Captains of Industry: Textile Mill Owners and Managers
Jamie H. Eves
Windham Textile and History Museum
When William Eliot Barrows became General Manager of the Willimantic Linen Company in Willimantic, Connecticut, in 1877, he determined to make it a showpiece of what historians call industrial paternalism or industrial benevolence, the belief that employers were like parents and employees like children, and that the employers were responsible for the moral and cultural education of their workers. Barrows accordingly built himself a large, ornate mansion on the outskirts of town and surrounded it with the Oaks, a refined neighborhood of quaint Victorian cottages for the Company’s skilled workers. He built a school, a company store, and a library for workers and their families. A few years later his successors added a park for the workers’ recreation. He instituted coffee breaks. He mandated that all of his employees learn to read and write, and established classes to teach those who couldn’t. He built the Company’s magnificent new Mill No. 4 – at the time the largest one-story building in the world – with electric lights and stained glass windows. Yet Barrows’s tenure at the Company was largely a failure. His Board of Directors became upset because he spent large sums of money on what they considered frivolous projects like the Oaks and the Dunham Hall Library. And while the workers might have appreciated the nice homes and coffee breaks, they resented being treated like children. The Board of Directors fired him in 1883.Whether progressive paternalists like Barrows or rapacious robber barons, the owners and managers who founded and ran Connecticut’s textile mills viewed themselves as leaders and innovators who could – and should – use their wealth and vision to shape their era.There were a lot of men – and some women – in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island with capital to invest in new ideas in the early 1800s. The shipping industry (especially the West Indies trade, the China trade, and the slave trade) had given rise to great fortunes that could be invested in high-risk-but-high-ceiling projects like textile mills. The first entrepreneur to invest in Willimantic was Perez Richmond from Rhode Island, who erected a cotton mill there in 1822. He was soon followed by “Deacon” Lee, who built a second mill later that year. In 1825, three Massachusetts men, Asa, William, and Seth Jillson, opened a third mill.
In 1828, three more Rhode Islanders, Mathew Watson, and Nathan and Arunah Tingley, founded another cotton mill, the Windham Manufacturing Company. In 1845, two more Rhode Islanders, Amos and james Smith, bought Lee’s mill, enlarged it, and renamed it the Smithville Manufacturing Company. In 1860, Grant Swift of Mansfield, Connecticut, opened a small silk mill at Willimantic. Four years later, James and Goodrich Holland bought Swift’s mill, tore it down, and replaced it with a much larger operation. Swift moved to another location in town. In 1866, E. B. Summer opened a third silk mill in Willimantic, and in 1870, Hiram and Albert Conant moved their silk mill to Willimantic from Mansfield. By 1880, rows of stone and brick textile mills, small and large, lined the steep, rocky slopes of the Willimantic gorge.
By far the most successful of the Willimantic Textile tycoons was Austin Dunham. In 1845, Dunham, a forty-year-old Hartford, Connecticut, textile merchant who had been born in Mansfield, Connecticut, joined forces with Lawson Ives (a Hartford metal goods manufacturer), William Jillson, and John Capen to purchase Richmond’s mill at the foot of the falls. They replaced it with a larger, three-and-a-half story cotton mill. In 1858, Dunham bought out his partners. By 1870, the mill had two waterwheels and a steam engine for power, employed 110 workers (60 men, 30 women, and 20 children), and produced $200,000 worth of cloth each year – about $3.5 million in today’s money. In 1877, it merged with another, even larger, company that Dunham owned at Willimantic.
Dunham’s second mill was the giant Willimantic Linen Company, which he co-founded with Ives in 1845. At first, the Company manufactured linen cloth, but when the Crimean War cut off its supply of Russian flax, Dunham shifted to producing cotton thread instead. In 1857, the Company, flush with profits, built a large new stone millhouse with 10,000 spindles. When the Civil War loomed, Dunham – having learned a valuable lesson from the earlier Crimean War – decided to stockpile cotton in advance of the fighting. Sure enough, when the war began in 1861, most of the other New England textile mills found themselves without Southern cotton. But Dunham had plenty. He continued operation, producing thread that was the in the Union soldiers’ uniforms. Business boomed. Dunham became rich.
He expanded operations by building an even larger millhouse adjacent to first, with brand new machinery especially designed to produce thread of sufficient quality and uniformity that it could be used in that popular new invention, the sewing machine. When Dunham died in 1877, his Willimantic Linen Company dominated thread production in the United States.
After Dunham, the Willimantic Linen Company was run by professional managers like William Eliot Barrows and Eugene S. Boss. Then, in 1898, mysterious stranger with English accents appeared in Willimantic. They turned out to be agents for the Coats corporation, a British conglomerate that was the world’s largest manufacturer of thread, and which is today known as Coats and Clark. Tired of competition from New England mills like the Willimantic Linen Company, Coats had determined to buy them out. It formed a subsidiary called the American Thread Company – British managed, despite its name – and acquired the Linen Company and several other large New England mills. The new American Thread Company had subsidiaries in Fall River and Holyoke, Massachusetts – and would soon acquire more in North Carolina and Tennessee – but for the next eight decades the mills at Willimantic, with Barrows’s showplace Mill No. 4, would remain its main facility.
Mill owners, managers, and agents were successful businessmen who enjoyed refined, genteel lifestyles. They showed off their high status by living in multi-room hilltop mansions with high ceilings, fancy wallpaper, polished wood floors, fine furnishings, and lace curtains. They dressed in nice clothes, employed servants to care for their homes, and enjoyed the respect and admiration of their neighbors. Powerful and wealthy, they were local leaders – the movers and shakers in the communities where they lived.