Bruce Sievers was raised in the Leesville section of Moodus and graduated from Hale Ray High School. Pursuing his interest in Connecticut labor history, Sievers researched and wrote the history of the Moodus River mills as his Masters essay in history from Wesleyan University. He has been president of the East Haddam Historical Society since 2020.
The 62-acre parcel of land known as Johnsonville was once the site of a thriving mill community,. Years after the mills' demise, millionaire industrialist Ray Schmitt bought the property and started working on his dream to make the site into a Victorian-Era tourist attraction. He was on his way to developing the attraction until a fight with town authorities provoked Schmitt to shut down the project. A few years later, after his death, it had become an abandoned ghost town. In 2017, a Philippine-based church group bought the property to rehab for use as a religious center.
Moodus: The Twine Capital of America
Cotton twine and netting drove the local economy for more than 100 years
by BRUCE R. SIEVERS
There is a village in the town of East Haddam, Connecticut, called Moodus, where for a century and half the people manufactured cotton twine. Only a few of the twelve cotton mills that were built along the banks of the narrow Moodus River during the first half of the last century remain. Nine are gone now, victims of fire and abandonment. Of the surviving three, two are owned by the Brownell Company, the sole remaining mill in town, and the third has been vacant for at least twenty years, its last inglorious use being as a chicken coop.
Newcomers to the village today would not realize the enormous changes which have reshaped the physical character and collective identity of Moodus during the last 50 years. The town does not look the same: the bells in the mill towers no longer summon their neighbors to work, the mill ponds no longer attract young swimmers or skaters, the bales of raw cotton no longer serve to connect New England millhands with the agricultural fields of the South or the great maritime fleets of Massachusetts or the Great Lakes. However, there are people still living in town who remember the mills, and who understand their significance to the history of Moodus.
For more than a century, the modest Moodus River powered some 12 cotton mills that produced duck, sail and netting, using innovative processes and in such quantity and quality that the East Haddam village of Moodus became known as the "Twine Capital of America." Walter Cronkite narrates this excerpt from the CPTV documentary, "Connecticut & the Sea," produced, written and directed by town resident Ken Simon.
The mills are not the only buildings absent from this village landscape, the very town itself was razed by the bulldozers of urban redevelopment during the late 1960's and early 1970's and a new "shoppping center" built a quarter mile up the street. Redevelopment only served, however, to destroy one of the last tangible links the townspeople had with their mill past, for in the process of destroying the stores the wrecker's ball also demolished a 120 year old mill built of solid granite, and several nineteenth century houses which had been the homes of Moodus mill owners. The natural course of the Moodus River, the motive force which powered the cotton mills, was altered so as to conform to new road patterns, and the old mill dams, built by hand of stone and timber, were carelessly broken by the machines of the construction company which then filled in the ponds with dirt.
The Moodus of the 1980's is a growing, changing community. New families are moving into the town. But to some it is a slow and sad transition as the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of the immigrants who came to work in the mills pass on, that community which knew the hustle and bustle of the Moodus mills is replaced by out-of-towners who have limited knowledge of the town's past and accept the town for the bedroom community it is today.
What follows is the story of the men and women of Moodus who built the mills, invented the machines, emigrated to America to work in the mills, and prospered together as they built a community upon the promise of this land.
Factors That Contributed to Industrialization
The major factor which contributed to the rise of a mill industry in Moodus during the early 19th century was the presence of local businessmen who embodied a "Yankee blend" of self‑reliance, mechanical know‑how and inventiveness, business acumen, and practicality. From 1819‑1865, local manufacturers (would be and actual') built a total of fifteen mills on the Moodus River, averaging one mill constructed every three years. None of these men where rich or well born. Most were not college educated. Most of them learned about the twine industry in their youth when they had worked in other mills and, seeking independence and realizing an opportunity existed in Moodus along the river, borrowed money, incorporated, and built their mills.
The rise of industrialism in Moodus was affected by political action on both the state and national level. The War of 1812, which established a British blockade and an American embargo, resulted in the nation taking the first step to become independent of foreign manufacturers. The Republican Party supported the development of this economic independence with the passage of further protective tariffs in 1816 and 1828. In Connecticut the General Assembly in 1817 exempted cotton and woolen factories from taxation for four years and their workers from the poll tax and militia service.' America was a young country, growing, prospering, testing her frontiers and realizing that the potential for growth and prosperity were without limit. Moodus shared in this enthusiasm for success.
Moodus presented an ideal location for the development of industry because, in addition to the aforementioned human resource, Moodus had the requisite water power (Moodus River), was located on a major waterway (Connecticut River), had the necessary skilled and unskilled labor (both native Yankee and immigrant), and had investment capital and bank credit available.
The Moodus River empties into the Salmon River at the Cove in Johnsonville. Although it certainly is not a big river (it more closely approximates a stream. The word "river" is loosely applied in this case), the river bed declines approximately three hundred feet in three miles, and its power was easily harnessed by dams and waterwheels The land adjoining the river was, at this time, unimproved, and there were many available sites for mill development.
Primary among any manufacturer's concerns is access to a means of easy and rapid transportation. Raw materials must be shipped to the factory, and the finished products must be transported on time to the customers. Nearness to a major avenue of transportation holds down the cost of receiving and shipping. During the years prior to the building of railroads and highways, waterways were the main arteries for commerical traffic. In central Connecticut the Connecticut River was the passageway from local towns to New York City and beyond. Moodus' location as a Connecticut River town meant that raw cotton from New York wharves could be delivered on a regular schedule to Goodspeed Landing, and that the steamboats, on their return voyages, could transport the finished goods from Moodus to selling agents in the City. Twice a day teams of horses and yokes of oxen made the round trip journey from the mills to the Landing .4 All the mills had warehouses for the storage of raw cotton which were located near the mills. The owners always tried to stockpile enough cotton to last them through the winter because, when the river froze, the steamers were unable to make their deliveries. Even after the building of the Valley Railroad, mill owners still found that this practice of stockpiling cotton was more cost effective than transporting by rail during the winter.
