Situated along the Shetucket River in Sprague, Connecticut, lies the remains of what was once the nation’s largest textile mill. At its peak, over 1,000 employees operated 1,750 looms and 70,000 spindles to produce some of the country’s finest cotton. The Baltic Mill (as it became known) not only helped reshape Connecticut’s economic and cultural landscape, but its geographic one as well, giving rise to the founding of an entirely new village. The Baltic Mill did very well until the economic Panic of 1873 set in, decimating the company’s finances. The mill was forced to scale back their operations. Then, in 1877, a fire destroyed the interior of the mill, bringing an end to the complex for decades. At the turn of the 20th century, a businessman from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, named Frederick Sayles purchased the property with an eye toward revitalizing the local textile industry. He founded the Baltic Mills Company and set about making extensive repairs and upgrades to the property, including this c.1890 storage building for materials and finished textiles. Unfortunately for Sayles, the New England textile industry had already begun to decline and it wasn’t long before the company’s depleted finances forced Sayles to sell off much of its assets. The company did survive long enough to produce uniforms, parachutes, and life rafts for soldiers in World War II, but the mill’s operations ultimately came to a halt in 1966. The large 19th century mill would eventually be demolished, but this old Warehouse (a fraction of the size of the mill) is one of the last industrial pieces of the former sprawling complex and is now occupied by local businesses.
Otis Company Mill #3 // 1856
One of the later mill buildings constructed in the mid-19th century for the Otis Company is this brick building which contributes to the rich industrial heritage of the town. Built in at least three stages, this long industrial building probably grew from a middle section dating 1856, expanded in both directions over the next several decades and but was largely completed by 1869. The building was a major manufacturer, supplying thousands of jobs for the town until it closed after WWII. In 1945, the top two stories of this building along with their towers were removed in 1945, which echoes the history of many similar mills all over New England (but hey, at least this one is occupied today!)
Otis Company Mill #1 // 1845
This five-story granite mill building was one of the major catalysts for the 19th century population surge in Ware, Massachusetts. As New England’s fledgling textile industry of the era played a vanguard role in transforming the U.S. into an industrial nation, the significance of this type of mill can hardly be understated. The Otis Mill #1 in Ware is one of the last remaining granite textile mills of this early period in central/western Massachusetts. The mill was built in 1845 for the Otis Company, which initially manufactured woven cotton fabric, but later branched out into stockings, woolen shirts and drawers underwear. The company was Ware’s largest employer for about 100 years! The company prospered thru WWI employing over 2,500 people. During the 1920’s the business began a decline due to the southern state’s mills and lack of modernization. In the mid 30’s the Otis Co sold its property to the citizens of Ware, which they formed Ware Industries, Inc to continue the major employer in the town. Due to this Ware came to be known nation-wide as “The Town That Can’t Be Licked.” The mill is now home to local small businesses as a sort of incubator, providing jobs to local residents!
Colony-Abbott Worsted Mill // 1882
The site along the southern bank of the Souhegan River in East Wilton, NH has been the location of successive mills since 1814. These wooden mills were wiped out by fire, and the land was vacant until 1882, when members of the mill-owning Colony family of Keene, NH bought the site for a new cotton mill. That year they built a three-story brick mill building atop a raised basement level. Colony Bros., the company, began their manufacturing in early 1883. They produced woolen flannel and other woolen goods and employed 70 workers in the factory. The building was powered by steam and water from the adjacent Souhegan River. In 1894, the Colony Bros. mill passed into the hands of Philip Amidon, who formed the Wilton Woolen Company, who produced everything from traditional woolen goods to the finest cashmere. In 1932, the struggling mill was purchased by the Abbotts, owners of two local mills and others in Massachusetts. Abbott Worsted produced a very fine finished cloth, with much of their product going to New York City where it was made into fine men’s suits. The building was later purchased in 1971 by Leonard Peterson, to house his growing company, Label Art. The company has for many years been a nationwide distributor of pressure sensitive labels. Their occupancy likely saved the buildings from the wrecking ball, like so many others did at the time!
Oh, and how cute is the 1885 office for the mill?! The date is found in the brickwork!
