73. New Britain Local History Room

Fafnir for the Common New Britain Man
New Britain
(Google Maps Location)
October 1, 2008

mq72g.jpgBeing married to a woman who grew up in New Britain from the tender age of two until I married her and “rescued” her 29 years later, I hold an oddly special place in my heart for this somewhat struggling post-industrial town. It’s not just that my very first museum is here (The New Britain Industrial Museum visit here) or that my in-laws are still keepin’ it “Hard-Hittin’ New Brit’in” real… it’s that New Britainites are seriously proud of their town, and that’s charming. Well, a lot of them are anyway.

Constantly under barrage from the negatives that blight the town (scant jobs, heroin, crime, general disrepair), there are some real gems amongst the detritus. The New Britain Museum of American Art is, quite simply, great. (Though I’ve yet to devote a blog-worthy visit yet.) The Frederick Law Olmsted designed Walnut Hill Park is beautiful and there are a few other museums in town, including the, shall I say, interesting Youth Museum (CTMQ Visit here) that shares the Library’s parking lot. Not to mention the culturally interesting Broad Street, where English is a fifth language to Polish, Serbian, Croatian, and Spanish. (Crazy CTMQ visit here.)

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This is a picture of Buffalo Bill with some Indians… at the foot of Linwood Street’s hill, exact spot of the former apartment of my wife!

I’ve been looking to hit as many weekday-only museums as I can during lunch. Of course they must be small and fairly near my office. The Local History Room tucked away on the second floor of the New Britain Public Library certainly fits the bill. It calls itself a room – and it’s definitely just a room. A small room at that.

mq72e.jpgThe Library website describes the room thusly: “The Local History Room collection includes histories of New Britain, local manufacturers’ catalogs, general genealogical sources, genealogies, city directories (1870-1992), church histories, federal census on microfilm for Hartford County (1790-1930), collective biographies, maps, municipal records, newsletters from local organizations and over 9,000 photographs and slides. The vertical files contain over 75,000 clippings from area newspapers and are arranged by subject. The clippings date from the mid-1800′s to the present.”

There are special collections, including High School Yearbooks – argh! I wish I knew that going in. I hear there was a flutist in the 1991 marching band who was just awesome. And check out the impressive local newspaper collection:

  • New Britain Herald (weekly edition) April 1880 – December 1882
  • New Britain Herald December 1882 – March 1937; July 1947 to the present.
  • True Citizen January 1862 – March 1866
  • North & South, New Britain Times May 1858 – April 1860
  • Farmington Valley Herald, Farmer Mechanics Journal, Tunxis Valley Bristol & Canton, CT 1882-1907
  • I was sort of bummed to think I could plow through this place in mere minutes. I love old papers but there is something there far more interesting to me here – old maps! Maps dating back to the Civil War. Even though I’m not a native, I found myself poring over the old maps; “watching” the town change from agrarian to industrial to the urban/suburban place it is today. All the maps and papers are very well preserved and easily viewable. Definitely cool.

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    Map from 1882 – No Walnut Hill Park

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    Map from 1893 – Park is there, and so is a “football grounds” and 1/2 mile Track, near what is now Martha Hart Park

    What else was there? A bunch of “stuff.” A lot of it looked to be on loan from the Industrial Museum; an old stove, some old toasters, an old coffee pot… But there was also a pretty cool collection of old Stanley catalogs and a rather in-depth history of Fafnir Bearings. No, seriously – this is sort of interesting.

    But I guess the most interesting part was the fact that here I was, quietly walking around looking at stuff, taking pictures, of things, and all the while some library employee dude was sitting in the middle of the room staring at a spreadsheet. He seemed surprised when I walked in, and to his credit he did ask me why I was there, but other than that… nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated it and I’m sure if I had questions he’d have been most helpful. But still… the dynamic was pretty weird, in such a tiny little museum room.

    Two more random things… Stanley Works sent each employee serving in WWII a nice little Swiss Army type pocket knife and one was on display here. And I can’t ignore the history of the Tomasso family in New Britain, from the Tomasso website:

    mq72d.jpg“In 1923 in New Britain with one piece of equipment – a steam shovel – he founded Angelo Tomasso, Inc. That same year he landed his first big job – excavating foundations for the Fafnir Bearing Company… He built the first section of the New York Taconic Parkway and in 1941, Angelo Tomasso was responsible for the original construction of Brainard Airport in Hartford. In 1950 they set a record by transporting 797 tons of blacktop 25 miles in one day to the Bradley Field Airport. In 1968 they received wide acclaim by laying a mile of concrete each day on over three miles of Interstate 84 in Plainville, New Britain and Farmington, Connecticut.

