From Foot Baths to Spittoons

Easton HSE Jennings Brothers Japanned ware products

In 1880 the largest single revenue producer in Easton was undoubtedly the Jennings Brothers’ mill just south of the intersection of Staples Road and Valley Road. The gross sales that year exceeded $10,000. The product – papier mâché vessels that were seamless as well as watertight.

Mallett Seeley and his son Bennett lived on a farm on Valley Road in the mid-1800’s. The Aspetuck River flowed through Mallett’s property and was a more than an adequate source of power to run a grist mill. Bennett became the miller in a building that sat at the edge of a 14-foot stone dam that had been constructed just to the south of the Valley Road bridge crossing. By the early 1860’s, the grist mill operated by Bennett had been transformed into a mill that produced straw board . The location was perfect. The old “Great Road” (today’s Black Rock Turnpike) was by then the Fairfield, Weston and Redding Turnpike and Valley Road had become the southern end of the Fairfield County Turnpike. Together, the two toll roads generated enough income to properly maintain the right-of-ways and keep the bridges at the river crossings strong enough to support the weight of wagons transporting goods to and from the ports in Fairfield and Westport to points as far north as Danbury and New Milford. Small mills and factories along the Aspetuck flourished in both Easton and Redding.

It was in 1867 when brothers Augustus and Isaac Jennings of Fairfield came along and purchased Bennett Seeley’s mill. While they continued to manufacture straw boards well into the 1870’s, the brothers’ 1867 patent for producing a seamless papier mâché pail led to the production of an entire range of new products at the mill. Through a process known as Japanning, the paper products were coated with layers of lacquer that made them stronger, waterproof and even attractive as the final coats of paint added color and decorative designs. From foot baths to spittoons, church collection plates to water pails,  pitchers to fruit dishes, the Jennings Brothers’ mill made them all.

In 1880 the mill employed 4 men, 3 women, and 3 children. Lacking copies of the 1890 United States Census we may never know if there were additional employees by the beginning of the final decade of the century, but we do know that by 1893, the two founding brothers of the Jennings’ business had retired and turned the operation over to Issac’s son, Charles. 1893 marked a downturn in the economy, and whether it was that or the abandoning of the Shepaug Railroad Company’s plan to build a rail line between Hawleyville and Westport that would have run alongside the Aspetuck, Charles decided to move the operation closer to his home in Fairfield and the rail lines that could ship the finished product to New York and beyond. The final products produced in Easton were made in 1893 when the mill ceased operations there for good. The company remained in business in Fairfield until 1904 when it ceased operations altogether.

Easton HSE Jennings Brothers mill race

Remains of the mill race of the Jennings Brothers’ business at the corner of Staples & Valley Roads. Photo credit to Stuart Reeve & Kathleen Von Jena.

When the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company purchased all the watershed lands that lined the Aspetuck in the early part of the 20th century, they removed most of the mill pond dams and demolished the remaining old mills. Today, the only physical evidence remaining of the Jennings Brothers’ business are the stones that made up the race that once carried the water to their twin 30-horsepower turbines.

 

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