The Moodus cotton mills concentrated primarily on manufacturing three different products: yarn, duck, and twine. It was very common for a mill to switch products two or three times. This was no small task, requiring expenditures of time and money to either convert machinery or procure new machines. Frequently, the transfer to a new product was initiated by the sale of the mill to a new owner who was more aware of changing markets and consumer demand.
Four mills manufactured cotton yarn between 1819 and 1881. The Granite Mill made yarn from 1819 until it was destroyed by fire in 1849. The Smith Mill twice manufactured yarn: first, briefly, from 1823 until 1825, and then from 1866 until 1881. The Neptune Mill made yarn from 1832 until 1900, and the Chace Mill from 1848 until 185 1. The Granite and Smith Mills also installed power looms and wove the yarn into cloth and shirtings In 1821 looms were installed in the Granite Mill, and the Smith Mill wove shirtings from 1824 until 1845.5
During the age of the tall ships, cotton duck was in heavy demand for use as sail cloth. The First World War also increased the demand for duck. It was manufactured in Moodus by five mills from 1845 until approximately 1920. The Granite Mill twice produced duck, from 1852 until 1869 and from 1901 until 1920. The Smith Mill made duck from 1845 until 1866. The Chace Mill manufactured duck from 1902 until 1920. The Atlantic Mill was in the business from 1852 until 1894, and the Williams Mill produced duck from 1855 until approximately 1920 .6
Twine, however, was the major product of Moodus involving, at one time or another, all twelve mills. The twine was sold either as cord or made directly into fish nets. Four companies manufactured fish netting; Brownell & Company produced seine twine from 1844 until 1977, the New York Net & Twine Company made fish nets in the Falls Mill from 1865 until 1904, the National Net & Twine Company manufactured fish nets in the Old Williams Mill from about 1920 until 1932, and Harper Boies made seine twine exclusively from 1881 until his death in 1888 in the Old Smith Mill (which was known at this time as the Boies Mill).
The Falls Mill introduced the first mechanical netting machine to Moodus. The machine tied multiple knots and greatly increased the speed of production. The New York Net & Twine Company was extremely proud of this new machine and, in a move considered a violation of Moodus' spirit of neighborly co‑operation among millowners, secreted the machine on the fourth floor of the mill in a room which was kept locked at all times.,, Since Moodus manufacturers were not given to industrial spying, this move seems a tad extreme.
Two Moodus mills, the Moodus Net & Twine and National Net & Twine, manufactured gill nets which they sold to fishermen in New England and around the Great Lakes. The system of advertising and marketing their product was quite simple. These mills employed salesmen who brought samples to the docks and wharves and took orders from individual fishermen. At times the salesman representing a company might just happen to be the owner of the mill. Crary Brownell, owner of Brownell & Company, the parent company of Moodus Net & Twine, would frequently travel to Maine, maritime New England, Great Lakes, and Puget Sound visiting customers and carrying samples of his wares in the age‑old tradition of the Yankee peddler.
The Mills Provide Work for the Immigrants (1840-I920)
Irish and Polish Immigration
The European immigration began in the 1820s coinciding, not incidentally with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America. The port of entry for most immigrants was at Castle Garden in New York City.' From 1820 until 1890 the Irish, German, and those from the United Kingdom were the three leading nationalities to emigrate to America. Those immigrants who arrived in America during the 1840s and 1850s usually did not have any personal or institutional ties to this country. To facilitate the disbursement of immigrant labor to American manufacturers, the Castle Garden Labor Bureau was established during the 1850s. Immigrants recorded their names, nationalities, and occupational skills in a register. Employers or their agents would recruit immigrant laborers at Castle Garden, trying to match a skilled laborer with the appropriate job opening. Employers from New York and New Jersey received the most immigrant laborers, with Connecticut third and Pennsylvania fourth. Possibly in this manner the Irish found their way up the Connecticut River Valley to employment in Middletown, and from there to the more rural village of Moodus. Irish immigrants constituted a large share of the mill work force in Moodus from the 1840s until the 1890s. The Polish began to replace the Irish as the main immigrant group during the 1890s and continued to be the dominant group until the 1920s.
In the census of 1850, forty-nine residents of East Haddam stated that they had been born in Ireland. In 1860 there were one hundred forty-three Irish-born residents. The total dropped to one hundred twenty in the 1870 census, and then down to seventy-six in 1880.2 Because of the town's rural character and the fact that the mills were smaller than in the cities, Moodus was more attractive to both the Irish and Polish. In many respects Moodus might not have been too unlike their own villages back in Ireland or Poland. Here one could have a garden and tend some backyard livestock, walk down tree-shaded lanes, build rock walls, and fish in the river. Even during the height of the industrial revolution in town, Moodus remained a small, quiet, close-knit village in the countryside. Since the Irish had begun to arrive in America as early as the 1820s, some had found their way into Moodus at the very beginning of the mill age, and had played a significant role in helping to build the cotton industry here. The Irish were the laborers who had dug and hauled, cut and hammered until the land was cleared, the waterwheel in place, and the mill constructed. Edward Brownell hired Irish immigrants at fifty cents per day to dig the ditch for the headrace, and even then they had to supply their own wheelbarrows and shovels.'
The Irish had left Ireland for a number of reasons. First, Ireland was overpopulated. The primitive, pre-industrial economy did not offer any hope of employment for the young. Second, the British landowning class had mismanaged their land and depressed an already poor agricultural economy. Third, there was no industry developing in Ireland. Immigration to America offered escape from these depressing, debilitating economic conditions. During the 1840s the Great Famine became the greatest natural disaster in Irish history. Hundreds of thousands of Irish died, one million fled, most to America. Between 1850 and 1860, nine hundred thousand Irish emigrated to America. Why did they settle in Connecticut'? First, Connecticut is close to New York City and most Irish were without money upon arrival. Also, Connecticut was in the midst of its industrial revolution and offered plenty of entry-level job s°. Those who had family or friends already established in Moodus were encouraged to settle there and find steady employment in the mills.