    In 1972 a joint venture led by Angelo Tomasso, Jr. set a world record by laying in place 18,300 tons of bitumen in 18 hours at Bradley Airport. Inspired by the contract provisions that the team could close the airfield for only 36 hours while paving a critical intersection, the major 6-24 runway was repaved in record-breaking time. The joint venture had 171 pieces of equipment in use during one day. The airport reopened on schedule, and the team won praise from the State Department of Public Works and the Department of Transportation.

    The construction accomplishments of Angelo Tomasso, Inc. became legendary. The company acquired additional quarrying and mixed concrete capacity and became famous for highway construction including Routes 91 and 84, and Routes 9 and 2. The company managed redevelopment and site projects including corporate headquarters such as Emhart, Stanley Works, Aetna and Bristol Myers.”

    Annnnnnd then in 2006 the family was busted in connection to corrupt Governor Rowland’s various scandals and one of them went to jail. They forgot to add that part fo the story… but that’s what CTMQ is for: The whole story.

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    Original logo drawing of Fafnir bearings from 1911

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    Cost: Free
    Hours: Mon/Wed 9-2, Tue/Thu 2-4
    Food & Drink? No doubt – Hardware City Tavern
    Children? Might want to leave them in the children’s section
    You’ll like it if: You are from New Britain, period
    You won’t like it if: You are from Bristol and hate all things New Britain
    Freebies: None

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    For the Curious:
    Local History Room
    New Britski!
    Tomasso Group History
    Corbin locks history
    Stanley Works history

    17 responses to “73. New Britain Local History Room”

    1. honeybunny says:

      “but that’s what CTMQ is for: The whole story.”

      that’s why i come here.

      hb

    2. Bara says:

      RE: New Britain Local History Room

      Having been born and grown up in the 1940/-1950s New Britain, I found this article very interesting. The New Britain in which I grew up was a most wonderful place! My fondest memories are of those days in New Britain. The last time I visited, still having family living there, was about 10 years ago and I left feeling very, very sad. The place I’d known and loved for the first 30 or so years of my life has vanished. No more wonderful Main Street, the trees in front of the main library chopped down and I don’t know what’s become of the magical Hawley Memorial Library, the “childrens’ library”. While I understand New Britain is enjoying a period of regeneration, I still can’t help but mourn for the wonderful city of my youth. I would like to correspond w/current, or even former, residents of “The Hardware Center of the World.”

      Bara

    3. Rob says:

      I agree with Bara…I grew up in NB also, but in the 70s and 80s. Even that recently, it was a much better place than it is now; downtown is a wasteland. I never knew the city without the highway (72 and then 9), but just from aerial photos from 1965 that I found on the Connecticut State Library’s website (http://cslib.cdmhost.com/index.php), I can see that they literally decimated entire sections of the city to put the highway through. It’s hard to tell from the aerials, but it looks like the place had to be BUSTLING in 1965! I’m curious to know if anyone knows a place online where I can find older maps of the city (I mean mid-to-late 20th century, not 19th century), just to compare them and see what streets/neighborhoods were destroyed.

    4. stefan michael says:

      Does anyone have any pictures or information of/on a music store (I remember it as the Italian Music Emporium) that was located on Main St. (near the corner of Lafayette St.) a couple of shops to the right of the old Palace Theater (and diagonally across the street from the original location of Capitol Lunch)?

    5. linda says:

      If you’re on Facebook, join I Remember New Britain. It’s fabulous!

    6. Mark R Rewa says:

      32 years born in New Britain, CT. General Hospital 1971. I left the town about 8 years ago and the only thing that I think of is moving back and be with the family that I have left.

    7. autoprt says:

      i was born in new britain in the early 60′s and caught the tail end of Great New Britain the older people remember. Going downtown in the late 60′s and early 70′s was a great experience taking the bus to the Strand and finishing with shopping at all the stores that were downtown and stopping by Capital Lunch before going home on a Saturday.
      The highway was the beginning of the end for New Britain and it has yet to recover. But at least the memories are there as long as Jimmie’s Smoke Shop is in business.

