THE SAWYER’S STORY
Living in the Sawyer Mill Apartments with it’s old beams and pock-marked posts plainly in view, leads one inevitably to wonder a little about the Sawyer family and the history of the Mills.
The Sawyer family emigrated to this country from England in 1636. Phineas Sawyer, father of the Sawyers who started the Mill, was born in 1768 in Harvard, Massachusetts. Throughout his life, he operated various kinds of mills - saw mills, grist mills and cotton mills.
No surprisingly, several of his 13 children followed suit. When Phineas died at the age of 52, his older sons and his wife continued to operate his mill businesses.
The first mill on the Bellamy River at this site was a saw mill circa 1649, owned by Major Waldron. The Major gave on quarter of his land here to his son-in-law, John Gerrish, who started a grist mill at the Third Falls after 1668. The land next passed to Gerrish'sson, Timothy, who operated a saw mill here is 1719. In 1760 the factory was converted back to a grist mill and by 1800 the mill owned by Benjamin Libbey.
Around1821 the rights to the Third Falls came into the ownership of Isaac Wendell (a man instrumental in establishing industry on the Cocheco River, also). Wendell additionally purchased an Iron Foundry at the First Falls, which had been in operation since 1817. He shortly sold both these rights to the Great Falls Manufacturing Company. Great Falls also purchased Second Falls privileges during 1824. Mill privileges at the Third Falls were then leased to an enterprising young newcomer to Dover, Alfred I. Sawyer of Marlborough, MA.
Alfred was the eldest son of Phineas Sawyer and had been in Dover for about a year. He saw great potential for cloth manufacturing on the Bellamy. He built a new two-story wooden mill on the site of Libbey’s mill below the bridge on the Bellamy River, the site of our Mill. There he began to dress cloth, added carding machines and the following year purchased the rights to operate a grist mill on the Second Falls. He began manufacturing flannels with one set of machinery and in 1837 added a second set.
By the time of Alfred’s death in 1849, the cloth dressing, carding, and flannel manufacturing businesses established by him were thriving, profit-making operations on the two falls. The operations then passed to his three brothers, Zenas (who retired two years later), Francis and Jonathan. It was under their leadership that the Mill grew to the size we see today.
The Sawyer brothers were bold and innovative for their time. They equipped the mills with the most modern machinery, had complete fire apparatus, including automatic sprinklers, and were the first factory owners to use gas for lights. Francis and Jonathan gradually increased the size and capacity of the mills. They purchased the Lower Mill at the First Falls with two sets of machinery and, by 1882 had grown until it contained sixteen sets. They started off in 1849 making flannels and by 1862 were making cashmere, cloths, suitings and worsted yarns.
In 1863, Francis and Jonathan had Swain’s Pond in Barrington (the headwater of the Bellamy) enlarged in order to serve as a reservoir for their mills. A round brick reservoir, eight bricks thick and eighteen feet high was constructed on the hill adjacent to the mills to hold water, not only for manufacturing purposes, but also to supply Jonathan's new 26-room mansion on Linden Street with plumbing facilities and a pond. The round reservoir is now a private residence on Birchwood Place.
During the Civil War, Sawyer Mills machinery was gradually converted from flannel production to woolen manufacturing. Soldier uniforms for the Union Army and New Hampshire regiments were made here in Dover at that time.
In what was described as a "bold innovation", the Sawyer brothers chose to sell their finished goods directly to retailers in 1866. Up until then, the usual method of selling was to consign dry goods to commission houses. The Sawyers decided it would be more profitable for them to sell their products directly to customers. This business practice of eliminating the middleman met with “great opposition, but…their foresight overcame all; they made a success of it” producing "fine, fancy cassimeres, cloths and suitings". The history books indicate that the Sawyer brothers were highly regarded not only for their modern and profitable mills, but also for the quality of their products. They won an award for excellence of their woolen goods at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.
By the early 1870's, Sawyer Woolen Mills was booming and extensive renovations were made to both the Upper and Lower Mills. Jonathan’s eldest son, Charles H. Sawyer, was admitted to the company as Superintendent and the business was incorporated with a capital of $600,000. It now consisted of two mills, the Upper Mill (ours) and the Lower Mill, a dry house, a repair shop, a coalhouse, stables, an Agent's house and 50 tenement houses for the workers. The worker's houses were substantially built with the best sanitary arrangements. The company did everything in it's power to make the employee's lives as comfortable and happy. There were 600 employees with an average monthly payroll of $20,000. The houses included "double houses" on what is now Charles Street (some of them are still there) and the Ten Commandments on Mill Street. Dan Smith of Dover wrote: "Sawyer's Village was a happy place with a railroad station and a social life of its own. If you weren’t a Southender, you didn’t belong…bonfires, band concerts, fireworks and celebrations…".