The Irish were welcomed in Moodus. There are no stories of violence and few prejudices against the newly arrived immigrants. The mills needed laborers, and the Irish who arrived were, for the most part, young, strong, and willing to work for the wages being offered. The average age of the Irishborn man in the combined censuses of 1850, 1860, and 1870 is twenty-nine; that of the Irish-born woman is twenty-seven .5 The Irish who settled in Moodus were Catholics, not Presbyterians, and a Catholic parish was established in 1850. Ten years later the parish joined with St. Andrew's Church of Colchester, and a priest from that town would travel to Moodus to conduct services in the homes of the parishoners. As the Catholic population increased, the idea of constructing a chapel in Moodus gained popular support, and in 1868 it became a reality. The Chapel was built on North Moodus Road just a short way from the village center. It was enlarged in 1883 as the Irish population continued to grow. In 1914 the parish separated from St. Andrew's Church and became St. Bridget of Kildare Roman Catholic Church with the Rev. Thomas H. Tiernan as the first pastor.'
Curiously, however, the Irish population began to decline as the century progressed and eventually gave way to Polish immigrants. Apparently, the second generation Irish in Moodus had decided to seek a life more prosperous than that being offered by the mills and left the village. The family names of Cashman, Shea, and Maus are a few of the original Irish remaining and prospering in town.
The Polish began to arrive in Moodus in large numbers during the 1890s and 1900s.8 Poland was not an independent nation during this period. There were Poles living in Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia. The Polish were peasants who eked out a hardscrabble existence with no chance for improvement. Many were sent away from their villages to work and board with rich families for a period of time. The Polish possibly arrived in Moodus following the same route as the Irish. They arrived in New York City without any money, found their way to nearby Connecticut, probably heading to the cities (Meriden, New Britain, Middletown), and then finding entry-level employment in the mills of rural Moodus.
The Polish immigrants did not encounter hostile, prejudicial attitudes in Moodus, either from the native Yankees or the more established Irish. The Polish were needed in the mills because Moodus was actually people poor. In 1910 there were six hundred-ten fewer residents than there had been in 1880. In fact, the population steadily decreased from 1880 until 1940, with an average loss of 18.3 persons per year.'
Many of the Polish immigrants were illiterate upon their arrival in Moodus, public education in the old country not being the same as in America. Those who were illiterate would have friends who were literate write letters to relatives in Poland telling them about the good life in Moodus. They would save their wages and send money to relatives and friends in Poland so that they could emigrate. When new immigrants arrived in Moodus they would board with family or friends until they could get a job and save for their own place. Three of the oldest Polish families in town are Spiwak, Skinner, and Consic."
Wages and the Cost of Living
Usually newly arrived immigrants, Irish or Polish, would find employment at the mill where their relatives or friends worked. They probably lived in the tenement associated with that mill. Practically all the mills had tenements, multi-family dwellings, which were rented for one to three dollars a month to mill operatives. Some have been destroyed, but a fair number still remain as private, two-family homes. Most employees only lived in the tenements until they had saved enough money to buy their own house and property. To the wage earner of today it seems incredible that the mill workers of a century ago could save enough money to buy a house. But, despite low wages, rent and consumer goods were cheap and there weren't the expensive distractions and necessities which absorb so much of the present-day workers' salaries. The Connecticut Valley Advertiser, a weekly newspaper published in Moodus from 1861 until 1929, printed the following advertisements for three local stores which gives the reader an idea of the cost of living in Moodus during "the good old days. " In the April 5, 1873 edition, the New York Cash Store, located opposite the office of the Advertiser, announced a"Great Clearing Out Sale." The following items could be bought: "Costa Rica coffee for 12, per lb., soda crackers 7' lb., 28 bars of Crusader soap for $1.00, Reliance clothes wringer for $5.50, kerosene oil 130 test for 25` per gal., overcoats $3 and upwards, business coats $2 and upwards." Samuel Cook of Goodspeed's Landing in East Haddam advertised furniture for sale in his store on May 6, 1882: "parlor suites $50.00, solid black walnut chamber suites for $45, solid black walnut bedsteads $6, good set of cane chairs $6, curled hair mattress, 40 lbs. $10, good spring beds $2.50." Also in W.R. Goodspeed's Store on January 17, 1885, one could purchase... "Pillsbury Flour $62S per bbl., 15 lbs. granulated sugar $1. Best P.R. Molasses 55c. per gal., woolen bed blankets $1.75-$3.00 per pair." Coal was advertised for sale at $4.70 per ton to Wilkesbarre nut to $5.90 per ton for Lehigh stove. In 1911 a Polish family, where the husband and wife each earned less than 10` per hour, had been able to save enough money to purchase a good size house in the village for $1900.'2
All the mills ran six days a week (Monday through Saturday) ten hours a day. 13 A study of the Time and Pay-Roll book for Brownell's Lower Mill from January 1899-December 190614 reveals the following information. The foreman of the mill, Frank Boardman, earned $1.50 per day from January 1899 until March 1906 when he received a raise of twenty-five cents per day. Like every other worker he did not get paid for sick leave, and never took a vacation. 15 The Lower Mill averaged about twenty operatives during this eight year period. There was quite a heavy turnover at this mill which may or may not have been representative of all the mills. Of the twenty-one operatives on the payroll in January, 1899, only four had continued to be employed by December, 190616 The vast majority are Polish. A random listing of surnames includes Wolak, Golec, Tylec, Masek, Kuzval, Tarbor, Biyo, Miesak, Dykus, Rycek" The only two Irish names are Jim Shea and Charles Killian. Sometimes, when new operatives were hired, the clerk who kept the books did not know their names and would identify them by some physical characteristic or as the relative of someone familiar. Two operatives who were hired together were listed in the book as "Tall New Poland Girl" and "Short New Poland Girl." Another was simply "George's brother." Keeping track of who's who in such a nebulous manner could tend to result in designations such as "New Poland Girl's cousin," or "New Small Poland Girl's sister."
