Date: Fri 12-Apr-1996

Published: August 11, 1999 at 12:00 am


Date: Fri 12-Apr-1996

Publication: Bee

Author: KAAREN

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w/photo: Orchard Hill Mill Site Named to National Register


The Nichols Satinet Mill site in the Orchard Hill Nature Center has been

placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

More than a decade after campaign spearheaded by local residents resulted in

the creation of the nature center, the old mill site now may be the focus of a

dig by state archeologists.

The Connecticut Historical Commission said the site, owned by the town of

Newtown, has qualified for inclusion on the National Register, which is a list

of historic properties recognized by the federal government as worthy of

preservation for their significance in American history, architecture,

archeology, engineering and culture.

A National Register listing does not place any restrictive covenants on the

property, according to John W. Shanahan, state historic preservation officer.

In Connecticut the listing does, however, make the town eligible to purchase

National Register historical markers for the site and provides a means of

legal recourse should there be a threat of "unreasonable destruction" of the


In 1983 George W. Adams, with the assistance of Albert S. Knapp, coordinated a

study which led to the creation of the nature center on land between Orchard

Hill, Huntingtown and Monitor Hill roads. About 25 acres had been purchased by

the town in 1976 from the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company; an abutting seven-acre

tract was given to the town afterwards by the developers of the Monitor Hill


The tract originally was a farm, dating from the mid 1700s. It is laced with

remnants of those days: old farm walls, old fields and roads, and apple trees

sown wild from an early orchard.

More remarkable are two old dams and mill sites. According to Mary Mitchell

and Albert Goodrich, in their Newtown Trails Book, the first dam was built in

the 1760s to capitalize on the power potential of the water cascading through

the Pootatuck gully. Early deeds mention a sawmill. By 1800 the mill was

manufacturing woolen stocking yarn. The first dam was largely destroyed by the

ravages of time but by then a second, higher, dam had been built. Today it

stands little touched since it was breached around 1900, an impressive

structure 30 feet high, about 125 feet in length and made of granite blocks

four or more feet wide.

Some historians believe the lower dam served only to raise the water surface

elevation and divert water to the water wheel which operated the mill. The

upper dam may have been constructed to store water which could be released at

a controlled rate to the lower dam to operate the mill when stream flow was

not sufficient to operate the mill. The wheel pit has been identified.

Downstream from the dam stand the foundations of the early mills. The mills

themselves were destroyed by fire years ago, but clues to their history remain

both at the site and in town records.

In the 1760s the land belonged to the Nichols family and was farmed. Deeds

from Nathanial to Peter at that time mention a barn and orchard and a large

dwelling house as part of 52 acres. It continued in the Nichols family and a

sawmill and factory apparently were built. Research indicates the site

eventually included a wool carding shop and spinnery, a sawmill and

wordworking shop, and a grist mill.

In 1830 Peter Nichols' grandson, also named Peter, died and left to his

daughters Julia Ann and Harriet "the factory, sawmill and water privilege

exclusive of wheel, principal gearing and other improvements made by

C.B.Nichols," along with other items such as a jenny and a press screw.

Charles B. Nichols, brother of the two women, was involved in the operations

of factory. The sawmill and the factory apparently were two separate


Twenty-three years later, Charles B. Nichols advertised in Newtown as a

"manufacturer of woolen stocking yarn...wool carded to order, take wool for

pay." Charles did not own the factory; apparently he was operating it under

lease or agreement with his sisters, although he apparently had invested

considerable money in the works.

Mr Nichols ran the carding shop for years until he sold it to Charles Gray in

the early 1850's. Gray apparently was not as successful and eventully leased

the carding shop to Alexander and David A. Smith, after allowing at least part

of the installation to decay somewhat.

In 1855 the land was divided and a tract including "14 acres, 1 dwelling, Å’

dwelling, barn, sawmill and factory" was sold to Ellinor Donnellson. It passed

through a number of hands to James M. Beers in 1867. Apparently Beers acquired

only the sawmill which, judging from the extensive deed description of the

equipment, also did woodworking. The Atlas of New York and Vicinity ,

published in 1867, depicts the site: the mill pond, a sawmill and a carding

shop. It also shows "C. Nichols" living in the nearest house and "C. Gray"

living in the next house.

Records and evidence at the site indicate the mill was used at times to grind

apples for cider and to grind grain.

Eventually waterpower gave way to electricity and, in 1915, the Bridgeport

Hydraulic Company purchased the land from Catherine and Villeroy Hard, Sr, as

part of a watershed acquisition program. The water company leased the haying

rights for a nominal sum to various persons until, in 1976, the land was

purchased by the town for $60,000.

In the early 80s the town proposed to put ballfields on part of the site. This

led some residents, including Mr Adams and Mr Knapp, to push for an

environmental review, which was done by King's Mark, a resource conservation

and development company located in Warren. King's Mark recommended that the

site be used as a nature center for "passive recreation."

At that time the Department of Environmental Protection wrote to Mr Adams

noting that "the lower dam and mill site present the opportunity for

historical archeological investigation into existing records and including

site mapping and excavation."

"Mr Knapp, who is now deceased, in a quiet way, was very, very important in

deciphering the site," Mr Adams said. "He did the deed work, found the lower

dam and traced back through the old records and history books to provide a

good idea of what had been located at the site."

Ron Paproski, who at the time was a high school senior, won a scholarship from

the Vitramon Inc by using historical records and archeological information to

make a model of what the old mill probably looked like.

In 1983, the state historic preservation officer paid for the services of

architectural historian CeCe Kirkorian of Riverside, Conn., who prepared a

pre-selection application for the National Register using much of the

information which had been collected by Mr Knapp, Mr Adams and other other

Newtown residents who had been involved in the initial research.

During the pre-selection review the site was determined to be worthy of

nomination to the National Register. The application process then began

several years ago and was finalized on February 23.

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