The company continued to grow into the 1880’s. After Francis' death in 1881, Charles S. Sawyer became Agent and the mills expanded. Swain's Pond was enlarged again to 450 acres, which caused the water level to rise six feet, eliminating the need for using steam power at the Lower Mill in the summertime. By controlling the flow of the Bellamy, the overseers could rely entirely on waterpower even during the dry season. The Boston and Maine Railroad had a station at the Mill where freight could be unloaded directly into to the warehouses. The Bellamy River had a different look as well. The tidewater reached the Lower Mill and was navigable for coal barges and "sloops of moderate capacity" at high tide up Back River.
In a brief respite from his company job, Charles Sawyer took time off in 1887 to run for Governor as the Republican candidate. He won the election and served a two-year term. The Dover Daily Republican extolled him as "a man of superior business capacity…popular with his employees…no strikes or lock-outs or shut-down have occurred…".
After his term of Governor, Charles returned to Dover and to the company. Jonathan Sawyer was the controlling power of the corporation until his death in 1891. Charles became President and installed his sons as officers.
In May of 1899 the Sawyer Woolen Mills were sold to the American Woolen Company of New York. Charles Sawyer retired, but his sons continued working for the new conglomerate until 1907. The last of the Sawyers were gone, but the two factories in Dover continued to flourish.
Following the Depression, the industry slowly cut back. Only 32 sets of machinery operated in Dover and the Lower Mill was sold during the 1930’s. Work at the Upper Mill continued for the next three decades, with manufacturing operations terminating about 1954.
Since that time, neither Mill has stood idle. The Lower Mill has served as the site for the production of many diverse products over the last fifty years including toys and games, Christmas tree ornaments, cameras and film, paint, ice creepers for the Russian troops during World War II, rifle grenades, ski poles, waterproof boxes, and wooden shoes. Two Louis de Rochemont motion pictures were filmed at the Lower Mill site in 1951 and 1952: "Whistle at Eaton Ridge" starring Lloyd Bridges, Dorothy Gish and Ernest Borgnine in a film about a strike at a small plastics factory, and "Walk East on Beacon" with George Murphy as an FBI agent on the track of communist spies in the U.S. Currently the Lower Mill is used by Holmwood Decorating Center for the manufacture of their unfinished wooden furniture.
At the Upper Mill, a retail store, the Sawyer Mills Factory Outlet was opened in 1956 and a grocery store was soon added. The Outlet closed in 1981, the supermarket one year later.
In 1983, the 241,000 square foot mill was sold and the redevelopment as apartments was begun. The converted complex opened in 1986.
RESIDENCE OF JONATHAN SAWYER
Once the home of Sawyer Woolen Mills magnate, Jonathan Sawyer, this 26 room Italianate mansion was built on this site (then called Linden Street) during the Civil War at a cost of $250.000. A five-story front tower was added in 1885. Jonathan, his wife Martha (Perkins) and their seven children lived in the magnificient house which included a 40 X 19 foot drawing room and twelve foot ceilings frescoed with gold leaf. The family played on the sumptuous 17-acre grounds complete with stable, carriage house, cold cellar, fruit orchards, a greenhouse full of foreign and exotic plants, and an artificial pond supplied with water from the mill reservoir.
Jonathan died in 1891, Martha in 1896 and the house was sold to Charles G. Foster, publisher of the local weekly newspaper. By 1916, the home was for sale again; an ad in Foster's Democrat offered the house with seven acres at a price "a small fraction of the original cost".
During the 1920's, the mansion was owned for a time by Hollywood producer and choreographer, Busby Berkely, who was directing several New England summer stock theater companies. But, the property was eventually taken over by the city after Mr. Berkely neglected to pay his taxes.
The house was vacant during the 1930’s, but was sold at auction in 1943 to John Soteropoulous. In 1954 the State of New Hampshire gained control of the property through eminent domain in preparation for construction of the new Spaulding Turnpike. It was torn down in 1958 when the overpass was built.