The wages in 1899 were six cents per hour for unskilled and eight, nine, and ten cents per hour for more experienced workers. In December, 1906, the wage scale ranged from seven cents for unskilled to eleven cents per hour for skilled workers. Money owed to the company would be noted in the payroll book and deducted from one's earnings. The following deductions were made from George Welshack's pay in October, 1903: Rent $1.50, milk $1.50, cash $3.00, order at Spencer's store $15.00-total $21.00 which, when subtracted from his gross pay of $24.50, left a net pay of $3.50 for twenty-four and one-half days (or 245 hours) work. The Connecticut Valley Advertiser reported in a special supplement on Moodus in 1900', that yearly wages (52 weeks) for the twelve mills were $86,400 at a rate of $7,200 a month.
Although the mills rarely shut down for a holiday, they were subject to the vagaries of climate, especially droughts, which would dry up the river, and the constant need to repair broken machinery. For instance, a notation in the payroll book on November 20, 1899, reads, "All mills stopped for water." On November 28th everyone went back to work. According to the book, "Started most all mills today and some upstream yesterday, some water in reservoir." However, only six days later the reservoir ran dry; "Water all gone-all mills stopped again (no rain yet)." This particular layoff lasted two weeks until December 19th when "All mills started up today." Prolonged droughts cost everyone money. On September 14, 1900, "All mills stopped for water today" and did not operate again until October 29th. However, they were forced to shut down"... for water again" on November 3rd, and "did not run or work much" until November 26th when "Big rain, but reservoir not raised yet." The mill closed for eighteen days in 1901 when the main water wheel shaft broke. It broke again in July, 1902, and took twenty-eight days to repair. Most operatives only worked six days in September, 1901, because the mill had to shut down in order to build a new bulkhead. From March 4th until April 19th, 1904, the mill was out for repairs on the millpond dam. 19
As previously mentioned, the Catholic church in town was Irish, and one can understand how the Polish must have longed to hear a sermon delivered in their native tongue. Once a year, to satisfy this need, a Polish priest would ride to Moodus to hear confessions and minister to the spiritual needs of the Polish congregation. This event was noted in Brownell's Time and Pay-Roll book as "Poland priest-here in A.M. Run only some twisters in A.M. "20 Most, if not all, of the Polish operatives would not report to work while the priest was in town. Mr. Brownell, as well as the other mill owners, all pious church-going men themselves, granted the workers this freedom to attend to matters spiritual. Of course, the time off was docked from their pay.
Labor relations were positive between owners and operatives in Moodus. This was partially a result of the small size of the mills, the large number of mills congregated in a relatively small area (twelve mills along a three mile stretch of river), and the rural, small town quality of life in Moodus. Everyone knew everybody else, many were, in fact, related to someone else, and most everyone who worked in a mill lived in that neighborhood. Usually, the mill owner lived only a few houses away from the mill, and his next door neighbors were also his employees. Most everyone seemed to pull together in a collective effort to achieve industrial success and financial prosperity. Because Moodus was so small, this sense of community that developed was greater than any one of the mills. "Do what was best for the common good of manufacturing in Moodus" could have been the philosophy of the mill owners, and they all worked together to help each other achieve success.
The twelve mills were not in competition with each other. Each had cultivated their own customers and did not try to interfere with another's market. This characteristic of Moodus manufacturing is consistent with the findings of Anthony F.C. Wallace who describes manufacturing in Rockdale, Pennsylvania during the early 1800s. "In this early phase of industrial capitalism, the manufacturers did not view themselves so much as competitors as colleagues, all engaged in the same profession, all matching wits against the impersonal market, with success ultimately possible for all who worked hard and made wise choices. "2' In a very real sense, industrial capitalism in Moodus never outgrew this early stage of development described by Wallace. The mills did not get any larger, two of the mills did not combine operations in an attempt to force the others out of business; no one, in fact, ever made a lot of money manufacturing twine in Moodus. The operations remained small but profitable, the mill owners co-operated in seeking solutions to common problems, the immigrants worked hard in the mills, saved their money, and assimilated.
However, workers in Moodus were aware of events in the "outside world." In general, the 1870s through the 1890s was a period of intense conflict between workers and owners. Faced with long hours of work, low wages, and unsafe, unhealthy working and living conditions, many workers began to organize in an attempt to force owners to bring about needed improvements. The economic depression of the mid-1870s, touched off by the Panic of 1873, initiated a wave of wage cuts and escalating unemployment. When all twelve hundred workers at the Taftville (CT) cotton mill went on strike in April, 1875, their jobs were taken over by strikebreakers and the strikers were evicted from company houses. They joined a swelling sea of jobless workers who were affected by the depression. The railroad workers struck in 1877 after the industry had announced an across-the-board tenpercent wage cut. During that hot summer freight traffic into many of the industrial centers of the northeast was stopped by the strike. Violence erupted. A new sense of solidarity among skilled and unskilled was developed out of these confrontations, a spirit of unity whose purpose was to win for workers a more respected position in the American economy. This sense and spirit became manifest in the Knights of Labor, the first successful national labor union.
The goal of the Knights was to pursue peaceful negotiations as a means of avoiding strikes. They were in favor of equal pay for equal work by women, and anti-child labor laws. They embraced the entire labor movement, enrolling skilled and unskilled, men, women, blacks, and immigrants. All were welcome except "bankers, stockbrokers, professional gamblers, lawyers, and those who in any way derive their living from the manufacture or sale of intoxicating liquors. "2' Thousands joined the order.
The basic unit of the Knights of Labor was the Local Assembly_ Each assembly was given a number. These numbers were assigned sequentially from Local Assembly #1 (1869) until Local Assembly #11,000 (1887). After #11,000, new Local Assemblies were assigned numbers of previous locals which had withdrawn from the union. In July, 1886, at the height of its power, there were reported one hundred eighteen Local Assemblies in good standing in sixty-two towns in Connecticut, with an approximate membership of twelve thousand. The locals belonged to District Assemblies organized on a geographical basis. District Assembly 95 in Hartford covered most of Connecticut. The Knights of Labor achieved its greatest success and increases in membership from 1882-1886. In 1885, alone, national membership jumped from one hundred thousand to seven hundred thousand. It was during this heyday of union organizing that workers in Moodus joined the Knights of Labor.
