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Windham Technical High School, 210 Birch Street, Willimantic, CT 06226
TEL. (860) 456-3879, FAX (860) 450-0630
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Windham Tech History

These articles on Windham Tech. school history originally ran as a series in the Willimantic Chronicle in six parts. Tom Beardsley published all of these articles.

 

Trade School has a lot of history

 Part One 

For people driving or walking down Valley Street today, the area on the western junction with Bank Street is an insignificant parking lot - but this downtown area of Willimantic has witnessed a great deal of history. Older residents will recall that it was, from 1928 until 1956 the site of the Willimantic Trade School. Prior to 1928, the large brick building which housed the trade school was built as the Turner Silk Mill, and operated as such between 1888 until 1917. The vacant mill then housed several diverse industries and companies between 1918 until 1926.

The land in question was owned by Thomas W. Cunningham, who made his fortune in 19th century Willimantic as the proprietor of a number of saloons and bars which slaked the thirsts of mill workers. He opened Willimantic's first grog shop on Main Street in 1825, selling rum, gin brandy, cider, Albany ale, Madeira wine and metheglen at three and five cents a drink. Cunningham died in 1886, and in his will he bequeathed the meadow behind Main Street - thus Meadow Street - to the borough of Willimantic if they would develop it into a public park. The borough declined the offer, as the borough fathers realized much more could be made from Cunningham's prime location through city taxes. The land was sold privately to silk manufacturer Arthur Turner in 1887. Two years later a large four story brick-built silk mill, 130 foot by 100 foot, was completed and ready to weave silk cloth. Turner was the son of Arthur W. Turner, who had built a silk manufacturing community at Turnerville in Hebron on the North Pond, which is known today as Amston Lake.

Turner's silk mill prospered on Cunningham's old meadow for a generation. It survived the financial panic of 1894, and continued production until 1915. The company went into receivership, and the mills extensive silk weaving machine was purchased by a Canadian silk manufacturer and shipped to Montreal in 1917.The extensive mill building housed several companies during the subsequent decade, including an electric cable manufacturer. But in 1927, Windham Selectmen the appropriated  $10,000 to convert the old silk mill into the Willimantic Trade School to provide vocational training to students 14 years of age and upwards. Connecticut's first trade school was instituted in Putnam in 1913, and the Willimantic school was the eighth to be established in the state. However, its funding was no easy task. Windham has a long record of conservatism regarding fiscal matters as the battles of the building of the town hall (1896), footbridge (1906), trade school (1927), and the new middle school (1994) have proven.

Bill Zenko the current Assistant Director of the Windham Regional Vocational-Technical School, prepared a detailed history of the Willimantic Trade School from 1928 until 1978. Zenko's research reveals that the final cost of alterations to the old Turner Silk Mill came to almost $20,000 - double the estimated coat. Some financial wizardry was performed with the budgets and the town subsequently claimed that the costs came to $17,000 - but the defenders of the school reminded its many critics of its long term benefits to the city in increased trade. Also the school's supporters argued that a pool of skilled workers may attract new industry to the city.


School was a resounding success

 Part Two 

The Willimantic Trade School opened in September 1928, as a building-trades facility under the directorship of Otto Nyffler.  A masonry department was located in the mill basement, the first floor housed a carpentry department, and the second floor was converted into plumbing and painting departments. Electrical and drafting departments were installed on the third floor, along with a classroom.

Initially, the students studied and trained for 44 hours each week, and enjoyed a two week vacation in the summer. School hours were from 8 am. to noon and 1-5 P.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. until noon on Saturdays.

The school's first year, 1928- 29 was reported as a resounding success. There were 102 students enrolled in that year - 72 from Willimantic and 30 from adjacent towns. Nyffler organized a school "Inspection Night" on May 7, 1929 and an estimated 1,500 people toured the new trade school facility located in the city's historic Turner Silk Mill.

Nyffler explained to reporters and to the school's fiscally conservative critics, that the town of Windham furnished the schools heat., light, water and power, and paid for a janitor. The state paid for all other equipment and operating expenses. Also, the school's students had provided the majority of the labor to convert the old mill into a modem, training facility.

After taking the tour, guests were invited to a concert held by the trade school's band conducted by Charles  Wheeler in the second floor carpentry facility.

