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Dexter’s Demise Not End Of Family’s Saga

Posted on September 12, 2000

Windsor Locks, Connecticut — When Seth Dexter came to Windsor Locks 233 years ago, he set in motion his family legacy of commitment to the town that continues today. Not only did he begin one of the longest runs in American history of a family-run corporation, he and his descendants would touch the very fabric of the town and the state.

Dexter’s Windsor Locks plant, which makes teabags and surgical gowns, was sold to Ahlstrom Paper Group Oy of Finland for $275 million last week. Once its remaining two businesses are sold, which should occur no later than Thursday, Dexter will be no more.

The Windsor Locks plant, Dexter Nonwoven Materials, is expected to continue to operate with its current force of 575 employees. However, the corporate headquarters will close. The headquarters are located on the same spot where Seth Dexter first set up his business.

The end of Dexter, the oldest company traded on the New York Stock Exchange, was caused by a money war of sorts. The corporation sold itself, business by business, to thwart a hostile takeover bid by Samuel J. Heyman, an investor and majority owner of International Specialty Products Inc.

But though the death of the corporation is about money, the legacy of Seth Dexter is about making a difference in the Hartford area.

“Our family has been involved in quiet ways,” said David Linwood Coffin in an interview with the Courant 21 years ago. Coffin retired in 1991 and was the seventh and last Dexter descendant to run the family business.

Among the family contributions is the land used for the Windsor Locks Town Hall, the high school, its playing field and Pace Park. A descendant also deeded the land for the Windsor Locks Congregational Church on Main Street to the church for $1.

In fact, Charles Haskell (C.H.) Dexter, the third generation to run the family business, helped build the church. He was also the town’s first postmaster and played a prominent role during the heyday of the Windsor Locks Canal, which runs from Suffield and ends just south of the Dexter factory. C.H. Dexter was president of the Connecticut River Company, the association that promoted the canal construction.

During the 1800s, C.H. Dexter experimented with making paper from hemp, which eventually led to the corporation’s interest in paper making. Nearly 100 years later, the company discovered the technology to make porous teabag paper. Dexter based its success on this development and also produced the first packaged sheet toilet paper.

A Dexter descendant also had a role in locating what is now Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks. The airport was the inspiration of Dexter D. Coffin, David Coffin’s father, and of Francis Murphy, the former publisher of the Hartford Times and former chairman of the state’s Aeronautics Board. “I was in the same room with them at the old Dexter homestead (converted into a nursing home) when Bradley Field was born,” Coffin said.

Coffin’s father was an aviation enthusiast and became alarmed in 1941 when he heard there were plans to convert Brainard Field in Hartford into a military airport. Fearing that this would leave private and corporate planes with no place to go, Dexter Coffin stepped into action. He leased 260 acres from American Sumatra Tobacco Co. and sought a grant from the Civil Aeronautics Commission to help develop the land.

In the meantime, the War Department decided it liked Dexter Coffin’s idea for the Windsor Locks location. During World War II, Bradley was used as a military airstrip. After the war, Dexter Coffin’s plan was realized.

David Coffin even recalled there was some consideration to name the airport initially after his father, but the name “Coffin” was thought too morbid for an airport and deemed inappropriate. Today, more than 5,000 people work at the airport with an annual payroll of more than $94 million.

Dexter employees have continued to make a difference in the community, said Bill Fitzpatrick, vice president of administration at the Windsor Locks plant. A 44-year veteran of Dexter, Fitzpatrick said the employees have also given back to the Windsor Locks and the Hartford area.

Fitzpatrick and other Dexter employees have served on numerous boards and commissions in Windsor Locks, he said. Other employees serve the community as volunteer firefighters and volunteer emergency medical technicians. Employees at the plant also host a holiday party at the Children’s Place each year, he said. The employees also serve the communities of Granby, Suffield, Windsor and Simsbury, Fitzpatrick said.

“Through the years, Dexter has been a wonderful corporate citizen with numerous philanthropic activities,” he said. “But more important than that are the donations of time by the employees. You need hands to do the work and our employees have been very unselfish with that kind of work.”

“Ahlstrom has a very similar corporate culture,” Fitzpatrick said. “We believe our employees will continue serving the community and expect Ahlstrom to be a fine corporate citizen as well.”

Sources:

  1. Hartford Courant Sunday Magazine, “Empire Based on Tea Bags,” Jan. 14, 1979;
  2. The Connecticut Historical Society;
  3. “The History of the Dexter Corporation” by David Linwood Coffin, 1967;
  4. “The House of Dexter” by Howard Marcus Strong, 1915;
  5. “Historical Sketches” by Jabez H. Hayden, 1900.

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