Date: Fri 12-Apr-1996
Date: Fri 12-Apr-1996
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
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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