Manufacturing History of Thompson, Connecticut

Thompson’s manufacturing interests are of much value and importance, having been the main factor in its continued prosperity and good standing. The opening of Mr. Smith Wilkinson’s cotton spinning factory in 1807, near the southwest corner of Thompson, excited much interest, giving employment to many women and children, and furnishing a nearer market for farm produce. Mr. John Mason, at the extreme south of the town (oldest son of the former merchant, who had then removed to Providence), was the first to propose a similar enterprise in Thompson, and selected the site of the present Grosvenor Dale as the scene “of experiment. Persuading Nathaniel, son of Elder Crosby, to associate with him, they attempted to negotiate for the upper privilege with Deacon Stephen Crosby, who had at that time a saw mill, grist mill and fulling mill in successful operation. Failing in this attempt, they invited Messrs. John Nichols, James B. Mason, Theodore Dwight and Rufus Coburn to unite with them as the Thompson Manufacturing Company in 1811, and succeeded in purchasing a suitable tract of land ” near the old bridge place, below Stephen Crosby’s mills.” Here were erected, in 1812, Thompson’s first manufacturer or factory building, a wooden house 60 by 36 feet, three stories high, designed to run sixteen hundred spindles. Early in the following year it went into operation, drawing in the class of operators usual at that date, mostly embarrassed men with small means and large families. Society in early mill villages was very chaotic, and according to Elder Crosby, ” Satan ” gained the mastery in this case, “reigning with almost sovereign and despotic sway.” An unfortunate rivalry between the Thompson Company and the ” Connecticut Company ” at the Brick Factory below helped to give a bad name to this Satanic stronghold. Occupying one of the “miry hollows ” so vividly depicted by Samuel Morris a century before, it was considered a very unwholesome and undesirable location, and was derisively nicknamed ” The Swamp ” or ” Swamp Factory ” by mocking rivals-a name that clung to it for many years. The future Judge Nichols was the first agent of the company; Rufus Coburn sub-agent. Lacking in experience, and probably in the rare executive ability which had given such success to Mr. Wilkinson’s experiment, the first aspect was not favorable, but ere many months had passed a complete change of base was effected. -Land, water privilege, buildings, machinery, stock of yarn and cloth,” in short, the whole establishment, was bought out by General James B. Mason, for $12,500. August 11th, 1813, his brothers, Amasa and William H. Mason were admitted into the company, General Mason retaining sixteen-thirty-seconds for himself. Colonel William Foster, of Smithfield, R. I., was made the resident agent, a man of experience and resolute energy. Under his efficient agency order took the place of chaos, and when under the great religious interest of 1814 unruly spirits were farther quelled, the character of the place was almost wholly transformed. Many good and substantial families removed to Swamp Factory, thrifty women welcomed the privilege of weaving the spun cotton into cloth, struggling farmers paid off mortgages by working for the factory, and the usual good results of such pecuniary aid were experienced in many directions. The little school house was soon crowded with native children and many religious services were held there by the different ministers of the town. Through the skillful management of Colonel Foster, the depression in manufactured goods, following the return of peace and the introduction of power looms and new methods of working, was tided over without loss to the company.

After the death of General James B. Mason in 1820, his widow, Mrs. Alice Mason, and Mr. William H. Mason, leased their respective shares in the Swamp Factory to Mr. Amasa Mason. Colonel Foster was succeeded, as manager, by Mr. Thomas Thatcher, a man of much weight of character and sterling integrity, who continued to administer its affairs with much wisdom and efficiency. In 1826 Messrs. Amasa and William H. Mason purchased of Deacon Stephen Crosby the long courted upper mill privilege, together with dwelling house, numerous mills and eighty acres of land for $5,800. March 13th, 1826, Mr. William H. Mason sold Mr. Thatcher one-eighth of his interest, the three proprietors now taking the name of the Masonville Company, and giving the name to the village. The square house built by Deacon Crosby became the residence of Mr. Thatcher. A substantial stone factory building was erected as soon as possible 80 by 40 feet, four stories high, fitted for twenty-five hundred spindles-forming the northern portion of the present western group of mills. A handsome row of stone houses was also built for the operatives, and the population of the village very largely increased.

It was the policy of the Masonville Company to manufacture cloth of the highest grade and best quality. With Sea Island cotton, new machinery and skilled workmen they soon attained their object, and the Masonville sheeting stood at the head of the market:. With the tariff of 1828 protecting their interests, the Masonville Company prospered greatly, their profits in five years reaching one hundred thousand dollars. In 1831 a brick building was added, four stories high, running twenty-five hundred spindles. The ensuing ten years were mainly prosperous, though the first wooden factory leased to different parties, met some reverses. Mr. Thatcher remained in charge, and was honored as the patriarch and autocrat of the village. “Who is governor of Connecticut?” queried a passing traveler of the gaping children. ” Mr. Fracher,” lisped a little maid, unable to conceive of higher dignitary. The residents of the village were as yet almost wholly of New England stock. Many good Yankees found employment in the various offices.

