A Brief History
The town of Windham was incorporated on May 12, 1692. Mohican Sachem Chief Joshua willed the land to sixteen men, most of whom resided in Norwich. The land called Windham consisted of what is now the towns of Windham (which includes Willimantic), Mansfield, Scotland, Chaplin, and Hampton.
The town was named after Wyndham, England. On December 4, 1700, Windham’s first Minister, Reverend Samuel Whiting, was ordained. The church was a Congregational Church, stemming from the Puritans. The first church building was erected shortly after on the Windham Green. Early settlers were farmers who grew crops such as wheat, rye, corn, barley, flax, and hemp, as-well-as raising livestock. Early industry in Windham consisted of sawmills, gristmills, and blacksmith’s shops taking advantage of the water power from streams and rivers. In 1823 Windham, along with Lebanon, Columbia, Chaplin, and Mansfield petitioned the General Assembly to become their own county. Tolland County, the last county formed in Connecticut, had just been formed a few years earlier, taking towns away from Hartford and Windham counties. The town of Windham was no longer the center of Windham County. The courts and other government offices had been moved to Brooklyn which was more centralized and easier to travel to. All transportation was difficult due to the poor quality of the roads. The General Assembly denied the petition. One year later, Lebanon petitioned the General Assembly to be returned to New London County, which they had originally been part of before the creation of Windham County. The General Assembly granted their petition. That same year, Mansfield and Columbia petitioned the General Assembly to join Tolland County. The General Assembly denied both petitions. Mansfield tried again in 1826, and Columbia tried again in 1827. This time the General Assembly granted both towns their petitions.
The town of Windham is made up of four parts; North Windham, Windham Center, South Windham, and Willimantic. As with many towns with abundant river water-power, mills are a very large part of the history of the town. The mills sprang up around the Willimantic River in the borough of Willimantic, while Windham remained a farming community. North and South Windham had limited industry. The populated area of town in the colonial period was Windham Center. When the industrial revolution came to the United States, the mills grew and Willimantic became the more populated area. In 1877 The Willimantic Enterprise newspaper started serving the citizens of Windham and surrounding towns. The newspaper grew, and became the Willimantic Chronicle, and later The Chronicle. The newspaper has been published by the same family for five generations. In 1889 the Willimantic State Normal School opened its doors. (A “normal school” was a school of higher education which women went to after High School to become teachers.) The course of study was two years long. Women signed a contract stating they would only teach in Connecticut and received free tuition and books. Room and board was $3.50 a week. The school became Willimantic State College in 1959, and in 1967 Eastern Connecticut State College. Then in 1983 the college received university status and afterwards became part of the state university system as Eastern Connecticut State University.
In 1907 the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady Mother Mercy established a small hospital across from Saint Joseph’s Church. This was Windham’s first hospital building. The hospital vowed to treat all patients no matter how little money they had, their race, or their background. Many of the patients were mill workers who were victims of machinery accidents. By 1929 the hospital was having a problem with too little space and had to start turning people away. In 1930, during the height of the depression, $500,000.00 was raised, the Vanderman family donated 12 acres of land, and Windham Memorial Community Hospital (now known as Windham Hospital) was established.
The word Willimantic is the Algonquin Indian term for “land of the swift running water”. Prior to 1821, the village was known as Willimantic Falls and was a single school district where about twenty families resided. In 1822, Charles Lee erected a factory on Main Street made of stone quarried from the Willimantic River. Small shops and manufacturers had been built on the banks of the Willimantic before, but this was the beginning of Willimantic as we know it. In 1825, the three Jillson brothers built a factory along the Willimantic, and in 1827, they built a second building. By 1828, there were six cotton factories in Willimantic, all of them were built within a seven year span.
By 1849, railroads were adding to the growth of Willimantic. The first three railroads to go through Willimantic were the New London Northern Railroad, the Willimantic Railroad, and the Palmer Railroad. It was not long before others followed. Railroads were not the only form of transportation. Trolleys were common from 1902 to 1932. Trolleys regularly ran from Willimantic to Coventry, where they continued into Hartford. From the end of the Civil War to the outbreak of World War II Willimantic was the center for the production of silk and cotton thread. This was the Victorian era and the height of Willimantic’s grandeur. Many of the interesting buildings in Willimantic, as well as many of the mansions in the Victorian Hill section, were built during this time. Many hotels were built to accommodate the travelers coming into the area, including the Hooker House Hotel, and the Windham Hotel. Traveling salesmen would visit the area regularly to sell their goods. The grand Capital Theater opened downtown in 1926. It was during this time that immigrants from Europe came to Willimantic. Irish, Italians, Polish, Germans, and French Canadians came to work in the mills. The young ladies who did not wish to work in the mills could be domestic help to the wealthier families in town. Later, Estonian, Ukraine, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Puerto Rican immigrants came looking for jobs in the mills. Willimantic grew to be a very culturally rich town. In 1833 Willimantic was a borough of Windham. In 1893 it became a city. In 1983, the City and the Town consolidated and became one town again. A Board of Selectmen was set up to run the town. Selectmen were voted into office from each of the districts of town. Before the consolidation Windham was governed by a town council, and Willimantic by a City Hall.
By the 1970s, New England was not the prosperous industrial area it had once been. Factories were closing their doors or relocating to the South. The American Thread Company, the largest employer in town, left the area in 1985. It was a devastating blow to the area financially.
Today, Windham/Willimantic is in the midst of a reanaissance.The Windhams, particularly, North Windham is finding a surge in development, while at the same time, Windham Center, and South Windham find the environs filling with new home owners. The city within the Town, Willimantic, is evolving daily. Currently there is a major downtown revitalization taking place that harbingers changes in the fabric of the downtown area. There are a multitude of downtown initiatives: the Victorian Neighborhood Association, The Garden on the Bridge, The Mills Art's Space, The Whitewater Initiative, the Windham Theatre Guild, ACT and the wonders of the Third Thursday Festival are a few of the beacons of success that illuminate the bright future of the Town of Windham.
Not unlike the days of yore, the people of Windham stand ready to face the challenges of the future with the same passions, determination and zest for life that have been the totems of their past.
To any and all, we welcome you to join us as we seek to engage the spirit of this community that has never shied away from any challenge, that has always been willing to shoulder its fair share of local and regional responsibility and continues to celebrate its diversity as an icon of its enduring strength.