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A History

There had been a sawmill on the west side of the Silvermine River. It either burned up or perished in a flood--or was lying vacant because the dam was gone--when Edward Glover bought his five acres in 1803. Edward acquired not only the land but also the privilege of making a dam across the river and raising a head of water sufficient for a mill. In 1808, when he died, his inventory listed 21 weaver’s spools, shuttles, gear and the mention of a mill seat. The document also reported that he owed estate tax, society tax and road tax and was an “insolvent debtor”.

On June 24, 1809, Andrew Akin, acting as agent, bought the land from Lemuel Glover--most probably Edward’s brother--and held it in trust for a man named Taylor Sherman. Edward Glover’s wife Hannah, by right of dowry, retained use of a third of the property. Andrew Akin was twenty-two years old and a descendant of Scots Protestants from Ireland.

Taylor Sherman, for whom the property was being held in trust, was a prominent resident of Norwalk, fifty-one years old, a lawyer and judge of probate, and figured as a witness in Glover’s 1803 purchase of the property. Two years later, in 1805, Taylor Sherman was appointed a commissioner for the Connecticut Land Company that surveyed and partitioned land in the Firelands in Huron and Erie counties in Ohio--lands given to Connecticut citizens to compensate for property that was burned by the British during the Revolutionary War.

By the spring of 1810, Joseph Cocker and his wife Sally had arrived to take possession of “a certain piece of land situate in said Norwalk being on the west bank of the river near where John Platt now lives at Silver Mine so called a little Easterly of said Platt’s house being the place where there was formerly a sawmill…” No record of their voyage or birthplace in England has been found, however, we can glean a certain amount of information from the 1810 Federal Census. Their oldest child, Mary, was sixteen. The other children--Sarah, Joseph, Jane and Hannah--ranged in age from nine to three. Their father, based on the typical age for marriage at that time, was probably in his late thirties or early forties, a little older than his wife Sarah.

The Cotton Manufactory was built and became the central portion of what is today called the Silvermine Tavern. By December 2, 1811, the town received a petition for the building of the first bridge on what became Perry Avenue--a wooden predecessor of the 1899 stone arch bridge. At that time, the crossing of the river was a “fording place” at the head of the millpond. By 1814, the stone “butments” were constructed under the supervision of David St. John at a cost of twenty dollars and the town provided the planks.

In the meantime, Andrew Akin bought common land from the town on the other side of the bridge and fell in love with Joseph Cocker’s eldest daughter.

The Cotton Manufactory was an expensive undertaking and by February 6, 1811, Joseph Cocker has mortgaged the property for the consideration of eight hundred fifty dollars received from three investors: David Comstock and David Comstock Junior, both of Norwalk, and Ebenezer Crofoot of New Canaan. Joseph promised to pay back the debt with interest in four years--a goal he would never accomplish.

On June 18, 1812, the General Government of the United States under President James Madison--and with substantial opposition from Congress--declared war on England. The War of 1812 was a product of both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. It was also brought on by the ill-considered Embargo Act of 1807 that, in the end, devastated New England shipping. In Town records, with fiery rhetoric, Norwalk heaped abuse on the Belligerents (England AND France), decried impressments of US citizens and the “piratical hardihood” of England which had so negatively impacted commerce and resolved that “the national government in declaring war against Great Britain has done right”. This was in direct opposition to the state government of Connecticut.

David Comstock Junior and Andrew Akin joined the town militia. A small number of citizens actually enlisted in the army. During the years 1812 to 1815, Long Island Sound commerce was almost eliminated by British Commodore Hardy and the “Liverpool Packet” (page 245, Norwalk After 250 Years). In Norwalk’s mercantile society where livelihood from goods, even produce, depended on the sloops and schooners traveling the coast, this was a desperate time.

In Silver Mine, during the exceptionally cold winter of 1812, the unexpected happened--Joseph Cocker died. His widow, Sally, declined to take an administrator for the estate. The estate, encumbered by debt to the investors, was slated to be sold. It soon became clear that Sally too was ill, perhaps with consumption. Sally referred to her physician as “her friend” as she grew weaker that following winter, December of 1813, recording her last will and testament to which she put her “mark”. Dr. Knight became the guardian of three of her children: Sarah, Jane and Hannah. Mary was already married to Andrew Akin. Her son Joseph’s guardianship has been undertaken by Stephen Abbott three months earlier. On the same day as the testament was being written, December 18, 1813, Stephen Abbott bought the controlling interest in the Cotton Factory.

