The place where the village of Hartford is today had few residents and not much of an identity before the 20th century. In 1910, there were just six houses here, and the area had been variously known as Edwardsville Crossing, Oldenburg, South Wood River, and St. Marie. When the post office opened, it settled on the name Hartford for the new community.
Life changed nearly overnight when the International Shoe Company chose the area for a large tannery in 1916. The plant employed about 900 people during the 1930s, processing up to 28,000 tanned hides in a week. The process of turning a raw animal hide into finished leather required 110 different steps over 37 days in the 1930s but it was eventually reduced to a ten-day process. Finished hides were shipped to a different factory where they were assembled into shoes.
Workers got paid about a buck an hour in the early years, but the company kept a motel on campus, so employees could sleep close to work during the week. (And food was pretty cheap. In the 1940s, you could get a burger, a soda, and a Twinkie for 15 cents at Jones’ Café.) Many of the workers lived some distance away, and transportation options at the time weren’t good enough to go back and forth on the same day. The company was also well-known for its mature work force. In 1962, only 45 of its 305 employees were under the age of 45. The tannery closed in 1964.
Like its neighbors, Hartford was home to a refinery. In 1918, the Wood River Refining Company built a plant (not to be confused with that other Wood River Refinery). It has been through a few ownership changes: Sinclair Oil (1949), Clark Oil (1965), Apex Oil (1968), and Premcor Refining Group (1988). The refinery employed nearly 400 people at its peak.
The refinery turned out to be a difficult neighbor. Gasoline and oil leaked from pipelines, contaminating groundwater and land. Both Apex and Premcor reached multi-million-dollar settlements with regulatory agencies to clean up the mess they created. The refinery closed in 2017.