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COLT: LEGEND & LEGACY

LEFT TO DIE

THE MARK OF UNCAS

SCHEMITZUN!

USS NAUTILUS

CONNECTICUT

AS WE TELL OUR STORIES

BETWEEN BOSTON & NY

CONNECTICUT  & THE SEA

CRUSADERS & CRIMINALS

EAST OF THE RIVER

FROM HERE TO THERE

THE GREEN

THE NEW PEQUOT

SUBURBIA

FAITHFUL AFFECTION & MEMORY

HOSLEY: In 1863 she begins to emerge in public life as the first President of the Soldiers Aid Society, which is a charitable relief organization. And at the end of 1863, she conceives the first of her memorial campaigns which is the memorial biography of Sam Colt called Armsmear

BLANCHFIELD: She co-wrote sections of that book with Henry Barnard who was a very noted educator that book documented Sam Colt's achievements, their life together. And Armsmear was published privately and to give you an idea of dedicated she was, she had all kinds of bindings produced for this book and some of them went on to win prizes. She didn't just publish a book, she published one of the most beautiful books of the time.

HOSLEY: And this is the point at which Elizabeth begins shaping, crafting and controlling the way her husband will be remembered. And for the next 43 years, she devotes a considerable amount of time to maintaining and shaping, managing his reputation, being sure that he will not be forgotten, building monuments, propagandizing, commissioning articles and books that contribute to his ongoing fame.

NARRATOR: In 1863 Elizabeth commissioned a monumental postmortem portrait of Sam Colt from Charles Loring Elliott, the leading portrait painter of the period.. She was so taken by the results that she commissioned Elliot to paint an equally imposing portrait of her and her beloved son Caldwell.

Then in 1866, Elizabeth commissioned a magnificent monument for the newly purchased Colt family burial plot in Hartfordís new rural cemetery, Cedar Hill, where she, Sam, and their children are now buried.

HOSLEY: And that is a big project that cost the equivalent today of $800,000. It is a tour de force of art and sculpture. I mean, it's big, big, big and it's loaded with visual iconography and power and it's just a really ambitious work of art.

NARRATOR: After losing four children and a husband within five years, Elizabeth had begun to emerge from a year of mourning. Then on February 5th, 1864, with the nation at war, Colt's armory bursts into flame and burns to the ground. It is suspected, but never proved, that Confederate sympathizers torched the building.

HOSLEY: And she stands in her boudoir window and watches his vision go up in flames. And as the flames engulf the onion dome with the rampant colt, the personal symbol of her husband, engulf that in flames and as the roof collapses and the onion dome collapses into the core of this towering inferno, wow. I mean that is just way over the top.

"To think that the magnificent, noble structure is in ruins...it seems so identified with the Col. It seems like burying him again...Elizabeth bears it...with calmness...When the beautiful dome fell she burst into tears"
--Rev. William Jarvis, Elizabeth Coltís father, 1864

BLANCHFIELD: She had the choice of either rebuilding it or taking the insurance money which was about $17 million at that time and which would be a lot more today, and she could have just incorporated that money into her already large inheritance from Sam. She inherited today's equivalent of $200 million.

NARRATOR: Elizabeth would make sure that the Colt legend would survive. She and her board of directors resolved to rebuild the armory, while continuing wartime operations in an unburned wing of the building.

HOSLEY: She does it in the style of the original Colt's armory but she introduces fireproof construction. Instead of brownstone, it becomes brick. Instead of three stories, it becomes four. And itís more decorative, it's got more ornamentation on it. So it is more a work of art, it is a more practical building, it is a bigger building, but for all intents and purposes it is the same. The onion dome goes back on, the horse goes back on, another one remade, and Colt's empire lives again.

SMITH: She picked up the pieces after Sam died and arguably in a way the Colt company became even more successful after Sam's death than it did during his lifetime. Between 1862 and 1890 the Colt company was considered to be one of the most sophisticated manufacturers of firearms in the world and she was the one that was sitting at the helm.

NARRATOR: In 1865 Elizabeth decided to build a picture gallery, a private art gallery that is eventually installed at Armsmear. It becomes the premier art experience in the state of Connecticut and another memorialization of the values that the Colts and fellow Victorians held.

Loringís larger-than-life portraits of Sam and Elizabeth bookend each end of the gallery, staring at each other across this encyclopedia of Victorian art.

Elizabethís picture gallery becomes not only one of the earliest intact fine art collections in the United States but the first believed to have been assembled by a woman patron.

HOSLEY: At the same time she is gearing up to build her masterpiece which is the Church of the Good Shepherd. The Colt Memorial Church built at the north end of Coltsville as a memorial to Sam and the deceased children but also as a parish church, if you will, for the factory workers and as another embellishment of what has now become her empire, Coltsville.

NARRATOR: The church features an elaborate hierarchy of entrances: including the "Armorerís Door," decorated with Coltís Revolvers cut in stone. Gun parts are used as additional ornamentation. The interior of the church is decorated with a series of stained glass windows that memorialize the Colts, including a rendering of Samuel Colt as the Old Testament character of Joseph of Egypt.

HOSLEY: It really is far and away the grandest example of ecclesiastical church architecture in a city filled with churches and sort of eclipses everybody and everything and is big and outsized like the Colts and it's kind of her debut as a public figure. People know she's got the money but this is a pretty audacious thing in its own right.

