Bantam’s World War II

Bantam Lane, now Bantam Lake Road (Rt 209), in January 1942.

Our first house was in Bantam. Built in 1940, it was part of an expansion of that section of Litchfield resulting from the nation’s preparation for World War II. The area on Route 209 that we lived in was called Parrotville, as the houses were built on what was once the Parrot farm. These were built for the families of the managers at the Warren McArthur Corporation, which during the war produced most of the seats used in American military aircraft. In remodeling that house, we found ration books hidden behind the moulding, one more vestige of the impact that the war had on the community.

The Bantam Manufacturing Company opened its doors at what is now the intersection of routes 202 and 209 between 1900 and 1905. By 1917, the popularity of the automobile led to an increase in the demand for ball bearings, and the Bantam Ball Bearing Company took over the building in 1917. In 1938, the Warren McArthur Corporation acquired the factory to produce their sleek metal chairs, which epitomized the art deco style of the 1920s and 1930s. With the coming of the war, however, the company was asked to make seats for military aircraft.

Housing built for Warren McArthur workers on what is now Circle Drive. The government report that this photo accompanied stated that “as the automobiles and tires of workers in Bantam’s defense industries wear out, it is probably that additional housing facilities will be needed.”

A look inside the Heath family’s home, one of the units built for defense workers. Advertised as a five-minute walk from the plant, the Heaths played thirty dollars a month in rent.

Despite rationing and shortages of oil and tires, more than half the workers commuted to the plant, as evidenced by this photograph of its parking lot.

The urgency of the war effort led to the plant operating an average of sixteen hours a day, and on several occasions ran around the clock. This resulted in a need for labor, and soon workers from Torrington, Winsted, and other area towns began commuting to Bantam. But with the shortages of oil, gas, and rubber tires, housing within walking distance of the factory became a necessity. The federal government stepped in and oversaw the construction of sixty duplexes – what is now Circle Drive – a boom that increased the number of housing residences in Bantam by a third.

Jean Brunetto, described as “auburn haired” by the Office of Emergency Management, was a 1938 graduate of Litchfield High School who worked at Warren McArthur, along with her sister. Here Jean polishes the aluminum of a seat for a bomber.

The Bantam Fire Company had a bowling alley in its basement, which was rented out to a different organization each night of the week as a fundraiser.

Even following the surrenders of Germany and Japan, the Warren McArthur Corporation continued to make airplane seats. The company was acquired by PTC Aerospace, which built a new facility on Route 202 in the 1960s, but kept the old factory operating on a limited basis until 1990. Ultimately, PTC Aerospace closed its doors in Bantam in 2002 and moved operations to Northern Ireland.

Bantam had an airplane observation post in the northern part of the borough. It was manned twenty-four hours a day, usually by defense industry workers on their off hours. Here Charles Kilbourne watches the skies.

The Warren McArthur Corporation was not Bantam’s only defense industry. Here workers at the Dante Electric Company make parts for submarines. Dante Electric was located on Bantam Lane, now Route 209.

Bantam’s experience in World War II lives on in an amazing collection of photos taken by the Office of Emergency Management in January 1942. Some of them accompany this post; others are available by searching “Bantam, Connecticut” on the Library of Congress’s website,





The Blizzard of 1888

With Litchfield stuck in a weather pattern that seems to bring more snow every day, perhaps a look back at the great Blizzard of 1888 is in order.

Drifted snow at Dr. Buel's house on North Street, Litchfield, 1888.  Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Drifted snow at Dr. Buel’s house on North Street, Litchfield, 1888. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

With little in the way of accurate meteorological predictions, the blizzard came as a surprise to the Northeast on Sunday, March 11, 1888.  It had been an unusually warm winter, and that day dawned with rain.  It soon turned to hail, then sleet, then ultimately snow.  Bitter cold and high winds set in, and the snow continued for three days.  When it all stopped, between 20 and 50 inches of snow had fallen in Connecticut, with drifts of 12 feet not uncommon.  (One drift in New Haven reached 40 feet high!)  The storm resulted in more than 400 deaths and an estimated $20 million worth of damage.

Dr. Buel's house after the snow had melted.  One source says the snow was melted within ten days; another says the last of the drifts didn't melt until June! Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Dr. Buel’s house after the snow had melted. One source says the snow was melted within ten days; another says the last of the drifts didn’t melt until June! Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

The following are excerpts about the blizzard from the Litchfield Enquirer:

March 12th – “The wind blew a perfect blizzard all day and the drifting and falling snow made even main streets almost impassable Monday night the storm continued with increasing fury and buildings rocked as though in a storm at sea.”

A modern view of Dr. Buel's house.

A modern view of Dr. Buel’s house.

March 13th – “On Tuesday morning the wind had lessened though still blowing a gale with the thermometer at or near zero. The most remarkable drifts are at Dr. [H. W.] Buel‘s. One, a little west of the house, about 20 feet, to a level with the eaves. There is an addition on the west of Dr. Buel‘s house, reaching- about to the eaves, which is almost completely covered by the snow, so that our reporter, walking- along the top of the drift, passed completely over the roof of this part of the house, and down on the northern side. There is a drift on the east which is even higher, shutting up one of the library windows completely, and reaching nearly to the top of one of the large firs which form a hedge on that side of the house.

