Millers Falls Mfg. Company: 1868 to 1873

Organization and preparation

Henry L. Pratt When the waterpower shortage at Gunn, Amidon & Company precluded an expansion of the factory, it became apparent that an infusion of capital was in order. The company’s situation came to the attention of Henry L. Pratt, a prosperous lumber dealer who had returned to the area after operating a furniture business in Detroit. Pratt recommended that the firm relocate to Grouts Corner, a nearby village and a stop at the junction of the Vermont & Massachusetts and the New London Northern railroads. Consisting of little more than an inn and a few houses, Grouts Corner was located on the Millers River at a spot where the stream dropped seventy feet over a short series of rapids. Gunn and Amidon, impressed with the potential of the site, joined Pratt in organizing the Millers Falls Manufacturing Company, an enterprise established “for the purpose of manufacturing hardware and lumber at Millers Falls.” Henry Pratt became the firm’s first president; Gunn and Pratt served as directors.(1)On September 21, 1868, notice of the incorporation appeared in the Greenfield Gazette and Courier. The newspaper also reported that $100,000 in stock had been issued, that waterpower rights had been secured and that 200 acres of land had been purchased.

James Moore became an investor in the company by virtue of his ownership of the tract where the new factory was to be built. James and his father, Oliver, had been trying to find a developer for the site for at least a dozen years, having gone so far as to commission and distribute a promotional map of the tract in 1856.(2) (James Moore was to die tragically in June of 1869, entangled in the reins of a team of runaway horses.) Located on a horseshoe bend of the river, the heavily wooded, one hundred-acre location was ideally suited to its purpose. Lumber for construction could be sawn from timber onsite, and the extreme curvature of the river made it a relatively simple task to dig a mill canal across the neck of what was almost a peninsula. From the outset, the directors understood that they were not only building a mill and hardware manufactory but were developing an industrial site with a surplus of highly prized waterpower. The organizers estimated that Millers Falls Manufacturing would need one-fourth of the output of the dam and expected that other businesses—each with a millrace connected to their canal—would purchase the rest. Then too, the company would be in the residential real estate business; the directors had purchased enough additional land to start a housing development.

The construction site was already home to a blacksmith shop and a saw mill. James Moore wrote to his parents on October 27, 1868, mentioning that his eldest son James would be sawing lumber for the company:

We have not made much mark yet in our new enterprise, but the man who has contracted to dig the canal and wheel pit & lay the foundations for the factory &c is coming on today. The Co. took possession of the mill a week ago last Monday. They are going to take out the old Robins saw mill and put in another new one as there seems to be much repairing on the old one including building a new carriage to lengthen out and will not be what they want with water power. They concluded to sell the old mill. James has taken the contract for doing the sawing for the Co. untill the first of next Aug. (when the Co. intends to get water on to the mill) for $250 per M. The Co. has contracted to have three houses built this fall & sold three building lots to another party who has agreed to put on three houses early next spring.(3)

Two months later and just six months before his untimely death, Moore continued his report to his parents, using the pronoun we when referring to the company:

Our Canal is dug from the Blacksmith Shanty, through as far as it is going & quite a piece of the race is also dug. You understand, I suppose, that the Canal is dug north along at the foot of the “big bank”, instead of down the river as per map. We get two privileges going that way, of 16 feet each, aggregate 32 feet & the water runs off under the Lugar place bank. We save as the fall from the traveled Bridge at the Corner to the head of the Island. We have three Houses building & three more cellars are dug & Ho. drawn. I am doing the logging & James doing the sawing.  We have got a petition for a Road & Bridge with about 100 names on it & we shall probable (sic) get it laid and built the coming season. We have been talking about buying Alden Grouts place, but he has got his figures up to $10,000 & I hardly think we shall make a trade. We now have the refuse of it for that price for 10 days, which has nearly run out. We are trying to get some Brick made at Northfield Farms, a man here yesterday to look about it. A kiln could be put up right by the Depot, a good place for a yard, Clay & Sand handy. We were hoping to find some clay near enough to draw on to our own ground here & make & burn them right on the ground but could not find any nearer than the Asabel Stevens place or there abouts.

