Part 7B: Industrial Development: Dams and Mills

John Sinton © January 2015

Rivers aren’t constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.”  — Jeremy Denk

Three signal events mark the period between 1780 and 1800 on the Mill River: First was the establishment of the watershed’s first true manufacturing facility, a wood turning/lathe shop on Paradise Pond, at what was perhaps the site on or below the house of Smith College’s president. Second was Shays’s Rebellion. The third event had the greatest impact on the watershed – the establishment of the first mills in Williamsburg and Leeds as the Lower and Upper Mills declined in importance.

The Mill River’s First Factory

In the early 1780s, near the end of the American Revolution in 1783, young Timothy Jewett, a Thompsonville, Connecticut man born in 1763, established a wood turning business at a site on the Upper Mills, the first manufactury in the Mill River watershed. His business was chiefly the production of spinning wheels, but Charles Dean notes this sign appeared on Jewett’s building:

Linen and Woolen Wheels; Syringes and Clock Wheels;Wooden Cocks, Cheese Presses;Distillings, Screws and Vices;

By Timothy Jewett

How long this factory lasted and the extent to which it required water power we don’t know, nor have we any further knowledge of Timothy Jewett. [i]

Shays’s Rebellion and Paper Mill Village [ii]

Of overwhelming importance right after the Revolution, however, was Shays’s Rebellion, and we shall see shortly what this meant for the Mill River. The story of Shays’s Rebellion is well known. It consisted of a series of actions that included the rebels’ disruption and closing down of the courthouse in Northampton in August 1786, culminating in the rebels’ failed attempt to capture the federal arsenal in Springfield in January 1787. Less well known is that the participants were far from poverty-stricken rabble, but were, in fact, mostly middle-class or well-off farmers who were angry at the Commonwealth, which had refused to address the concerns of farmers in western Massachusetts, such as tight money policies that favored banks, a court system that collected too many fees, and a capital in Boston that was far from the center of the state. After several years of petitioning the government in Boston, many western Massachusetts men were convinced that the Revolution had simply replaced a British oppressor with one in Boston.

Daniel Shays, a Pelham resident, actually had a fine military record. After having fought at Bunker Hill, Lexington, and Saratoga, he resigned from the army as a captain. The Marquis de Lafayette had even given Shays a sword, which Shays later sold, presumably to help pay debts he’d incurred while away from his Pelham farm. He and his cohorts never depicted themselves as rebels or Shaysites, derogatory terms given by the establishment, but rather as “regulators,” who were fighting an oppressive state government.

It turns out that family and town ties were far more important than class distinctions for the supporters of Shays’s Rebellion. For example, such towns as Pelham, Amherst, Whately, and West Springfield contributed from 25% to 70% of their men to the Rebellion, while Northampton, Hadley, South Hadley, and Springfield contributed less than 5% of theirs. Those men with the most to lose in Northampton – mill owners, lawyers, traders, and the families from what remained of the River Gods – had a particular interest in denigrating the rebels and suppressing their uprising.

The voice of Northampton’s establishment rang out from the pages of a new weekly newspaper, The Hampshire Gazette, founded by William Butler in the summer of 1886 to combat the rebels.[iii] In the September 6, 1786 edition, Butler published governor James Bowdoin’s Proclamation to “prosecute and bring to condign [appropriate] punishment the Ringleaders and Abettors of the aforesaid atrocious violation of law [the taking of the Northampton courthouse].” On September 27th, Butler followed up with a classic conspiracy theory: “We are convinced that the present disturbances arise from British emissaries, residing among us, whose very wish is for our overthrow and ruin, or from the machinations of wicked and unprincipled men, who seek their own emoluments, to the destruction of their country; or from a combination of both.”[iv]

What does this have to do with the Mill River? William Butler needed paper on which to print his newspaper, so in 1786 he built a paper factory upstream from the Upper Mills at what became known as Paper Mill Village (now part of Bay State) on the site of what is now the defunct wire factory on Riverside Drive. Butler’s mill principally manufactured writing paper, and he operated his mill until 1817, when he sold it to his brother Daniel, who ran it until 1832, after which it briefly closed, although it had a completely new life in the second half of the 19th century under the Eagle Mills Paper Company.[v]

So, it might be said that, without Shays’s Rebellion, there would have been no Hampshire Gazette and no Paper Mill Village. The remains of the original 18th-century raceway can still be seen in the section of Northampton we now call Bay State.

The Lower Mills

When last we left the Lower Mills (page 15), Daniel Pomeroy and the Kingsley brothers had established their gristmill in 1791. Just prior to that, in 1789, Levi Shepherd built a short-lived factory near the South Street Bridge to make duck cloth on the back side of his home lot, although it is doubtful he used water power. It’s more likely that he had workers weaving linen into canvas cloth, most of which he, apparently, sold to the government. One part of the building was for spinning and another for weaving. He also had a “rope walk,” a long shed where local hemp was twisted into strands of rope. The shop, however, closed at his death in 1805.[vi]

The Lower Mills site had lost its importance as an industrial center for the Mill River by the early 1800s. Machine shops of various sorts continued to operate, but it was something of an industrial backwater by 1850. During the last third of the 19th century the factories along the bank at Clark Avenue used steam, and then electrical energy rather than water power. A small dam, however, lasted into the 20th century.

