The Cheney Family

The Cheney Brothers logo, a bull’s head, is indicative of the men that turned a failed venture in sericulture into a silk manufacturing empire capitalized at $25,000,000. A Cheney went from France to England at the time of the Norman Conquest of Britain where, according to family history, he had occasion to use a bull’s head for protection in battle. Thus the lineage of the Cheney family can be traced back to 1066, the Battle of Hastings.

Cheney family coat of arms
Cheney family coat of arms. The motto, Fato Prudentia Major, translates to “Prudence is greater than fate”

In 1635 John Cheney came to America settling near Boston. The earliest Cheneys were farmers. John’s great grandson Benjamin Cheney (1698-1760) trekked from Massachusetts through the wilderness into Connecticut finally settling in Orford Parish, now (South) Manchester. Down the generations, brothers Timothy and Benjamin were clockmakers. The men who founded Cheney Brothers Silk were the sons of George Cheney, son of Timothy (1731-1795).

One thing that can be said about the Cheney Family with certainty, is that it was numerous. George Cheney (1771–1829) and his wife Electa Woodbridge Cheney (1781-1853) had seven sons and one daughter (the 7th generation born in America) and were the parents of the founders Cheney Brothers. The 8th generation added 32 Cheneys. In the 9th generation, there were 23 children in just the two households of brothers Frank W. and Knight Dexter Cheney. By this time Cheney Brothers was established, and the Cheneys had chosen to live in close proximity to the mills. The Family arose with the mill whistle at 7 a.m., the men walked home for lunch, and returned in time for tea. They called the Family “compound” The Place, a 20-acre parklike area of wide lawns and big trees, grouped pretty much according to family descent around Forest Street and Hartford Road in South Manchester.

The great Family Thanksgiving dinner was given in Cheney Hall, the tables arranged in a horse shoe so that all could see. The tradition was to have the youngest sit with the oldest Cheney and the remainder of the cousins, about 150, were seated in proper precedence. Once a member of the Family, a wife was accepted with warmth and tolerance. Gossip was frowned upon; there was little real malice. Doors were never locked. Any member of the Family—adult or child— could and did wander in at any time of the day with the cheerful call, “Anybody home?” If no one was home he/she might sit and read a book or raid the icebox. If the wife was home and it was near mealtime, the caller was asked to stay—with large families there was always plenty of food. No one needed to keep track of the children. They could go anywhere on The Place and visit each other’s homes without invitation. Babies were born at home, weddings were held at home (or sometimes in Cheney Hall). Family groups weekended at an old shingled house on Marlboro Lake, 13 miles from Manchester. They had summer homes in Keene Valley, NY, York, ME, the Connecticut shore and Fisher’s Island, NY.

Funerals were in the deceased’s home with burial in the family cemetery. The women threw flowers into the open grave as the coffin was lowered by the men. Then the men filled it in with shovels even in the most inclement weather. In later years union grave diggers took out all the dirt and put it back in again.

There was remarkable affection and tolerance all members of the family had for each other, though their new England reserve was formidable, and they were not openly demonstrative with hugs and kisses. Their way of life—call it family tradition or discipline—bred an outstanding group of men and women who were individuals in their own right.

Today, the Cheney genealogy extends to the 14th generation, and there are over 1500 names on the family tree.

Some Notable Cheneys

the founding Cheney brothers
The founding brothers. Seven of the eight sons of George Wells and Electa Woodbridge Cheney. Two of them, John and Seth, were not active in the silk firm but were financial participants in the business.

John Cheney (1801-1885), engraver. Examples of his work are in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Charles Cheney (1803-1874) Abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad, Mt. Healthy, OH, Later a founder of Cheney Brothers.

Seth Wells Cheney (1810-1856), artist, a pioneer of crayon work in the United States.

Ward Cheney (1813-1876), a pioneer manufacturer of silk fabrics. The principal founder of Cheney Brothers and was most active in its business management. In 1838 he and his brothers Ralph, Rush and Frank established Cheney Brothers.

Rush Cheney (1815-1882), possessed inventive talent and capability in the application of mechanical principles to manufacturing; and thus contributed a very important element to the building up of the manufacture of silk fabric, in which he was engaged most of his life.

Frank Cheney (1817-?), a natural mechanic, he joined with his brother Rush in the invention and construction of machinery which made the family business successful. Patented the Rixford Roller which revolutionized silk manufacturing.

Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney (1824-1904). Writer, reformer, philanthropist. Champion of political and social justice for African Americans, advocated for religious tolerance and enfranchisement of women.

Mary Cheney (1855-1934) daughter of Cheney Brothers founder Frank and Susan Cushing Cheney. Manchester Philanthropist, namesake of the Mary Cheney Library.

Charles Adams Platt (1861-1933) Son of Mary Elizabeth Cheney and John Henry Platt. Prominent American architect, garden designer, and artist of the “American Renaissance” movement.

Howell Cheney (1870-1957) secretary and director of Cheney Brothers from 1925 to 1935. Director of the National Association of Manufacturers, from 1912 to 1915; director of the National Chamber of Commerce; and President of the Manufacturers Association of Hartford County, from 1922 to 1925. Founder of Howell Cheney Technical High School 1915.

Russell Cheney (1881-1945) Impressionist, post-Impressionist painter.

Sherwood Alfred Cheney (1873 –1949) military engineer who served as a brigadier general in the US Army Corps of Engineers during World War I and as an aide to President Calvin Coolidge.

Alfred Cowles III (1891 –1984)  American economist, businessman and founder of the Cowles Commission. He graduated from Yale in 1913, where he was a member of Skull and Bones.

Dorothy Cheney Goodwin (1914-1997) American educator and politician. She taught at the University of Connecticut and served in the Connecticut House of Representatives and on the Connecticut State Board of Education. inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.

Emily Cheney Neville (1919-1997) award-winning author. It’s Like This, Cat won the Jane Addams Award for significant children’s books and the American Library Association’s Newbery Medal.

Alexander Lambert Blackburn (1929-2021) son of Elizabeth Cheney Bayne Blackburn and William Maxwell Blackburn. Novellist, educator, critic and editor. Received the Frank Waters Award for Excellence in Literature in 2005.

Katherine Cheney Chappell (1942-  ) Artist, poet, businesswoman, cofounder of personal care product manufacturer Tom’s of Maine in 1970 with husband Tom Chappell.

Oliver James Platt (1960- ) Great grandson of Charles Adams Platt. Canadian-born American actor nominated for a Golden Globe Award, a Tony Award, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and four Primetime Emmy Awards

Appreciation from the Town of Manchester

Susan Barlow, Manchester Town Historian and active member of the Manchester Historical Society, gave a tribute to the Cheney Family and its profound influence on the growth of the town via an armchair tour of the Cheney Historic Landmark District and related areas.

header photo: “Grandpa Street, George W. Cheney, George W. Cheney, Jr., & Mimsie”, c. 1925, courtesy CT Historical Society