Weekend Weathervanes: The Witch in Essex, CT.
Now I know what to do with those photos – “thanks” to Heather Wilkinson Rojo at Nutfield Genealogy; she blogs Weekly Wednesday Weathervanes in New Hampshire. Please check out her page and enjoy the many unusual weathervane photos and often you’ll be entertained with a history lesson. It’s amazing at what you can encounter in your travels – You Just Need To Look Up!
On a recent visit to the CT. Valley Railroad in Essex, Ct. I discovered a witch flying high above on a broom. I questioned out loud, “why a witch?” Never anywhere without my camera, I quickly snapped her picture; but why was there a witch weathervane above this abandoned brick factory? It was months later after googling “witch weathervane in Essex” did I discover the history. Weathervanes have always fascinated me and I’ve often snapped their pictures in my travels – not knowing that somewhere in my future would I be sharing them and their history on a blog.
I hope to discover more around Connecticut to feature here. You have to be quick as many times you pass them before the brain engages to tell you – you missed it!
The original forged-iron witch weathervane that flew high above the brick factory for over one hundred years was stolen in early 2000. They replaced it with a look-alike replica as they couldn’t bear to not look up and see her above their factory – even though it was technically closed. The witch weathervane had been a local landmark in Essex, and I’m told, one of the most photographed landmarks in that area. It certainly caught my eye!
Who knew that the E. E. Dickinson Witch Hazel Co. manufactured witch hazel in this brick and masonry factory in the New England town of Essex, CT? I found it interesting to learn that they held a patent of medicine from only the distilled branches of the Witch Hazel bush. We have the local Native Americans in New England for originally discovering the brewing process.
Edward E. Dickinson Sr. founded this company, but it was first begun by the Rev. Thomas N. Dickinson; before the Reverend became involved, it was actually Dr. Alvin F. Whittemore who saw the potential of Witch Hazel. He opened the first drugstore in Essex where he manufactured and sold it. Their partnership was consolidated but controlled by only one person, the Rev. Thomas N. Dickinson. He worked hard to expand the operations into several mills and distilleries and brought the wholesale opportunity into the business. Within five years the company opened four more facilities besides their original one in Essex. That same year of 1875, the Rev. sold the company to his son, Edward E. Dickinson Sr. and the company became known as the E.E. Dickinson & Co.
Through the years the company went through four generations of Dickinson men – Thomas N., Edward E. Sr., Edward E., Jr. and finally Edward E. Dickinson 3rd. A business built from the discovery of an Indian herbal remedy, produced only from the leaves and bark of the North American Witch-Hazel shrub (Hamamelis Virginiana).
The legend was that after the medicine men collected twigs and boiled them in the cast iron cauldron – they saw ghostly images of a beautiful maiden rise through the steam; they believed it was this maiden that caused the healing. Well they say, actually believing is the start!
Cooking season was always late autumn in their New England distillery. When the locals noticed the trucks rolling into the Witch Hazel Co. piled high with wood twigs and chips, they knew what time of the year it was. Drivers all day brought load after load from the rural areas of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont; thousands of pounds arrived at the Essex distillery. The wood was cooked and distilled by steam in vats and the extract became known as Witch Hazel, a clear, colorless liquid. This specific shrub only grows wild in the woods of the Eastern United States and Canada.
A myth of witchcraft I found interesting is that a forked branch of Witch-hazel can be used to locate underground water. I’ve often heard that’s how people locate water when digging a well, but never heard that the forked branch was of a certain type.
By 1930, they supplied the largest part of all the Witch Hazel used in the country. They were a self-sufficient business, making everything needed, from the barrels which they shipped to barber shops, to the printed labels, and the repairing of all their own equipment. Even the witch weathervane that flew high above their building, they had crafted on-site. What craft people they were!
The E. E. Dickinson & Co. family-owned business survived the Great Depression and both World Wars. But by 1983, it was no longer a thriving commodity and sold to a group of investors. Two years later it was sold again to a German pharmaceutical group, Merz, who still retains ownership. They downsized operations moving everything to N.C. except for the distilling process.
There was always a bottle of Witch Hazel in our house – my mother strongly believes in its purpose of a soothing agent. Even now she liked to wet a facecloth with witch hazel and lay across her eyes. Yes it does work!!!
My discovery of that flying witch on a broom led me to learn about another piece of Connecticut history – I can’t wait to tell my mother about one of her favorite products.
The E. E. Dickinson & Co. historic manufacturing building has now been adapted and restored for re-use in another function. Many of the Witch Hazel artifacts, both inside and out are still featured there but the most well-known item everyone still looks for when riding through – is that witch flying on her broom!
I’ll never look at Witch Hazel in the same eyes again!
I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride…
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