The Upper Mills

The Upper Mills also declined dramatically in importance during the first half of the 19th century. While it hosted Timothy Jewett’s wood-turning factory for awhile, the site really was relegated to a small gristmill with various ancillary uses. In 1791, for example, William Edwards built a tannery near the gristmill, using the mill to soften hides and extract lime, as well as to roll and harden leather. Then in 1807, Joseph Burnell bought two-thirds of the Upper Mill property and got rid of the tannery, retaining only the grist mill.

The 1831 map of Northampton shows a lead pipe factory on Paradise Pond on the right bank opposite Smith College, but we have no written records of it. And we know that by 1840, David Damon owned the Upper Mills property, which he named Hampshire Mills, with a saw- and gristmill on it. In 1844 it burned, was rebuilt, then damaged in the 1854 and 1859 freshets, rebuilt once more, but finally gave up the ghost when fire destroyed the buildings in 1864.[vii] Within 2 years, however, it was given amazing new life with the construction of the famous Hoe Factory, which we get to in the next chapter.

Before moving upstream, however, we should mention that the paper mill in Paper Mill Village continued its successful operation during the first half of the 19th century, but development of what is now called Bay State Village would only begin in the 1840s.

Life for the mills of the Upper Mills had always been ephemeral. There will be one last saga about the Upper Mills in the last half of the 19th century. Meanwhile, the opening of the first mills in Williamsburg portended a shift in the center of industry from Northampton’s Upper Mills to a series of four superior falls sites upstream – Florence and Leeds in Northampton and Haydenville and Searsville in Williamsburg.

The upstream industrial history remains to be written in detail.

Broughton’s Meadow/Florence

First bridge across the Mill in 1733 or 34.[viii]   Josiah White’s grist/saw/oil mill about 1800, taken over in 1832 by son-in-law Wm. Thompson and continued grist mill (flax seed oil went out of use) and on opposite side of the river, ran a sawmill and machine shop (butcher knives, screwdrivers, shingles, wood turning, e.g. bobbins.) [ix] The coming of the silk mills in the late 1830s. Other textile mills. The Association of Education and Industry and Florence’s abolitionist history.

Leeds, aka Shepherd’s Hollow

1800 Jos. Burnell’s sawmill replaced 1808 by John Cotton’s cotton mill. 1810 James Shepherd’s woolen mills at Shepherd’s Hollow, and within a few years, Shepherd took over Cotton’s mill where he chiefly used merino wool. Mill folded in 1829.[x] Sue Carbin, Heidi Stevens, and Jason Johnson have plenty of material on Leeds.


This section awaits Ralmon Black’s work. Of note: Williamsburg, as a settlement, really begins in Searsville and, shortly thereafter, Haydenville. Williamsburg Center becomes important only in the 1830s. Ralmon and Eric Weber have mapped and documented all the mills and factories. Quite surprising, for example, is the early construction of a town bridge across the West Branch of the Mill at a mill site at Devil’s Den, high up in the watershed near Goshen. What will follow are stories of the Bodmans, Hannums, Haydens, Sears, Geres, and others.



[i] Dean, p. 18. It’s difficult to imagine a factory at that site, which is several hundred yards away for the Upper Mills Dam unless that facility did not require water power. It may, instead, have been built closer to the dam itself, not far from the boat house.

[ii] The following analysis comes from Richards, Leonard L., 2002. Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle. Phila: Univ. of Penn.

[iii] William Butler, only 22 years old, arrived in Northampton in the summer of 1786 after a 3-year apprenticeship as at the print shop of Hudson & Goodwin in Hartford. He published the Gazette until 1815, when he sold it to William Clapp of Boston, who sold it in 1817 to the law firm of Bates & Judd, who hired Thomas Shepard as publisher.   In 1822 Sylvester Judd, of Judd manuscripts fame, bought the paper and ran it until 1835. Source: Historic Northampton

[iv] On the state and national scene, there’s no doubt that Shays’s Rebellion put the fear of God in government officials. Samuel Adams, among other leading Bostonians, demanded harsh punishment for the rebels, insisting they be hung. Furthermore, the Constitutional Convention was then meeting in Philadelphia, and Shays’s Rebellion provided a perfect rationale for the constitutional framers to create a republic that limited the direct representation of the general public, such as the election of senators by state legislatures.

[v] Dean, 20-21. Paper at the time was made from rags and linen (flax), and later, cotton. Wood pulp for paper, invented in the 1840s, was not in general use until the late 19th century.

[vi] Dean, 21.

[vii] Dean, 65-66.

[viii] Sheffield 51-52. “The bridge was lower down than the present Pine street bridge and extended north and south across the river, only a few feet above the dam, which was then a little further up stream.” Bridge rebuilt in 1768 acc. to Judd, quoting Abner Hunt: “This bridge was where the Brush Shop bridge is now, so it is likely that when it was rebuilt in 1768 it was placed farther up stream. Since 1830 there have been three different bridges there, the first was of wood, with sidewalks on each side, and the second was the same as the present one, and was swept away by the Mill River flood.”

[ix] Sheffield, 34 ff. and 53-54. Dean p. 29 on White’s dam: “The dam, in those days, stood about thirty feet above one built later” by the Corticelli Silk Co. White’s mill stood below the original dam site, a little west of the gatehouse at the end of the one used by the silk mills. It was 2 stories and 20’ X 30’.

[x] Dean 32.

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