Abbott’s appearance on the scene was not surprising. His daughter, Cynthea, as of 1811, was married to the investor, David Comstock. His sister was married to a miller. Abbott has a long list of land acquisitions including property at Clapboard Hill, a portion of salt meadow with driftway near the shore, land at Whitney’s hill near the Norwalk river, fifty acres in Silver Mine and of the most interest, a six year lease on a dye and fulling mill also on the Norwalk River. Furthermore, he had a noteworthy record as a soldier in the Revolution--having started as a fifer at the age of fifteen and having reenlisted two other times so that he not only served in New York at Fishkill and Bedford but also was in the battles of Fairfield and Norwalk when they were burned. In 1813, he was a man of substance.

Abbott probably also acquired Cocker’s inventory. There were bales of “cotton wool”, a spinning mule with 104 spindles, a water frame with 48 spindles and heads, a cotton drawing or naping machine, a batting flake whipping machine, a double and twisting machine, a cotton finisher, a cotton picking machine, and a wool carding machine. The cotton factory was supported by two mills known as the Red and White Mills whose water wheels powered the belts for the machinery. There is every probability that Cocker’s son, Joseph--at ten years old--was working in the cotton factory.

1816 is known in New England as “the year there was no summer“. The spring was so
cold in northern New England that “great numbers of birds seek shelter in houses and barns; many falling dead in the fields. Newly-shorn sheep perish.” On June 9th, there was frost as far south as New Windsor.  In July, it was 40 degrees in New Haven. There was fear of failing crops and famine. The Indian corn crop, the food of the poor, produced a quarter of the normal yield and orchard produce was described as “moderate” or “barren“. The prices of food in New York markets rose.

Stephen Abbott, on July 4th (obviously not a holiday at the land records office) precipitously sold off all his holdings, including his other parcels of land, to his son Stephen J. Abbott. The tavern structure is now described as a “Dwelling House Factory Weaving Shop”--wings had been added to the original structure for weaving and living quarters--but the sale may have been an attempt to head off creditors.

The daughter of Andrew Cocker, now called Sally, was given a new guardian, Thomas Akin, a resident of the area called Toilsome in Cranbury. Sarah was still an investor in the Tavern, having that year lent Abbott a sum of money.

On November 23, 1816, Stephen J. Abbott sold an undivided fourth of the factory property to his brother-in-law, David Comstock. The Comstocks were landowners and farmers.

Two years later, Stephen Abbott senior was a debtor, ordered to be committed “unto the keeper of the gaol in Fairfield.” The extent of his holdings were described as “having an undivided Right in proportion as 151 to 336 in Common with David Comstock, Jonathan Knight, Sarah Cocker, and Theophilus Fitch and Thaddeus Betts, attorney for the within named”. This is the first and only mention of the number of shares--487--held in the cotton factory enterprise. After 1820, in order to survive, Stephen tried desperately to obtain a Revolutionary War pension for which he has been ineligible having never been officially mustered out. Dated 1829, in court papers asking for “publick charity” he sadly stated that he was “at present a Tavern Keeper formerly was a Farmer sold his farm and purchased a small manufactory and owing to his son (’s) mismanagement became insolvent in year 1816 was put in prison for debt and took the poor man’s Oath as provided by the Laws of this State That he has the Rheumatism and is not able to do much labour,” and he added that his children do not contribute to his support. His son, Stephen J., was not mentioned--having died in 1821, far away in Vincent, Illinois, aged twenty-nine. Probably on the run from his creditors.

Despite Stephen Abbot’s woes, this was a favorable time for the New England cotton industry--having hit an all time high in 1824 with the first real protective tariff. Cotton spinning could now stand on it’s own feet. Northern farmers joined with manufacturers to beat down the free-trade Southern farmers. Riding high, protectionists rammed through exorbitant duties, including 50% on woolen goods--the highest until 1860. North Carolina called out that the tariff of 1828 was “artfully designed for the incorporated companies of New England.”

Apparently Joseph Cocker junior had continued working in the factory all this time and now owned a large stake in it. In 1829, a mortgage is paid off and in 1831, Joseph sold his portion to one of the original investors for one thousand dollars. This would be David Comstock Junior. In 1831, young Joseph Cocker was married to a widow, Jane Mitchell. He was twenty-eight years old and in later years his profession was listed as “tailor“. Perhaps he stayed on running the factory but his name disappeared from the land records.
 
