Bethany’s Early Industrial History
by Andrew Sistrand
Many of us think of Bethany as always having been a farming community, but we had an early industrial history as well. The area of Beacon Falls along Main St, on the east side of the Naugatuck River, had been a part of Oxford that was annexed to Bethany in 1839. Around 1836 a man named William DeForest had obtained the privilege of using the water-power on the Naugatuck River at the falls below Beacon Hill. DeForest, who had been the tutor of young Charles Goodyear and later married his sister, was a manufacturer of woolen and cotton textiles, and an investor in Goodyear’s efforts to refine rubber. Whatever his plans were, DeForest was unable to pursue them due to financial distress, and nothing was done at that time.
DeForest was also an investor in the railroad line that would connect Bridgeport with Waterbury, and when the railroad was completed in 1849, the water privilege became much more valuable. A company was formed in 1850 to manufacture products made of hard India rubber using the patented vulcanization process developed by Charles Goodyear of Naugatuck. A dam was constructed below High Rock, and a mill-race dug to the factory site. The tannery of John V. Coe, who manufactured belts, leather laces, and shoes, already occupied the site where the new mill was to be constructed. Coe sold the property to the American Hard Rubber Company and moved his operation to New Haven. Coe later moved back to Bethany and set up on Lebanon Brook.
The buildings for the new company were completed in1853, and manufacturing commenced. William DeForest was involved in this project, along with D.N. Ropes, who was the secretary of the American Hard Rubber Company; G.D. Abbott; and his brother, John S.C. Abbott. The new company was at first called The Beacon Dam Company, due to legal technicalities, but the company petitioned the state to change the name to the American Hard Rubber Company in 1858. The products produced were made of hard India rubber using the patented vulcanization process developed by Charles Goodyear of Naugatuck. Hard rubber was really one of the first kinds of plastic, along with gutta percha. You button collectors out there might have some of those hard rubber buttons in your collections. The plant was run by Goodyear’s brother, Henry, and produced such things as syringes, corkscrews, powder flasks, knife-handles, buttons, combs, canes, dice cups, insulation for telegraph poles and wires, whip sockets, and more. In 1860, the rubber plant moved to Long Island, and later became well-known for its line of Ace hard rubber hair-combs and bowling balls, among other things.
After the rubber plant left Beacon Falls, the leather business of Coe was the only operation in the little village until 1863, when the Home Woolen Company purchased the land, buildings, and property, along with the water power privilege of the American Hard Rubber Company. Home Woollen produced shawls, its main product, for the U.S. Army during the Civil. After the war, shawls for men went out of fashion, in favor of long overcoats, and the company suspended operations in 1876.
Residents of beacon Falls petitioned the State (against the wishes of Bethany) to become an independent town and was incorporated in 1871. Along with the manufacturing district which had been a part of Bethany, the new town also included parts of Humphreysville (Seymour), Oxford, Bethany and Naugatuck. The old mill buildings, a testament to the industrial activity that once animated them, are now apartments. The railroad tracks that were built to carry the products of the Naugatuck Valley still carries passengers between Waterbury and Bridgeport.