Friday, May 21, 2010

Cotton Manufacturing at the Lower Factory Established, 1811

The honor of first establishing textile manufacturing in Middleborough must rightly lie with a family that receives very little mention in either of the two published town histories: the Shephard family of Wrentham, Massachusetts, who in 1811 established a cotton manufactory on the Nemasket River at the Lower Factory, later the site of the Star Mill.

Prior to the arrival of the Shepards, the Lower Factory was a relatively bustling industrial area. A dam just upstream from East Main Street had long harnessed the natural drop in the river and powered a grist mill, a carding mill and a fulling mill (which processed woollen cloth). On December 14, 1810, the owner of the grist mill, Jacob Bennett of Middleborough, sold to Captain Benjamin Shephard, Junior; Benjamin Shephard III; and Oliver Shephard, all of Wrentham, the land and water rights at Bennett's Mills "for the purpose of working a Cotton Mill or any other Factory or works." Excepted from the conveyance, however, were the right of the carding mill owners, the "Cloathing Mill" or fulling mill, and Bennett's own grist mill. At the time, the Shephards also purchased other nearby lands.

The Shephards who would prove the driving force behind the early textile-related industrialization of Middleborough, had been instrumental in the development of the textile industry in Southeastern Massachusetts. About 1793, Benjamin Shephard had built a cotton manufactory in an area of South Wrentham (now Plainville) later known as Shephardville. This factory, partially financed through a $300 loan from the Massachusetts General Court which sought to promote the cloth manufacturing industry, was "probably the third [cotton manufactory] to be operated by water power in this country," the historic Slater Mill in Pawtucket having been built only earlier that same year.

A series of embragoes beginning in 1807 and maintained throughout the War of 1812 provided protection from British competition for the nascent American textile industry, and prompted the establishment of cotton mills throughout Rhode Island and Southern Massachusetts during this period.

While it is not readily clear what attracted the Shephards to Middleborough, there was a local connection in that Captain Shephard's daughter, Susanna, was married to Dr. Thomas Nelson of Middleborough, and the couple resided in that section of Middleborough that is now Lakeville until 1801. The Shephards may, therefore, have become acquainted with the industrial potential of the Nemasket River at that time.

Contrary to Weston's History of the Town of Middleboro, the Shepard's cotton manufactory at the Lower Factory was constructed in 1811 prior to the company's 1815 incorporation, built on the site of the old fulling mill, as indicated by deeds from that period. It therefore probably predates Washburn and Peirce's New Market cotton manufactory which was erected on the river at the Upper Factory at what is now Wareham Street sometime about 1812 or 1813.

Though there are no existing views of the Shephard's 1811 mill, the mill building would have been a two to three-story wood-frame building with large windows to illuminate the interior of the carding and spinning rooms and a waterwheel to power the machinery - a typical design for New England cotton mills during that era.

The Shephard family moved to formally establish the Middleboro Manufacturing Company on January 1, 1812, as a firm to manufacture cotton yarn and cloth, with Benjamin Shephard, Jr., Horatio G. Wood; Amos Cobb; and Alanson Witherell, all of Middleborough; Oliver Shephard of Wrentham; Thomas Nelson of Bristol, Rhode Island; and George Bicknell of Philadelphia. The Company assumed the liabilities incurred previously by the Shepards "in Erecting, and establishing a Cotton Maunfactory & other buildings," and took possession of these and the "Machinery, land, water privileges, ways and easements, and also the present manufactured & unmanufactured stock on hand," The Company was divided into thirty-six shares of $500 each, distributed to Benjamin Shephard (ten shares), Oliver Shephard (ten shares), Thomas Nelson (six shares), George Bicknell (six shares), Horatio G. Wood (two shares), Amos Cobb (one share) and Alanson Witherell (one share).

The Middleboro Manufacturing Company continued to purchase nearby land and houses for its needs, some of the land being used as a bleaching green or "whitening yard." The Company was eventually incorporated in 1815 by Benjamin Shephard, Jr.; Thomas Weston; Horatio G. Wood; Nancy Nelson; Sarah W. Shephard; and Alanson Witherall.

The Company's mill was run in accordance with the so-called Rhode Island system of operation whereby local families would be employed as mill operatives, as opposed to unmarried young women. Cotton yarn would be produced at the mill and the weaving, most likely, would have initially be done on hand looms in the workers own homes, and returned to the factory.

Sadly, little is yet known of the history of the Middleboro Manufacturing Company. It seems to have operated for a period before the Shephards eventually relinquished control of the mill to the business partnership of Peter H. Peirce and Horatio G. Wood, which added the manufacture of shovels to the business before yielding, in turn, to the larger Star Mill. The Shephards continued to operate their South Wrentham mill "until the business reverses of 1837, when they were forced into bankruptcy," a sad fate for such an enterprising family.

Replica of a Crompton Spinning Mule (detail), Slater Mill, Pawtucket Rhode Island, photograph by Mike Maddigan, July 24, 2005
Crompton's spinning mule revolutionized textile production and helped lay the foundation of the industrial revolution by permitting the large-scale production of high-quality yarn. Although centered in the Blackstone Valley of Rhode Island and south central Massachusetts and developed following 1793, America's early textile industry soon spread to nearby areas, including Middleborough which had two cotton manufactories in operation by 1813.


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