100-Year Biz Club: Highlighting century-old businesses
Updated: Aug 1
This article first appeared as the cover story in the June edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
By Vincenzo Frosolone and Bruce Deckert
Today Magazine has identified five Farmington Valley businesses that are 100 years old or older — if you know of others, email us at newsroom@TodayPublishing.net
Five 100-year staples represent the Farmington Valley’s rich business history. One of these businesses, Harvey & Lewis Opticians, has Valley locations in Canton and Farmington. The other four 100-year businesses are headquartered in Simsbury — Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense, Mitchell Auto Group, Vincent Funeral Home and Welden Hardware. Let’s explore, in chronological order, this quintet of historic businesses:
Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense
• Established — 1836
• Location — Simsbury
When William Bickford patented the safety fuse in 1831, he galvanized the foundation of Bickford, Smith & Davey in Cornwall, England, according to the Simsbury Historical Society. Bickford’s fuse firm exhibited its product in Weatogue in 1837, recalls the Hartford Courant.
The company has undergone various name changes. In 1836 Bacon, Bickford, Eales & Co. was founded in Simsbury. Today, nearly 190 years later, the Denver-based parent company is Ensign-Bickford Industries Inc., while the subsidiary Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense Company (aka EBAD) is located in Simsbury.
In the early 1900s, the Ensign-Bickford Co. entered the industry of military weaponry, also known as ordnance.
By the 1960s, the corporation had launched into the sphere of aerospace, forming its Space Ordnance Division in 1965. Ensign-Bickford contributed to the early NASA programs — Mercury, Gemini and Apollo — according to the EBAD website.
The company’s Space Ordnance Division officially became the Ensign-Bickford Aerospace Company in 1987, the immediate predecessor of the Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense Company.
Today, EBAD produces rocket launch and termination apparatus, satellite release mechanisms, strategic missiles and interception technology, and submarine actuator and release machinery. EBAD also trains soldiers for tactical missions and outfits vehicles with explosive reactive armor.
EBAD has contributed to NASA’s Orion program and the international James Webb Space Telescope project. The global company is situated on Hopmeadow Street — aka Route 10/202 — just north of Brookside Bagels, the celebrated Simsbury eatery.
EBAD president Chad Thompson and Mitchell Auto Group president Mark Mitchell were the keynote speakers at the Business Leaders Breakfast in March, an in-demand annual event sponsored by the Simsbury Chamber of Commerce.
• Established — 1889
• Location — Simsbury
Samuel T. Welden started Welden Hardware in 1889 as the town hardware store, greenhouse and post office, per the store website.
The origin of the business can be traced two years earlier, according to the Simsbury Historical Society, when Charles B. McLean opened a hardware store in 1887. He died two years later, and his brother J.B. McLean managed the store briefly before selling the business to Welden in 1889 — and it remained in the Welden family for many years.
A fire destroyed the original building in 1900, per the historical society, yet Welden rebuilt it. In 1949 D.P. Salvatore took over, followed by Lyman Messenger Jr. and Leland G. Holcomb in the 1950s, according to the Hartford Courant. Pat Rende purchased the store in the 1970s.
In 1988 John Brett began working at Welden Hardware shortly after his ’88 graduation from Gordon College. Later he became general manager, and in 2004 John and his wife Melissa bought the business from Rende.
They value their tight-knit Simsbury and Valley community as well as their store’s history. What started as a basic hardware store has blossomed into a local fixture for automotive, bicycle, cleaning, grilling and plumbing supplies among thousands of other product lines — along with power equipment, grills and other merchandise by many major brands.
Downstairs, Welden Hardware offers the following services:
• Repairing power equipment, window screens, locks, lamps and grills
• Sharpening blades and chainsaws
• Reglazing windows
• Cutting keys
• Mixing paint
The establishment also rents out carpet cleaners, leaf blowers, pressure washers, post-hole diggers, rototillers and many other products. For overstocked items, the Welden website features an online clearance store.
Harvey & Lewis Opticians
• Established — 1890
• Valley Locations — Canton, Farmington
• Other Locations — Hartford: Asylum Street, Hartford: Seymour Street, West Hartford, Kensington, Glastonbury, Enfield
Harvey & Lewis Opticians was started in Hartford in 1890, during a serious recession, by optician Foster Harvey and haberdasher clerk Robert Lewis, according to company president James Lewis.
Robert Lewis’ son took over after his father’s death, per CT Insider. Today, the business offers eight locations and is managed by the Lewis family.
The Canton location is at The Shops at Farmington Valley, an open-air shopping center on Albany Turnpike (aka Route 44/202) that opened in 2004 — as The Shoppes at Farmington Valley — with Kohl’s as the first anchor store. The Canton-based Harvey & Lewis was located in between Cost Cutters and AT&T at The Shops, but moved to a larger retail space in 2021 across from Barnes & Noble.
The Farmington location is at the UConn Health Center.
When the company debuted, patients were referred by other optometrists to fill prescriptions, according to the Hartford Courant.
Today, however, affiliated optometrists use on-location labs to personalize prescriptions. Eyeglass variations include anti-fatigue, aspheric-design, blue-light and digital-progressive lenses.