Despite the speculative Panic of 1837, and the five-year depression following it, the factory appeared to survive. David Comstock Junior, a wealthy farmer, bought a house close to the manufactory in 1839 and as of February 1840, the David Comstock who now owned the factory was the third of that name. He was twenty-six and married to Emmeline Camp. In 1840, Norwalk was one of the state’s leading manufacturing centers with an output of $434,000 in value in fabricated goods and David Comstock brought a new trade to Silver Mine: the hat industry. In the 19th century, the hat was the measure of the man: no respectable, well-dressed gentleman would dream of going out without his hat” However, it was not an auspicious time for hat making. By 1840, beaver fur was far less common than it had been in the 17th and 18th centuries and silk hats had come into fashion for the upper class. Still, a hat could have as little as 20% beaver in the mix of rabbit, mole, seal, muskrat and/or wool and qualify as beaver and by all accounts, Norwalk hatters continued to either work with beaver or convert to using sheep‘s wool. Some of them even found other uses for the felt.

In 1850, eleven hat manufacturers were registered in Norwalk. Although the 1851 map refers to the David Comstock Hat Factory, and the beaver hat was reinvented by the national tour of a dashing Hungarian in black felt hat with buckle and plumes, Comstock sold out. The factory now took a turn in a different direction. Immigrants were flooding into the industries of Norwalk. Enter the Guthries.

The first wave of the Guthrie family arrived in America on the British ship, the Wellington, on September 5, 1842. It included Robert Guthrie and his wife Elizabeth, respectively 42 and 35 years old, and three children ranging from 12 to 1: Claude, Alexander and Sidney. Robert writes: “Our son Henry stayed in London for another 2 ½ years.” The second wave of Guthries was born in America: St. Clair in 1844 at Dan Dean’s farm in Short Hills, Springfield, New Jersey and in 1846, Joseph followed by Edmond in Norwalk, CT. There were eleven children in all of which seven survived into adulthood.

Henry Guthrie, Robert’s eldest son and the best known of the Guthries, was educated at his father’s school in London. He was born in 1828 and started as a clerk for William Buckmaster, regimental tailor, at thirteen. Eighteen months or so later he departed on a trip to Africa on a ship bound for a cargo of guano, a lucrative trade at the time. On his return, he set sail for America, arriving April 5, 1845 at the age of 17 and catching up with his family in New Jersey where he worked one season on a farm.

On June 10, 1850, Henry’s biography says “he engaged in business on his own account at Silvermine.“  Two years later he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Various transactions--at first in partnership with his brother Claude--secure the factory and the former cotton-batting mill built by Mary Cocker’s husband, Andrew Akin, on Perry Avenue. Henry Guthrie married Hannah Buttery of the Buttery Mill family in 1854. The former Comstock Hat Factory and the Red and White Mills come to be known as the Guthrie Knob Shop and the Akin Mill as the Guthrie Saw Mill. The Guthries may have learned the woodworking trade at a Turning Mill located on the Silvermine River near James Street.

The collapse of Fort Sumter, edged in black in the Norwalk Gazette, galvanized a call for volunteers to help Lincoln’s government regain “its dignity” and some of the factory’s laborers are attracted to the financial incentives of a “six months” war--what we now call the Civil War. On September 23, 1861, Sidney Guthrie, joined the 10th Regiment of the Connecticut Volunteers. His papers describe him as twenty years old, five foot seven, with brown hair and hazel eyes. He was a “turner” in the knob factory and received a bounty for signing up. He did return to become a broker and manager for the estate. Another brother, Alexander Guthrie, also joined up but with the 17th Connecticut Volunteers. The Guthrie factory worked day and night fabricating “tens of thousands” of three-foot-long tent pegs for Union encampments.

After the war, Claude and Alexander Guthrie are both “turners” in the mills and their father, Robert Guthrie, for a time, a foreman of the sawmill. Henry’s factory now produced knobs and glass screws for furniture.

Heavy planks of mahogany arrived by the boatload from Cuba and were hauled to the Silvermine mill by oxen and stacked in the yard for seasoning; these are later sawed into long square strips (by the Aiken Mill on Perry) and then turned into knobs. Women and children of the community varnished them and the knobs were placed on pegged drying racks in the yard.”

A turner could turn out a gross of knobs in a day for the pay of about twelve cents.

As the years pass, Henry became a founder of the Gregory’s Point Horse Railroad Company that, until it failed during the Panic of 1873, was a way to tie sawmilling to building ships. He was a director of both the Fairfield County and Central National banks and of the Fairfield County Agricultural Society.

He and Hannah lived in the eastern portion of what they eventually call the Homestead (the factory) and his parents and some of his brothers live in the western half.  Claude and Alexander bought their own houses. Claude, the “Country Store” and the second house down from it and Alexander, “The Pines” (on River Rd.). Alexander died in 1875 of consumption (tuberculosis).