The Moodus local, formed in 1885, was assigned designation #4507. At the time of its inception, L.A. 4507 was only the second local in Middlesex County. Local Assemblies were designated as either craft unions or mixed unions. Moodus' Local Assembly was designated occupationally as a mixed assembly. "The Order differentiated between trade and mixed assemblies solely on the basis of membership composition and what might be termed `the rule of ten.' A trade L. A. had to include at least ten members of a given occupation and no more than nine members of any one calling. Conversely, a mixed L. A. either lacked ten members in any one occupation or else included more than ten members in each of at least two trades." 26 Most of the Connecticut locals were mixed. The following chart lists the Local Assemblies in Middlesex County. The dates are their years of existence, and are inclusive.
L.A. COMMUNITY DATE OCCUPATION
1981 Middletown 1882-89 Mixed
4507 Moodus 1885-87 Mixed (cotton mill/ factory operatives/ workers)
4810 Middletown 1885 Upholsterers
4776 Portland 1885-86 Mixed
5022 Middletown 1886 Mixed
5282 Cromwell 1886-88 Mixed (cigar makers)
9874 East Hampton 1887-88 27
Interestingly enough, the Knights of Labor broke down the composition of L. A. 4507 by occupation, differentiating between cotton mill workers, factory workers, and workers in general. Since no other information on the Moodus local has been discovered by this researcher, one may only speculate as to the reasons for these distinctions. In addition to the twelve cotton mills on the Moodus River, other principal industries in town were the East Haddam Duck Company in the Leesville section of Moodus, National Net and Twine Company in East Haddam, Boardman Britannia Factories (silver plating) and Ray Coffin Trimmings Company (coffins) in East Haddam. Presumably, workers from either one or both of these latter companies joined the Order along with workers from the cotton mills. The third designation -workers-might include such skilled craftsmen as machinists, blacksmiths, cigar makers (Fredrick B. Clark & Co., located in the old Music Hall Building in Moodus Center), and shoemakers.
The Knights of Labor do not seem to have made any impact on labor relations that existed prior to the local's formation. No evidence could be found of changes in wages, hours, or working conditions initiated by the Knights. Only a few references to the Order were found in the Local Record column of the Connecticut Valley, Advertiser, and they all referred to social events being sponsored by the union. For instance, the following item ran in the January 15, 1887, edition: "Fun in the Future-The Knights of Labor will give a grand ball at Music Hall on Thursday evening of next week, January 20th. A pleasant time is promised for all who attend." And in the following week's paper: "A large number were in attendance at the ball given by the Knights of Labor, Thursday evening." From these two news items it appears that the union was not only accepted by the townspeople but was downright popular. It is possible that the local tended to function more as a social organization than as a collective bargaining agency, considering the good relations which seemed to have existed between labor and management. In fact, the owners' attitude toward their employees might best be described as beneficent paternalism. Townspeople who had begun to work in the mills during the early 1920s, and whose relatives had preceded them in the mills, could not recall having heard any stories of abusive treatment by owners or supervisors, and did not experience such treatment themselves. There was no child labor below the age of fourteen. At fourteen children had the choice of continuing their education or obtaining working papers and entering the mills. Had the local decided to follow the lead of the national and become more politically radical, it is safe to assume that they would have been met by stern opposition. Moodus was a conservative, Republican town of about three thousand people during the mid-1880s.29 The owners of the mills and factories were the "pillars of the community" whose business enterprises sustained the town's economy and defined its identity. The owners, supervisors, and workers were all local residents who seem to have been well aware that co-operation was more advantageous than strife.
Nationally, the Knights of Labor began a precipitous decline in popularity after 1886. In March of that year they unwisely attempted to lead the largest western railroad strike in history and were seriously defeated. Then, two months later, the union had been badly hurt again at a rally they had sponsored in Haymarket Square in Chicago which turned into a bloodbath when a bomb exploded killing several policemen. The police, in retaliation, opened fire on the crowd. As a backlash to the Haymarket Square Riot, "....a violent anti-labor hysteria swept the country." In Connecticut the Knights of Labor were defeated in strikes at the Derby Silver Company, Southington Cutlery Company, and at the P.F. Corbin Works in New Britain." By 1887 Connecticut membership had fallen to five thousand, six hundred twenty-two and continued to decline. Nationwide membership had dropped from a high of seven hundred thousand to two hundred fifty thousand in 1888. In Moodus, the official notice of the death of Local Assembly 4507 appeared as a one sentence news item in the March 12, 1887, issue of the Connecticut Valley Advertiser. "The Knights of Labor organization in this village is a thing of the past, the members of the order having surrendered their charter to District Assembly 95."
The Decline of the Moodus Mills
As the 19th century drew to a close the structure of mill ownership began to change and form a new shape as several mills were combined under single ownership, and control of others slipped from the grasp of their former Moodus owners. In 1898 a new manufacturing company, The Undine Twine Mills, was formed by Albert E. Purple, partner in the dry goods store of Purple & Silliman and Moodus' judge of probate. Mr. Purple had entered the cotton manufacturing business in 1868 with the purchase of Card's Lower Mill. In 1878 he bought the East Mill from the New York Net and Twine Company, and in 1898 he bought the Atlantic Mill, becoming in the process the largest mill owner in Moodus. Judge Purple was one of the best known and most respected men in the community during his day. In addition to the above mentioned positions, Purple was also the president of the Moodus Savings Bank and the National Bank of New England, chairman of the East Haddam Bridge Commission, member of the Connecticut State Legislature, and chief benefactor of the East Haddam Public Library.
He was also the wealthiest man in town, leaving an estate of one million dollars upon his death in 1924, the largest will probated in East Haddam at that time. Although he owned three mills which were all successful, Purple had not become a millionaire through his achievements as a twine manufacturer. Rather, he accomplished this feat in a much easier manner, that is, by having the foresight to purchase large shares of stock in the Hartford Fire Insurance Company when the business was begun in the early days of this century.'
