Posted on August 20, 2018
By Jacqueline Bennett newsandviewsjb.com
With the 2018 celebration of the 125th anniversary of the police department in Windham, Connecticut going on – a.k.a. Willimantic Police Department – my brother reminded me of a family connection to the early days of the WPD. According to our mother, her grandfather Tom Roberts walked the ‘rowdiest’ beat in the city.
“They called him ‘Big Tom Roberts’,” she would say, “He was known to be tough but fair.”
This colorful part of the family history has been passed on by word of mouth, and through the years it was corroborated by more than one of the family elders who were contemporaries of my mother. Many of her grandchildren have probably heard the tales and certainly all seven of her children, myself being the youngest, heard the stories of “Big Tom Roberts”. He stood about 6′ 6″ tall and was said to have had a powerful presence.
An article in the Willimantic Chronicle detailing the history of the WPD notes it began in 1893 “as little more than a few neighbors wanting to keep their town safe.” By the early 1900’s wrote Claire Galvin, there is evidence of the department’s first K-9 unit patrolling what she described as the “rowdy” Jackson Street and Union Street block.
It is that very section that my mother said was patrolled circa the same timeframe by “Big Tom Roberts”. According to my brother John Jr., his recollection of the tale of “Big Tom Roberts” was that he was one of a highly select group of individuals chosen to serve as a supernumerary for the WPD, at a point in time when that position was considered an honor. These were part-time fully sworn officers, sometimes volunteers, who typically had the authority of full-time police officers.
In fact, my brother said, some 30-40 years later, fueled by the continuing heyday of the American Thread Company which closed in the 1970’s but was centrally located in that district, (Willimantic’s nickname is Thread City) that rowdy part of the city was still referred to as an east coast version of San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast.” During the second half of the 19th Century and early half of the 20th Century the California Gold Rush spurred a “red-light” district in San Francisco of dance halls, concert saloons, jazz clubs, variety shows and brothels dubbed “The Barbary Coast, San Francisco” where lawlessness was not uncommon, say on-line sources.
The small town girl in me prefers to think brothels were not part of Windham’s Barbary Coast east, however, apparently there were plenty of bars frequented by the mill workers, and lots of drinking. Enter “Big Tom Roberts” who as Mom would tell it, was well-respected and fearless in his determination to help keep the community safe. As a kid, I must say, these stories were thrilling of a great-grandfather who stood tall in every sense of the phrase, and, who served on the side of lawfulness helping to tame the roughest part of town.
“You really stand on the shoulders of these cops who have served before you,” Lt Matt Solak, of the present day WPD was quoted as saying in The Chronicle story.
Tom Roberts’ shoulders were certainly broad.
A photo of him belonging to my mother showed this towering man. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find it. If I do, it will be added to this article. A family tree prepared by Mom and my sister Muriel before their passings, indicates that Tom Roberts’ parents came to America from England. His first wife, my great-grandmother, passed away after the couple had three children, Delia Roberts Generous – my grandmother who is buried in North Windham Cemetery, Oliver Roberts and Celia Roberts Palmer, both also buried in Windham. We do not know the location of Tom Roberts’ grave.
Windham’s “Barbary Coast” east exists no more. It was torn down decades ago during redevelopment. Recently a new band shell named “Shaboo Stage” was built on a parcel where some of these notorious spots once played dance hall music.
My brother added that the former rowdy section of Willimantic was not one-dimensional. Other types of businesses existed there, residents lived in upstairs apartments, as well as, civic clubs being located in the area. “There were good people who lived there,” he said.
As for “Big Tom Roberts,” according to my mother, he was also a stone mason who carved the exquisite spheres that grace the front stone stairway of what is now Eastern Connecticut State University along Valley Street.