The Jillson family played an important role in the industrial development that led to the formation of the borough of Willimantic (1833) in the ancient colonial Connecticut town of Windham. In 1822, Perez O. Richmond (1786-1838) became the first entrepreneur to utilize the fast running water of the Willimantic River to spin cotton thread. He was born into a wealthy Seekonk, Rhode Island family, and trained as a physician. Richmond abandoned medical pursuits, and hired Hosea Ballou to build a cotton mill in Windham, Connecticut. Richmond’s experiment failed, mainly because of the difficulties of obtaining suitable labor. Historian Ellen Larned called him “Poor Old Richmond.” He died in Barrington, Rhode Island. Richmond’s mill builder went on to develop a mill and village in Killingly that bears his name. Ballouville.
The circa 1824 Jillson house, now the home of the Windham Historical Society, is pictured in 1972, shortly before renovations began.
Richmond and Ballou laid the industrial foundations for the Jillson family of Cumberland, Rhode Island, to build upon. Asa Jillson (1783-1848) arrived in Willimantic Falls in 1826, after purchasing Richmond’s mill privileges. Asa’s industrial pedigree was excellent. His father, Luke Jillson (1754-1825), had become the first American-born mechanic to design successful water-driven satinet looms. Upon their father’s death, Asa and his brother Seth Jillson (1796-1876) retooled Richmond’s old mill and built one stone mill, a wooden mill and a stone dwelling house.
The Jillson House is pictured in 1973, with renovations well under way.
In 1845, Asa’s son, “Colonel” William Lawrence Jillson (1807-1861) collaborated with Austin Dunham and J. H. Capen to form the Welles Company, and built a three story mill and accompanying housing on the site of Perez O. Richmond’s 1822 cotton mill. Asa and Seth’s wooden mill was demolished in 1864 when the Willimantic Linen Company built its Mill Number Two. In 1854 their old stone mill became the headquarters of Austin Dunham and Lawson Ives’ Willimantic Linen Company. In 1857, after the erection of Mill Number One, the old Jillson stone mill became the Linen Company’s spool shop, and in 1876 the Welles Company mill became the Linen Company’s Mill Number Three. The 1826 Jillson dwelling house eventually became the home of the Windham Historical Society. It was originally slated for demolition during 1970s redevelopment, but was saved by the Windham Historical Society.
The Jillson’s original mill, built in 1824, is pictured in 1864, when it served as the spool shop for the Willimantic Linen Company. This picture was taken from the roof of Mill Number One and is looking westwards. The Thread City Crossing was built just beyond the mill.
“Colonel” William Lawrence Jillson came to Willimantic in 1826 with his father and started work as a machinist, and benefited greatly from the skills of a local machinist, Ames Burr Palmer (1820-1887). Jillson and Palmer would develop a machine that revolutionized the cotton industry. Jillson became the agent of the firm began by his father and Uncle, the A. & S. Jillson Company, which manufactured the renowned Jillson and Palmer cotton opener, a machine invented and manufactured in Willimantic and employed in cotton mills across the United States. It greatly increased the speed at which the seeds and impurities were removed from raw cotton.
The “Colonel” also controlled three other local textile manufactories in the 1840s and 1850s, The Willimantic Duck Company, the Eagle Warp Company and the Dunham Manufacturing Company. The “Colonel” died in 1861, and his son, William Curtis Jillson (1833-1898) took control of his father’s companies. In 1851, the 18-year-old William Curtis Jillson had entered his father’s mills to “learn the trade,” and in 1865 he organized the Hop River Warp Company in nearby Columbia.
The Jillson brothers collaborated with Austin Dunham to
build this mill before the Civil War. It stood on the site of Perez Richmond’s original cotton mill, and became the Willimantic Linen Company’s Mill Number Three in 1877. It was demolished circa 1926. The mill’s foundations and water power system can still be detected on the banks of the Willimantic River on recreation Park.
William Curtis Jillson, Asa’s grandson, became one of Willimantic’s most prominent citizens. From 1879 until 1892 he represented Willimantic in the Connecticut State Legislature. He was president and vice president of two Willimantic’s banks, and a vice president of the Hartford Life and Annuity Company. He died in the house he had lived in since 1836. It is still standing and is the first house on the left as you take Route 32 South over the Willimantic River. Upon William Curtis Jillson’s death in 1898, the Hop River Warp Company was known as the Excelsior Web and Tape Company, and the treasurer W. C. Jillson’s son, W.H. Jillson. William Curtis Jillson died on January 2, 1898 in the house he had lived in since 1836, thus ending three generations of the Jillson family’s dominance of the local economy and politics. The name lives on in Willimantic, however, in the form of the Jillson House, the headquarters of the Windham Historical Society, and Jillson Square, or the major parcel. This is a centrally located piece of land that came into existence with the demolition of a section of downtown Willimantic between 1972-1976.