Moodus was a prosperous little town during the turn of the century. According to statistics reported in the Connecticut Valley Advertiser in 1900, there were 17,000 spindles in operation in town. The mills consumed 103 bales or 51,500 pounds of cotton per week or 2,575,000 pounds of raw cotton per year.
The decline of the cotton industry in Moodus began with the early 1900’s, accelerating during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The mills had prospered during the second half of the 19th century, eventually attracting the interest of speculators and opportunists who hoped to make a profit by purchasing or otherwise gaining control of some of the mills. This interest from outside investors began to occur during a period of diminishing capital by several mill owners. Faced with the problems of a poor cash flow, low capital reserves, and manufacturing facilities which needed modernization, the Moodus mill owners began to sell.
In 1901-02 the ownership of three mills was purchased by the Hall, Lincoln Company of Boston. In October, 1901, they bought the Granite Mill from Frank Fowler, added machinery, and began the manufacture of cotton duck with Sidney Barry as superintendent. In 1902 Hall, Lincoln purchased the Williams Duck Mill from Carlos Barry (who had bought the mill from Jehiel Williams in 1895) and continued to make cotton duck until after World War I. Hall, Lincoln also purchased the Stone (Chace) Mill in 1902. The new owners ceased the production of cotton yarn and twine, changed the machinery, and began making cotton duck here, also. Sid Barry did double duty as the superintendent of the Stone Mill for awhile.
When E. Emory Johnson died in 1905, an out-of-towner named George Frost became president of the Neptune Twine and Cord Mills. The story of George Frost represents an interesting episode in the history of the Moodus mills. Mr. Frost was an opportunist who was able to swindle his way into the Neptune Mills, and attempted to gain control of two others. He was a commodities dealer in cotton in New York City who advised several Moodus mill owners to buy cotton from him at the wrong time so that he could make money. This is illegal because a commodities dealer cannot advise a customer when to buy at a certain price. However, the Neptune, Brownell, and New York Net & Twine mills all bought cotton from Frost at the price he advised and, when unable to pay their bills when the price of cotton dropped, were at his mercy. He ruined the New York Net & Twine Company when it was owned by the Chaffees, forcing them to shut down operations for two years and resulting in the sale of the mills in 1919. Frost was unable to gain any control over the Brownell Company. George Brownell, son of the owner Charles Brownell, reportedly stood up to Frost and threatened to have him arrested. The Brownells eventually paid their bill and Frost left them alone. However, E. Emory Johnson was not as successful, and Frost was able to acquire an interest in the corporation, remaining as president until his death.
The mills were not damaged in the great Moodus Center Fire of January 18, 1906, which destroyed the business district of the village, although Brownell's Upper Mill and the Red Mill stood dangerously close to the site of the blaze. The fire destroyed about $30,000 worth of commercial property, including the Music Hall Building (where the great showman P.T. Barnum had once made an appearance), Purple & Silliman's store, and Spencer's store. The fire was believed to have been started by thieves inside Purple & Silliman's store who had lit some matches in order to see. When the fire was discovered about three in the morning by John Tursick, it was blazing out of control and, since there was no fire department in town, a bucket brigade from the Moodus River was the fire's only challenge. According to the next day's edition of the Connecticut valley Advertiser, "As soon as the alarm of' fire was given all the church bells and mill bells were rung, and the whole male population turned out to fight the conflagration."' They lost.
All of the mills in town prospered during WWI, mostly from the benefit of government contracts. Brownell & Company, for example, made twine for camouflage netting. Hall, Lincoln had government contracts for canvas. However, the market demand for cotton duck declined so rapidly after the Great War that they were forced to sell the Stone and Williams mills (they had already sold the Granite Mill in 1903).
Although the domestic demand for cotton duck and twine was falling, the foreign market continued to he strong, and Brownell & Company was the only Moodus mill to have a foreign trade. Charles Brownell had established a good business with Brazil and Argentina during the later 1800’s, and it was continued by his son Crary when he assumed ownership in 1910. Brownell sold only good quality twine to South America, whereas their competitors, Linen Thread Company, would ship irregulars. The condor was Brownell's logo and the South Americans, unable to speak English, always wanted the twine with the bird on the package.
Brownell had a distributor in New York City, C.K. Turner and Son, who handled their ordering and shipping to South America. A man named Jim Bryant was a runner who went to the various distributors and picked up orders. He went into business for himself around 1910 and tried to steal some of Turner's customers. Brownell refused to leave Turner, but Judge Purple hired him to develop a South American market for his Undine twine in an attempt to duplicate Brownell's success. Bryant, however, was unable to get any business for Purple, so, desperate for customers, he tried to steal Brownell's. Realizing that the South Americans had come to associate a bird with good quality twine, he had Purple put a bird logo on his packages. Brownell sued and Purple immediately dropped the logo. Bryant then had Purple drop his price two cents per pound and, when this move failed to produce the desired result, he had him drop the price another four cents per pound.
This time the South Americans began buying from Purple instead of Brownell. Brownell could not afford to be competitive at that low a price and relinquished the market. Ironically, although Purple now had control of the South American market, he could not earn any profit selling twine at roughly 12 cents per pound, when the normal market price was 18 cents per pound.
After losing his South American markets, Brownell began making cork and lead lines for gill nets which were sold directly to fishermen in Gloucester and on the Great Lakes. This put Brownell in direct competition with Linen Thread for Great Lakes customers.
In many ways the decade of the 1920’s was the beginning of the end of the cotton business in Moodus. Fire destroyed the Triton Mill in 1924 and, two years later, Purple's Lower Mill. The Triton blaze was caused by children who had set a pile of dry leaves afire on mill property. The fire spread out of their control, ultimately reaching the mill. Normally the fire would have been detected early and extinguished. However, this particular day was a Sunday and the people who lived in the tenements adjacent to the mill were all attending a social function. By the time the fire was discovered, the mill was beyond saving. The fire that destroyed Purple's Lower Mill was also the result of human carelessness. This mill was still heated by coal stoves, and some embers had fallen undetected onto the floor when the stove was last "shaken down." The floorboards, wooden and soaked with 80 years accumulation of machine oil, ignited. The mill was a total loss.
