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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
brought transition to Willimantic School
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
student remembers trade school fondly
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tech gets a brand-new home
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.
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.
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.
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,
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