    8. Marlene O'Neill says:

      I am having restored some pictures of my dad, Michael J Borselle, who resently passed away. Some are from WWII in New Guinea. I would like to preserve them with a historical society. I was hoping you could help.
      Thank you,
      Marlene Borselle O’Neill

    9. K. White says:

      love this site. I have a copy of P. & F. Corbin catalog for Colonial and Early English Hardware, and they began in New Britain. Catalog #K553, copyright 1931. I would like to send it to you for the New Britain collection.

      Address to send it please. Keep up your efforts and your happy marriage. K. B. White

    10. Harold C. sawyer says:

      I remember my brother and i racing slot cars at the old boys club, you could “buy” a brick for a dime for the construction of the new boys club and of course capital lunch hot dogs!

    11. Sandra Nicolucci says:

      I too remember a beloved New Britain that was such a wonderful place to grow up in in the 50′s and 60′s. Where has it gone?

      I see that a c. 1760 colonial house at 889 West Main Street is scheduled for a foreclosure sale this Saturday. It is in bad condition, but do we want to let someone demolish a pre-Revolutionary war artifact like this?

      Any hope for saving this historical monument?

    12. Marty Hall says:

      I spent a great deal of my “growing up” years in NB, on Victoria Rd. Part of it as an infant, later year as a teen. 1955 I joined the Navy and still had roots on Victoria Rd. until the family moved to Prospect St. That side of my family is the link to the once Police Chief Zehrer of New Britain. It’s the other side of my family I’m going to ask about….

      Is there any history of Speak Easy’s once in NB? My grandmother ran one on Arch St. She was Elsie Susan MacDonald, aka, Mack D. Hall as shown in the 1940 census. I suppose in 1940 she still went by her nom de guerre of the Prohibition Years. Any help on my research of NB Speak Easy’s would be appreciated.

    13. Dave Reynolds says:

      I worked as an engineering co-op at Fafnir Bearing Co. in 1980 but I haven’t been back since. I really enjoyed the people at Fafnir; the guys who re-worked industrial diamonds which were used to redress the abrasives for the grinding machines. I had some pals my age to hang out with as well in our office. That was still good old school Ct manufacturing in those days. It’s hard to find references to Fafnir Bearing on the internet so I am happy to have found this blog. Maybe I’ll stop by the library some day. Good memories.

    14. Roman Kudrycki says:

      Elijah Cooper, something to do with Fafnir ???? I think I am Living in a house he resided in or built????

    15. Norman (Bunky) Landino says:

      I grew up on Wells St. right next to New Britain Teachers College(now CCSC) in the 1940′s & 50″s. Great place to live. Was surrounded by Turkey Hollow Farm, a chicken farm, mink farm and cow farm. Stanley park and Stanley Golf course were close by. Went to Stanley, Nathan Hale and NBHS. Strand, Arch St and several other movie theaters which were great places on Sat mornings for Lone Ranger and other shows. Yes we did get 2 movie features, cartoons, coming attactions and news for 25 cents. Can’t forget Renee’s Pool Hall downtown where I honed my pocket billiard talents. Went off to join the Navy in 1960 to spend a great 25 year career. Unfortanetly the college took over most of Wells St. Thank god they couldn’t touch the Polish and Russian cemeteries. Everyone seemed to get along. Nothing but fond memories.

    16. Thomas Zurflieh says:

      In 1955 I worked at Fafnir Bearing as a co-op student from MIT. I lived at the YMCA, a very pleasant place, and walked to Fafnir. I crossed the railroad tracks, turned onto a large street, and walked a few blocks to Fafnir. I’m not sure, but it could have been Myrtle Street. After work, I usually had dinner at a little diner run by a pleasant young couple. I think they were of Greek descent, but it could have been some other eastern-European country. I wish I could remember names, those of the couple and of the streets I traveled.

      My boss was Burt Jones, the chief analytical engineer, who had a brilliant mind [or a mind like a steel trap – pick one]. I found it a pleasure to work under Burt and the other staff members at Fafnir. Again, I wish I could supply the names! On the way to my office, I would walk through the spacious manufacturing areas, observing how the large machine tools operated. I greatly enjoyed the time I spent there, and have benefited from the experience throughout my life.

      In the year 2000 I visited New Britain, and was disappointed to find that Fafnir had vanished. Hard to believe – that huge complex, gone! And the town itself had grown and changed so drastically that I could find nothing that I remembered from 1955 except the Y.

    17. Steven Daniels says:

      New Britain, Bridgeport, New Haven, Bristol all were bustling towns. We have made our choices in CT to destroy the robust industries that were once here and to turn these once wonderful and industrious towns into the urban blight they are today.

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