March 14th – “The wind is northeast and considerable snow is still falling. People are about on snow shoes skees (sic) and snow shoes extemporized out of boards some carrying groceries to those in great want. Little business is doing. Most of the stores are closed. A few are open with people standing about comparing notes about tunneling to their woodsheds drifts over second story windows and other marvels of the great storm.”

The Lake Station, Bantam.  Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation.

The Lake Station, Bantam. Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation.

The Shepaug Railroad was out of service until March 16th. A railroad cut near the Lake Station (today the Cove in Bantam) was filled with a drift 22 feet deep!

And all this snow needed to be removed from the transportation network without the benefit of modern plows!

July 1989 Tornado

2013-11-29 11.55.40

This bell and plaque commemorate the United Methodist Church of Bantam, destroyed 25 years ago today by a tornado.

2013-11-29 11.55.21

On Monday, July 10th, 1989, a powerful family of tornados came out of New York State and ripped apart Cornwall’s Mohawk Ski Area, damaging every ski lift and carrying some of their chairs miles away.

Workers cleaning up the Cathedral Pines area after the tornado.

Workers cleaning up the Cathedral Pines area after the tornado.

Atop any list of Litchfield County’s ecological treasures would have been Cornwall’s Cathedral Pines, at42-acres one of the largest stands of white pines and hemlocks (some reaching 120 feet high) east of the Mississippi. In one of the county’s first acts of ecological awareness, the Calhoun family purchased the land in 1883 to protect it from logging. The family donated Cathedral Pines to the Nature Conservancy in 1967. The tornado destroyed ninety percent of the trees in Cathedral Pines.

An early view of the Methodist Church in Bantam, destroyed by the tornado.  Bantam Historical Society.

An early view of the Methodist Church in Bantam, destroyed by the tornado. Bantam Historical Society.

Winds in excess of 150 miles per hour blew through Milton and Bantam, destroying homes, churches and stores.

Another tornado hit Watertown, and 12-year-old Jennifer Bike was killed when a tree fell on her tent in Black Rock State Park in Thomaston.

2013-11-29 11.53.35

2013-11-29 11.55.09

Today, a small park at the site of the Methodist Church – built in 1901 – in Bantam commemorates tornado. Within the foundation of the church are benches are gardens, a far cry from the fury unleashed on Litchfield County 25 years ago.

I was sixteen years old, working at Lake Waramaug Country Club in New Preston that afternoon. I vividly remember the sky turning a greenish color and a vicious thunderstorm rolling through. Please use the comments area on this blog to share your memories of the tornado.

The Bantam Lake Ice House

This observation tower along the Lake (Yellow) Trail at White Memorial sits at the point where ice was taken out of the lake and sent to the ice house.

This observation tower along the Lake (Yellow) Trail at White Memorial sits at the point where ice was taken out of the lake and sent to the ice house.

This post marks a new partnership between and will occasionally be providing videos showing some of the sites discussed on this blog.

In the days before refrigerators foods either needed to be preserved (through canning, smoking, or salting) or kept fresh through the use of ice boxes.  Ice boxes were dependent upon a steady supply of fresh ice, no easy proposition in the summer months.  To satisfy the demand for blocks of ice, ice was harvested from New England ponds and lakes in the winter (usually in January and February when temperatures were the coldest).

Forty acres of Bantam Lake had to be harvested to fill the ice house.

Forty acres of Bantam Lake had to be harvested to fill the ice house.

The earliest ice harvests were done in the same manner as harvesting crops, with neighbors and friends pitching in and being compensated with a share of the crop.  Specialty tools, including gang saws, chisels and saw plows, were used to cut the ice into blocks which were then transported to ice houses for keeping.  Ice houses were designed with the floor one foot off the ground to allow for the passage of air under the ice.  They featured double walls, one foot apart and packed with shavings or saw dust for insulation.  The floors of these ice houses were pitched to allow for drainage.


The former machine shop at the ice house complex.

The largest ice harvesting operation in Connecticut was the Berkshire Ice Company (later part of the Southern New England Ice Company) on Bantam Lake.  Their facility stood near the present Litchfield Town Beach on North Shore Road in Bantam.  Here the foreman’s house and machine shop still stand, and the remains of workers’ dormitories and, most impressively, the 700 foot by 125 foot ice house are visible.

The ice house had fourteen  30-foot high storage sections that each held 4,000 tons of ice for a total of 56,000 tons of ice.  It would take 40 harvested acres of ice to fill the warehouse.  The particular challenge the workers faced was getting the ice into the storage house.  This was especially difficult as the ice was cut into the 300-pound blocks preferred for wholesale purposes.  (Retail ice was cut into 25, 50, or 100 pound blocks).


Prior to the conveyor belt system, ice was floated to the ice house via this canal.

