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How Yantic got its name and came together as a village

It was the meeting and marrying of Elizabeth Dorr Tracy of Norwich in 1829 that brought retired sea captain Erastus Williams, a widower and Essex native, to town – where they settled (on Broadway) and had children.

Erastus also purchased “West Farm,” a Northern parcel of Norwich land, which he renamed “Yantic,” an Indian name meaning “Little River,” according to Patricia F. Staley’s book, “Norwich in the Gilded Age – The Rose City’s Millionaires’ Triangle.”

Erastus transformed and expanded a cotton mill on the property into the Yantic Woolen Mill and created a village with millhouses for his workers, a store and the Grace Episcopal Church’s first building, raising the town’s population to at least 200 people, Yantic Fire Department Chief Bill Eyberse estimates.

The bell, which topped the mill, informed its inhabitants of the beginning and end of the work day. Later, the same bell informed the public when there was a fire either inside and outside of the village, using different ringing speeds and tones.

This same bell, which is now part of a memorial that can be viewed on the right side of the Yantic firehouse, was donated by Hale Manufacturing Company, a former mill owner.

In 1847, realizing “the mill would be destroyed if it ever caught fire,” Erastus “petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly to charter a village fire company, which became Yantic Fire Engine Company No. 1,” now one of the oldest, continuously operating volunteer fire companies in the state, according to Staley’s book.

Initially, the fire company consisted of a shed in the mill yard and a used hand-pumper “engine,” according to the 1847-1972 Yantic Fire Engine Co. No. 1’s 125th Anniversary Souvenir Book. In the beginning, it served most of Norwich and surrounding towns, as well as the mill and village. The book states the hand pumper’s first-recorded fire took place on Jan. 28, 1852, at William Mayberry’s house in Bean Hill.

“The house was destroyed before the company could get there but they did good work in saving other buildings.”

Moving forward

In 1858, Erastus built a two-story structure on Chapel Hill Road to house the engine. Its upper-level hall featured a recreation room, which served as “the center for all the social affairs of the village” for the next 50 years.

On May 26, 1864, while E. Winslow Williams leased the mill from his father, the mill “burned to the ground,” according to a 150th anniversary book about the Yantic Fire Engine Co. A new building was constructed out of stone and operation started again on April 16, 1866. “Captain Williams subsequently gave his son full title to the mill,” according to the book.

After his father died, E. Winslow built the current two-story, Tudor-gothic style firehouse in 1907 – made of the same stone as the mill. He would go on to build the Rockclyffe mansion in Yantic, which has since been razed.

Luring a president

It was E. Winslow’s son, Winslow Tracy Williams, who took over the Yantic Woolen Mill when he died, continued to support the fire company, and replaced the old wooden bridge to Sunnyside East and West with a granite one. Soon afterwards, he enticed President William H. Taft to visit Yantic.

To ensure that the Yantic firehouse would continue, the fire company purchased the building in December 1962 for $12,000 when the Rubenstein family, who owned the mill and the firehouse, decided to liquidate their holdings.

Since then, the firehouse has purchased additional lots and added parking space. It also acquired a 5-acre recreational field, which Eyberse said is open to the public for fishing, walking their dogs and social events such as birthday parties, weddings and scouting activities. (Permission is needed for more than 50 people.)

“We try to give back to the community other than our emergency responses,” Eberse said.

The firehouse was also expanded between 1983 and 1985 with stucco and English Tudor accents to blend in with the rest of its design. Today, the firehouse has 58 members, two of whom are females.

Currently, Yantic Fire Engine Company No. 1 services a 9-square-mile area, the largest in the district, which includes Norwichtown, Norwich Business Park, Wawecus Hill, the Route 2/32 connector and Interstate 395. On a yearly basis, they respond to close to 700 calls, involving everything from flooded basements to emergency calls, accidents and hazardous material incidents. That’s up from a handful in 1850 and 48 calls in 1957, Yantic Volunteer Firefighter and former Fire Chief Ron Stolz said.

They also teach fire prevention to young children at schools and daycares, who sometimes become members years later, Assistant Fire Chief Paul O’Connell said.

Surrounded by photographs, original hats, water buckets and other artifacts that they continue to collect, Eyberse said the firefighters become family.

“There’s a lot of pride here, a lot of history here,” he said.

A piano in the firehouse meeting hall is also part of their history – a reminder of when dances were held on the upper level, Eyberse said. Afterwards, people could walk back to their millhouses. He pointed out that bylaws from the 1800s stated that during these social events neither drinking nor talking about politics or religion was permitted.

Asked why they got involved with the fire department initially, Eyberse said, “It’s a calling. It does take someone special to help someone who’s in need, someone they don’t know. It takes someone special to get out of bed at 2 or 3 in the morning when it’s 15 degrees outside and stand in snow up to your knees at a car accident. It takes a special person and that’s true for any emergency responder, whether it’s a career volunteer, cop.”

Stolz said, “It’s in your blood.”

“I just got involved and I’m loving every of minute it,” O’Connell said.

“Yeah, once the bug bites, that’s it,” said Eyberse, 60, who was fire chief 20 years ago and resumed the role again in April when Frank Blanchard retired. He added that the firehouse has been a second home to him since his father and uncles would bring him when he was 3 years old.

O’Connell said the firehouse is very appreciative of the public’s support during fundraisers, as well as the fire company’s Women’s Auxiliary, which annually donates money to them as well as specific gifts, such as the “Jaws of Life” equipment and the firefighters’ brass pole in the building’s new addition.

Currently, Yantic Fire Engine Co. No. 1 is in the process of restoring its 1891 Silsby Steamer.

As Yantic continues to maintain its sense of history with its granite buildings, Tudor-designed firehouse/church and newly-refurbished stone bridge, it awaits its next chapter. The mill’s current owner, Mill Development CT, LLC of Woodside, N.Y., plans to transform the mill at 140 Yantic Road into a 146-room hotel – which could once again awaken the sleepy village to its former hubbub of activity.

Jan Tormay of Westerly lived for two decades in Norwich.

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