New Town Picture Gallery 50: Harrisville, New Hampshire

Welcome to our 51st town to be featured in our town picture gallery–Harrisville, New Hampshire.

If you have never been to Harrisville it is definitely worth your time. The village is immaculately cared for and you can grab a bite to eat at the general store which has been open since 1838 (shown below).

Of course, it takes a dedicated community to keep this village in such a pristine state of preservation and this is accomplished through the non-profit Historic Harrisville, Inc. (which also owns the general store). Their website has a wealth of information and rather than reinventing the wheel our town picture gallery provides links to their building histories.

Right around the corner from the Harrisville village is Aldworth Manor which we have written about in the past – see History Saved 7: Aldworth Manor in Harrisville, New Hampshire. Do check out their new website to see the incredible transformation of this historic property/building–thanks to brothers Shane and Jordan Long! 

Here is a look at the history of Harrisville via their designation on the National Register of Historic Places (pdf):

According to architectural historian Ada Louise Huxtable, 19th-century mill villages “represent a trend-setting level of social and industrial planning seldom equaled since;” they display neatness and uniformity without regimentation and contemporary style without self-consciousness. Harrisville, N.H., she says, “represents this planning logic and design fecility to an exceptional degree.”

In fact, according to Williams College architectural historian William Pierson, “Harrisville . . . is the only industrial community of the early nineteenth century in America that still survives in its original form.” Its unique significance in American social, industrial, and architectural history has been acknowledged by Theodore Sande in his new book Industrial Archeology and by the British periodical Country Life.

The Harrisville Historic District encompasses about 200 acres and includes the Harrisville Pond, the 1823-33 Upper or Harris Mill and attendant structures; the 1847-50 Loer or Cheshire No. 1 Mill and attendant structures; the Harris and Cheshire boarding houses and three clusters of workers’ houses; the 1774 home of the town’s first settler and the dwellings of eight owners or partners in the Harris and Cheshire Mills; two 19th-century churches and an 1857 school; about 35 other 19th- and early 20th-century residences; and several municipal buildings plus a general store. Most of the structures are little altered, and the district is virtually free of modern intrusions.

Picturesque Harrisville is nestled in the Monadnock Highlands of southern New Hampshire. The tiny village was settled in the late 18th century, and since 1799 it has been a cen ter for manufacture of woolen goods. Because of its isolation and a citizenry concerned with saving the community’s physical heritage, Harrisville has changed little over the years.

In 1629 Charles I of England gave James Mason a large grant of land that included the future stie of Harrisville, but the Monadnock Highlands remained Indian country until the mid-1700’s when a group of wealthy Portsmouth proprietors purchased all Mason’s unclaimed acreage from his descendants and made it available for settlement.

The speculators chartered a tract immediately south of present Harrisville in 1749, and the first settler arrived in the area in 1752. By 1771 this southern block had been incorporated as Dublin. The Portsmouth group chartered another tract just north of present Harrisville in 1752, and by 1774 it had been incorporated as Packersfield. It was renamed Nelson in 1814.

Harrisville, whose first settler, Abel Twitchell, arrived in 1774, straddled the Nelson-Dublin township line and was not incorporated as a separate community until 1870. It was a thriving village from the start, however. Twitchell bought 104 acres at the mouth of what is known now as Harrisville Pond and built a combination grist and saw mill on Goose Brook (Nabanusit River), which spills from the 120-acre pond and drops 100 feet within one-half mile.

Nearby he erected a simply frame house that still stands as a reminder of Harrisville’s early days when the community was called Twitchell’s Mill. With the end of the Revolutionary War a new wave of settlers came to the Monadnock region, and soon several enterprising individuals opened small shops near the pond. In 1799 Jonas Clark built a small fulling and finishing mill alongside Goose Brook and launched the woolen textile industry in Harrisville.

Because he had trouble getting and keeping apprentices and collecting debts, Clark operated his factory only a few years. While he struggled to keep it going, Twitchell and his son-in-law, Bethuel Harris, began experimenting with a wool carding machine, which they set up in Twitchell’s sawmill. Harrisville now had the two essential processes—fulling and carding—from which full-fledged woolen factories usually grew, and eventually Harris took advantage of the situation “to become,” says New England historian John Borden Armstrong, “a pioneer in the manufacture of woolen goods in this country.”

Harris proceeded cautiously at first, however. When Clark’s business finally failed, Twitchell and his son bought the fulling and finishing mill, but Harris either withdrew from his partnership with Twitchell or took only a minimal interest in the new enterprise. In 1813, though, Harris bought a clothier’s works in Dublin and formed a new partnership with Twitchell to manufacture woolen cloth in Harrisville. Three years later, Twitchell withdrew, leaving Harris in full control.

Over the next three decades Harris and his sons—Cyrus, Milan, and Almon—steadily expanded the family business. In 1822-23 they built a new factory on the site of the old Clark mill. Little is known about the new structure except that it was brick and contained water-driven weaving looms. These machines had been patented only a decade earlier, and thus if the Harrises were not pioneers in adopting them, they were “at least quite progressive” in doing so says Armstrong. Because of its position relative to Harrisville factories built later, the mill was eventually called the Middle Mill.

By the 1830’s the Harrises and their woolen enterprise so dominated the village of Twitchell’s Mill that it became known as Harrisville. In 1823-33 Milan Harris erected, on the side of Abel Twitchell’s old grist and saw mill, a large new brick woolen mill, which he operated independently of his father’s business. Probably this Upper Mill used a wooden pitchback wheel with power transmitted to the textile machinery by a system of belts. In any case the simple but handsome structure still stands astride Goose Brook and now is the oldest extant mill in Harrisville.

