Originally published in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Weekend Magazine in December 2021 in the “Remember When” column with the title “One Hundred Thanksgivings.”
In November 1921, the Johnson family, formerly of Springfield, Vermont, enjoyed Thanksgiving in their new, cozy, light-filled rooms overlooking Mill Brook in Windsor. They had moved to the not-quite-finished Namco apartments earlier that year of 1921, and in doing so marked their name down in history — or at least in the April 29th edition of the Vermont Journal — as the very first tenants of the then largest residential building in New England.
The Namco block (now Union Square), the majestic red-brick apartment building at the corner of Windsor’s Union and Main Streets, was built in 1920 by the L.A. LaFrance Company of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Originally designed as family housing for the employees of the National Acme Company (Namco), it is an architectural surprise, seemingly out-of-place in a small Vermont village. With its rows of bow windows “undulating… along… [its] extremely long facade,” as a National Register of Historic Places report describes it, is as much an impressive sight now as it surely was a century ago.
At that time, the construction project was not only a visual innovation, but also a concept considered ahead of its time. In a time when only housing single men was the norm, it was “a very interesting experiment in housing,” as one local historian in 1923 said. And a necessary experiment it was too. By 1920 Windsor’s population had soared and it was all thanks to the town’s tool industry.
Windsor-based machinists of the Robbins and Lawrence Machine Company were making Enfield rifles for the government by the 1840s, and a decade later, successor companies were manufacturing sewing machines. In the late 1880s, the Windsor Machine Company set up shop.
By 1909, the Windsor Machine Company was the largest employer in town. After the 1902 invention of the Gridley Single Spindle Automatic Lathe and a four spindle lathe in 1907 — machines that manufacture screws, bolts, and other such metal objects — the company grew steadily. By 1914, the company was fully prepared to fulfill an order for Gridley Automatics that were needed in the production of shells to be used in World War I.
In 1915, the National Acme Manufacturing Company of Cleveland, Ohio, purchased the Windsor Machine Company. Maintaining plants in both Cleveland and Windsor, it was reconsolidated as the National Acme Company. Windsor became a company town with a hospital, a club, a moving-picture theatre, and sports teams all coming to bear the Namco name.
As the demand for spindle lathe machines increased throughout the war, new employees poured into Windsor. The number jumped from 400 to 1,200 between 1914 and 1915. By the end of 1918, it was up to 5,000, a number that included returning soldiers whom Namco had promised to rehire.
And housing was tight. Especially during Vermont’s winters, when automobile and trolley travel was impeded and the factory workers needed to live nearby. So when it got to the point that shift workers were sharing beds in the dormitories set up in old shop buildings, it was clear Namco desperately needed to increase its company housing.
Although additional boarding houses were built, the situation became critical in October 1918 when the Windsor Club Inn, a boarding house and social hub for employees located on the bank of Mill Brook, was damaged by fire. In 1920, the charred building was razed and the site was made ready for Mr. LaFrance’s new residential building.
Upon its completion in 1922, the Namco block boasted 72 apartments, eight in each of the nine identical and attached four-storey buildings. With families now able to live together, Namco attracted workers beyond the town of Windsor, a factor that added to the company’s success.
The year 1922 also happened to mark the height of a postwar rise in coal prices. With heat and endless hot water provided to the apartments by a 65 horse-power steam engine, electric lighting and cooking capabilities, and rents “so low as to fairly astonish a city dweller,” even families who owned houses elsewhere were making their way to the new apartments. Each fall, notices of couples and families moving to “the block” for the winter began to appear in the Vermont Journal. Some families sold up entirely.
As had the Johnson family. And Mrs. Belle Ayers, who in November 1922 opened a kindergarten in one of the apartments. And the Partridge family, the daughter of whom, Miss Ada, gave a surprise 21st birthday party one November for her future husband, Private Orel Hutchins. So many families were settling in just in time to join family and new neighbors around the Thanksgiving table.
Unfortunately, Namco fell victim to the Depression and had to close its doors in 1933. Over the next couple of decades, the company’s apartment building slowly lost tenants and eventually fell into disrepair. But saved from complete decay, it was renovated in 1989, and in 1991 placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2007, it was remodeled into the 58 more spacious and accessible apartments that is Union Square today.
This Thanksgiving, 100 years after the first celebrations within its walls, another generation of residents will do the same. Happy Birthday, Namco block! Long may you continue to stand as a reminder of Windsor’s successful manufacturing past and a testament to the family-focused vision of the executives of Namco and the architectural artistry of Mr. L.A. LaFrance. It is still a marvel to see, a true historical and architectural landmark in the “birthplace of Vermont.”
Images courtesy of Windsor, Vermont Historical Society