NARRATOR: After 1869 Elizabeth turned her attention to charitable work and institution building. Good works mixed with good times, as Elizabeth and her only surviving family member, Caldwell spent time traveling together and mixing with American Victorian society.

HOSLEY: Caldwell Hart Colt was the second son of Sam and Elizabeth and he was born in 1858 and he is the sole heir that lived really past the age of 2. So Caldwell is the crown prince of Coltsville. And there was a brief sort of flurry of optimism that young Caldwell was going to like take the reigns of the rampant colt and lead it to greater glories and it just never happened. He was more interested in hunting, fishing, sailing his yacht. He sounds like he was almost the antithesis in some ways of his father. He is eventually lionized in the American yachting community as one of the great yachtsmen of his era. And he, eventually at the age of 35, was sailing in Florida, gets tonsillitis and dies. Lots of things that don't kill us today killed the Victorians. And it's 1894, Elizabeth is now 72 years old. She resolves to build yet another memorial it's the Caldwell Colt Memorial House the parish house of the Church of the Good Shepherd. This building is way off the scales. It is a really big, in-your-face, dramatic statement about this yachtsman who Elizabeth doted on and loved.

NARRATOR: In 1901, after nearly 40 years at the helm of Coltís Armory, and facing a major wave of labor unrest, Elizabeth Colt, now 75 years old, sold the company, ending the Colt-family era.

BLANCHFIELD: She died in 1905 and she left the estate of Armsmear, the grounds, to the city as Colt Park, which it is today. And she left the house, Armsmear, to the Colt Trust, and it still functions today as a home for widows and other female dependents of Episcopal clergy and other qualified gentlewomen.

BLANCHFIELD: She also left $50,000 to the Wadsworth Atheneum to build the Colt Memorial at the Wadsworth Atheneum to house the one-thousand-plus objects that she left to the museum.

EMPIRE LOST

NARRATOR: The story of the Colt company after Colt family ownership continued to be one of innovation in weaponry Ė the Gatling gun , the Colt .45, Browning rifles and machine guns, the M-16 Ė they and other models led to booming sales and huge profits during wartime.

But with increasing competition, employee strikes, and periods of peace, the Colt company in the 20th century was beset with declining sales and failed attempts at diversification.

In 1981, the company vacated its old armory and moved to the suburb of West Hartford, where it struggled to survive through various owners and economic bailouts.

Today, 160 years after Sam Coltís first patent, a diminished and renamed Coltís Manufacturing Company ties its future to the kind of technological innovation that propelled Sam Coltís company to the top of the American industrial pyramid..

NARRATOR: The Colt era transformed both Connecticut and Hartford. Once the regionís leading manufacturing center, today, Hartford is one of Americaís poorest cities, trying to redefine itself in a post-industrial era. The Hartford of the late 20th Century has fewer factory jobs than in Sam Coltís time. Connecticutís long reliance on armaments has made for periods of boom and bust.

NARRATOR: Despite the survival of many prominent buildings, much of Coltís industrial empire is today lost or difficult to see. Sam and Elizabeth Coltís physical legacy has faded in some ways, and been redefined in others..

The once-abandoned armory building is today the centerpiece of an industrial park for small business, residential apartments, and studios for artists and craftsmen.

No longer owned by the company, the worker housing 278-21572survives as "Colt Estates," in one of Hartfordísí most historic residential districts.

Potsdam Villageís beer garden and wicker furniture factory are gone, but the Swiss-style cottages remain, although greatly altered over the years..

In Colt Park, Armsmearís ponds, gardens, greenhouses, and statuary are long-gone, replaced by a city-owned recreation complex.

Among the surviving Colt family buildings in the park are a handsome brick Carriage Barn, the Gothic cottage residence of Coltís English gardener, and a long wooden building Elizabeth Colt used to store ice harvested from the estateís ponds.

At the entrance to the park is Elizabethís last memorial, the Colt Memorial Statue, which she built in 1906 on the site where Sam Colt and their infant children were originally buried. The monument depicts Sam Colt, the "boy genius," and Colonel Colt, the master of Coltsville, together with scenes of Coltís international triumphs.

The Church and its Memorial House remain active in the community, still used for services, public programs, and parish activities..

The Wadsworth Atheneum opened the doors of its Colt Memorial Wing in 1910, eighty years after the revolver king conceived the invention that made him rich. In 1996, the museum mounted its most extensive exhibit yet based on the Colt collection.

Coltís empire has inevitably changed with the passage of time. Coltís lasting legacy, however, remains entwined with one of the critical issues of today Ė the proliferation of guns.

HOSLEY: Sam Colt, for better or for worse, did for pistols what Eli Terry did for clocks - he made it possible for middling folk to own one and suddenly these things become not exactly a household commodity but much more common today. There are, you know, there are almost as many guns as there are people in the United States.

SLOTKIN: I think that Colt is part of the 19th Century culture of the gun which for all kinds of reasons which were perhaps inescapable made gun ownership a critical and really a normal aspect of American life. Couple this with the spread of armaments after the Civil War and what you have as a kind of inheritance passed from the 19th Century to the 20th, is the notion that gun ownership -- widespread gun ownership -- is normal and not to be questioned as a normal aspect of American life.

 


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Last modified: September 03, 2012