Harvey & Lewis will customize eyeglass lenses, contact lenses and sunglasses using materials such as high-index, polycarbonate and Trivex plastic.
Lenses are custom-ground at the company’s state-of-the-art lens grinding laboratory in East Hartford.
Vincent Funeral Home
• Established — 1902
• Locations — Simsbury, Canton
Charles Henry Vincent started his funeral-home business 120 years ago, storing equipment in a Simsbury barn on Plank Hill Road along with his horse and carriage, per the Vincent website.
A state senator for the sixth district, Vincent bought a Canton funeral home in 1942 and opened a second location there, on Maple Avenue in the town’s Collinsville section.
In 1950 he purchased the Wilcox mansion on Hopmeadow Street (aka Route 10/202) in downtown Simsbury, where the Vincent headquarters remains today. His sons Charles, Henry and Elmer became licensed funeral directors and joined their father in the family business — along with daughter Catherine, who managed the office as secretary and bookkeeper.
After Charles Henry Vincent died in 1959, the company purchased land in his honor on Albany Turnpike in Canton, built a new structure, and moved the Collinsville location to the brand-new building.
Company president Richard J. Vincent Jr. grew up in Simsbury and graduated from Simsbury High
The Vincent Funeral Home family has fostered their founder’s business plan, furnishing a nondenominational visitation space for the bereaved while personalizing services and celebratory stationery upon request. Videographers will film tributes, disbursing them to families and those who could not attend memorial services. Live music and tailored floral arrangements may adorn services.
The Vincent team helps write and publish obituaries, offering an online memorial journal. Families can opt for a fire truck or a horse-drawn carriage.
The funeral home presents seminars to educate the community about grief. The Farmington Valley Crematory, located in the Canton facility, was founded in 1997 — and it is the only on-site crematory in the Valley, according to the Vincent website.
Company president Richard J. Vincent Jr., a great-grandson of Charles Henry Vincent, grew up in Simsbury and graduated from Simsbury High. He took the leadership reins in 2018. The previous two presidents were Mary O’Keefe Vincent and Richard J. Vincent Sr. — yes, Richard Jr.’s parents. They served the company and the Valley community for a combined 100-plus years, Mary for four-plus decades and Richard Sr. for six-plus.
Richard Jr. is now preparing the fifth generation of the Vincent family to participate in the family business.
Mitchell Auto Group
• Established — 1922
• Valley Locations — Simsbury, Canton
• Other Locations — Hartford, Windsor
Scottish native Robert Pringle rented a Canal Street cow barn in Weatogue as the site for his first business, Pringle Garage, established 100 years ago. Later, the company’s name changed to Weatogue Garage and the operation was housed in a new brick building.
Pringle’s daughter Mary married Walter Mitchell and they took over the business in 1956 upon Robert Pringle’s death, according to the Simsbury Historical Society.
Today, their oldest son Mark is president of the Mitchell Auto Group, headquartered on Hopmeadow Street — aka Route 10/202 — in Simsbury. He served as one of two keynote speakers at the 2022 Business Leaders Breakfast in March, a signature program hosted by the Simsbury Chamber of Commerce.
The other speaker was Chad Thompson, president of the Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense Company, another pivotal Simsbury-based firm.
Walter and Mary’s youngest son, Steven, is Mitchell’s vice president.
Over the years, the Mitchell Auto Group has sold automobiles manufactured by Volvo, Volkswagen, Subaru, Saab, Land Rover, Jeep, Ford, Chrysler and Dodge.
The business has six locations today, dealing in new and used vehicles, in four Connecticut municipalities — Mitchell Volkswagen and Mitchell Volvo Cars in Simsbury, Mitchell Chrysler Dodge and Mitchell Subaru in Canton, Mitchell Selig Ford in Windsor and Land Rover Hartford.
Each of the six locations has a service center and a parts store. With a financing center and rewards program in tow, Mitchell assesses the vehicle market to arrive at accurate sticker prices.
The company performs comprehensive inspections and offers identity theft coverage — and when customers go on vacation, the Mitchell team extends a pre-trip vehicle inspection.
In the early 1900s, the Ensign-Bickford Co. entered the industry of military weaponry … EBAD has contributed to the international James Webb Space Telescope project
Another company with a Farmington Valley connection is celebrating its 100th anniversary. State Farm, with 19,000-plus agents nationwide, was established in Illinois in 1922 and maintains its corporate headquarters in Bloomington, Illinois. Four State Farm agents are based in the Valley:
• Ron Huston • Avon • Route 44/202
• Dave Persa • Canton • Route 44/202
• Josh Zelem • Farmington • Route 10
• Rana Morton • Simsbury • Route 10/202 – north of Vincent Funeral Home
Since State Farm is certainly not a Valley business, this insurance titan doesn’t warrant being included with the five 100-year businesses noted above. However, given these four Valley-based agents, the company merits mention — with an asterisk. +
Today Magazine covers the five core towns of Connecticut’s Farmington Valley — Avon, Canton, Farmington, Granby and Simsbury