Willimantic Trade School students had to complete 4,800 clock hours of instruction to earn their trade apprentice certificate. Evening classes commenced in December 1928. Full-time students were also involved in music and athletic pastimes, and director Otto Nyffler established an athletic field on land owned by him in the Ridges district of Mansfield next to the Willimantic River. Basketball and baseball teams were also established. The basketball  team played their games in the Center Street Armory and the YMCA building on Valley Street

The school's band was particularly popular. A.E. Lyman and N.C. Wheeler were the bands first directors, and rehearsals were held every Wednesday afternoon. By 1929, almost 25 percent of the school's entire enrollment were playing in its band. Concerts were held in the local community and in April, 1932 the band made its debut on the radio when it played a half-hour concert transmitted live by Storrs radio station WCAC.

The Wall Street stock market had crashed just one year after the opening of the Willimantic Trade School, and the resultant Depression hit its operation. During the early 1930s, the school was criticized by this local Chamber of Commerce and labor organizations for siphoning business away from established tradesmen and companies. It was claimed that some of the high unemployment rates among builders was caused by the low labor costs of trade school students. The school's trade was build and new construction always comes to a stop during economic downturns.  At the root of the criticism, was the trade school labor used in building local realtor Zepherin Coutu's new house at 55 Summit St. in 1931.

The Willimantic Trade School's director was furious that his students should come under such an attack, and he responded in a letter published in the Chronicle in October, 1933. Nyffler while insisting that his school lived up to the spirit of the NRA, also strongly defended the overall role of trade schools. He believed that they were helping boys turn away  from hoodlumism that was sweeping the country, and helping them to apply their knowledge and skills to earn a living, instead of having to turn to the "jimmy" or radical politics.


'40s brought transition to Willimantic School

 Part Three 

By 1933, the Willimantic Trade School was receiving federal aid from New Deal programs to help alleviate the miseries; caused by local unemployment and the deepening national economic depression.

The school's curriculum was expanded to conduct classes in all aspects of mechanical and electrical engineering for the unemployed - m any under the auspices of local companies such as American Thread. Workers from the regional Civilian Conservation Camps based at Hampton and Union also came to Willimantic to study at the trade school. Between October 1936 and February 1937, free courses were offered to all CCC members of Camp Fernow in Eastford.

In late 1934, the school board had appointed a committee to study the feasibility of opening a machine shop and automobile repair department. This came to fruition in the summer of 1936, when the state Department of Education allocated $40,000 to the Willimantic Trade School to complete the project.

Remodeling began immediately on the old silk mill and an automobile repair shop was installed in the basement, and the carpentry department was relocated there from the first floor. The vacant space on the first floor was turned into a machine shop, and the two new departments came into operation in January 1937. Eighteen students were enrolled in the automobile division, and 21 students were enrolled in the new machine shop. By the late 1930s, the school's diversification led to the elimination of the painting, plumbing and masonry programs. Students focused less on the practical and more upon the academic side of training, and began studying trade sciences, mathematics, economics, hygiene, sketching, drafting, and blueprint reading.

The foundations laid down in the Willimantic Trade School during the Depression era became useful during the war years, as the booming American economy demanded skilled machinists, mechanics and welders. The economy was expanding in the years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Willimantic introduced special 200-hour welding and machinist courses in 1940 to meet the growing demand for skilled workers. The 1940s saw the transition of the Willimantic Trade School into the Windham Regional Vocation al-Technical School, which be came more commonly known by the name Windham Tech.  The current assistant director of WRITS,  Bill Zinc has explained that the years between 1944 and 1947 were transitional,. "The organizational, jurisdictional, philosophical and curriculum changes made at the state level in the 1940s led to the demise of the trade school concept in Connecticut Education." Otto Muffler retired in 1946, and his successor, John D. Clark, guided the school into the modern era, bringing it more into line with the state's comprehensive public high school education. Students subsequently graduated with a trade certificate and a high school diploma.

Clark quickly realized that the old Turner Silk Mill was becoming out-of-date and overcrowded. It was time for a move. But that move would not occur until 1956.


Former student remembers trade school fondly

 Part Four 

Students from surrounding towns were allowed to apply to the Willimantic Trade School, now known as the Windham Regional Vocational-Technical School.  In 1951, 13-year-old Joe Calmer arrived to study and train in carpentry at the Willimantic Trade School. He left the Hall Memorial School in, Willington, and arrived for his first day at the Bank Street building in September, 1951, with four other students from Willington

Joe recalls that the old Turner silk mill was of typical robust structure, with oil-soaked floors and that it had no canteen. The machine and automotive shops were located in the building's basement, classrooms were on the first floor, carpentry and electrical shops were on the second floor, and drafting, science and math classes were an the third floor.

Joe's carpentry class had around 17 students. Their long-serving carpentry instructor was George Jay, who had been at the Willimantic Trade School since its 1928 opening.

