“From the beginnings of European settlement in North America until the growth of modern industry in the nineteenth century, wood was the raw material most frequently used for fuel, construction, furniture, and countless other articles.” Charles van Ravenswaay, American Antiquarian Society, 1971
I have written numerous columns on wood usage from lumbering, log drives and sawmills as well as houses, barns and furniture made from that lumber have appeared in this space. Those articles can be found on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. This article deals with the production of small wooden items produced before and after the Industrial Revolution. These woodenwares were a major part of shops and factories located within the two-state area.
A deeply forested wilderness challenged early European settlers. Species of trees included maple, pine, birch, ash, oak, beech, cedar, and poplar. Before farming could commence those trees had to be removed. That harvesting provided the raw material for the manufacture of woodenware. Early residents quickly learned which wood was best-suited for a particular item and which time of year was best to harvest the ideal trees.
Handmade wooden utensils often “cut, whittled or scooped out” by the homeowner, could be found in all homes. Those included baskets, tankards, wooden plates called trenchers, rolling pins, butter churns and molds, cheese drainers and presses as well as mortars and pestles, dippers, small boxes for sugar, spices and medicine, brooms and scoops. While these wooden items were found everywhere, metal or glass items were more likely found in the homes of the “better classes.” In the yards and barns were wooden troughs, buckets, kegs, barrels, storage boxes, and wooden plows.
A skilled cooper was a valued craftsman in an early community. Operating part-time as a cottage industry while also farming, they worked to meet the great demand for barrels, tubs and pails. Before the 20th century most items were stored and shipped in wooden barrels. Of different standard sizes, wet barrels of oak were used for liquids such as molasses, cider, liquor or paint. Dry barrels, often made of maple, were used to protect contents from moisture. That ranged from hardware to flour and gun powder. Before metal hoops were used, wooden one, often made of elders, held barrels together.
John Mann, an early settler in Orford, is an example of a farmer/cooper. In 1767, he made pails and tubs to exchange for corn in Newbury.
The factory system that developed in the early 1800s changed the manufacture of these items. Locally, there were small woodenware factories in most towns.
Akin to barrels were tubs and boxes for the storage of butter and cheese. In sizes from 20 to 60 pounds, they were made of wood that would not impart either odor or flavor. Prior to 1876, Henry Brown & Company produced butter boxes in a factory near the Waits River falls. In 1879, Leavitt & Gage Company of Bradford advertised their square butter boxes as superior to the old-style round ones.
Until the introduction of galvanized tin around 1900, buckets were manufactured from wood. This included sap buckets for the growing maple sugar industry. Around 1878, one plant in Lyndonville created up to 15,000 cedar sap buckets annually. Wooden sugar boxes were also in demand.
There was also the manufacture of barrel kits. These were loose barrel staves bundled together and shipped for later assembly. In 1851, Ransom Aldrich of Newbury moved to Bradford to open a mackerel kit factory to meet the needs of the New England fishing industry. Described as a “decided genius in the manufacture of articles of wood,” he shipped his kits to Boston. He later expanded his enterprise to include other wooden items, created on machines “he made with his own hand.” In the early 1900s, Proctor Bros of Nashua, NH operated a stave factory north of Bradford village. Their wooden staves varied in length and were used in the making of pails, ice cream freezers and barrels.
One of the largest woodwork factories was located in Merrimack, NH. In the 1870s, it annually produced 240,000 fish kits and 2,500,000 barrel staves, almost all of which were made from local pine. At that same time there was a factory in Piermont that prepared alders to be used for barrel hoops.
Wooden tub and box manufactures were also found throughout the area. Page’s Box Shop of East Corinth began in 1875 as a blacksmith shop. In the 1890s, in response to the needs of nearby creameries, they began to manufacture boxes for butter and cheese. Local farmers could rely on them for wooden stanchions, troughs and water tubs. They also manufactured sugar boxes by the thousands and, later egg crates, soft drink containers and even hot tubs. The last operator was third-generation Maurice Page. The operation closed in 1990 after a disastrous fire.
Tubs were also manufactured by Henry Hood of Topsham. In the 1880s, the shop manufactured 3,000 tubs annually. About the same time, Rodimon’s Butter Tub factory was operating in Piermont.
Other box shops operated, including one in Walcott, Vt. The local newspaper reported “there are few manufacturers of turned wood boxes in the world that make as many as are made here.” Piermont’s Clayburn Brothers Butter Box operation was in business from 1920 until 1945. Stone & Wood Company operated a box mill in Woodsville after 1910. The Woodsville Box Shop manufactured ammunition boxes during World War II and later, wooden beverage boxes.
Factories manufacturing wooden bobbins also provided employment in the two-state area. In the early 19th century new machinery revolutionized the textile industry. Those machines required millions of wooden bobbins and spools for the woven woolen and cotton threads they produced. As different machines and stages in the process required different bobbins there were many varied shapes and sizes. Ash, birch, and maple were among the hardwoods used. In 1888, the St. Johnsbury newspaper reported it took one cord of wood to produce 5,000 bobbins.
