"When I was growing up, my parents used to shop at the stores in Depot Square. And we traveled through the North End to
visit relatives in Vernon,” recalls Gary Benson, who graduated from Manchester High School in 1965. “But when I came home
on leave from the Air Force in 1967, the North End was gone, totally!”
Urban Development had swept away Depot Square, and its unique buildings, its town-green style park, the Depot itself, where trains used to stop for passengers and freight. Formerly, this area was the center of Union Village, serving the needs of the small community with shops and bakeries, a drug store and hardware store, bars and eateries. Today, a strip mall, offices, and elderly housing replace the little downtown at the very north end of Main Street.
Fortunately, a large part of the original Union Village remains, and attained a Historic District designation in 2002, thereby joining eight other Manchester areas on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Union Village Historic District surrounds what used to be Depot Square, along North Main, Union, and Oakland Streets. The District is detailed in the comprehensive Historical and Architectural Resources Survey, and Nomination Form for National Register of Historic Places, prepared by Jan Cunningham, of Cunningham Preservation Associates of Middletown. These documents are available at the Planning Office at Town Hall, the Mary Cheney Library, and by appointment (860-647-9983) at the Manchester Historical Society’s library, 126 Cedar Street.
Jan Cunningham describes the District’s four extant churches: the shingle-style Second Congregational Church at 385 North Main Street with its Colonial-Revival-style parsonage next door; the Greek-Revival-style Christian Science Reading Room at 447 North Main Street, formerly the Methodist Episcopal Church, with its former parsonage, the 1890 Queen Anne at 462 North Main Street; and the Gothic-Revival-style St. John’s Polish National Church at 23 Golway Street. The fourth, an Episcopal church, at 17 North Street, minus its steeple, has been converted to a multi-family house, but still features a steeply pitched roof, reminiscent of vernacular churches of the 19th century.
Apel’s Opera House still stands at 35 Oakland Street, on the eastern end of the village, but currently hosts some local businesses, rather than the vaudeville and concerts of long ago.
The survey summarizes the historical significance of Union Village as “the first viable industrial community in Manchester, embodying the development of textile and paper manufacturing. Evolving from a pre-industrial mill site into a ‘company town’ by mid-nineteenth century, it flourished into the first half of the twentieth century as an ethnically and industrially diverse working-class village.”
The working classes included Irish immigrants, who began arriving in the 1840s to work in the mills. They typically stayed with relatives or in boarding houses while they saved money to bring over their families. Union Village had the only Catholic parish in Manchester in the 1850s, with mass served in Irish homes by a priest from Rockville.
Later, other ethnic groups followed similar patterns, with one or more relatives emigrating, and then sending home for loved ones to join them. These groups established churches, clubs, and ethnic bakeries, and sent their children to school where they learned English.
A subscription-type library was organized in 1866. The books were located in a private house until 1905, then in the local school, but in 1932 moved into the new Whiton Library, thanks to the large financial gift of Dr. Francis Whiton, a North End physician and Library Board member. The colonial-revival style library, on Old North Main Street, still serves the public.
Ed Koski, a born-and-bred Manchester resident, remembers the village’s ethnic diversity, with several nationalities and races living together in close quarters. Ed’s family came from Poland. “My mother came in 1911, when she was six years old, with her mother and an uncle. Her father had come over about two years before. He had jobs in different places and when he had enough money put together, he sent the money back to Poland to pay for steerage passage. By then, her father had bought a little house on Kerry Street.”
Ed’s father, born in 1898, also came from Poland. He was about 14 years old, and spoke no English, but quickly got a job. The two married in 1925.
Ed, born in 1929, and his two brothers, born in 1927 and 1933, grew up in the house on Kerry Street, when the North End had become “virtually all Polish and Lithuanian.” Ed’s father worked at Cheney Brothers, and at the Bon Ami factory on Hilliard Street, until it closed in the 1950s. Ed’s mother was a jacquard weaver at Cheneys.
Ed recalls playing Kick the Can and swimming in Union Pond. “In the winter, we’d ice skate on Union Pond and sometimes have a pickup game of hockey. In the summer, we’d spend 4-5 days a week playing baseball, then basketball. We didn’t have much money, but that didn’t bother us – no one thought of themselves as poor.”
Semi-pro athletic teams still played in town at that time – with the Polish Americans playing the Irish, English, or Italian teams. Some sports had a North End-South End rivalry. Spectators might pay 25 cents for admission to the Armory on Main Street, or the West Side Rec on Cedar Street to watch the teams play.
Today, we can enjoy Union Village by walking along Golway, North, Kerry, North School, and Edwards Streets, strolling in Union Pond Park, or, for the hearty walker, hike the 2½ mile Union Pond loop trail, directions for which are available at Union Pond Trail, or by joining one of the Historical Society’s neighborhood walking tours. Although the Depot is gone, much remains of Union Village, including many 19th century houses and interesting streetscapes.