MANCHESTER — Students from Bennet Academy searched for pieces of local history Monday, digging and sifting through dirt at
the site of the former Pitkin Glass Works.
For several hours, 16 students from a social studies class worked alongside State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni in the grassy parcel at the corner of Putnam and Parker streets.
Pieces of a stone structure remain from the circa-1780s factory where workers turned out hand-blown glass bottles that were used for storing products like ink, perfume, and New England spirits such as cider, whiskey, and rum that were traded to the West Indies.
Several decades ago, efforts to landscape the site disturbed parts of the soil on the property. On Monday, the students were digging down 6 inches and uncovering broken bottle tops, pieces of rusty wrought iron, and pottery.
Sixth-grader Brenna Whitehead was beaming when she came across a teardrop-shaped piece of glass, likely left when the bottle was cooling. Whitehead said she was enjoying learning about the site, which she passed on her way to school every day without knowing its significance.
“It’s really fun because we’re all coming together and finding pieces,” she said.
Tom Duff, a local expert on Pitkin glass and the treasurer of the nonprofit group that helps to maintain the site, visited Bennet last week and spoke to around 60 students on the history of the factory in anticipation of the archaeological dig.
In 1783, the state of Connecticut granted a 25-year monopoly to the merchant Pitkin family since it had generously supplied gunpowder it made in East Hartford to the Revolutionary War efforts, Duff said.
Several medium-sized stones were found Monday buried in the middle of the factory, which Duff thinks might be remnants from the furnace that was used to melt down the sand. Pitkin glass is known for its clarity since fine sand was carried up the Connecticut River from New Jersey and hauled east by oxen, Duff said.
The factory closed in the 1830s, though it’s not known why. The factory may have stripped the area of the wood needed to fuel the furnace and stopped production or the business may have become economically unsustainable.
The Daughters of the American Revolution, the nonprofit Pitkin Glassworks Inc., and the town now own the site.
“It’s a national historic area, and it’s in the middle of Manchester and not too many people know what this stone structure was for,” the group’s treasurer, Don Kelsey, said.
Previous digs have turned up several hundred pounds of mostly olive- and amber-colored glass shards that are being kept at the Manchester History Center*.
In 2005, when local students were last at the site, a mini flask was found intact. It was taken to a local glass dealer, who offered $5,000 on the spot. Another offer of $20,000 came in hours later from a collector who hadn’t even seen the piece. The bottle has stayed in town, however, and is on display at the museum on Pine Street.
Beth Milton, a social studies teacher at Bennet, said she was contacted by Pitkin Glassworks Inc. President Dave Smith about bringing the students to the site. She jumped on the chance to have the sixth-graders become more informed about their town’s past.
“The best thing for me is seeing their faces when they pull something out of the ground,” Milton said. “I am all for any kinds of hands-on activities. You can’t get this kind of understanding out of a textbook.”
Some of the larger pieces that were uncovered were carefully photographed and documented by Bellantoni and his team of volunteers from the nonprofit Friends of the Office of State Archaeology.
Despite, the treasure-hunt-like atmosphere, Bellantoni said it was important to show students the way of properly cataloging the artifacts.
He said archaeology is a great learning tool since it spurs critical thinking, tests students’ sense of discovery, and connects them to their local history.
Mubasshir Hossain, for example, came across a clear piece that had the initials “JPF,” on it. He guessed it was the stamping of one of the factory’s workers, who he later learned was a manager, John P. Foster.
The glass even drew longtime collector Dana Charlton from Bronx, N.Y., to the dig. Charlton said she had a collection of around 40 Pitkin-like pieces, though some may have been produced in factories in Coventry or elsewhere in New England.
Some bottles, like the ones with intricate spiraled-ribbing, have been purchased at auctions for more than $20,000.
• *The glass shards mentioned above are actually being stored at the Old Manchester Museum.
• For additional information on the Pitkin Glass Works in our "Places to Visit" page, please click here.
• The web site of the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology is: www.fosa-ct.org.