P.S. The Stock Holders of the Millers falls Manufacturing Co. are anti Tobacco, anti rum, to a man.  A thorough temperance corporation...(4)

On December 31, 1868, the day after James Moore finished his letter to his parents, disaster struck the Millers Falls Manufacturing Company. A fire gutted the North Parish plant; only the office area was spared. All of the firm’s manufacturing equipment was destroyed, and production ceased. The editor of the Greenfield Courier & Gazette suspected arson:

The place where the fire was discovered was separated from the boiler room by a stone wall or partition, where it would not have been likely to have caught from any accident. The place, too, was the best that could have been selected by a villain for his foul purpose, as the fire could communicate with each story of the building by means of a slide-way, where chips and waste lumber were dropped into the wood-room below.(5)

Although insurance covered only half of the $40,000 loss, work to secure temporary quarters began immediately. Within two weeks, the firm was installing equipment in rooms rented from the Greenfield Tool Company. As the new quarters were too small, work on a temporary building at the Greenfield Tool site began without delay. Construction of the forty-foot-long wooden structure started on January 25th, a Monday morning. By Wednesday evening, the building was up, the siding in place, the windows set and the power shafting installed. On that Saturday—six days after the building was started and just four weeks after the fire—a full work force was in place, building braces. The disaster at the North Parish plant marked the end of the company’s involvement in the wringer repair business. Chamberlain & Whitmore, a local firm, bought the remnants of the operation.

Building the factory

In April 1869, Millers Falls Manufacturing made the plans and specifications for its Grouts Corner factory available to bidders. The planners estimated that a quarter of a million bricks would be needed to complete the main building. The proposed structure, 300 feet long and fifty feet wide, was considered fireproof by the standards of the day. For additional safety, the plant’s boilers, used to produce steam for heating the building, were to be housed in a wing projecting at a right angle from the main building. Running water was to be available throughout the structure. Work on the factory began immediately after the bidding. Local residents, skeptical that the enterprise would succeed, at first refused to fund a bridge to the site. A traditional covered span was erected only after Millers Falls Manufacturing agreed to put up one-half of the cost.

A dam, twelve feet tall and 165 feet long, was built on one of the series of falls and created a pond substantial enough to deliver 800 horsepower to its downwater users. (The company had originally hoped for 1500.) Millers Falls Manufacturing required less than half of the output. There was little worry that the upper limit of the dam’s capacity might be reached—the company owned the rights to the two remaining falls in the series. In lieu of a traditional mill wheel, a modern water turbine, manufactured in the nearby town of Orange by Hunt, Waite & Flint, was installed to power the factory.

Edward P. StoughtonThe move to the plant took place in the winter of 1869 and 1870. In January, fifty workers took up positions in the new factory. Although some chose to commute from Greenfield, the majority relocated, and the housing situation in Grout’s Corner grew desperate. Millers Falls Manufacturing leased the hotel owned by the Vermont & Massachusetts Railroad Company and refurbished it to domicile some of the workers. As other buildings became available, the company rented them and converted them to tenements. In spring, the hilltop east of the plant became a prime target for development and was soon home to an Amidon, a Gunn, and a Pratt Street. The manufacturer made its presence known in other ways—a petition to rename the place Millers Falls was circulated, and by spring, the post office had been renamed. It took several years for the local railways to adopt the new moniker.

Within weeks of the incorporation, Henry Pratt moved to New York to establish a national sales office. Levi Gunn remained in Greenfield to serve as treasurer and general manager. The New York office, located in the hardware district at 78 Beekman Street, opened in November of 1868 and was a modest affair soon outgrown. The following year, the company moved to 87 Beekman Street where it shared an office with the firm of E. M. Boynton, the manufacturer of the Lightning Cross Cut Saw—a tool advertised as enabling two men to cut off a twelve-inch sycamore log in eight seconds.

While still at the first address, Pratt hired Edward P. Stoughton to assist with managing the office. Stoughton proved an excellent hire. Diligent and quick to learn, he soon became the firm’s international sales representative. His interest in overseas markets enabled the company to export tools in substantial numbers surprisingly early in its history. Within a decade, the firm would boast of having penetrated one of the toughest markets of all—it was exporting large numbers of tools to Sheffield, England, the edge tool capital of the world.

Charles Amidon departs

Charles H. Amidon, Gunn’s longtime partner, left the Millers Falls Manufacturing Company in early 1870. He purchased a waterpower right from his former associates and began the construction of a small, two-story brick factory along the company’s canal several months later. To help capitalize the new enterprise, he took on a partner, and before long, the firm of Amidon & Fisk was engaged in the business of manufacturing baby carriages. The following year, Amidon had an unfortunate falling out with Millers Falls Manufacturing when the firm sued him for $1,000 to cover the non-payment of goods received. Although he maintained that the goods were due him as salary for work done when superintendent, there must have been some merit in the Millers Falls complaint; Amidon paid $750 to settle the suit. By 1873, Charles Amidon had formed the Amidon Manufacturing Company. (Its relationship to Amidon & Fisk is unclear.) Located in Erving, Amidon Manufacturing was involved in the production of bit braces until its bankruptcy in 1877. When the business failed, he relocated to Buffalo and became involved in a series of partnerships concerned with the production of bit braces. These included: Saxton & Amidon (1877-1883), Amidon & White (1883-1887), Amidon & Bastedo (1887-1890), and the Amidon Tool Corporation (1894-1898). A better inventor than businessman, Charles Amidon held over a dozen patents for bit braces but never experienced the financial success enjoyed by his former partners, Gunn and Pratt.(6)

