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A Company Town

Most historians point to the surreptitious introduction by Richard Slater of the English loom technology in the early 1800s as the spark that ignites the Industrial Revolution in New England. The United States, first as a colony, then as a possible competitor of Great Britain is unable to share her burgeoning technology. Slater’s model that spreads rapidly from Rhode Island to neighboring states propelled the establishment of fabric and carpet mills. Simsbury of the 1800s moved eagerly to embrace manufacturing and the economic benefits it brought to this rural area.

The former “one small Cotton Factory, three Tin ware Factories, three Wire Factories, two Grain Distilleries, three Gristmills, four Saw Mills, two Carding Machines and two Tanneries” of Simsbury listed in a 1819 Gazetteer are quickly outpaced by construction of new fabric and carpet mills in the Tariffville area. Skilled weavers from England and Scotland immigrate to the region placing increased burdens on housing and schools.

Yet, it is another English technical achievement that has over the past 170 years provided work and community benefits to the town of Simsbury. Prior to the introduction of the safety fuse explosives were detonated using gunpowder filled goose quills and paper which did not allow for a margin of error. In 1831, William Bickford was granted Royal patent No. 6159 for “Safety Fuze for Igniting Gunpowder used in Blasting Rocks, Etc.” Initially the safety fuse which consisted of cotton strands twisted together with a black powder core was used in Cornish tin mines. Soon it traveled to the United States with Richard Bacon who was an authorized agent of the Bickford, Smith & Davey Company.

The tariffs and duties raised the price of the fuse to 50% more than was paid for it in England. Bacon eventually negotiated a partnership with the English firm to bring the process to the United States and to Connecticut where he was involved in copper mining with the Phoenix Mining Company at the Newgate Prison site. Soon a fuse works was built in the East Weatogue section of town. In 1839 the British partners sent a young Cornish bookkeeper to Simsbury to represent their interests. His name was Joseph Toy.

Bacon and Toy endured an uneasy relationship punctuated by mistrust and misunderstanding. After a fire in 1851, Toy was advised by the home office to dissolve the partnership with Bacon and set up his own manufactory – Toy, Bickford & Co. With the help of Jeffrey O. Phelps, Toy purchased the present Simsbury site of the Ensign-Bickford Company that had water power from the Hop Brook. Soon the factory was producing safety fuse for America’s westward expansion by railroad as well as for farmers who often blew up the trees on their property to clear it for agricultural production.

The demand for safety fuse led to increased hiring of both men and women. Often as young as 14, girls worked the fuse making lines and nimbly counter wrapped the textile fuse. In spite of stringent, for the time, safety measures, working with gunpowder always is accompanied by risk. On December 20, 1859 an explosion and fire claimed the lives of 8 young women and injured several other workers when a keg of black powder placed too close to a coal stove exploded. The brownstone shaft monument in the Simsbury Cemetery stands as a reminder of the dangers of the workplace in the pre-Civil War period.

Joseph Toy rebuilt his factory after this tragedy and continued to supply material for the war effort. Yet, it was the Civil War that caused him the greatest pain, the loss of his son, Capt. Joseph Toy Jr. who died of disease at Camp Carollton Louisiana on June 21, 1862. With no son to succeed him, the elder Toy turned to his son-in-law Ralph Hart Ensign for help. In 1867 a California branch was established in Alameda California to meet the need for fuse in the mines. By 1870, the invention of the blasting cap called for a more precise fuse manufacturing process to meet the tolerances required. Joseph Toy met the challenge and controlled all parts of the manufacturing process from raw material to finished product and distribution. After his death in 1887, the firm became known as The Ensign, Bickford & Co.

The town of Simsbury lost much of its Tariffville manufacturing after a disastrous fire in the 1860s. The carpet mills moved further east in Connecticut. The coming of the railroads meant an easier distribution for mill products. Previously, wagons carried materials to Hartford to be loaded on steamboats and then dispersed to the larger markets. The continued operation of Ensign-Bickford in Simsbury meant that for many years fire protection for the town were often provided by the company. E-B supplied the capital and management to start up both the Simsbury Electric Company and the Village Water Company.





Simsbury Historical Society
800 Hopmeadow Street
Simsbury, CT 06070