney Hall.”

She describes the huge nursery, the winter-time nursery-smell of drying wool mittens, caps, and scarves, and also the excitement of watching for their father: “The twins and I stood at the nursery window looking out. My nose was only just high enough to clear the sill but Peg and Doll [twins Marjory and Dorothy], five years older, had theirs flattened on the glass. We were watching father come up the tar walk from the mill. He was dressed in white, but his seersucker suit, white shoes and hat were no more silver than his hair and beard. We could see his cheeks pink against the white, but were too far away to see the startling blue of his eyes.”

The children would play in the nursery with “…the hundreds of blocks made at the mill and build houses as tall as we could reach, or wall one of us up inside a tower. Then knock them down and let Nana put them away.” Nana was the Irish nurse, a beloved part of the family. Other servants included a gardener, cook, kitchen maid, waitresses, chamber-maid, seamstress, chauffeur, and laundresses.”

Ruth was one of several Cheney family members to write memoirs, and they all make for fascinating reading: Emily Cheney Neville’s “Traveler from a Small Kingdom,” Antoinette Cheney Crocker’s “Great Oaks,” and Dorothy Cheney’s “The Descent in America of the Founders of the Cheney Silk Industry in Manchester, Connecticut.” Ednah Dow Cheney, wrote memoirs of her husband, artist Seth Cheney, and of her brother-in-law and artist, John Cheney.

A wide-ranging Manchester memoir by William H. Jones (1812-1903) is available in the Vintage Reprints section of this web site, by clicking here

Modern Memoirs

Today, modern viewers can go to a Facebook page, “Grew up in Manchester,” where members post short memories of schools, neighborhoods, events, and bits of trouble they got into growing up. I’m not sure how permanent these jottings will be. If you have a Facebook account you can access this page by clicking: here.

On the other hand, those age 62 and over can participate in “Memory to Memoir,” an inspiring workshop at Manchester’s Senior Center led by author and teacher Susan Omilian. The seminars have produced several books, some with plenty of local history. I enjoyed the workshops and wrote up my memories of swimming at Salter’s Pond, skating at Center Springs Park, and choosing books at Whiton Memorial Library. Why not consider writing up your own memoirs, and sharing them with posterity?


Susan Barlow is a director emeritus of the Manchester Historical Society.