When Henry passed away on April 28, 1898 after a long illness, he had quit the mill business, being listed as a “farmer” in the 1897 directory. His deathbed was surrounded by Knights Templar at a time when fraternal organizations enjoyed great popularity. News headlines screamed “Remember the Maine!” and proudly reported on the tent pegs that Henry’s factory had turned out day and night for Uncle Sam.

The estate was divided amongst the family for Henry and Hannah left no heirs. The mill industry, except for the Buttery Sawmill, is rapidly declining in Silvermine and just as it seems that the Cotton Factory‘s industrial history is over, one more entrepreneurial family took over--the Goldsteins.

The Goldsteins emigrated from Germany, and in order to improve their lot, ingratiated themselves with the German-Jewish community that controlled the fur trade in Brooklyn. They were not of that faith but pretend to be. The patriarch was Otto Goldstein who soon owned and operated a fur processing business with members of his family in Brooklyn. To expand operations to the Norwalk area, Otto purchased the old Cotton Factory and opened a fur processing business in the Red Mill on the Silvermine River. The water wheel, which had churned for many years supplying power for the factory, continued to furnish power for the Goldstein fur-processing plant. Local mills became electrically driven around 1917, however the Goldsteins only processed furs in Silvermine until 1912 when they move the industry to South Norwalk. There, having a ready supply of water power and labor, they were better placed for the import and export of their trade. Commercial steamboats transported raw materials from New York City to Water Street and in turn, shipments of finished products were sent to New York’s East River docks for distribution to New York’s fur merchants.
 
The Goldsteins themselves are somewhat colorful, riding about in a large open touring car and inviting models out to promote their furs. From childhood, the older brothers assisted their father in the operation of his business, learning how to wash, dye, trim and repair the soft, thick coats of such fur-bearing animals as fox, mink, muskrat, skunk, beaver, etc. for lining, trimming with fur cuffs or collars, or making fur pieces or fur coats. As youngsters, they rode on the horse-drawn wagon--operated first by the Solomon Horse Livery Service and later by O’Connor’s Horse Livery--carrying shipments of finished fur garments from the Silvermine plant to the old Steamboat dock on Water Street. Even though the fur business was relocated, the Goldstein family continues to enjoy living on the premises. When World War I arrived, the Goldsteins raised the service flag on the triangle to commemorate one of their own serving in the US army. When Prohibition was instituted, they opened a speak-easy in the cellar.

The entrepreneurs of industry brought the factory up to the year 1924 but the structure itself was changing. For the Goldsteins, and even late in the lives of the Guthries, the Cotton Factory had become a home.

For John Kenneth Byard and his artist wife, Dorothy, who would buy it from the Goldsteins and reinvent the building for the twentieth century, it will be something more: the Silvermine Tavern and Galleries.

John Kenneth Byard was a lawyer, banker and gentleman antiques dealer who was instrumental in providing the furnishings for Historic Deerfield. Instead of living in the Tavern, the Byards resided in what was initially an 18th century home on River Road. To that home, the Byards added a ballroom that was a copy of a period room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Through a Byzantine morass of land deals, through which his family came to own over a hundred acres, John Kenneth Byard salvaged many of the old properties in Silvermine. In part, these included what are now the Silvermine Tavern, the Country Store, Red Mill and their home on River Road. His “nephew” Gates Moore built much of the dining area of the Tavern that before that time existed as two separate buildings: a barn and the old factory. Gates Moore became famous in his own right for the production of handmade colonial style lanterns and lighting fixtures--a family business that continues today.

On the Tavern website, (http://www.silverminetavern.com/history.htm), the Whitmans talk about Byards‘ stewardship: “Tea was served in the afternoons and a special buffet supper was available on Thursday evening at the cost of one dollar. Byard expanded the facility to its present size adding the kitchen, dining rooms and porches. He offered good food and overnight accommodations. The antique furnishings, farm implements and primitive paintings evident in the dining and guest rooms today were part of his collection. The Tavern shared the success of the growing artist's community and provided hospitality to many well-known personalities.”

In the fifties, Byard sold the Tavern to Ignatius (“Iggy”) Weiss who in turn sold it to the Whitman family, the present owners.

“The Whitman family bought Silvermine Tavern in 1955 and carried on the tradition. Both Francis C. Whitman, Sr. and his son Frank, Jr. are graduates of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. Today, Silvermine Tavern continues to be a notable year-round gathering place for those who enjoy secluded interludes amid gracious surroundings.”

(Written and compiled by Leigh Grant from sources collected for the National Historic District nomination, the Silvermine Tavern website, and independent research)

 

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