Finding Brass Valley, a Place in Time that Has Almost Vanished

Housatonic Museum of Art presents Finding Brass Valley, a Place in Time that Has Almost Vanished, a slide talk and book signing by Emery Roth III Wednesday, Feb. 10, from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. in the Events Center located in Beacon Hall on the campus of Housatonic Community College. This event is free and open to the public.

They called the steep valley of Connecticut’s Naugatuck River,“Brass Valley,” because from the time the world began running on steam and bearings, trolleys and soot, the Naugatuck Valley came to be where most of the world’s brass manufacturing happened. Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry (Schiffer Books, 2015) is a book of pictures and stories about how it all happened.

Ansonia Copper & Brass was the last descendent of Anaconda American Brass. It operated in historic buildings on historic properties using equipment, some of which went back to the 19th century. With Wright Brothers era technology they made metal tube for 21st century submarines - until the factory closed for good in December, 2013. The book’s photographs catch the men and equipment in all stages of production and in the nick of time.

The book tells at least three stories. First, is the story of the last working brass mill, the men and the machinery used to cast, extrude, and process the metal. Second are the stories of how Brass Valley came to be, what it was, and how we changed in the process. Finally there is the story told by the pictures of the men and communities that made Brass Valley and the culture we call the American Dream.

The talk is accompanied by vivid photographs of Brass Valley from the book and others taken more recently, while the author shares experiences and discoveries made while photographing, and talks about what it means to try to find Brass Valley, a place in time that has not quite vanished.

There will be a Q&A and book signing after the presentation.

Excerpt from Bill Hosley’s Preface:

This book is an elegy to the century and a half when brass – its products, processes and environmental effects – shaped the economy and identity of a region. Roth weaves poetry, prose and eerily gorgeous photographs into a journey of reverence and reflection. The Hendey Tool Company in Torrington, the Seth Thomas clock factory in Thomaston, and Holmes, Booth & Haydens – a company that cornered the market on the silvered-copper plates used by the first generation of American photographers – “Dageurrean artists” they were called.  

It is tale of ruins and fading glory holding on for another breath. Ruins reek of yearning and remembrance — and so we revisit these places – Torrington, Waterbury, Ansonia, Derby – to see towering cathedrals of industry — their windows shattered and empty shop floors strewn with evidence of abrupt evacuations. The evacuations were rarely abrupt. The region’s industrial core was reduced by a thousand cuts — and one epochal flood in 1955.

Like nothing else that exists in our art or literature, without being pedantic or precisely analytical, this book documents a world we have lost — the machines and inner workings of an iconic industry cluster. Most residents of 21st-century Connecticut will find it hard to believe how much is still standing,  or was recently, because some of these environments have already been demolished or will soon be. Today, Connecticut has perhaps a million square feet of empty factory space.

Roth’s prose is poetic and suggestive. He writes that  “the foundry is a place of Stygian magnificence”, the “air viscous and sooty”, and of clocks  “sold to a growing clientele of the newly-parlored.”

While a sense of loss and decline permeates – it is not all soot, grime and extrusion. Among the most haunting images are the three opera houses built in Derby, Ansonia and Waterbury – Victorian-era emporiums of culture for places suddenly rich enough to afford some. The patrons and patriarchs – the factory lords – their  sense of civic pride and accomplishment left a trail of architecturally-magnificent libraries, churches, opera houses, genteel mansions, and the classical exuberance of the Birmingham National Bank in Derby. These are landmarks – as are the factory floors now mostly in ruins. What haunts most are the opera houses neglected or in ruins, notably Ansonia’s with every imaginable thing to recommend it – but a contemporary patronage base affluent enough to support it. It is hard to look at Roth’s starkly direct portraits and interior details of this building– without pangs of emotion. If these all are, in the end, lost, then Ted Roth has done a tremendous service by capturing the dying embers of a passing age of grandeur.

But all is not lost – not yet. The centerpiece of the book is Roth’s extraordinary access to and capturing of the inner workings of the casting furnaces and extrusion mills of the American Brass Company plants – still operating, barely, in Ansonia and Waterbury. Sparks and steel and liquid copper, pickling tanks, and massive extruders. Archeologists one thousand years from now may not quite resurrect the workings of an industry from these pictures, but almost – pictures so evocative you can almost hear, smell, taste and feel what you see.  

The rest is love. Emery Roth was not born in the Valley. He’s lived close by for 40 years and has packed generations of affection into this remarkable artistic journey.

For directions to Housatonic Community College: