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A Yarn to Follow: The Dover Cotton Factory 1812—1821

Picture this area some 200 years ago. At the turn of the 18th century, factories were unknown. The town of Dover (population ca. 2000) was a trading port with an active riverfront, an agricultural center with dozens of family-owned farms, and a mercantile hub whose shopkeepers dealt in East and West India imported goods.

One of those merchants was a man named John Williams who came to Dover from Alfred, Maine in 1807. His dry goods store, on Main Street just above Dover Landing, had been a profitable enterprise and made Williams a relatively wealthy man for those times, a man with a vision for even greater things. It was John Williams who formed Dover’s first Board of Trade and who, in 1811, began talking at meetings of the "Fish and Potatoe Club" of building a cotton mill.

The "Fish and Potatoe Club", whose members included fellow businessmen William Hale, Andrew Peirce, Joseph Smith, John Wheeler, Robert Rogers, Jeremiah Stickney, Moses Clements, Walter Cooper, Stephen Patten Jr., and Isaac Wendell, met regularly at Dame Lydia Tebbetts’ tavern on Silver Street. With Williams and Wendell as principals and the other eight as investors, the Dover Cotton Factory was incorporated on December 15, 1812 with $50,000 in capital stock. The company’s first organizational meeting took place on January 19, 1813.

There were several advantageous physical conditions in Dover that made the goal of manufacturing cloth seem attainable. The town had water power, humidity in the atmosphere, pure water in the streams for bleaching, millsites in close proximity to the sea, an ample population, and a good transportation system in place. W&W (as Williams and Wendell came to be known) initially sought to purchase land at the First Falls of the Cochecho River (near the present Central Ave. bridge) but owner Daniel Waldron would not sell.

So on April 25, 1814 the Dover Cotton Factory purchased five acres on the north side of the river at Kimballs’ Falls, about 2 miles upriver (3 miles by road) from downtown (near the present-day Liberty Mutual complex). There they built a 3-story wooden building, 100’ X 32’ with a 20’ X 30’ ell and a log dam (called Horn Dam) to control the water flow. Completed in 1815, the small factory commenced manufacturing cotton yarn under the watchful eye of Capt. Moses Paul (John Williams’ nephew) as superintendent. By 1816, with machinery scurrilously imported from England, the Upper Factory began producing cotton cloth. Girls were hired to tend the looms and men were hired as overseers. There were about 175 4’ X 3’ looms in each room of the factory and each girl tended two of them. Working conditions were monotonous but not strenuous and pay was good. About $2.00 a week (minus $1.25 for room and board) for the girls and $3.00-$4.00 a week for the men (minus $1.75). Workdays were long, usually 14 hours per day, six days a week, beginning with the factory bell wake-up at 4:30AM. Breakfast followed at 5AM and work began by 5:30. After a half-hour break for lunch, work sometimes continued until 6:30PM (depending on the time of year and the amount of available light). Supper was at 7PM.

The new factory at Kimball’s Falls generated a great deal of curiosity and speculation, not only in Dover, but all over northern New England. Soon after manufacturing began, the owners had to whitewash the windows of the factory to keep industrial spies from other communities from peering in and stealing trade secrets of the mechanized cloth-making process!

Their success was unparalleled in the region and soon the Dover Cotton Factory employed almost 300 people. Homes and boarding houses were built at the factory site and in 1819, W&W bought 93 more acres of land from William Kimball and construction began on more homes and stores and a schoolhouse (cost $275) for the 30 or so young children residing there. The thriving community that evolved there was named Williamsville in honor of their benevolent founder, the patriarchal John Williams.

Also in 1819, Daniel Waldron went bankrupt, and the land that W&W originally coveted at the First Falls (downtown Dover) suddenly became available. The factory was making a profit, investors were happy, workers were content, and expansion seemed like a good thing. So Williams and Wendell purchased 131 additional acres in downtown Dover. However, local investors had been squeezed dry raising that initial $50,000 investment in DCF stock certificates. W&W had to look elsewhere for money to build additional factories. So from 1819—1822, John Williams and Isaac Wendell traveled often to Boston, ostensibly as iron merchants (they had been manufacturing some nails in the basement of the factory), but their real purpose was to court wealthy Boston investors for their company. They were enormously successful, but unfortunately naive in not realizing the inherent dangers of losing local control of their operations. A Boston man named William Payne became president of the Dover Cotton Factory and it was to him that the bank conveyed the Waldron property on April 23, 1821.

With elaborate Masonic ceremonies, W&W laid the cornerstone for a new mill #2 at the downtown falls on July 4, 1821. They first moved their nail manufactory here to Waldron’s old sawmill and increased their capital stock to $500,000 (10 times their original amount). Almost immediately, they began construction of a second cotton mill. The Upper Factory mill continued to produce cotton cloth, but as operations grew at the First Falls, employees were moved from Williamsville into town. By 1828, most of the homes at the upper village had been physically moved into downtown Dover and Williamsville began to fade away. The first mill was used sparingly until 1848 and it was torn down ca. 1849 to make way for the path of the Cochecho Railroad.

A Bright Future Looms:  
The Dover Manufacturing Co. & The Cocheco Manufacturing Co. 1822--1859

In 1820, the population of Dover was 2870; by 1830 it had almost doubled to 5449. During this decade, the most tumultuous in Dover’s history, huge brick factories changed the downtown skyline and forever altered the economic, social, and religious climate of the town.

Williams & Wendell’s manufacturing operations grew astronomically and more and more factory space was needed. Machining technology improved and more technical and mass-production processes were introduced. More builders, masons, brickmakers, craftsmen and tradesmen were needed to make the economy keep rolling. More shops offering more varied goods and services were demanded by the ever-burgeoning populace, and more people demanded more diversity in their lives, ranging from religious expression to popular entertainment.

In 1822, the Dover Cotton Factory built its first downtown mill, called Mill #2, and modeled after the style of a mill in Waltham, Massachusetts. It was near the current fish ladder at the Central Avenue bridge and was 4 stories in height, 155’ X 43’. It had a wooden platform where gundalows could come up river and unload iron for the nail factory or cotton bales for cloth manufacturing. In its first year, 700 tons of nails were produced at Mill #2 and business was good for about the next four years. Then competition in Fall River made the nail business unprofitable and the company halted nail production in 1828.

Mill #3, the same size as #2 but one story higher, quickly followed in 1823. During that year, the Dover Cotton Factory reorganized in June, renaming itself the Dover Manufacturing Company and attracting more Boston cash to raise its capital to $1 million. Isaac Wendell left the company at that time to pursue a venture with his brothers, a factory in Somersworth called the Great Falls Manufacturing Company. (This factory failed in 1826 and by 1828, Wendell had moved to Pennsylvania.)

John Williams was still in charge of the Dover operations and there are many detailed letters from Williams to company treasurer William Shimmin of Boston describing the complicated progress of building the new factories. About #3 Williams writes, "the building is undoubtedly amply adequate to sustain all the necessary machinery." He assures Shimmin that the rumors he’s heard are "wholly without foundation," …"circulated by an enemy’s camp, collected from some…crooked eyed mechanics." During the middle of the 1820s, construction workers were laying some 60,000 bricks per day to build the mills, with most of the bricks coming from dozens of local brickyards along the Bellamy River.

Mill #4, built in 1825, was an enormous 6-story structure which ran parallel to the river for 167 feet then turned the corner and continued along Washington Street for another 110 feet. It was remarkably unique because an L-shaped mill this massive, coupled with the company’s unique use of skylights in lieu of clerestory windows, had never been attempted in America before. Mill #5 was constructed the same year, adding to the Washington Street complex with an additional 145’ X 45’ structure. Mill #6 completed the mill quadrangle with the erection of a 185’ X 45’ building along Central Avenue. The mill’s offices and vaults were housed on the first floor of #6 while the second floor contained a leather-belting factory.

The cotton factory’s largest concern at this time was workers. There simply weren’t enough people (girls, mostly) in Dover to run all the looms and spindles that the company was installing. Advertisements were placed in area newspapers, calling for "50 smart, capable girls, 12-25 years of age, to whom constant employ and good encouragement will be given." The company recruited farm girls from all over New Hampshire and southern Maine to come and work for good wages at the Dover factories. The factory provided boarding houses for the girls to live in (the 1830 Dover Directory lists 112 boarding house operators, mostly widows) and strict rules of conduct that assured the girls’ families that they would be well taken care of, both physically and morally.

There was a 10PM curfew, no card playing or gambling, no intemperate drinking, no profane or improper language, and each girl had to join a church of her choice. At work, girls were required to give two weeks notice if leaving the job and had to contribute two cents a week to a sick fund (John Williams’ early idea of health insurance!). There was no unnecessary talking allowed in the factory and no "halloo"ing out open windows. Girls had to be punctual and throw no waste in the river. There was no reading on the job and strict rules on fire were observed. On average, girls stayed two to four years, leaving usually to get married.

Whole families were also recruited and hired. The company built dozens of homes: single family, duplexes, and tenement apartments on Henry Law Avenue (then known as Payne Street) and from First (then called Front) to Sixth (then called Brick) Streets. Homes were advertised for rent: "$75 a year, or $90 with a basement." Agent John Williams supervised the whole boarding house community during his tenure and proudly wrote to his Boston bosses that "there has never been a case of bastardy at Dover."

Factory work was considered a very respectable job, the first profession in which a woman could achieve some degree of financial independence. Workers were attracted by the mills’ advantages, not driven there by force of circumstances. Mill work had a great degree of sociability with new friends in a dormitory atmosphere, an opportunity for further education, an honorable way to earn a dowry, and a dignified way to be self-supporting. That’s not to say that conditions were not hazardous. The hours were long and head and eye injuries from flying shuttles were frequent. Light was insufficient and the machinery noise was deafening. And as mill windows were kept closed to promote humidity, stuffy lint-filled air heightened the likelihood of respiratory diseases and lung infections. Still, when girls when home to their farms on vacations, as likely as not they brought friends back with them to join the working class in the cotton mills.

During the mid-1820s, John Williams, as directed by his Boston stockholders, secured the water rights to Nippo Lake and Ayers Pond in Barrington and Bow Lake in Strafford. With control of these bodies of water, their dams, and their flowrate into the Cochecho River, the mill owners could control the amount of water at the First Falls. But fearing that the price for land and water rights around these ponds would skyrocket if the sellers knew it was the Dover Manufacturing Company who was the buyer, the real estate was all purchased by single individuals working as agents for the company. It’s said that the former landowners felt swindled when they found out who had really bought their land and water.

In 1826, convinced that the Dover Manufacturing Company’s next venture should be calico printing, John Williams traveled to England and visited Sir Robert Peel’s factories in Manchester. Williams persuaded five English printers and engravers to immigrate to America to work in his factories. He also purchased and shipped needed machinery to begin the printing process. Englishman Thomas Hough became foreman of block printing and his colleague James Duxbury was general superintendent. Duxbury’s three sons rounded out the group: Caleb was foreman of dyeing and bleaching, Charles headed the color mixing department, and John was chief engraver.

Printing operations were set up in the west end of Mill #5 in the spring of 1827 with 16 machines printing 70,000 yards each week. At this time, the Print Works also owned a large herd of cows on Milk Street. For in order to print rich-textured, clear colors on the cloth, the cylinder-printed fabrics had to be run through a "dung bath" that "set" the colors and produced the desired rich hues and bright shades on the printed material. Over 30,000 bushels of cow manure were needed annually for the "bath"! The milk from the cows was incidental and was sold cheaply or even given away to factory employees.

John Williams was also a member of the New Hampshire Legislature at this time and he sponsored a bill, in 1827, to incorporate a separate company, the Cocheco Manufacturing Company. This act passed on June 27, 1827 and the new company’s owners were the same Boston men who owned part of the Dover Manufacturing Company. Perhaps Williams thought that the printery operations would fall under this new company as they were different from the cloth manufacturing business, but at any rate, he did not question the decision and gladly sponsored the law to incorporate Cocheco (which is actually a misspelling of Cochecho, the correct spelling. When the new company was registered in Concord, a clerk in the Secretary of State’s office wrote it incorrectly and thus, it officially had to be known as the "Cocheco" Manufacturing Company.)

The two companies co-existed for two years. In 1828, William Shimmin offered to buy ¼ of all the shares held by stockholders in the Dover Manufacturing Company (many of whom were still local) at par value, and pay in notes of the Cocheco Manufacturing Company. That year the annual meeting was changed from Dover to Boston and many local stockholders could not make the trip. As the Cocheco Company siphoned more money and more assets from the Dover Manufacturing Company, the latter’s stock became worthless. The DMC went bankrupt and David Sears of Boston (and partner in the Cocheco Manufacturing Company) bought it at auction in 1829 for $1.00 over debts. John Williams conveyed the property to Cocheco on December 2, 1829. He was then fired, for reasons that he "engaged in too much outside speculation and purchase of Down East land and water power." A new agent, James Curtis (of course, from Boston), was appointed to take his place.

Williams leased the old Upper Factory in 1831, calling it the Belknap Manufacturing Company, but he eventually went bankrupt in 1837. In 1842, Williams moved to Boston and died there on July 17, 1843. His obituary noted that he was "a close student of the University of Experience."

Back at the Cocheco Manufacturing Company, things were not going so well either.

New agent James Curtis was a harsh taskmaster, caring little for the well-being of the girls but definitely concerned about bottom line profit. Because currency was scarce, the company opened a factory store at Franklin Square. Workers were paid in scrip which could be redeemed for goods at the company store. Abuses of this system were common as prices were often higher than in regular stores, accounts were falsified, and wage payments could be delayed indefinitely. Hourly pay rates were then lowered from 58 cents a day to 53 cents, while quotas for each worker were raised and loom speeds were increased. Any talking was forbidden, a 12 ½ cent lateness fee was imposed, and joining a "combination" or union was cause for dismissal.

On December 30, 1828 about half of the 800 mill girls walked out of the factory in a "turn-out". They paraded around the mill quadrangle with banners, signs, martial music, artillery, and speeches protesting the harsh working conditions. The Dover Enquirer called the turn-out "one of the most disgusting scenes ever witnessed" and claimed the girls walked out over "some imaginary grievance." Although the job action was unsuccessful and the girls returned to work three days later, no better off than before, this turn-out is very important historically for this was the first strike by women in the United States and it happened here in Dover. There was another turn-out against James Curtis in 1834, also unsuccessful, but Curtis did resign in that year. Dover, in fact, was one of the chief places in New England for "turn-outs" because of the boarding house system where the inflammatory spirit spread through the houses like wildfire. But their strikes were hap- hazard, unorganized affairs: more picturesque demonstrations than effective vehicles for change.

Curtis’s replacement was good news for the company and the workers. Moses Paul, who had been superintendent at the first Williamsville factory, was appointed as the new Agent. Moses Paul was a local boy and his management style was more like that of his uncle, the ousted John Williams. Captain Paul stayed in this job for the next thirty years and the Cocheco Manufacturing Company prospered, staying solvent and productive even through the nationwide Panic of 1837.

In 1840, the mills began to switch from woodfires to coal. From their inception in 1815, only wood had been used in the factories and most of the north side of Third Street served as the huge company woodyard. When the B&M Railroad reached Dover in 1842, the woodyard was abandoned and coal began arriving on trains as well as in schooners. Large coal pockets along the Landing’s riverbanks and near the railroad station were developed. The overshot waterwheels which supplied power to the looms were replaced, by 1850, with turbines. Huge boilers were placed in the west end of #5 mill when the printery department moved to new quarters. A new belfry was built atop #5 to house the new factory bell. (The old one was much smaller and hung in #2.) Also during the 1840s and 50s, most of the machinery in Mills 2—5 was refurbished, repaired, or replaced. Part of old #2 was converted to a machine repair shop and much of the work was done in-house by talented machinists.

The calico printing operations of the Cocheco Manufacturing Company were growing steadily as well. The new technology of cylinder printing was replacing the handcraft of block printing and by adding the new machinery for this innovation, the printery outgrew its location in Mill #5. During the period from 1842-44, the company built a huge new complex in what is now Henry Law Park to house the modern printery called the Cocheco Print Works. Unlike the cloth manufacturing departments where girls comprised 2/3 of the employees, the Print Works employed 400 men and only 40 women due to the physical nature of the work moving the enormous cylinders.

By mid-century, the boarding house system was gradually disappearing, as was the dignity of mill employment. The first wave of immigrants, the Irish, began to arrive in Dover in the late 1840s, and the farm girls who had been attracted to factory work ceased to come anymore. They abandoned the jobs to workers whom they thought had a lower standard of living and who would accept lower wages. As a result, the character of the workers, the complexion of the population, and the standing of the mills in the community all radically changed. Mill owners speeded up machinery once again and added to the number of machines each worker tended. Cheapness was the sole criterion and labor became only a tool, no longer a partner, in the enterprise. Employers were glad of a new source of labor which came when the old was running out. Necessity had forced them to earn the town’s respect in the 1820s in order to attract required workers, but now they were relieved of that moral burden when a new cheaper class of labor which had no standing in the community and no prejudice against mill work arrived in America. During the 1840s through the 1860s, wages rose only 2% yet production per worker was up by 26%. By 1860, 75% of all cotton cloth was produced in New England.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times:
The Cocheco Print Works & Pacific Mills 1860--1937

Zimri Wallingford became Agent of the Cocheco Manufacturing Company in 1860 and served for the next 26 years. His successor, John Holland, ran the company from 1886 to 1895. Wallingford and Holland presided over the greatest period of production and expansion in the mills’ history.

During Wallingford’s tenure, the company built a New #1 mill at the bend in the Cochecho River known as "The Beach." The so-called Clarostat mill, (named for the last company to occupy it fully), is now known as One Washington Center and houses many small companies. The new 5-story mill was started in 1876 and completed in 1878, 400’ X 74’ with a 165’ X 74’ wing. In the early 1880s, the exteriors of the mill buildings in the quadrangle were extensively renovated. The pitched rooflines with skylights were changed to flat roofs, adding more space on the top stories of each mill. Skylights were no longer needed as the mills were now using electric light.

A new #2 was constructed on the site of the old nail factory, several older buildings in the quadrangle were razed, and in 1881, a new #3 opened with a bridge across the river to a new picker building on Main Street. The number of looms increased to 2800 and the number of spindles from 57,000 to ca. 140,000. Employees numbered 1200. A boiler house, 182’ X 65’ and containing 26 boilers, was built at the corner of Washington and Main Streets and two immense chimneys were constructed nearby.

Furthermore, mills #2, #3, and #4 were joined to form one continuous building 732’ long and 74’ wide. This physical connection between the various departments added much to the efficiency of manufacturing operations.

Zimri Wallingford also oversaw operations at the Cocheco Print Works, but the real work there was under the direction of Superintendents John Bracewell (till 1880) and later, Washington Anderton. If business was steady and stable at the cloth manufacturing facilities, it was simply booming at the Print Works. Cocheco Prints became known worldwide for their fine quality and originality of design. The Print Works developed over 10,000 different pattern designs (many of which can be seen today at the Museum of American Textile History in Lowell, MA). The company was known for their ability to "fake" materials: they still worked only with the cotton calico produced across the street but their expertise in fabrication invented imitation wool, imitation seersucker, and satine, a shiny cloth created by heat pressure. The Print Works had machines capable of laying down 12 glorious colors onto a single piece of cloth.

In 1886, when John Holland took over as Agent of the company, the Cocheco name was at the height of its fame. The Print Works was producing over 65 million yards of printed cottons annually and shipping them around the world. The company had over 30 acres of manufacturing space in downtown Dover. The organization boasted that, "In years to come, the company will be gratefully remembered as one which, in the day of their active privilege, labored with that degree of intelligence which lifted not only themselves, but scores of others to place and fame and comfortable circumstances in life, and provided employment and homes for thousands more."

In 1887, a serious fire destroyed several of the Print Works buildings but under Holland’s direction, the company turned the disaster into an opportunity, renovating interiors, adding new color plating tools, and actually expanding their product lines. By now, the boiler house was using 20,000 tons of coal each year in 45 boilers.

Charles H. Fish became Company Agent in 1895 and work in both Cocheco divisions continued stable until about the turn of the century. Southern cotton mills were providing stiff competition for all the New England factories. They could produce cloth much cheaper as they did not have the transportation costs that the northern mills had. The cotton was grown in the South; why not manufacture fabrics at the source and avoid hauling the bales hundreds of miles northward? It became harder and harder to keep longtime clients and contracts when prices were being drastically undercut by the southern factories.

