History Close to Home � the Cheney Homestead
by Susan Barlow, Manchester Historical Society

For students of history, it doesn't get much better than Connecticut, even if we don't have grand canyons � as historian and author Bill Hosley says. "History (like politics) is local�.Every chapter of the American experience left a trail of evidence here and it is all so close and accessible. It's an outstanding basis for community and citizenship."

One concrete example of local history is Manchester's own house museum � the Cheney Homestead � which opened to the public in 1969. The Cheney family donated the Homestead, located at 106 Hartford Road, and its 5.5 acres of lawn and trees to the Manchester Historical Society for educational purposes, so visitors can learn first-hand about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century life and, in particular, the Cheneys, who made a substantial impact on our town.

The Homestead is a memorable part of the tours conducted each spring for Manchester's schoolchildren � we know it's memorable, because adults who return often mention their experience as third-graders visiting the house, and hearing about the Cheney brothers, their parents and relatives, and the great silk industry. The Homestead is open on the second Sunday of each month from 1 to 4 p.m., when the knowledgeable tenant conducts tours for visitors. The Historical Society conducts Open House at the Homestead on Heritage Day in June and again in early December, the school tours, a special October walk, and other events throughout the year. See the Upcoming Events page on this web site for more information about Historical Society events.

Homestead Built in 1785

It was Timothy Cheney (1731-1795) a captain in the militia during the Revolution, who built the Homestead, about 1785, previously residing in a wooden farmhouse on what is today East Center Street, near the tennis courts of the high school. The house was demolished in the 1960s. Timothy Cheney was one of America's first clock makers, as well as a farmer and miller. His clock factory was located in what is today Center Springs Park. (The Cheney family donated the 55 acres for Center Springs Park to the Town of Manchester, but the clock factory is long gone.) Timothy had married Mary Olcott (c.1736-1786) daughter of Nathaniel Olcott and Hannah Pitkin, familiar names in the Manchester and East Hartford area. They had six children, and four survived to adulthood.

The Homestead was innovative for its time � a Cape Cod-style "bank house," that is, built into the bank of a small hill. This earth-sheltered design provided direct access to both the lower and upper stories, and may have helped with heating and cooling. The house is simple, although the best rooms have interesting features, such as raised paneling. A large fireplace in the "keeping room" is still handsome, although hasn't been used for cooking in many years. The Homestead overlooked Hop Brook, which provided water power for a sawmill and gristmill. The broad valley nearby had good land for farming, and the surrounding hills provided timber and stone for building. Construction of I-384 changed the landscape dramatically, but the 5.5 acres directly surrounding the house help us imagine what the area would have looked like 225 years ago.

Timothy's Son George (1771-1829) and Grandsons

In his will, Timothy left the Homestead to his son George, who farmed and operated the small mills. "George Cheney was a man of strong, original, and noble character, in whose traits may be found the germs of those qualities which have given his sons success in life," per George's daughter-in-law Ednah D. Cheney in an 1881 memoir. "He was slight in stature, of a quick, nervous temperament; and he possessed an active, inquiring mind, and very high moral qualities�. Although opposed to the popular views of religion, he was highly respected in the town, where his judgment was generally deferred to. He was a justice of the peace, and �Squire Cheney' settled the quarrels of the neighborhood.... He was very simple in dress, even objecting to shiny boots and hats, or to a bow on �mother's Sunday bonnet.'"

In 1798, George married Electa Woodbridge (1781-1853), from the east side of Manchester, in today's Manchester Green area. George and Electra had nine children � eight sons and a daughter � all born at the Homestead. Their first son, George Wells Cheney (1799-1840), was active in local politics. John and Seth Wells Cheney were accomplished artists, who traveled extensively and made considerable money in portrait work. Their daughter, Electa, "married well" as the saying goes, and moved to Boston. Charles, Ralph, Ward, Rush, and Frank worked together to form the Cheney Brothers silk business, which became internationally famous.

Early on, the Cheney brothers got caught up in the craze for raising silkworms and the mulberry trees on which they fed. In 1838 they built a wooden mill on Hop Brook close to the Homestead for spinning silk thread. They weathered difficult times, including the collapse of the mulberry-tree boom. Their artist brothers, John (image at right) and Seth, contributed their own money to finance the business. In 1855 they incorporated as the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company. Their business acumen and inventiveness, particularly Frank Cheney's mechanical aptitude, resulted in rapid expansion and prosperity for them and their employees. Many people came to the United States to work in the Cheney mills and live in the employee housing that Cheney Brothers rented or sold to them.

The company founders and their sons and grandsons built magnificent homes along Hartford Road, surrounding the green space they called "The Place," now referred to as the "Great Lawn," but they never gentrified the Homestead. The Homestead keeps the unostentatious look it had when originally built, with rather low ceilings, wide-board floors and plaster and paneled walls. Rooms were added over the years, including a small first-floor bedroom for Electa in her later years, a third-floor artist's studio, and a small bedroom on the upper level, set up as a nursery or playroom today. Remodeling has included a twentieth-century kitchen and bathrooms, which provide convenience for the on-site caretaker.

The Homestead

Cheney family members owned and lived in the house from 1785 until 1965. John Cheney, the artist, never married and stayed with his mother, Electa, at the Homestead until she died (1853), and then continued to live a frugal life there amid art and fine furniture. He tended the gardens, and spent many hours in the studio that he and Seth had built on the grounds. John died in 1885.

Other family members occupied the house until Frank Woodbridge Cheney's twin daughters, Marjory and Dorothy, known in the family as Peg and Doll, moved there in the 1920s and continued to live there until 1965. These remarkable women both served in hospitals in France during World War I, and Peg served in the legislature. Antoinette Cheney Crocker, in her 1977 memoir "Great Oaks," says, "I felt their house [the Homestead] and its comforts, the acme of culture, coziness and warmth. To have tea in their company, one could discuss Spanish culture, family history, art, literature, and experiences during World War I. They, while seldom leaving the Homestead, were completely knowledgeable of contemporary affairs and all the news one could get of my first cousins, then far scattered over the country or abroad." Dorothy's memoir of the Cheney family and the silk business is available on this website Descent of the Founders of the Cheney Silk Industry.

Over the years, the modest Homestead remained central to Cheney family life, with visits to Peg and Doll, weddings, funerals, and Thanksgiving Day pageants. It still hosts an occasional family memorial service, when a member of the Cheney family passes away and is buried in the Cheney Cemetery, adjacent to the East Cemetery in Manchester.

In October 1968 the Cheney family deeded the house and grounds to the Historical Society, with the provision that it be opened to the public as a museum to preserve the Cheney family legacy. One of the wonders of the Homestead is that visitors can, within walking distance, see a large part of a National Historic Landmark District, with mills, offices, machine shop, schools, and entertainment hall.

Susan Barlow is a Director Emerita of the Manchester Historical Society and its volunteer webmaster.