Channels were cut into the lake, and the workers (who were paid 60 cents an hour and worked seven days a week in the mid 1920s) utilized poles to float the ice to a ramp on which rested a conveyor belt.  The concrete pillars of this system still stand as ghostly sentinels in the swampy grounds of White Memorial; the final pillars today support an observation tower on the shores of Bantam Lake.  The conveyor belt was powered by a 100-horse power engine that derived its energy from the Bantam Falls power plant.


Concrete pillars mark the path of the old conveyor belt.

The conveyor belts ran approximately 1000 feet from the lake to the ice house.  In the summer months, a spur of the Shepaug Valley Railroad ran from the Lake Station (today, the Cove Shops on Route 202) to the ice house, where it split to run parallel so cars could be filled from both sides of the structure.  Up to 20 box cars a day were filled, and the ice was transported as far as Bridgeport.   Alain White, in his History of Litchfield, described the “long trains,” which “pull out daily in the summers, carrying concentrated relief from the Litchfield Hills to the larger cities southward.”


Remains of the ice house foundation, at the southern end of the Butternut Brook trail.

The spread of electricity and refrigerators to households in the 1920s led to a severe decline in the demand for harvested ice.  On August 8th, 1929, a massive fire swept through the facility.  Some have speculated that the fire was caused by spontaneous combustion of either the hay or sawdust at the site, while others reported that their were several cases of arson in the area.  Either way, over $350,000 in damages resulted from the destruction of the ice house building, nine railroad cars, and over 50,000 tons of ice valued at $200,000.  The next year the Southern New England Ice Company sold its land to the White Memorial Foundation; as a result, the foundations remain to remind us of this once vibrant industry.

For the video of the Bantam Lake ice house, click here

Horace Bushnell’s Birthplace

At the southwest corner of the intersection of Routes 202 and 209 in the borough of Bantam lies a small marker noting the birthplace of one of the most important theologians in American history.

Horace Bushnell was born at this site on April 14, 1802. He was raised on the family farm – some accounts say he grew up in New Preston – and lived the difficult life of a farmer in early America, often working from sunup to sundown. While his family lacked both wealth and social status, they had always hoped he would become a minister, and he therefore enrolled at Yale University. Bushnell would spend ten years at the New Haven school, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Following graduation, he served as the editor of a literary magazine in New York City, and studied law and was admitted to the bar.

Yale Divinity School

Bushnell maintained religious doubts during his adolescence. These doubts, however, dissipated and in 1833 he returned to Yale and earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree, was ordained as a Congregational minister, and was named the pastor of Hartford’s North Congregational Church. He would remain at this post for more than twenty years, until poor health forced his retirement.

He became Hartford’s most respected citizen, and was one of the leading American theologians of the nineteenth century. The author of twelve books, Bushnell was a transitional figure in American religious history, standing between the conservative traditions of American Puritans, and the more emotional or romantic views being put forth by Ralph Waldo Emerson and others. Bushnell’s centrist views were laid out in his 1839 work, A Discourse on the Slavery Question, in which he put forth a moderate approach to the controversy that was beginning to rip the nation in two.

Bushnell’s moderate approach still managed to draw critics; this was especially so following the publication of God in Christ (1849) which argued that the lack of historical context for the language of the Bible prevented its readers from truly understanding the work. Conservative preachers saw the threat posed by Bushnell’s ideology, and responded with savage criticism. Bushnell answered his critics in Christ in Theology (1851).

The Civil War posed an additional challenge to the moderate Bushnell; however, when the firing began, he was a vehement supporter of the Union cause. He was also among the first to ascribe larger purposes to the war, writing three months after Appomattox: “It is the ammunition spent that gains the battle, not the ammunition brought off from the field. These dead are the spent ammunition of the war, and theirs above all is the victory. … Here it is that the dead of our war have done a work for us so precious, which is all their own – they have bled for us; and by this simple sacrifice of blood they have opened for us a new great chapter of life.”

Bushnell married Mary Apthorp in 1833 and together they raised three children. Declining health forced him to give up his pastorate in 1859. He never again held a formal position, but continued to preach and write until his death in 1876.

Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall

Today, Bushnell is likely best known as the namesake for Bushnell Park or the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Reverend Bushnell was a determined advocate for the creation of urban parks. Speaking to the Hartford City Council in 1853, he said, “an opening in the heart of the city itself, to which citizens will naturally flow in their walks. A place where children will play and the invalid go to breathe the freshness of nature. A place for holiday scenes and celebrations; a green carpet of ground, where high and low, rich and poor will exchange looks; an outdoor parlor opened for the cultivation of good manners and a right social feeling. A place of life and motion that will make us more conscious of being one people.” The Council responded by allocating $105,000 for the purchase of the park that today bears the minister’s name. The Bushnell Memorial Hall opened in 1930, built as a living memorial by Dotha Bushnell Hillyer to her father.

Bushnell Park

These institutions remain as tributes to one of the preeminent figures in American theological history, who traveled a long road from the difficult life of a Bantam farmer to the nation’s leading philosophical parlors.