Lapham Woolen Mill // 1879
I have gotten a lot of requests recently to feature an old New England mill town, and I wanted to highlight a lesser-known one, so here is Millbury, Massachusetts! This gorgeous mill building was constructed between 1879-1919, impacted by over forty years of growth and design. The Lapham Woolen Mill is the largest and most intact 19th century industrial building in Millbury and sits in the middle of Bramanville, an industrial village in the town, off Singletary Brook, a branch of the Blackstone River. The Lapham Woolen Mill was built on the location of the former Burbank paper mills, which were in operation in Bramanville between 1775-1836. The Lapham Woolen Mill was started in the mid-1870s by Mowry A. Lapham, who oversaw the company’s growth after the Civil War, manufacturing clothing and other woolen goods. After Mowry’s death, the company’s pollution into the brook got the best of them and they disbanded, selling it. The mill was then purchased by Josiah and Edward Mayo, and their business partner Thomas Curtis. The group renamed the existing business the Mayo Woolen Company. The complex was occupied by Steelcraft Inc., a manufacturer of medical supplies, until recently. The building’s future was threatened until 2020, when a proposal to restore the old mill, and add new housing on the site was proposed. Fingers and toes are crossed to see this gorgeous building restored!
Longley Farmhouse // 1819
Backroads in New England are just amazing! When driving through Millbury on my way to visit one of the finest examples of Federal style architecture in the state, I stumbled upon this gorgeous rural Federal style farmhouse, and had to snap a picture! Millbury is best-known as a mill town (hence the name), but you can find dozens of rural farms dispersed between the mill villages in the township. The Blackstone River cuts through the town, and during the Industrial Revolution, it provided much of the water power to the town’s many textile mills and factories. Like many former mill towns, the shifting of the economy away from manufacturing towards the service sector, harmed the economy of Millbury in the 20th century. Many mills were abandoned and demolished, others adaptively reused. Before we get to some industrial history, I wanted to share this charming farmhouse. This home was built for Nymphas Longley upon the time of his 1819 marriage to the love of his life, Nancy Bond. They ran a farm on over 80 acres, with Nymphas also serving as a town selectman, an overseer of the poor, and led recruitment efforts in town at the start of the Civil War. Like many farms, this one saw suburban development take some of the former land, but this home still sits on over 9 acres, not bad for being so close to Worcester!
Collins Axe Company Factory // 1826-1966
The first ready-to-use axes produced in the United States came from the Connecticut-based Collins Company, which was founded in the early 1800s. Prior to the firm’s establishment, consumers either purchased unground axes imported from Europe or looked to a local blacksmith who, along with his other activities, might also make axe heads. The Collins Company factory opened in 1826 by Samuel W. and David C. Collins, with the purchase of an old gristmill and a few acres of land along the Farmington River in Canton. As the company grew, the village of South Canton grew around it, and was later renamed Collinsville after the company (imagine if we had Starbuckstown or Walmartville!) In the 1840s, the company expanded and sold internationally with their machete; it sold more than 150 varieties of machetes in 35 countries, supplying 80% of the world’s machetes at that time. In the 1860s, the company built several dams along the Farmington River to produce hydroelectric power to run its factory. It saw steady growth during World Wars I and II. However, after the Flood of 1955 wiped out the railroad line, the company could not match the foreign competition. Portions of the business were sold to the Stanley Works in New Britain and to other firms. In 1966, the Collins Company closed after 140 years in business. Some of the old buildings along the river have since been demolished, others left vacant. Some have been repurposed into other uses, thankfully.
Draper Corporation Factory Complex // 1892-2021
In 1886, Hopedale, Massachusetts separated from Milford, almost entirely due to the young, and successful Draper Corporation growing in The Dale village of town. When George and Eben Draper succeeded in creating their own town of Hopedale, with their factory at the center, it gave the Draper brothers almost complete control over the development of a 3,547 -acre community. In the ensuing decades the factory village of Hopedale became a “model” company town. The Draper Corporation controlled every aspect of the town and worker life in a paternalistic program that extended beyond social structure to include architecture and urban planning of the village, with the company developing hundreds of homes for workers, a town hall, library, churches, schools, and recreational facilities, generating an entire town centered around the industrial giant. Draper Corporation originally made doors, window sashes and blinds and ran a printing office, but they discovered early on that their most profitable business was making textile machinery. By 1892, with the advent of the Northrop Loom, Draper became the largest producer of textile machinery in the country! Due to their success at the end of the 19th century, much of the complex was built and rebuilt in fire-proof brick factory buildings with large windows to allow light and air into the facilities. Draper’s dominant position within the textile machine manufacturing industry began to erode shortly after World War II, and the company began to sell its company houses to their occupants as private homes in 1956. During the 1960s American textile machinery makers such as Draper lost their technological leadership to foreign manufacturers due to cheap labor, and the general American textile industry collapsed. The plant eventually closed in 1980, and has sat vacant until the bulldozers came this year. The site is undergoing a full demolition, which is striping this town of its historic heart. It is truly sad to see.