Rose braceEdward Lester, a highly skilled employee of the Greenfield-based firm Nims & Pratt, replaced Amidon as plant superintendent. Nims & Pratt manufactured a brace developed by Clemens B. Rose, the proprietor of a small factory in Sunderland who had patented a bit stock with ring-type chuck and metallic head in 1867 and a rotating brace handle eighteen months later. The Bit Stock Company, a Greenfield firm of undetermined ownership, began to manufacture a brace featuring the patents shortly afterward.(7) Evidence suggests that the Bit Stock Company was operated by Nims & Pratt, for in spring of 1869, the Greenfield Gazette and Courier reported that the Rose Bit-Brace Company had filed a lawsuit against the partners. Either there was a second lawsuit or the editor of the Greenfield paper didn't have all the facts. Three weeks earlier, the Boston Daily Advertiser noted that Roberts & Stockbridge, a Northampton business whose principals included brace inventor Charles H. Stockbridge and his associate Osmore O. Roberts, had filed suit against Nims & Pratt over the right to manufacture braces based on the Rose patents. The Northampton firm’s relationship to Clemens Rose and Nims & Pratt remains unclear as court records are unavailable. Edward Lester, the Nims & Pratt employee who would become superintendent of the Millers Falls Manufacturing Company, acquired the Rose patents several months after the law suit was filed. He sold them to Millers Falls Manufacturing several weeks later. Production of the Rose brace continued at the Nims & Pratt factory until the new Millers Falls plant came online. The major player in the Nims & Pratt operation was the prominent Greenfield businessman William Newton Nims. Given the close relationship between the business and Millers Falls Manufacturing, it is likely that his partner was none other than Henry L. Pratt.(8)

Goodell, Sawyer, Dolan

Goodell brace Charles Amidon’s departure did little to impede product development at Millers Falls Manufacturing. In 1870, the company purchased the small business operated by Albert D. and Henry E. Goodell. The men, brothers, had started a manufactory in 1866 on the banks of the Clesson River in the nearby Buckland. Located in the Perry & Demming building, the enterprise first made pieces for wooden chairs but switched to the manufacture of hardware items in 1868—the year that Albert was issued a patent for a brace with a ring-type chuck and pivoting jaws. The Goodell brothers became employees of Millers Falls Manufacturing at the time of the sale, and their new employer began producing the Goodell brace. Albert Goodell would eventually replace Edward Lester as of plant superintendent and embark on a distinguished career in tool design and manufacture—developing a number of highly successful tools for the Millers Falls Company before leaving, in 1888, to found Goodell Brothers with his brother Henry.(9)

Samuel Sawyer, the millwright who supervised the construction of the plant and dam for Millers Falls Manufacturing, elected to remain in the area after the project was completed. A onetime employee of the turbine-manufacturer Hunt, Waite & Flint, Sawyer decided to lease the sawmill owned by Millers Falls Manufacturing and installed one of his former employer’s turbines to power it. The operation engaged in custom sawing and millwork fabrication. In 1871, Sawyer developed a new method for attaching the revolving heads of carpenter’s braces and assigned the rights to Millers Falls Manufacturing. The patent was issued on the same day as that of William H. McCoy, a Millers Falls employee who invented a non-splitting wrist handle that featured metallic inserts. The company would use Sawyer’s design to attach heads to its better braces until the development of ball bearing heads rendered it obsolete; McCoy’s wrist handle would remain viable into the twentieth century. Samuel Sawyer eventually accepted a job as a wood turner at the Millers Falls plant, and William McCoy went on to develop a drill chuck, a set of spring-type brace jaws and an adjustable angular bit stock for the company.(10)

