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John Williams and the Beginning of the Mill Industry in Dover

By John Scales

Cocheco Chats, July 1921

 

John Williams was born in Alfred, Maine, May 23, 1870; he resided in Dover from 1807 to 1840; he died in Boston July 17, 1843. He was 27 years old when he came to Dover; he was well educated in the schools of that period; he was well versed in knowledge of the mercantile methods of business that prevailed in New England at that time, having “kept store” in his home town before coming to Dover; he was a large, fine appearing man, pleasing in his address; he was not a garrulous conversationalist, but he had a shrewd way of making others talk, from which he drew quick conclusions and made terse replies, which were apt and forceful; he possessed sagacious optimism and a strong personality. Such were the characteristics of John Williams when he came from Alfred to Dover in 1807 and opened a store on Main street, near the Reade house, a long, narrow, wooden building, with a tenement in the upper story. He at once stocked it with a first-class supply of English and West India goods, such as the local market demanded.

 

Principally to this man the Dover of today is indebted for its most enduring form of business. Though bankruptcy, through no fault of his own, was destined to befall him, he laid the foundations of an employment which has given support to a vast number of inhabitants in Dover, from 1815 to 1921—the manufacture of cotton goods. In business, success frequently makes it appear right; on the other hand, failure is often counted against one as having undertaken an unwise and foolhardy venture. Mr. Williams staked all on starting the cotton industry; for a series of years success was with him; then he lost all; he struggled on and recovered his losses, to some extent, but finally had to give up the contest, and died in Boston of a broken heart. His spectacular failure was an incident in Dover history; perhaps it would be unfair to draw any general deductions from it.

 

In 1807 Dover Landing was undoubtedly the best trading point in New Hampshire. Mr. Williams saw this and made no mistake in coming here when he did. It was the center of trade for the whole of Strafford County, which then extended to the White Mountains, and for many towns in Grafton County. The roads were lined with ox-teams going to and from Dover landing and the towns far back in the county. Mr. Williams not only kept his store well stocked with such goods as the people demanded, but he also made attractive display of wares and beverages, and a comfortable place to sit down and rest; and the teamsters could eat their luncheons, while their oxen outside were taking their bait of corn and hay. For most of the good that he sold he took pay in lumber and various products of the farms and forests; these he exported and sold at a good profit.

 

Mr. Williams prospered in this way for five years, and had become one of the wealthy men of the town.  As he prospered in trade, his ambition developed to do greater things than his neighbors. His dealings with the outside world had enlarged his vision for ways to develop Dover’s unused resources, especially its great water power which was running to waste. He organized Dover’s first board of trade, by which merchants could work together for accomplishing things each could not do separately. In the course of business he made trips abroad and, being a close observer, he saw how Dover could be made a prosperous center of cotton manufacturing.

 

In 1811he began talking about building a cotton mill; he got the local capitalists interested, to the extent that on December 15, 1812 they obtained a charter from the New Hampshire Legislature incorporating the Dover Cotton Factory with a capital of $50,000. On December 26, John Wheeler notified the proprietors of the new company to meet at Mrs. Lydia Tibbetts’ dwelling house, on Silver street, on the 19th of January, 1813, at 5 o’clock P.M. for the purpose of organizing under the charter. The meeting was held; the organization was completed, and John Williams was elected agent. As the falls in the present mill yard were supposed to be fully occupied with the was and gristmills, which then stood thereon, the first Factory was built two miles up the river, at the fourth falls which have been called the Upper Factory Falls from that time to the present. In due time a building of wood was erected, in the form of an L; the larger part was 80 by 33 feet; the other 55 by 30 feet; and two stories high. Mr. Williams equipped it with the best approved machinery for the spinning and weaving of cotton cloth. In 1815 the machinery was set and running; Agent Williams secured his help from the farms and country around; the farmers’ daughters tool hold of the work with delight. The work went on successfully for several years.

 

Mr. Williams kept control of his store until 1816, having competent clerks and assistants, one of whom was his nephew, Moses Paul, who in later years was agent of the Cocheco Manufacturing Company for a long time. Mr. Williams then had great courage and enthusiasm for enlarging the cotton mill business; his enthusiasm pervaded the community. After 1800 the shipping business along the river front had increased the population, the cash and the quick money resources throughout the town at a startling rapidity, and the Landing was Dover. The wharves, ware-houses, gundalows and sea-going packets were full of goods. This new cotton industry increased the boom in business. Quite a village grew up at the factory, which was later called Williamsville. It was his indefatigable activity and courage which turned capital to Cocheco Falls. He was not content with having the only mill at the fourth falls; he watched the river, anxious to harness it to a new task at the first fall. The outcome was the building of another mill; this time in the heart of the village; and No.2 mill was built in 1822 on the south side of the lo0wer falls and back of the present garage. The capital of the company had been increased to $1,000,000. This was quickly subscribed, and the satisfactory condition was accounted for by Mr. John Wheeler, at the meeting when the first increase was asked for, in the following words: -- “It is to the good judgment, diligence and ability to handle men, shown by agent, Mr. Williams, during the last seven year, that the company owes its present excellent standing.”

