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Date: Fri 12-Apr-1996

Published: August 11, 1999 at 12:00 am

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Date: Fri 12-Apr-1996

Publication: Bee

Author: KAAREN


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Orchard-Hill-mill-Register


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


B Y K AAREN V ALENTA


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


site.


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


subdivision.


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


businesses.


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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