On January 17, 1871, William P. Dolan (also spelled Dolin) of Charlottesville, Virginia, patented a ratcheting brace that allowed a user to bore a hole without completing a full rotation of the handle. Although Dolan’s was not the first ratchet brace, his use of two opposing, spring-loaded pawls to control the direction of a brace’s rotation was a breakthrough. Millers Falls Manufacturing acquired the rights to his invention and made substantial changes to it—substituting one ratchet wheel for Dolan’s two and adding a ring shifter to engage and disengage the pawls. The Millers Falls adaptation of Dolan’s idea, with its two-pin ring shifter, may well have been the most significant development in the history of the American ratchet brace. The centrality of his contribution to the arrangement is evidenced by the firm’s stamping the date of Dolan’s patent on its earliest ring-shift, pawl-type braces, and the design, which leaves the front part of the ratchet wheel exposed, came to be used on more braces than any other. (It remains in production today.) Four months after the Dolan patent was issued, John T. Lynam of Jeffersonville, Indiana, patented a single ratchet wheel brace that used opposing leaf-type springs as pawls. Although Millers Falls Manufacturing thought enough of Lynam’s design to manufacture and market it, the brace never caught on.(11)

Millers Falls factory in 1873 Those who had early on invested in the Millers Falls Manufacturing Company were well rewarded for their risk. Despite the costs associated with developing the site and building a factory, a ten-percent shareholder dividend was declared for calendar years 1870 and 1871. The new plant was operating day and night, employing some sixty hands and turning out between 10,000 and 15,000 braces per month. The need for additional space soon became evident, and in 1872, the company completed construction of a brick addition with a slate roof. The new wing was parallel to the main building, 100 feet long and forty-five feet wide. By the end of that year, employment had grown to 100 hands, and development along the company’s canal was proceeding apace with a building contractor, a vise company and a plane iron manufacturer joining Amidon’s baby coach factory.(12)

Backus Vise Company

Millers Falls Canal map The Backus Vise Company, an entity that held the rights to several bench vises developed by Vermont-born inventor Quimby S. Backus, began renting space and waterpower at the Grouts Corner plant in 1870. Originally located in Windsor, Vermont, the Vise Company’s move to the Millers Falls canal owed much to the fact that Henry L. Pratt and Levi J. Gunn had become major investors and served as the Backus organization’s President and Secretary respectively. Quimby Backus and Moses Newton, the Backus Vise Company’s new treasurer, moved to Grouts Corner along with the operation. The relocated company took up space in the Millers Falls boiler room, and shortly after the move, began construction on an adjacent wooden building to house its forging, polishing and packing operations.

The Backus operation was never large. Employment varied between sixteen and twenty-five, and under the supervision of Frederick Hubbard, the small, but productive work force manufactured a line of products that ranged from diminutive hand-held vises to jeweler’s vises to 168-pound blacksmith models. The depth of its product line was due, in part, to its acquisition of vise patents once held by the Union Vise Company, a Boston-based maker of over forty styles and sizes that was destroyed by fire in 1871. As Backus Vise had no foundry, rough castings for its products were purchased from the Clark & Chapman Machine Company in nearby Turners Falls and finished locally. The vise company also served as a sales agent for Stratton Brothers, a high-end manufacturer of brass-bound wooden levels located in Greenfield. When Backus was absorbed by the Millers Falls Company in 1873, the agency was transferred to the Millers Falls Company.

The Backus Vise Company was plagued by misfortune. In December 1871, production was halted when a fire burned out the part of the operation housed in the Millers Falls boiler room. A year later, the vise company’s new wooden building burned to the ground. As demand for the vises exceeded production capacity, Millers Falls Manufacturing overlooked the problems of its tenant and installed a yet another Hunt, Waite & Flint turbine to power the Backus Company’s growing operation. Despite near constant woe, Backus Vise managed to reward its investors with ten-percent dividends. In January 1873, the vise company was merged with the larger firm to create a new entity, the Millers Falls Company. Quimby S. Backus had already moved on. He’d left the area months earlier to begin manufacturing a series of tools that he’d designed and patented the previous year. The merger of Millers Falls Manufacturing and Backus Vise was made in the interest of reducing the expenses inherent in running separate operations, and while Frederick Hubbard, the vise company’s superintendent, became a director of the new company, Quimby Backus did not.(13)

As separate entities, neither the Millers Falls Mfg. Company, nor the Backus Vise Company, found it feasible to a conduct a foundry operation. The situation changed with the merger, and in May 1873, the company began work on the construction of a foundry unit. The Backus vises represented an excellent addition to the Millers Falls product line—far more in keeping with the company’s basic business than the quilting frames, toy cannons, bowling pins, kites, and fifes that the firm would add to the catalog. With its line of braces, vises, tool holders, family tool chests and, in 1873, bracket saws, the company was well on its way to becoming a diversified manufacturer of hand tools. By 1873, the newly named Millers Falls Company had moved its New York sales office to a location several doors away from its first one—78 1/2 Beekman Street. It would soon occupy enough of the building to drop the “half” from its address. In spring of 1876, the office would be relocated yet again, to 74 Chambers Street.

Illustration credits