The "Potsdam" Worker Houses

The “Potsdam” Worker Houses are privately owned and not open to the public.

Please be respectful of the current residents.


 
In 1851 Samuel was looking to buy land for his firearm company and he selected Hartford’s South Meadows. The land was relatively inexpensive, given that the region was susceptible to periodic flooding by the Connecticut River and Little River (now Hog River) and therefore little development had occurred.

To hold back the periodic flooding, Samuel began building a two-mile dyke in 1854 which was partially completed before the flood of 1854. The dyke was raised another nine feet further protecting Coltsville. French Osier Willow Trees were planted in 1855 to further stabilize the dyke.

Over the next few years, branches from the willow trees were sold to traveling basket makers. But in 1858, Samuel Colt saw the opportunity for a new business adventure in the making of wicker furniture himself. The Colt Willow Ware Factory was one of Samuel Colt's enterprising ideas meant to make use of the resources around him.
 
A factory in the background with people and cattle in the foreground in a grassy area.
The Willow Ware Factory and the Potsdam Village

Image Credit: Connecticut State Library/An engraving done by Nathaniel Orr

 
Initially the business was run out of private houses and the windmill house located by the dyke. In 1859, the factory moved to a building that was later expanded between 1860 -1861 and became the Willow Ware Factory.  Richard William Hart Jarvis, Elizabeth’s brother, was chosen to be the President and Treasurer of this joint stock company valued at 25 thousand dollars.     

The Colt Willow Ware Factory used technology to strip the willow branches of their bark by steaming and running them through rollers. This drastically increased the speed of production and allowed Colt to produce a product at a faction of the cost.   

Colt, wanting to ensure that his wicker work was top quality, looked to hire the best craftsmen who lived in Prussia. To entice the workers to move to Hartford, Colt had the houses built to resemble houses found in Potsdam, Germany; a Swiss Chalet style. The Potsdam Worker Houses were often referred to as the "Potsdam Cottages" or "Swiss Cottages." Frederick Kunkle, one of Samuels trusted aids, traveled across Europe recruiting German workers to work at the Colt Willow Ware Factory and move into the new Potsdam Village. In 1858, the Potsdam Cottages, located on Curcombe Street just outside of Colt Park, were built to house Samuel Colt’s Willow Ware factory employees. 
 
A two story house with red brick exterior brick bottom and white second level.
The Potsdam Cottages in 2020.

Photo Credit: NPS/Nick Caito


The Potsdam Cottages were built of brick and set in a wooden frame, had long overhanging cornices, exaggerated scallops and outdoor staircases leading to the second level. The gabled roof ends, facing the streets, originally had bargeboard moldings cut in spade-shape patterns and three lance-like drops, one on each end and at the roof peak. Each cottage was built to house two families. The Colt Willow Ware Factory area also included several multi-family tenements located near the factory.  
 

To help ease the new immigrants into their life in Hartford and to retain them as workers, Samuel not only provided housing, but he also offered an area for gardening and raising livestock, opened a beer hall, and a vineyard. Workers were encouraged to maintain their traditional lifestyles and ethnic heritage.    

The speed at which the Potsdam Cottages and worker houses were built was reflected in the Hartford Courant
     

“Col. Colt must be in possession of Aladdin’s lamp. He has built a village on the south line of the dyke, so suddenly and quietly that nine-tenths of the town are not aware of its existence.” January 7th, 1861    


For 14 years the Colt Willow Ware factory produced top quality wicker items including baskets, chairs, wagons, and cradles. By 1867, the Colt Willow Ware factory employed over 150 workers and the products were being marketed not only across the United States, but in Cuba and South America as well.  

On December 31st, 1872 a fire started in the factory around 11p.m. Mr. Moran, a worker, saw the fire in the engine room and tried to put it out, but there was too much flammable material and the building went up in flames.       

 
A black and white newspaper clipping of text.
The newspaper article published about the fire.

Photo Credit: The Hartford Courant, January 1st, 1873

“The factory burned like tinder and upon the flames burst out from the roof and windows, lighting up the scene and making the meadows as light as day. The heat became so great that the row of picturesque cottages, occupied by the workmen were endangered and the side and roof of the one nearest the fire were deluged with water.”
The Hartford Courant, January 1, 1873 

With snow and frozen fire hydrants, it was difficult to get water to the factory. By midnight the roof fell in and the walls soon followed. The fire spread to the tenement houses giving the residents little warning to grab a few possessions and leave. The fire lit up the South Meadows and could be seen from a distance.  

Aside from the damage costs of $75,000, of which insurance would only cover $15,000, one man was severely burned trying to remove some of the stock from the burning building. It was decided that the factory would not be rebuilt, ending the entrepreneurial project of Samuel.  
 
Of the ten original cottages, nine remain today. In 1976 they were designated a part of the Colt Industrial District in the National Register of Historic Places and in 2008 they became contributing buildings to the Coltsville Historic District which is a National Historic Landmark. In 2014, the United States Congress authorized creation of the Coltsville National Historical Park which includes the “Potsdam” Worker Houses.   

While all the cottages have undergone various modifications, they serve as a reminder to the immigrant culture that Samuel Colt celebrated.   

Last updated: April 7, 2021

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Mailing Address:

Coltsville National Historical Park
c/o Springfield Armory National Historic Site
One Armory Square, Suite 2

Springfield, MA 01105

Phone:

(860) 500-6078

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