Business suffered in Moodus during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, but not as badly as many manufacturing communities in the state. Almost everyone continued to work: People had their gardens and backyard livestock to help sustain a full larder, and although wages were low and the workday continued to be ten hours long, work was available and hardly anyone had to go on relief.
One reason why the twine industry was not hurt too badly during the Depression was that the fishing industry remained fairly steady during these troubled years. Fish was less expensive to buy than beef, and many people began to add more fish to their diet. Since the Moodus mills sold twine to the net manufacturers, there remained a stable market for Moodus twine. The relatively healthy condition of the fishing industry attracted competition for Moodus from several twine mills in the Southern states. Bibb Manufacturing Company in Macon, Georgia, as well as Linen Thread in the Carolinas were the chief rivals. The North had the disadvantage of paying higher wages, but it was closer to the fishing fleets than the South. The fact that the Southern mills were closer to the source of raw cotton was negated by the fact that the price of cotton was determined by the commodities market in New York City and the price of raw cotton in Savannah would not buy any lower than the price paid in the North.
Brownell & Company was not hurt as badly by the financial collapse of the country as it was by the loss of its South American export trade. 1928 to 1932 were lean years for the company. Crary Brownell began to explore the market for specialty items that the larger mills did not want to touch. He made "a darn good zipper cord," which he sold to the Russell Manufacturing Company in Middletown, Connecticut, for a nice profit. He made trawl lines for which he had to develop an unbalanced twist to allow for shrinkage while in the water. He made cork and lead lines for gill nets. Mr. Brownell was an avid archer, and that interest led him into the manufacturing of linen bow strings. He bought Irish linen from J.E. Barber of Barber's Flax and twisted it into thread.
1932 was the worst year of the Depression. Unemployment reached a record 13 million of America's workforce, and for those who still had a job, wages had declined 60 percent since 1929. Business losses were reported at six billion dollars, and banks were closing every day in every state as more people lost their confidence in the ability of the Hoover Administration to solve the financial crisis. In Washington, D.C., the Bonus Marchers, 17,000 unemployed World War I veterans and their families who had traveled to the nation's capitol to support their demand that the government pay their bonus certificates now rather than in 1943, were attacked by U.S. Army Troops led by Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur and driven out of the city by bullets, bayonets, and tear gas. President Hoover, fearful of the mood of the nation, had turned the White House into a fortress and had not been seen in weeks.
In Moodus the Depression forced the end of cotton manufacturing at the old Williams Mill of Falls Road. The owners of the mill, the Ludlow Manufacturing Company, in a move to consolidate their operations, moved the machinery to their main plant in Ludlow, Massachusetts, and sold the mill to a Robert Loblick and his associates who attempted to convert the building to a distillery. Their efforts failed and the East Haddam Distillery went out of business before they had even begun. The building was later transformed into a chicken coop, one of many coops in Moodus during the years when Moodus was a leading egg producer in the area. The building has stood vacant for 20 years now, and the town is considering its demolition.
The New York Net and Twine Company fell victim to hard times, and in February, 1933, the National Bank of New England, located in East Haddam, foreclosed on the company's $20,000 mortgage. The company, owned by Allen K. Roberts, was sold later that year to Lees Manufacturing Company of Westport, Connecticut. At the time of this sale, the Red Mill was in a bad state of disrepair and had not been used for sometime. The Falls Mill is what attracted the Lees Company to Moodus. All the local employees remained, but with ownership transferred to an out-of-town company the attitude of the workers changed also. They still loved the mill, but they did not know the people they worked for and, in a closely-knit village like Moodus, out-of-towners were suspect.
The Depression effected a basic reorganization of American industry. Small, independent mills and factories built during the previous century along rivers in rural villages like Moodus were no longer able to fight the competition of larger companies who could afford to convert to the latest technology and pay union wages. The Moodus mills tried to hang on to their way of life, but they were facing constant pressure to change. One of the biggest changes in business life during the 1930’s was the industrial labor union movement. Moodus workers did not seek to unionize because they believed they had no need to ask any outsiders to arbitrate their relationship with their neighbors, the mill owners. Workers in Moodus were content with their working conditions and did not see any cause for complaint. They felt that the mills had been good to them, providing a steady income in an atmosphere of neighborhood friendliness and co-operation. However, this anti-union attitude did not win friends within the United Textile Workers union when they called for a general strike in the fall of 1934.
The textile industry had been severely depressed prior to 1933. The industry improved somewhat in 1933 along with the rest of the economy following the introduction of the National Recovery Act codes. Early in 1934, however, the industry went into another slump. When the N.R.A. granted the textile companies a 25-percent curtailment of machine hours, the workers demanded that the union call a strike. Wages were so low already that a 25-percent cutback would lead to many layoffs. The union demanded higher wages, union recognition, and a discontinuation of speedups in the mills. Textile workers in Middletown, New Haven, Willimantic, Stafford Springs, Dayville, Manchester, Putnam, Sterling, Norwich, Jewitt City, Plainfield, Moosup, Glasco, Wauregan, and Rockville, Connecticut all went out on strike from September 3-24, 1934.
Newspapers estimated that across the country more than 300,000 textile workers were out. Where the mills brought in scabs, or in mills that had not gone on strike, the union sent carloads of strikers, called "Flying Squadrons" to fight workers. The State of Connecticut mobilized the National Guard to intercede, and the Guard even used airplanes to try to spot the movements of the strikers' squadrons so that they could be there when the strikers arrived.
The Moodus workers, being nonunion, continued to work. One day during the strike a black Cadillac carrying strikers, one of the Flying Squadrons, drove into Moodus and attempted to talk to the workers. They were not allowed to enter Brownell's mills so they drove up Falls Road toward the Atlantic Mill. Crary Brownell called ahead to warn the Atlantic Mill that the Squadron was approaching, and when the Cadillac pulled into the mill they were met by the foreman and several others who were standing on the loading dock with lap sticks in their hands. The Squadron was informed in no uncertain terms that they were not welcomed in Moodus and they should drive away unless they wanted a fight. Realizing that help from the workers would not be forthcoming, they left town, and the boys on the loading dock put down their sticks and went back to work. The strike was called off after three weeks when the union agreed to accept a number of recommendations that had been made by President Roosevelt's Textile Board of Inquiry.