Two large bobbin mills were located in East Corinth. The Jackman Company, initially located in Topsham, began manufacturing bobbins in 1872. When that mill was destroyed by fire in 1894, the operation was moved to East Corinth. For a time the company also operated a small mill in Bradford. The bobbins they produced “were specialized for wooden thread, and for many years they made bobbins exclusively for the American Woolen Company.” During World War I, the mill was busy providing bobbins for the manufacture of woolen blankets for soldiers.
Katharine Blaisdell’s history of this mill mentioned that “for every 100 pounds of wood they started with, only 3 ½ pounds of finished bobbins could be produced, due to the drying and shaping of the wood. “ The bobbins were made from rock maple. When plastics began to replace wooden bobbins, business declined and the mill closed in 1969.
The second and larger mill was that of the Bowen-Hunter Company. The company began in 1905 in Ernest Bowen’s small shop. When that shop was destroyed by fire in 1921, Bowen went into partnership with Winthrop Jackman for a short time and then with Harry Hunter. Their mill “became the world’s foremost producer of bobbins for cotton mills.” They had auxiliary mills in West Topsham, Warren and Westfield, VT with a total employment of up to 185.
In every aspect of woodworking, destructive fires were frequent. Major fires often signaled the end of an operation. That was the case when, on Nov 21, 1967, the East Corinth mill was destroyed by fire.
Other local bobbin mills owners included F. D. McCrillis and M. D. Coffrin in Groton, Sumner Clifford in Warren, H. S. Sleeper in North Haverhill, Josh Nutter in Swiftwater, Pike and Lavoie in Pike, Warren and Glencliff and R. Beal and Sons in Orfordville. In 1886, the latter produced 500,000 bobbins.
The clothespin is another of the wooden items that had connections to the two states. Before the 19th century, laundry was hung on bushes or lines with either handmade prongs or no pins at all. In 1853, David Smith of Springfield, VT designed the first spring- clamped clothespin. A year later, John Smith of Sunapee, NH patented a machine for the slitting of clothespins, the first of a series of clothespin machines. He was also very successful at producing the pins themselves. A different pin-making machine was patented by two men from Hartland, VT in 1855.
At first, clothes pins were manufactured in small family-operated factories. In the 1880s, the U.S. Clothespin Company and the National Clothespin Company made Vermont’s Washington County the clothespin center of the nation. In 1899, the St. Johnsbury Caledonian reported “the success of the company could be documented in an order of one carload, or 6,000 gross of pin” shipped to Europe soon. It was reported that during the height of production, the yearly production of pins in central Vermont amounted to 72 million.
After World War I, the industry was challenged as cheap imports from Europe flooded the market. In 1920, one gross of Vermont-made pins sold for 58 cents, while a gross of imported Swedish pins sold for ten cents less. Despite this competition, the two Vermont companies continued to operate. When the National Clothespin Company closed in 2003, it was the last American wooden clothespin operation
Wooden pegs and dowels were used in construction of everything from structures to furniture and boxes, especially before nails became readily available. After 1818, inventors, such as Thomas Rowell of Hartford, developed machines for the manufacture of wooden pegs. There were factories in Meredith, NH as well as Bellows Falls, St. Johnsbury, Barnet, and Bethel in Vermont. In 1874, the latter “turned out 100 bushels of pegs a day.” In 1897, maple and white birch pegs sold for prices up to one dollar per bushel. Before 1865, wooden pegs were also used in the manufacture of shoes but later replaced by small nails or glue. Despite that, an ad in 1907 called them the “best cure for squeaky shoes.”
There were dozens of other local woodworking shops. In the 1860s, Charles Smith of Woodsville manufactured shovel handles. Edward Cilley of Piermont turned out hoe handles and ladders. Frank Bradford of Orford crafted brooms. A number of craftsmen including George Eastman of North Haverhill built coffins and caskets. In the 1890s, E.L. Chandler Co of Orleans, VT manufactured wooden piano sounding boards. In Springfield, VT there were several factories that manufactured wooden toys including wooden-headed dolls.
In 1879, H. D. Davis began to manufacture beehive parts in Bradford. Photos of the period show numerous beehives on the hillside north of the village. Apparently those bees were annoying to the neighbors and, in 1892, the village trustees threatened to prosecute him for keeping bees. Their threat made national news in numerous apiculture magazines. “Beehive” Davis continued to keep bees and manufacture boxes.
Between 1870 and the 1890s, several individuals, including W. H. Leavitt, manufactured window parts as well as door, boxes and tubs in a factory near the fall in Bradford. There were several shops, including that of Stephen Plant of Haverhill, that turned out baskets. In 1947, the Haldane Company of Groton manufactured boxes for the silverware industry.
All of these manufactured produces proved “the strength, thickness, security and durability of wood.” Despite the constant threats from fire, foreign competition and economic downturns, these shops provided significant employment for both local men and women. They took trees from the hillsides of Northern New England and turned them into products for homes and businesses.
This is not the last of my columns on wood products. In the near future I will cover potash, papermaking, bark mills and other local wood-based industries.