In the mid to late 1800s the part of Connecticut referred to as the Queen of the Valley had risen to become the largest manufacturer of ivory in the world. Pratt, Read and Co. was set up in Deep River with their main competitor Comstock, Cheney & Co. in full swing just a few short miles away in the town called Ivoryton. As the middle class continued to flourish in the United States so did their appetite for ivory.
Ulysses Pratt had created a unique system of “bleaching” piano keys by leaving them under the New England sun. This made them pristinely white, unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. He soon filed the first US patent on a bleaching house, which was nothing more than a greenhouse, filled with thin wafers of yellowish, bone-colored ivory laid out to bleach white in the sun (2).
In 1867, just two short years after the end of the Civil War, a Boston Piano Manufacturer named Chickering Piano and their largest competitor, Steinway, both won gold medals at the Paris Exposition (World’s Fair) with piano keys as white as snow, supplied by none other than Pratt, Read and Co. Overnight, the two became the world’s top piano makers and were conveniently located within miles of the ivory manufacturers. Orders for pristine white piano keys shot through the roof. If ivory combs had made them thousands piano keys were about to make them millions.
Soon the countryside was filled with acres upon acres of bleach houses as far as the eye could see. A single ivory tusk could make enough keys to fit 45 pianos and yet there still wasn’t enough ivory to accommodate all of the orders (2). The white American hunting firm in Africa, Arnold, Hines & Co., was killing elephants by the thousands and still they could not keep up with demand. The slave brokers were raiding more villages in Zanzibar (modern-day Tanzania) to meet the supply the Slave Trains now required to carry all of the tusks from the elephants they were killing to the coast. Any slaves who lived long enough to make it that far were sold to the ships waiting underneath the red flag that signified the main slave market. They too, were shipped out to America making double the profits for the ivory traders. The Industrial Revolution was still well underway on the East Coast of the United States.
But there was an inner conflict arising in George Read, who besides being a founding partner of the ivory manufacturer Pratt, Read & Co. was also a local Deacon and founder of the Deep River Baptist Church. He was an outspoken abolitionist against slavery in the United States. He proved just how deeply he felt about the issue when a runaway slave showed up on his doorstep by the name of Daniel Fisher.
Daniel had escaped from a plantation in South Carolina where he had recently been sold. The rest of his family remained slaves on a farm in Virginia where he had been born. After nearly being captured several times along his journey North he finally found protection in a Quaker community in Philadelphia, which directed him to safety.
Not only did George Read take the escaped 20 year-old slave into his home, he helped more than 10 members of Daniel’s family escape from their Virginian plantation using a large network of safe homes and contacts. Many of Deep River’s townspeople were in on “the secret” and there were escaped slaves holed up in houses all across the valley. Whenever an outsider would visit Deep River the black residents would hide and none of the white ones let their precious secret out; even though ‘slave catchers’ were willing to pay large sums of money for any escaped slaves. George Read insisted that Daniel Fisher change his name to Billy Winters and wear a wig in an effort to throw the slave catchers off his trail when they came looking for him, which they did for years (1).
Billy Winters and many of his family members settled into their own homes along Main Street in Deep River. The street would later be renamed Winter Avenue, (as it stands today) after its most famous inhabitant. Billy went on to become a successful farmer and a permanent resident of Deep River and George Read’s church. The two remained close friends until the day they died. So close in fact that their families are buried next to one another in a Deep River cemetery called Fountain Hill (1).
Though exactly what George Read knew of the vast numbers of slaves being captured in Zanzibar decades after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, no one really knows. There is no record of him ever visiting Africa but many wonder how it could even have been possible that he didn’t know at least something of the atrocities his company was creating. After all, thirty years after the Civil War and slavery was made illegal in the United States the two companies (Pratt, Read and Comstock, Cheney) were still profiting enormously from it.
A Nigerian Professor recounted that, “Traders did not want to let go of a lucrative system that had worked for so long and the priority of the West was to maintain the flow of ivory,” which in so many ways still rings true to this day.
Or maybe George Read had the knowledge but didn’t feel that he could do anything to stop the monster he had helped to create. Whichever it was one thing was clear: The cloak of consciousness was whispering down on the Deep River Valley. Whatever wrongs they had directly or inadvertently participated in, the fact that the town of Deep River is named as one of the many historical stops along the infamous Underground Railroad suggests conflict within a community questioning their role of morality.
However, George Cheney, Read’s main competitor, lived in Zanzibar for over 10 years and raised at least two of his children there. He lived not far from the blood-red flag that floated high above the major slave market with deep ties to ivory. It was his wife’s uncles after all, (who formed the elephant hunting firm Arnold, Hines & Co.) who were supplying the majority of the ivory in Africa to the West. And they were most certainly creators of the numerous Slave Trains required in order to get it delivered to the coast. There is no doubt that, though squeamish about the prospect, George Cheney knew exactly what was taking place. He didn’t have the heart to punish the slaves under his own care using his own hand. When he felt discipline was in order he had someone else do it and, as detailed by his wife in a letter home, was “sick about it for days afterward.”
Whichever way you feel about the dark history of Deep River the foundation of the Queen of the Valley was built upon the backs of slaves and the tusks of elephants. The last shipment of ivory was delivered to Deep River in 1950 when by this time, there was no such thing as a Big Tusker anywhere near Zanzibar (3). The numbers of elephants had plummeted so low that entire ecosystems had begun to collapse. The first laws protecting elephants began to emerge with Britain leading the charge. With the days of playing the piano in sitting rooms long past and the price for ivory driven high with scarcity the demand had also fallen.
Pratt, Read and Co. closed its doors in Deep River as a piano manufacturer for the last time in the late 1980s. Today the big brick factory that takes up an entire city block has been transformed into a large, fashionable condo complex called Piano Works in which a single condominium with a gorgeous view of the Connecticut River can be sold for as much as $250,000.
Though the company Pratt, Read and Co. still exists, it was bought out by the great, great grandson of their chief competitor, Samuel Comstock who now specializes in the first product Samuel Comstock ever sold…screw drivers.
The Deep River Museum situated not far from the red, brick building is dedicated to the town’s dark and riveting history. It stands as a place for the ancestors of the valley to come to terms with the fact that they have had a profound and devastating impact on not just Africa’s dwindling population of elephants but on the hundreds of thousands of black slaves who never made it as far as the Underground Railroad.
I am reminded of my contribution to this dark part of history as I look at an inherited piano with its ivory-bleached keys on display in a family home. And I am drawn to a quote of one of my favorite poets and the descendant of so many slaves before her,
“We did then what we knew how to do. When we knew better – we did better.” – Dr. Maya Angelou, poet and author of an all-time classic, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
To read more about this riveting part of American history check out the articles below:
(1) Hileman, M. (2000, December 25). A Former’s Slaves Odyssey. The Day Newspaper, pp. A1, A5.
(2) Shayt, D. H. (1993). Elephant under Glass: The Piano Key Bleach House of Deep River, Connecticut. The Journal for the Society of Industrial Archaeology, 37-59.
(3) Walker, J. (2010). Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants. Grove/Atlantic.