By MARTHA FOWLER / Rochester Historical Society president
Posted Apr 18, 2011 at 3:15 AMUpdated Apr 18, 2011 at 5:17 AM
In the early 1830s, Nicholas Varney Whitehouse bought an old sawmill and its water privileges on the Cocheco River in Gonic. He began to improve the site and add new ventures. In addition to sawing lumber and making wood products he operated a grist mill and made linseed oil, plaster and bricks. Around 1838 he began making wool in a mill equipped with the best machinery available.
In the 1840s, Whitehouse suffered a number of setbacks. Some untrustworthy business partners and poor management led to the town selling his property at auction. John McDuffee, a local businessman and friend, bought it and leased it back to him. Whitehouse enlarged and improved the property and concentrated on making flannel, the most basic wool used in undergarments and work clothes.
A fire in 1848 destroyed the mill, but in 1849 he rebuilt. The 51-foot by 81-foot brick building, still part of the Gonic Mill complex, was three stories high. Raw wool was stored in the attic, picked and carded on the third floor, spun on the second, woven on the first, and scoured and finished in the basement.
In 1859 Whitehouse got new partners and the business was incorporated as the Gonic Manufacturing Company. One of the new directors was Samuel B. Rindge, a wealthy Massachusetts textile manufacturer.
The Civil War was a boom time for New England’s woolen mills. Less raw cotton was available increasing the demand for wool. At the same time, Union soldiers needed wool for blankets and uniforms.
Gonic Manufacturing improved its water power system and added steam engines. In 1861 a 42-foot by 30-foot “L” was added to the west end of the mill. A substantial four-story building adjacent to the river was completed in 1865. The foundation of granite blocks laid in cement was nine feet deep. It was six feet wide at the bottom and three feet wide at the top. The 54-foot by 120-foot building had unusually thick brick walls and many windows for good light. Unfortunately by the time, the building was finished the demand for wool was dropping, so the new building was not fully occupied for years.
The 1870s were very difficult years as the demand for wool, and consequently, its price continued to fall. A large Boston fire destroyed a warehouse where much of the finished wool was stored. In 1877 Whitehouse retired at age 74 and died a few months later. In one of the few labor problems experienced by Gonic Manufacturing, the weavers went on strike. The mill was closed in July 1878.
Economic conditions improved and the business reopened in May 1880. Much of the Gonic wool was now designed for women’s wear and came in a large variety of shades, colors, and mixes. They developed an excellent national reputation. Their wool was displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and won gold medals for quality, texture, and color.
In the 1880s the mill agent was Stephen Chase Meader who had begun working in the mill as a boy. After graduating from the Friend’s School in Providence he worked in the mill full-time. He was promoted from dyer to finisher to superintendent to agent. When he died in 1915 his nephew John Levi Meader became the agent. Both Meaders were held in high regard by their workers. Devout Quakers their motto was, “The workman is worthy of his hire,” from the Bible.
Around 1890 spinners produced an average of 1,450 pounds of fine yarn a day. Forty-four looms in the old building and 48 in the new building produced over 900,000 yards of wool a year. They used over 700,000 pounds of raw wool each year.
By the 1890s the company owned 30 neat and attractive tenements for their workers and a fine residence for the mill agent. Downriver a saw mill made lumber for their shipping cases and building their mills and tenements. Over the years many buildings were added to the complex and the machinery was kept up to date. In 1892 electric lights replaced large oil lamps that had hung from the ceiling.
Eben Smith began working summers in the mill in 1910 at age 12. He became an assistant supervisor and wrote about the mill for the Rochester Historical Society. When he began work the mill operated one shift a day from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. with an hour for lunch at noon. Saturdays were only half days. Later two and three shifts were introduced.
The mill stayed in operation during the Depression, but in 1935 had to sell its residential buildings on Maple, Church, Sherman and Felker streets. During World War II the mill made blankets and fabric for the U.S. Navy. It was awarded the coveted “Navy E” for its contribution to the war effort.
The facility was expanded and improved in the late 1940s and 50s. The inside of the mill was torn out and new steel beams and cement floors were installed in sections while the mill remained in operation.
Despite increasing competition from Southern mills and foreign imports following World War II, Gonic Manufacturing Company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1959, but in the 1960s demand and profits declined with the increasing use of synthetic fibers.
On Sept. 16, 1971 the “Rochester Courier” headline announced, “City’s Oldest Industry Closes Doors.” Fulton Rindge, Jr., whose family had been involved in the management of the plant since his great-great uncle Samuel became a director in 1859, told employees, “The flood of imported textile products, together with the sudden demand for knitted fabrics, make it uneconomical to continue operating.” The business that had been the center of Gonic for over 100 years closed leaving 250 people out of work.
In the series of photographs below, investigator Lance Anderson is sitting in the very dark former shipping and receiving area of the mill building, conducting an EVP and ghost box session trying to make contact. No voices were captured at the time but as you can see in the photos taken in rapid succession it appears that two figures are materializing.
The final picture has been zoomed in and brightened to try and clean up the image.