Five generations of Greens called Killingly home beginning around 1850 with David Greene, who moved there from Rhode Island. In all, five generations of the Greene family lived in Killingly, working in the textile mills (as mule spinners and machinists), in law enforcement, as a mail carrier, and as a bus operator. By the 1950s, as many of the mills began to decline, most of our Greene family moved south to the Mid-Atlantic or west to California in search of better economic opportunities.
Killingly lies in the central-eastern portion of Windham County, Connecticut, which shares its eastern border with Rhode Island and northern border with Massachusetts. It is the second largest town in the county and has historically been associated with large textile mills that dominated New England for a century beginning around 1850. Killingly was first settled by Europeans in 1708 – prior to that, the area was inhabited by various tribes of Native Americans, including Pequots, Mohegans and Narragansetts. The Quinebaug River, which runs along the Western border of Killingly, is named from two Native American terms: “long pond.” Killingly is made up of ten villages, including Dayville, East Killingly, and the borough of Danielson.
Cotton King and Curtaintown USA
For much of its early history through the mid 1800s, Killingly was a small community of largely farmers. From 1800 to 1850, the town had nearly doubled its population to 4,500 thanks to the emergence of New England’s textile industry. The area in the immediate vicinity of Killingly had long been dotted with smaller gristmills (corn and flour mills), and sawmills particularly due to the abundance of rivers enabling the harnessing of water power. However, the construction of larger textile mills propelled Killingly and neighboring towns in northeastern Connecticut into the industrial revolution.
By 1840, according to several sources, Killingly was known as the largest cotton manufacturing town in Connecticut. The mills attracted thousands of workers from New England (Massachusetts and Rhode Island), Europe, and later Canada (including our Despatie family, who came from the Montreal suburbs in the 1890s). The inauguration of the Norwich and Worcester Railroad in 1840 also contributed greatly to this growth, and provided an important link between Connecticut’s port town of New London to north to Boston via Worcester.
As the textile towns in northeastern Connecticut steadily grew, the burgeoning population settled close to the railroad, particularly where the Five Mile River and Quinebaug River meet. In the case of Killingly, this area became the urban heart of the town, in what is today the borough of Danielson. By the late 1800s, bustling Killingly boasted five churches, two hotels, a bank, a music hall, the railroad depot and a High School.
In the 1920s the textile firm Powdrell and Alexander Inc. opened six curtain factories in Killingly, which kept the town’s fortunes high and its population growing for several more decades through the end of World War II. For a time, Killingly was even known by the moniker “Curtaintown USA.” The town’s fortunes began to change in the 1950s and 1960s as, one by one, the mills began closing and moving their operations to the southern United States or overseas.
Today, Killingly has reinvented itself by luring large businesses, including Frito Lay and Staples Inc. to setup their headquarters in the town, and by establishing a transportation hub between New York and Boston. The former business district running along Main Street (parallel to the railroad) is lined by handsome two-story red brick buildings, several well-preserved historical churches, manicured parks, and a few shops and restaurants. One can imagine sidewalks full of people and bustling activity on this corridor during the boom years. Today the area is considerably more sleepy, but nonetheless retains its proud history.