Joe, a loyal New York Yankee fan, was a keen baseball player and a member of the Windham Tech baseball team. They played their regular games on Recreation Park in Willimantic. However, Joe recalled the athletic fields down in the Ridges section of Mansfield, across the railroad lines and adjacent to the Willimantic River. The fields, donated by the Trade School's first director, Otto Muffler, were still in partial use during the 1950s. The site was accessed via Mansfield's Old-Kent Road, off Route 32, and past the site of the old Ridges fabric shop which has coincidentally relocated to Bank Street in Willimantic, across from the old trade school. The area around the school's old athletic fields is today occupied by the Ridges housing development,  but the actual fields, although overgrown, can still be seen. Joe recalls that student piled into the back of an old truck, or into the school's old blue bus and went down to the "Ridges fields" for recreation and exercises.

Joe Elmer's course of study included studying the academic and practical basics of carpentry, which included actual house building on site. Two weeks were spent in class and the next two weeks were spent on the job. Along with the other carpentry students, he built houses in North Windham and at Andover Lake, and did house repairs in Staffordsville. In 1954, the carpentry students demolished two large 19th century Victorian houses located on High Street in Willimantic, to create a parking lot for the Willimantic, to create a parking lot for the Willimantic State Teacher's College. Joe recalls how well-built those houses were, and the high quality wood and stone used in their construction.

Joe Calmer looks back with affection to his Willimantic Trade School years. The graduating Class of 1955 attended a ceremony held at the Willimantic State Teacher's College, and the students and teachers then attended a graduation party at the Shell Chateau Restaurant. Joe recalls the carpentry class ring, which was inscribed with the motto, "He who hath a trade hath an estate." After Joe's graduation, future Windham Tech students would study in a brand new facility located on nearby Birch Street.


Windham Tech gets a brand-new home

 Part Five 

In 1950, Windham Techs director John Clark. organized a committee to secure public and political support to build a new facility in Willimantic. The 1888 Turner Silk Mill was far too small for the school's growing enrollments and expanding programs. Many will recognize the names in Clark's committee -- Jim Currier, Arthur Roy, Foreman Bergeron, Ralph Crosswise, Roger Paul us, George Champlain, Ted Sol, Harry Chambers, Willis Ridgeway, William Sweeney, The Rev. Robert Armstrong, and John Roy.

This was a powerful and influential group, and in the spring of 1951, the General Assembly appropriated $1.5 million for the new Willimantic school. Ground for the new school was broken in a ceremony  that took place in front of 200 people in a field at the north end of Birch Street on Oct. 21, 1954.  Gov. John Lodge and University of Connecticut President Albert Jorgensen were invited to witness the ground-breaking  but had to decline. Robert Mackey, the State Commissioner of Public Works, turned over the first shovel of dirt. The Rev. Ben Steering of St. Paul's Episcopal Church gave invocation, and the Rev. Roland Gillette of St. Mary's blessed the grounds.

Emmett O'Brien,  the director of special services for the State Department of Education, addressed the group and announced the new school would accommodate 400 students, double the number currently enrolled in the Bank Street school. Windham First Selectman Ralph Crosthwaite praised the roles of state Sen. Andre Defroster; and state Representatives Walter King and Lester Shear in securing the new school for Willimantic. Mayor Foreman Bergeron spoke and stressed that it was important that the new school be built in Willimantic, the educational center of eastern Connecticut. Ruth Russ, the school's secretary since 1928, was presented with a bouquet of flowers by carpentry instructor George Jay, as groundbreaking day was her birthday, The group then retired to the Nathan Hale Hotel to partake in a celebratory dinner.

The new facility was designed by architect Joseph Della Villa of New Haven, and its construction was completed by the Felix Buzz Co. of Torrington. Building work commenced in early 1955, and by May 1956, Windham Tech students were transferring equipment from the old Bank School facility into the new Birch Street School. The new school's gym hosted graduation exercises on June 20. The school officially opened on September 1956 and dedicated in a ceremony on Oct. 14, 1956.

The new building consisted of two large wings. The main building was two stories high and contained offices and classrooms where students practiced engineering drawing.  There were also classes for Licensed Practical Nurses, for which courses commenced in the 1957-1958 academic year. One wing housed radio and television repair rooms, electrical, machine carpentry and automotive repair shops. The student enrollment was 280, of which 125 were freshmen. Practical and academic education was equally distributed. Off-the-job classroom education included English, social studies, driver education, math, science and blueprint reading. The school year was 200 days long, and students attended between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.