In 1903, the company ventured into another manufacturing operation, the production of velvet. By subtly threatening to built the velvet mill elsewhere in the seacoast, Agent Fish was able to persuade the City of Dover to deed 350’ of river frontage at the east side of the City Farm (near the present day covered walking bridge) for free. Fish also convinced city fathers to exempt the velvet mill (including the land, the machinery, and all raw materials) from all city property taxes for the next ten years. The mill was built the next year, with the company promise to hire "skilled, ‘better class’ employees and to provide a large amount of work for more ordinary laborers" as well. Not much is known about production at the velvet mill as the business never really got a chance to get established.

There followed two terrible calamities at the Cocheco mills that seemingly sealed the fate of the Dover factories. In 1906, another severe fire struck the Print Works and, due to tightened financial circumstances at the time, the facility was unable to recover. Then in 1907, a devastating blaze destroyed New Mill #1. It was January 26 and the temperature was –26 degrees below zero. Three people were killed in the blaze and the entire interior of the building was gutted. The next day, only the ice-covered brick walls were left. The company rebuilt the mill the next year and Mill #1 reopened for business in 1908, but once again the financial repercussions were dire.

In 1909, Pacific Mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts bought the company for $75 a share and the factories became known as the Cocheco Division of Pacific Mills. H. Arthur Newton was appointed as agent. The printery operations were moved to Lawrence in 1913 and the velvet mill and all of the Print Works buildings in Dover’s Henry Law Park were torn down by 1915. Production in the cloth manufacturing mills along Main, Washington, and Central diminished each year. By this time, the majority of the workers (49%) were French-Canadian. The Irish contingent had dropped to just 13% and Greek immigrants made up 10% of the factory population. Another 20% simply listed themselves as American. Eleven other nationalities comprised the remaining 8%. There was a brief upturn during World War I when the company made fabric for military uniforms and blankets (producing 35 million yards of cloth in 1916…far less than the 65 million that were produced annually during the 1880s). Business declined further after the war’s end.

The Depression during the 1930s hurt the company even more and all operations at the Cocheco Division of the Pacific Mils ceased in 1937. In 1940, the city of Dover bought the mills at auction for $54,000. They were the sole bidder for the property. The City leased portions of the buildings to smaller companies during the 40s and 50s and eventually sold portions of the factories to Eastern Air Devices, Miller Shoe, and Clarostat. The buildings fell into serious disrepair and the Cocheco Mils were an eyesore in the city during the 60s and 70s. In 1984, the whole complex was purchased by two men, Tim Pearson and Joseph Sawtelle, who together formed the Dover Mills Partnership. The exteriors of the factories were chemically washed and the interior walls were sandblasted to remove numerous coats of paint and expose the lovely brick walls once more. Attractive new office space was created on several floors of the mills. 895 windows were replaced, new attractive new entrances were constructed, copper flashing was added at the rooflines, and an outdoor courtyard, suitable for concert performances, was built in front of Mill #2 on Central Avenue. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company was the first major tenant. Smaller companies including MBNA, Xylan, Business Express, PC Connection,have also leased space. At New Mill #1 (Clarostat a.k.a. One Washington Center) was also renovated and is  now occupied by numerous small businesses.

It is fitting that we recount here portions of an editorial entitled "The City is United to Keep the Mills" written on November 13, 1941 in Foster’s Daily Democrat:

When the city councils vote unanimously…the plan to keep the Pacific Mills Property by city purchase, it is time someone stood up and cheered. Dover has been a great old city in days gone by. It has traditions which few municipalities can claim. And these are mightier than folks realize.

The history of Dover is one of sacrifice and struggle, but of victory.The great fires which have struck the city have not dampened the enthusiasm of the citizens. Always from the ruins better buildings came into being.

And now that the Pacific Mills are a memory except for the buildings, the citizens do not propose to let any wrecking company walk away with the grand prize. The city of Dover stands ready to bid and get the property for future industrial developments right here.

It may be that this will mean more to us than anything else which has taken place in recent years. It may well be the start of a larger life for the city. When public spirited citizens stand together for a common and noble purpose they are always invincible.

How prophetic and how true! We cannot imagine traveling down Central Avenue and not seeing those colossal brick structures on our left side. The mills created Dover and they should stand forever as its symbol of history, purpose and expectation.

by Cathleen Beaudoin

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