As the decade of the 1930’s was approaching a close, fire once again claimed the life of a Moodus mill. This time the Atlantic Mill fell victim to the flames. At the end of each workday electric blowers were used to clean the machines and floor of waste cotton. During this operation the air inside the mill was full of floating fibers of cotton. The fire was caused by exposed wires on an extension cord igniting some cotton on the floor. According to an eyewitness, Joe Wolak, a flash fire erupted because of the quantity of cotton dust in the air. Workers gave the alarm and evacuated the building, some jumping from second floor windows. Miraculously, no one was killed. The local fire department, volunteers, and boys from the nearby Civilian Conservation Corps camp all tried to bring the fire under control, but their efforts were unsuccessful. The mill was a total loss.
During the 1930’s the DuPont Corporation had perfected a new synthetic called nylon which they hoped to market as an alternative product to cotton. DuPont had tried to interest several cotton seine twine mills into converting to the manufacture of nylon seine, but every mill had refused. They all believed that nylon seine, because of its superior strength to cotton and the fact that it will not rot in water, would initiate the demise of cotton seine manufacturing. Apparently, no one wanted to assume the responsibility of being the first to convert.
One mill, however, did refer DuPont representatives to the Brownell Company in Moodus where they were favorably received by Crary Brownell and his son Nathan. The Brownells realized that nylon was to become the fiber of the future; to accept or reject its inevitability could mean the difference between financial success or failure. The Brownells agreed to become the first twine mill to convert from the manufacture of cotton to nylon seine, and to introduce nylon twine to the commercial fishing market. In return, DuPont made Brownell the exclusive manufacturer of nylon seine twine for a period of five years. This would allow Brownell the opportunity to develop the product and to conduct market research. The success of the Brownell mill in manufacturing and selling nylon seine twine ensured the economic survival of the company. The Brownell Company has survived for 140 years as a result of hard work, manufacturing and product innovation, market diversification, and good luck. Today, the two Brownell mills are the only ones left on the river.
In 1943, the Falls Mill was destroyed by fire when bearings in the turbine overheated and caught fire, igniting the big leather belt which pulled the flames into the mill. That same year the East Mill, long since abandoned, was dismantled for salvage. The Stone (Chace) Mill experienced several fires during the 1950’s and 1960’s, and was finally demolished. In 1972 the Neptune Mill, which had been purchased in 1965 by Raymond Schmidt and was the focal point of his restored Victorian mill village of Johnsonville, was hit by lightning and burned to the ground.
The Brownell Company remained healthy due to the tremendous commercial success of nylon. The company built a modern, one-story manufacturing plant on property located immediately behind the original mill, and presently operates on 80,000 square feet of floor space. In 1977, Crary Brownell sold the family business to Bridgeport-Gundry, Ltd., an English holding company which was looking to purchase a successful American business. Today, the Brownell Company is a leading manufacturer of synthetic line, twine, cordage and netting for commercial fishing, industrial, hardware, building construction, and sporting goods applications. The company also produces cargo net systems for aircraft and helicopters, archery bowstring materials and, for its Edwards Sports Products Division, a complete line of tennis nets and net accessories.
There were three distinct stages in the history of seine twine manufacturing, each characterized by the use of a different fiber in the production process. Twine was first made from linen, a derivative of the flax plant. The transition to the second stage of development was initiated by Ebenezer Nichols of Moodus who, in the early 1820’s, conceived the idea of substituting cotton for linen in the manufacturing of seine twine. With his invention of the Whirl-A-Gig twister, the production of cotton seine twine began in Moodus. The fishermen soon came to realize that cotton twine was a more economic product than linen, and Moodus' domination of the cotton seine industry was ensured for many years. The third stage in the history of twine production was instituted by the Brownell Company when they became the first seine twine mill in the nation to convert to the manufacture of nylon twine. Today, practically all seine twine used for commercial fishing is made from synthetic fiber. Moodus, Connecticut, can justifiably be nicknamed the "Twine Capitol of America" for its leading role in initiating the development of cotton and nylon seine twine.
The cotton industry in Moodus flourished for about 100 years, from the early days of the industrial revolution to the end of World War 1. The first mill along the Moodus River was constructed only 25 years after Samuel Slater had built from memory a cotton spinning machine in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, thereby inaugurating the textile industry in New England. The Moodus manufacturers were able to build profitable companies because they were not competing with the much larger cotton textile mills in the region. They had decided to manufacture twine, yarn, and duck. The mill owners of Moodus were therefore able to establish their own economic niche within the larger, more competitive field of cotton textile manufacturing.
The cotton industry in Moodus, with the exception of the Brownell Company, never outgrew the primitive stage of industrial capitalism. Their manufacturing capacity was defined by the small, 19th century mills which housed their machinery. Investment capital was limited due to their increasingly outmoded methods of production. The economic niche which the town had enjoyed with each other for so long was lost in the transition to synthetics. As the industrial picture of America was changing from small, local mills to consolidation and regionalization, Moodus, like so many rural manufacturing towns in New England, was unable to make the transition. If fire had not first claimed so many of the mills, the changing industrial economy would have forced their eventual abandonment.
The village of Moodus has never fully recovered from the economic loss of the mills. The town briefly acquired a new identity from the 1930-1960’s as the resort capital of Middlesex County, boasting one dozen popular summer resorts until changing conditions reduced their number to four during the 1970’s. Today, the focus of attention is no longer on the village of Moodus, but on the village of East Haddam Landing. The landmark Goodspeed Opera House, Gelston House restaurant, and the village's many boutiques and crafts shops attract thousands of tourists.
Brownell and Company represents the last tangible link to Moodus' industrial past. The 160-year-old white clapboard mill continues to stand proudly in front of the company's new manufacturing plant, a nostalgic reminder of the days when Cotton was King along the Moodus River.