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Legacy of Progress
Gone Sour

How a Renewal Project Destroyed Moodus Center

Part 1: The Grand Plan

Part 2: Renewal Flops

Part 3: Might Have Beens

Resorts of Moodus

When Moodus Was Connecticut's Playground

Resort List & Pictures

A Day at Banner Lodge

Old Ads & Flyers

1950's Banner Brochure

1950's Hilton's Brochure

Orchard Mansion Lessons

Mills Along the River

How Moodus Became the "Twine Capital of America"


A Maritime Success

Ed Stolarz Made the Best Nets in East Haddam

Burning the Coops

The Simon Farm Disappears

Memories of Meat

Coming of Age at Bury's

The Last Whaler

E. Haddam's Captain Comer

Old Chimney Stacks

The First Families in Town 

East Haddam History

As Told in 1913

Early Views of Town

How It Looked Back Then

Ode to East Haddam

"It's just the place to live""

Chapter 3

The Decline of the Moodus Mills
Fire, Competition, and Consolidation All Conspired to Kill Off the Days When Cotton Was King in Moodus

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.

Conclusion

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.

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A Moodus Mill Tour

Red-Mill-Dam.jpg (39025 bytes)
Red Mill Dam
Water power for the mills.

Granite-mill.jpg (24804 bytes)
A Tour of the MIlls
Once 12 mills, now only one. 


Co-Fish
The fisherman's helper.

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Neptune Twine
1898 Check
Paying for power.


A Mill Sales Tool

The world's best twine.

 


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Last modified: September 03, 2012