At the time of its construction it represented the beginning of a prosperous business venture for Milan Harris, who produced mostly medium grade woolens and after 1850 manufactured some black doeskin, a firm, smooth woolen cloth for men’s wear. By mid-century Milan had bought the Middle Mill from his relatives and built a dyehouse, two brick storehouses, and a boarding house fro his workers. According to Armstrong most of this expansion occurred in the 1850’s, generally a slow time in the American woolen industry, and “so the growth of Milan Harris and Company is that much more impressive.”

In 1847 Milan’s brother Cyrus Harris launched still another woolen firm in the community, the Harrisville Manufacturing Company. His chief partner, Asa Greenwood, was one of the best stonemasons in New England, and so they built their new Lower Mill out of Granite. Consequently today Harrisville has two mills, the brick Upper Mill and the granite Lower Mill, that are in the Pierson’s words “classic survivals of early types of mill buildings in America.”

Unfortunately for Harris’ partners he died in 1848 before the new mill was operable, and in 1850 they sold it to Faulkner and Colony, woolen manufacturers from Keen, N.H. The new owners organized and chartered a new company, Cheshire Mills, to occupy the empty granite edifice.

Josiah Colony and his sons—Timothy, Henry, Alfred, and John E.—proved the dominant figures in the Cheshire enterprise. During the next 2 years they set up 24 looms in the Lower Mill and thereby doubled the community’s woolen producing capacity. In addition they installed an oversize, for their mill, 48-inch Fourneyron turbine that, until modified, drew too much water and caused some short-lived friction between them and the Harrises, who controlled the water supply.

The Colonys also erected a dyehouse, boilerhouse, brick storehouse, and brick boardinghouse for workers. Cheshire Mills porducs, mostly flannels, were marketed so successfully through Faulkner, Kimball, and Company, commission agents in Boston, that about 1860 the Colonys expanded their operation by building a brick mill at right angles onto the south side of the granit bill and adding a pickerhouse rear of it.

The village of Harrisville grew slowly but steadily along with the woolen industry. Initially most of the mill workers came apparently from the local populace, but the Colonys found it necessary to advertise fro skilled laborers outside the community. Most of the village’s operatives in the 1850’s were single men and women who lived in the Harris and Cheshire boarding houses. About one-third were foreign-born, and most of these were English, Irish, and Canadian. Few children labored in the mills.

In addition to erecting the boarding houses and their own private homes, the mill owners eventually built family housing for their operatives. In 1864 the Colonys constructed five frame tenements on the west bank of Harrisville Pond and four similar houses along what is now School Street west of Cheshire Mills. A few years later Milan Harris put up four larger fram tenements along what is now Grove Street east of the Upper Mill. A general store, town buildings, and churches completed the billage scene of the 1860’s. Almost all of these structures remain today.

In 1870, aftger the citizens of Dublin and Nelson refused financial support for a proposed Manchester and Keene Railroad line along their common border, the New Hampshire Legislature approved the incorporation of Harrisville as a separate town whose citizenry supported the railroad. Thanks in part to its construction and in part to the community’s industry, which now included a chair factory and several other wood products mills, by the 1880’s Harrisville’s population was greater than that of Dublin and Nelson combined.

Afterward the growth rate leveled off, and during the last years of the century the population declined somewhat. In this same period Milan Harris and Company failed, largely because Harris overextended himself. In 1867 he replaced his Middle Mill with a larger New Mill and installed $75,000 worth of new machinery. By 1870 Harris and Company’s annual production had risen to 150,000 yards of cloth, up from 90,000 in 1860, but the national woolen market had become depressed.

When the Panic of 1873 struck, Harris lost his factories to a Boston commission house, which leased them to Henry Colony’s son Fred and two others. They upgraded the mills and produced woolen cloth until 1882 when a fire of mysterious origin destroyed both the New Mill and their company. In contrast, under the skillful management of Henry and Horatio Colony the Cheshire Mills prospered throughout the late 19th century the Colonys improved their power system in 1884 and again in 1900, bought the Milan Harris mill property in 1887, weathered a minor labor dispute in the 1890’s, and continued to produce a large variety of quality flannel goods.

During the first half of the 20th century Cheshire Mills continued to be the principal cog in Harrisville’s economy, while physically the village changed little. Horatio Colony’s sone, John Joslin Colony, became president of Cheshire Mills in 1918 and continued in that capacity until his death in 1955, when he was succeeded by his son John Joslin Colony, Jr. In these years the company’s business generally fluctuated according to the ups and downs of the national economy, and the community fared similarly.

The Colonys added a new brick mill to the Lower Mill’s picker house in 1922, and this constituted the last significant alteration in the town’s appearance. The general composition of the population changed about 1902, however, with an influx of Finnish immigrants and again after mid-century with a wave of summer residents. Finally, in 1970 a national craze for double knit fabrics spelled the Cheshire Mills’ doom. High production costs prohibited manufacture of the new material in Harrisville, and so the mills ceased operating.

The town did not fold, though. Filtrine Industries, makers of water filtering and cooling equipment, soon occupied the granite mill complex, and appropriately John J. Colony, III, opened Harrisville Designs, a new woolen yarn making company, in some of the old Milan Harris and Company buildings. A historic district has been created in the center of the community, which continues, a little altered, to be a small but active New England mill village.

Check out this cool video by Harrisville Designs on their yarn making company.

Visit our Town Picture Gallery for more great pictures!

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