Some idea of the society of Masonville at that date may be gathered from the fact that, on the day of the inauguration of General Harrison to the presidency, March 4th, 1841, the ladies of the Congregational Sewing Society were invited to meet with their Masonville sisters, and that nine heads of families furnished the turkey dinner with which they celebrated the event. Other families attended the Baptist and Methodist churches. Farmers’ and mechanics’ daughters gladly improved the privilege of earning abundant wages, and were among the best customers of the stores at Thompson hill-the usual ” factory store ” not satisfying their ambitions. In 1840 Mr. William H. Mason became the sole proprietor of the old Thompson factory, which he proceeded to enlarge and refit with new machinery, making it run twenty-seven hundred spindles. Changes were made in the company proprietorship by which seven shares accrued to Mr. Amasa Mason, the same to Mr. INT. H. Mason, one share to Mr. Thatcher, one to Captain William S. Arnold, who, after serving in various departments, now had charge of the store. Mr. Amasa Mason, residing in Providence, served as mercantile agent and general manager of the company from the date of organization in 1813 till failing health compelled its relinquishment. Mr. William H. Mason, the last survivor of the Mason brothers, assumed the charge for a few years, till his increasing infirmities induced him to resign the office to his nephew by marriage, Doctor William Grosvenor of North Providence. His wife, Rosa A. Grosvenor, daughter of General James B. Mason, had inherited part of her father’s interest, and also one-fourth part of Mr. Amasa Mason’s interest. Doctor Grosvenor was descended from one of the first settlers of Windham county, the John Grosvenor who negotiated for the Mashamoquet purchase, now the central part of Pomfret, and whose descendants were ranked among the leading citizens of successive generations. His father, Doctor Robert Grosvenor, entered upon medical practice in Killingly, and was known far and wide as a skillful practitioner and keen business man, a partner in the Killingly Manufacturing Company of 1814, whose ivy-covered “Stone Factory ” is now the most picturesque ruin in Windham county.

His son, William, born April 30th, 1810, inherited his father’s professional and business aptitude, and after completing medical studies engaged for a time in practice, but finding business more congenial, in 1848 he accepted the position of mercantile agent and general manager of the Masonville Manufacturing Company. June 30th, 1854, Doctor Grosvenor purchased of Mr. William H. Mason eleven and one-half shares, representing his share of the interest, and soon after purchased the remaining rights held by heirs of General Mason, and still later the share held by Captain William Arnold. One share was sold to Mr. Lucius Briggs, an experienced machinist and manufacturer, who, a few years after the death of Mr. Thatcher, had been appointed superintendent of both upper and lower factories, and proved a most efficient and valuable manager. Under his administration many improvements were effected, especially in regard to the sanitary condition of the village. In early years its unhealthiness was proverbial, and no autumn passed without the prevalence of fever. DIr. Briggs introduced a thorough system of drainage and compelled strict obedience to sanitary laws, so that in a few years the health report of the malarious ” Swamp ” compared favorably with that of other manufacturing establishments. The change in the character of the residents made this strictness more imperative. The New England born operatives had been almost wholly replaced by foreigners, mostly Canadian French, who usually returned home after making a little -money, had no personal interest in the place, and required a strong hand to keep them in order.

With great executive ability and mechanic ingenuity, Mr. Briggs shared in Mr. Grosvenor’s advanced ideas in relation to the capabilities of manufacturing enterprise, believing in the policy of large expenditures to ensure commensurate ultimate returns. Their motto from the beginning was progress and continual improvements. In 1859 they erected a stone factory, connecting the Mason factories of 1826 and 1831, and more than doubling their capacity, increasing it to eleven thousand spindles. At the same time a Jeuvel turbine wheel of one hundred and eighty horse power was substituted for the two breast wheels formerly in use. In 1861 the old original wooden mill at the lower privilege was moved across the road and a very beautiful and-complete brick factory building erected at great cost, 160 by 66 feet, with an ell of 80 by 40 feet, five stories high. It was very thoroughly built, fitted up with improved machinery and the best modern arrangements, one of the best mills in the country at the time of its erection, running twenty thousand spindles. Its power was furnished by Jeuvel and Leffel turbine wheels. The former factory was moved across the street and fitted up for tenements. A capacious and tasteful boarding house was also added. After completing these improvements they made provision for further expansion and achievement by buying out Captain Arnold’s share in the Masonville Company, and also by the purchase of the whole Fisherville interest.

Source: History of Windham County, Connecticut, Bayles, Richard M.; New York: W.W. Preston, 1889

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