 

John William’s Career as Agent

By John Scales

Cocheco Chats, October 1921

 

From 1819 to 1822 Mr. Williams resided in Boston and kept in touch with the financiers there, and thus advanced the interests of the company in Dover, better than he could have done if living in Dover. This is manifest by noting the dates of events. During his absence in Boston, John Wheeler acted as Agent of the Company; these two men kept Boston and Dover in line to develop the water power here at the first fall. Travel between Dover and Boston was then very slow, as compared with the present means of communication; there was no railroad or telegraph. But Williams and Wheeler acted in place of both of these modern improvements; they kept things moving.

 

On January 21, 1821, they had brought about the increase of the capital stock to $500,000; and in 1822 was commenced the erection of “No. 2” Mill at the first fall. June 17, 1823, they had secured an increase of the capital stock to $1,000,000, and the corporation name was changed to Dover Manufacturing Company. “No.3” Mill was built that year. “No. 2” Mill was finished and put into operation; Williams returned to reside in Dover and became Agent for both No. 1 and No. 2 Mill; his nephew, Moses Paul, was appointed superintendent of “No.1,” where he remained until 1828. In the March election of 1825 Mr. Williams was elected one of the Representatives from Dover, in the legislature; he was re-elected in 1826-7-8, being then at the summit of his energetic career and the most influential business man in Dover. He had served as representative before that in 1816 and 1817. June 20, 1826, the Legislature granted the Company permission to increase the capital to $1,500,000, and then there were three large factories in the village. Business was booming, and various large undertakings were being talked of and plans being laid for their accomplishment, by others than Mr. Williams. When the new stock was fully taken up the majority of the stock was in control of Boston parties and soon after the Legislature of 1828 adjourned, for some reason not explained the Boston financiers set to work to oust Mr. Williams from his position as Agent of the Mills.

 

Those who were opposed to Williams obtained a charter from the New Hampshire Legislature, June 27, 1827, incorporating the Cocheco Manufacturing Company with a capital of $1,500,000 and proceeded to smash the Dover Manufacturing Company. Mr. Williams fought as valiantly as was possible for a man to do under the circumstances; but they downed him and on December 1, 1829, the Cocheco Manufacturing Company completed the formal purchase of the rights and works of the old company, except that Mr. Williams was left in the possession of “No.1” Mill, and encumbered with debts.

 

A gentleman now living who has conversed with the men who were then residents of Dover and stockholders in the Dover manufacturing company, told the writer that when this change came, and they lost practically all of their stock, “men cursed and women wept;” it was a season of great gloom, except for the stockholders of the new Cocheco Manufacturing Company, of whom not many were Dover citizens. John Williams was not overwhelmed but he was downed by the new company, in that they threw him out as agent, after having had his good influence in the Legislature on their behalf. He got busy in the Legislature of 1830 and secured the incorporation of the Belknap Manufacturing Company. Whitwill & Bonds of Boston helped him and Isaac Wendell of Somersworth lent a helping hand, and in 1831 they put the old mill at the “Upper Factory” in order and commenced running it. He employed his cousin, John B. Stevens, Sr. as Superintendent. Mr. Stevens had entered the employ of the Dover Manufacturing Company in 1825, and was thoroughly competent to fill the position. In 1833 there were 2,500 spindles and 100 looms in operation. Thirty men and boys and ten women and girls were employed. They turned out 20,000 yards of cotton shirting per week. There were about thee hundred inhabitants in the village, which they called Williamsville. They had a well supplied store, and for a few years business seemed to prosper.

 

In 1835 Eleazer Chamberlin contracted for the whole output. This did not prove satisfactory, and then followed a season of sore need for ready cash. But the mill kept running to its full capacity until the spring of 1837. Then came the panic. Mr. Williams was thoroughly aroused and resilient; he exerted himself to the utmost. Hot with hope at one moment, cold with fear the next, he rushed with restless energy into every chance that presented itself. Soon the work in the mill was maintained with difficulty, and then only by heavily loading the future. He lost credit, and in consequence purchased supplies under great disadvantage. At length he was unable to pay his help regularly and one by one the better class deserted him. Finally the factory had to be closed, early in 1840. He was sixty years old; for thirty-three years he had been a leading business man in Dover; he laid the foundation of Dover’s greatest manufacturing industry,  and for a dozen years conducted the manufacture of cotton goods with marked success, enlarging the plant with several new mills; when hard times demoralized business and a new company threw him out of control of the old one, he kept bravely at work; he organized a new company which conducted business successfully for several years and then the panic of 1837 deranged his business to such an extent that he had to give up the battle in 1840, his courage being completely broken, November 11, 1840, he and his good wife sold their house on Pleasant Street, now Central Avenue, to John P. Hale, and they removed to Boston where he died, July 7,1843.

 

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