Brass City/Grass Roots exhibit highlights Waterbury’s agricultural past

Professor Ruth Glasser and her exhibit Brass City/Grass Roots, on display at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center in June and July, 2015

Professor Ruth Glasser and her exhibit Brass City/Grass Roots, on display at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center in June and July, 2015

Now available in the Dodd Research Center corridor is the exhibit Brass City/Grass Roots, which tells the story of Waterbury, Connecticut’s little known agricultural past.

Created by UConn Assistant Professor in Residence Ruth Glasser, who teaches in the Waterbury campus’s Urban and Community Studies Program, the exhibit boards beautifully detail the rich history of farming in Waterbury, with photographs, quotes from interviews of members of farming families, and historical documents.

The exhibit shows that Waterbury, best known as the “Brass City” due to its wide renown as an industrial center, has had far more farms and farmers than may have been previously supposed. As Dr. Glasser writes in the exhibit: “Farming did not disappear when the first factories started. But farmers have had to constantly reinvent themselves as they faced hilly land, rocky soil, mechanization, and competition in an increasingly tough regional, national, and international market.” Presently the city has a wealth of community gardens and greenhouses, and thousands of vegetables are raised for personal use as well as for soup kitchens.

Dr. Glasser began her research for the project in 2013, when she connected with Sue Pronovost, the Executive Director of Brass City Harvest, a non-profit organization that alleviates food deserts in the city and educates city residents about the legacy of farming and the present opportunities for farming in the city. In her efforts to gather sources for the project Dr. Glasser spoke on local radio programs, gave presentations, and conducted interviews. She conducted extensive research into land records in the town clerk’s office, consulted historical maps, and studied photographs from private collections as well as from such cultural heritage institutions as the Mattatuck Museum, the Connecticut Historical Society, and the Silas Bronson Library. She also was able to access the archive of Waterbury’s local newspaper, the Republican-American.

With funding from the Connecticut Humanities Fund, the Connecticut Community Foundation, and the Waterbury Environmental Benefits Fund, and with the assistance of students in her Historical Methods seminar, Dr. Glasser wrote the exhibit script and captions, chose preferred photographs for the boards, and worked with a designer on the look of the exhibit panels. Last summer the exhibit was shown at local farmers markets, and has been available at UConn’s Torrington and Waterbury campuses.

The exhibit will be up in the corridor until July 31.

UConn Professor Ruth Glasser shows her exhibit Brass City/Grass Roots to UConn Libraries staff member Bill Miller, June 2015

UConn Professor Ruth Glasser shows her exhibit Brass City/Grass Roots to UConn Libraries staff member Bill Miller, June 2015

Documentation studies — a wealth of information about Connecticut’s historical properties

There are few sources as rich in information about the state’s historical properties as the Connecticut Historic Preservation Collection (CHPC).  While its architectural surveys for about two-thirds of Connecticut’s 169 towns and over 1800 archaeological surveys are worthy of discussion, the documentation studies will be the focus of attention in today’s blog post.

Former White Tower Restaurant at 123 East Main Street, Waterbury, Connecticut. Photograph taken by Geoffrey Rossano, 2001.

Documentation studies are generated when a federal or state-funded project has to take into account its affects on historical archeaological resources. The studies document the “before” structure or when changes in the structure mitigate adverse effects of changing or destroying the building. If the building is considered irreplaceable or very important historically then the State Historic Preservation Office decides whether or not to allow the project to proceed. 

White Tower Restaurant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ca. 1930 (as the Waterbury restaurant would have looked in its heyday)
Industrial historian Geoffrey Rossano conducted a historical overview and assessment of current conditions of the former White Tower Restaurant, built in 1935, in Waterbury, Connecticut, in August 2001.  The report gives extensive information not only about this particular property in Waterbury, but also shows how the property was significant to the formation of White Tower restaurants (a copycat from the more famous White Castle chain), and to the history of fast-food service in the United States.  The survey tells us about the history of the neighborhood of East Main Street, and how the structure, possibly the last surviving example in the U.S. when the study was done in 2001, was an example of  “the ‘kitschy’ vernacular commercial architecture that has appeared throughout the [20th] century.” 
My fellow librarian Norma Holmquist, who works at the UConn Waterbury campus library, verified for me that the old White Tower building at 123 East Main Street is no longer standing.  Thanks, Norma!  Located on that spot is the Coop bookstore for the UConn Waterbury campus library (that information is courtesy of Janet Swift, another Waterbury campus librarian — thanks, Janet!). 
This documentation study is just one of hundreds in the CHPC, with historical details about many properties that held a special place in their towns and cities across the state.  For more information about the contents of the collection, visit the listing at
Laura Smith, Curator for Business, Railroad and Labor Collection