The Fab Four
For every new city, there are stories to tell, and this one is about "the fabulous four." Who are Bristol’s "Fabulous Four"? Well, in order to make Bristol what it is today, there had to be "builders" – industrialists, visionaries, philanthropists, politicians…people who gave their talents to "build" the city, the community. While the list started long, as the Bible says, "Many are called but few are chosen," so that leaves us with the short list – "the fab four" – Bristol’s most significant "builders." Of course, if Rockwell and Page were not featured in "The Battle of the Heavyweights," they would be here and this article would be entitled "The Significant Six." Because their contributions are measured in "The Battle," their exploits will not be highlighted here, so please meet "The Fab Four": John Humphrey Sessions, Miles Lewis Peck, Wallace Barnes, and Chauncey Jerome.
John Humphrey Sessions (1828 -1899 ) was born on March 17, 1828, in Burlington, Connecticut; he moved to Bristol in 1869. A year later, he bought the trunk hardware business that had belonged to his deceased brother, Albert J. Sessions, and also bought out his partner’s interest in the woodturning business. Sessions ran both businesses at the same time – with great success! In his trunk hardware business he produced trunk locks, hinges, and corner clamps; he also produced articles like door stops and furniture knobs, employing over 60 men which made his factory the largest in that business.
Ten years later, Sessions bought the Bristol Foundry Co. on Laurel Street, taking his son, William E., into partnership. Making gray iron castings, in 1895 Sessions Foundry built a more modern plant on 30 acres of land on Farmington Avenue and employed over 400 workers. He was also one of the founders of the Bristol National Bank, becoming its first president. In 1884 in partnership with Charles S. Treadway, he formed the Bristol Water Co.; that same year he was elected as a state representative. Sessions and Treadway then started the Bristol Electric Light Company, which provided generating plants to run trolleys, another business that they eventually bought (The Bristol and Plainville Tramway Company). However, besides the utility service and public transportation that he brought to Bristol, Sessions was more than just a businessman. In 1880 he managed to persuade the parishioners of the Methodist Church to give up their land on West Street (across the street from Bingham School today) and to buy land on Summer Street. On this site they built the Prospect Methodist Church (across the street from the Messier building today). It is reported that the church was built largely at the personal expense of Sessions, while his sons donated the pipe organ, the carpets, and the upholstery.
Miles Lewis Peck (1849 – 1942) is another "fabulous" contributor. He was the supervisor of the city’s sewer system, a director of the Bristol National Bank, the treasurer of the Bristol Savings Bank and its president from 1890 to 1942. During WW I, he helped the city raise over five million dollars in government bonds. In 1929, Miles Lewis Peck turned 80 years old; to celebrate his birthday, he gave a gift of $50,000 to the Girls’ Club for a new building – an amount that he increased to cover cost overruns. Today the Family Center is housed there. Peck’s legacy lives on not only at the Family Center but also at the American Clock and Watch Museum, 100 Maple Street, which occupies his house.
Another member of the "fabulous four" is Wallace Barnes (1827 – 1893). After working with his father at the family drug store, he bought his own grocery store in Bristol, but he didn’t stop there. He became one of the nation’s best known importers and promoters of Jersey cattle; that agricultural interest closely linked him with the Bristol Fair, held from 1864 through 1897; he was president of the fair for the last twenty years of his life. It seems that Barnes always had a flair for entertainment; when he was only 15 years old, he became a member of the Bristol Brass Band. Ever since, he was fond of music and became a significant supporter of good music in Bristol; at his own expense, he placed the first piano in the old Town Hall, promoting concerts there. In 1884 he constructed an "Odeon" building on Main Street, where musicales and similar activities were held until the building caught fire in 1888 and burned down. Subsequently, he held the post of fire commissioner and was responsible for the purchase of two steam-powered fire engines for the town. However, Barnes is best known for manufacturing springs, a business he became involved in only after the hoop skirt market disappeared and he was left with extra coils of wire. Since the Bristol area at the time was a major manufacturer of clocks and clocks needed springs, there was a ready market for the new product line of the Wallace Barnes Company. After taking over the Dunbar Brothers Company, which also made springs, and later merging with the Associated Spring Corporation, the Wallace Barnes Company became Associated Spring-Barnes Group Inc. with its corporate headquarters located at 18 Main Street. Its manufacturing plant sits between Memorial Boulevard and South Street, a reminder of the role Wallace Barnes played in Bristol’s economic development and a reminder of Bristol’s reputation of spring maker.
Last but not least, there is Chauncey Jerome (1793 – 1868), clock maker. When he was fourteen years old, he got a job with Eli Terry, who revolutionized clock manufacturing with his mass production assembly line setup. Jerome quickly learned the clock trade; after several months with Terry, he decided to start making his own clocks and to peddle them house-to-house, which was a standard sales practice for the early days of clock making. In 1821, he moved to Bristol, where he bought 17 acres of land in the south part of town, paying for it with 214 clocks! The next year he built a small shop which made wooden clock cases; as a matter of fact, his circular saw was the first one used in Bristol and, therefore, was quite a curiosity. Using the assembly line setup introduced by Terry, Jerome soon became a leading figure in the clock making industry. In 1824 he formed a company with his brother, Noble, and Elijah Darrow, which dramatically increased its business by opening factories in the south which assembled parts made in Bristol. Then the Panic of 1837 came which practically stopped clock making and every other business in the United States. Now Jerome had to revive his once prosperous business. He soon realized the potential for brass clocks, which would be cheaper to make than wooden clocks and could be sent to Europe without the same bad effects associated with shipping wooden clocks; now he had a new market for his product. In 1843 he built two factories, larger than any others in Bristol, on the south bank of the Pequabuck River and agreed to build a bridge across it, but there was one stipulation; the town had to lay out plans for Main Street. While Jerome’s factories and bridge are gone, Main Street remains.
Whether it was the making of clocks or springs, providing utilities and public transportation, or promoting the arts and civic concerns, the "Fab Four" contributed to the building of Bristol. While there were others, these are the chosen ones. They have made a difference. They have left their mark on the face of Bristol,past and present.
Clouette, Bruce & Roth, Matthew. Bristol, Connecticut: A Bicentennial History 1785-1985. Phoenix Pub. Co. Canaan, NH. 1984.
Peck, Epaphroditus. History of Bristol, Connecticut; 1932.
Winters, H. Jack & Josephson, Beryl P, editors. Builders of Bristol. 1986.