Photos by Jacqueline Bennett December 2016.

Article & Photos By Jacqueline Bennett newsandviewsjb.com021021


Another American presidential inauguration is but weeks away, this one for a billionaire able to afford the finest clothier. It is fascinating to think the woolen worn by George Washington at the country’s first inauguration in 1789 was made in a mill in Manchester, Connecticut – America’s oldest woolen mill site established in 1780.


The Hilliard Mills opened in 2006 as part of an ongoing effort in New England to repurpose once vibrant factories. The goal as stated on their website, is “to preserve one of Connecticut’s finest architectural and historical treasures.” According to a history of the site, circa 1780 it housed a woolen factory belonging to American industrialist Aaron Buckland – a name familiar to those who shop at the nearby modern day Buckland Hills Mall. It was at Buckland’s factory that the wool for the suit worn by Washington at his inauguration is said to have been produced, as well as, wool blankets for the soldiers during the War of 1812.


Once the “economic engine” of New England, old mills leftover from the heyday of the Industrial Revolution remain powerful visuals on the landscapes of virtually every Northeastern community. For too long these buildings stood as relics, vacant and deteriorating with broken windows, a metaphor for what some called New England’s broken manufacturing base.


No longer. A reuse movement that began in the 1970’s has gained steam. Having provided wages that clothed and fed working class Americans determined to make life better for the next generation, these sites are finding new purpose. And it has been noticed.


“Adaptive reuse of old buildings which began as a fad in the early 1970’s, has become an economic phenomenon with no sign of slowing in New England,” writes the Los Angles Times.


“Reuse” has become a golden term at local planning and zoning commission meetings in towns across Connecticut, and surely throughout the region. One might say overcoming challenges that can accompany reuse gives growing meaning to the phrase “Yankee Ingenuity.”


Retrofitting old factories often involves bringing them up to current building and environmental codes. In an article titled “Smart Growth/ Smart Energy” published on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts government site, it is further noted that reuse of old mills can require cooperation among state regulators, municipal officials, neighbors and financiers. Nonetheless, entire districts are being revitalized with old mills as the focal point. Creating more obstacles the article points out, often old factories were constructed along narrow roads and on floodplains – not surprising because of the need to be near rivers or brooks as a source of energy. In addition, the larger sizes of the mills mean multiple uses may be needed to utilize the space.


The Hilliard Mills, located at 640 and 642 Hilliard Street, sit across the road from the Hockanum River, offering a nice view with great aesthetic potential; a canoe and kayak race is held on the Hockanum each spring. Back in the 18th Century, named when Connecticut was still a colony, this body of water was known as Bigelow Brook and ‘Sawmill’ River. Surrounding the The Hillard Mills is a wooded area, keeping nature close at hand.


To date twenty-two tenants occupy The Hilliard Mills including Manchester PAL, Brown Sugar Catering and Silk City Music Factory – a recording studio. (Go to http://www.hilliardmills.com to learn more.) Turn at the intersection onto Adams Street to find another example of successful reuse of an old factory, the popular Adams Mill Restaurant. And, across town on the south side the Cheney Silk Mills have been converted into apartments. 


Each Christmas season, a simple set of holiday lights appear in a row of windows on the top floor of The Hilliard Mills. It is a pretty sight as twilight falls or into a winter evening. Philosophically speaking, even more – the lights serve as a beacon of the steadfast and innovative entrepreneurial spirit that helped build the nation, and today helps to sustain it. George Washington would be proud.