Tuesday
Jul162013

New Britain Industrial Museum A Blast From Past

History Of Factories In The Hardware City

By SUSAN DUNNE, sdunne@courant.com

Visitors will be charmed by the array of well-preserved artifacts from New Britain's industrial past at the New Britain Industrial Museum located on West Main Street. The exhibit space is dedicated to the historical importance of the major manufacturing firms in the city, including North & Judd; Stanley; Fafnir Bearing; Landers, Frary & Clark; American Hardware Corp.; Russell & Irwin; Corbin; Raymond Engineering; Traut & Hine; Dyson, New Britain Machine; and Cremo Brewery.

Some of the artifacts are bare-bones household necessities, such as coffee pots, pans, stoves and toasters by Landers, Frary & Clark. Some are elegant, such as the doorknobs by Russell & Irwin and Corbin. Some are cute, like the toy construction set that Stanley manufactured from 1930 to 1936 to keep its workers employed during the Depression.

Some are just weird. "This is a Hartman Sleet Cleaner," said museum Director Karen Hudkins, holding up a little green contraption shaped like a window scraper with a hollow handle. "It was a car window defroster. You'd fill up this little bottle with alcohol, then light a flame to it, and it would clear a little circle on your windshield you could see through."

The woman who donated the sleet cleaner recalled her grandfather using it. The museum is stocked almost exclusively by donations and has been staffed entirely by volunteers for the last 16 years.

"People find things in their attics and donate them. We have people who go to tag sales and flea markets for us," Hudkins said. "Sometimes it is a person who has a family connection to the factories, a family member who worked there, but other times it is people who just had these products in their homes. New Britain products were in homes all over the country."

North & Judd was the first major manufacturer in the city, opening in the early 19th century. Starting with hook-and-eyes and buckles, it evolved to include seat belts and horse hardware such as spurs and bits that were so well-made that Buffalo Bill popped into the factory for a visit whenever his "Wild West" show was performing in Hartford.

"There are probably pictures all over Connecticut of family members with Buffalo Bill," Hudkins said. "People may not realize that those pictures were not taken at the show. They were taken at the [North & Judd] factory."

At the peak of New Britain's manufacturing era, 35,000 people worked in 10 million feet of factory space. It was so well-known as an industrial hub that Look magazine did an article in 1943 to teach factories around the country how New Britain solved the wartime manpower problem, by replacing it with womanpower.

The segment of the exhibit on Fafnir tells how the company's ball bearings were used all over the country, including in the only car ever manufactured in New Britain, the Corbin. Today, another New Britain company, ERA Replica Automobiles, manufactures high-end replicas of classic sports cars.

Fafnir's founders created the company to seize the ball-bearing market from German manufacturers, and helped to do this by giving their company a German name. Fafnir was a character from Norse mythology that appeared as a dragon in Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle."

"Ball bearings are something you don't think about, but they are everywhere," Hudkins said. "They even sold ball bearings to NASA, to use for the space program. So you could say that there is a little bit of New Britain all over the universe."

NEW BRITAIN INDUSTRIAL MUSEUM is located at 59 West Main St. in New Britain. Museum hours are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday 2 to 5 p.m., Wednesday noon to 5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Details: www.nbim.org.

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