Mills: The strength of early industry


Photo Gallery: Mills in the Berkshires

PITTSFIELD -- They loom over the landscape as symbols of the Berkshire's once potent textile and paper industries.

Some of these enormous structures are still used by industry, but many are vacant. Others were demolished, victims of either progress or natural disasters.

Some have found second lives as museums or living spaces. One local entrepreneur even wants to turn a South County paper mill into a foundation/technology park for companies in the environmental solutions field.

They are the Berkshire mills, and they have a history almost as long as the county itself.

"The people who first came here built mills because they needed things," said Berkshire historian Bernard Drew of Great Barrington, who is writing a report on 18th and 19th century water-powered industry in the Upper Housatonic River Valley.

"They were largely subsistence farmers," Drew said. "When you have 100 acres of land, you need to build a house."

The first mills in the Berkshires were saw mills and grist mills. An iron ore industry later sprang up in the Berk shires, as did leather and shoe factories.

All of these early mills were built on the county's rivers. Water power is what attracted settlers to the geographically isolated Berkshires in the first place, because the county lies within two watersheds, the Hoosic River in the north and the Housatonic River in the center and south.

"It was the only source of power," Drew said.

In Northern Berkshire, a grist mill was constructed on Fisk Road in Adams as early as 1772, while a mill used to make linseed oil was built on what is now Union Street in North Adams in 1800.

In Southern Berkshire, the textile industry began in 1761 in a part of Sheffield that now belongs to Great Barrington. The Kellogg Mill on the Green River opened in 1750, followed by a wool-carding and cloth dressing factory in 1816 on the Williams River and a cotton mill on the Housatonic River in 1825 that gradually morphed into the Monument Mills Complex, which was by far South County's largest textile mill.

In Central Berkshire, the woolen industry began in 1801 when a British immigrant named Arthur Scholfield traveled from Connecticut to Pitts field, where he introduced the first carding machine for wool. (Carding is a process that allows wool or cotton fibers to be spun into yarn.) Scholfield manufactured the first broadcloth in the United States in 1804.

The Merino sheep, highly prized for its wool, was introduced to the Berkshires in 1807. Five years later, Berkshire County mills were manufacturing 12,000 pounds of wool annually. By 1837, the peak year for sheep raised in Berkshire County, nearly $250,000 worth of wool was produced in the United States, as mills used 481,500 pounds of wool each year. Fifty-three percent of that wool was produced in the Berkshires.

In North County, the textile industry led to the establishment of the Eagle Mill, Eclipse Mill and Phoenix Mill in North Adams, and the Adams Woolen Co. and Renfrew Manufacturing Company in Adams. By 1865, Pittsfield had 10 woolen mills that hosted 52 sets of machinery and employed almost 1,000 men and women. By 1875, the number of woolen mills in Pittsfield had dropped to eight, but they produced $1.9 million worth of goods, almost half of the $4 million in total goods that were manufactured by all Pittsfield industries.

In the same year that Scholfield introduced his carding machine in Pittsfield, paper-maker Zenas Crane established what is now Crane, the paper manufacturing company, along the Housatonic River in Dalton. Crane found that the Housatonic descended 600 feet in 18 river miles between Washington and Pittsfield, while another series of descents occurred in Lenox and Lee.

The river flowed swiftly through those descents in the river, creating an ideal environment for water power, which allowed the Berkshire paper industry to thrive. Five paper mills were established in the Berkshires before 1820. By 1840, the town of Lee produced more paper than any other town in the United States. When Zenas Crane died in 1845, Berk shire County led the country in paper production, a distinction it maintained through the Civil War. The number of Berk shire paper mills peaked at 63 in 1858.

As the machinery needed to make textiles and paper became bigger and more sophisticated, Drew said the owners of Berkshire textile and paper mills increasingly needed more space. This led to the construction of the large brick mill structures that currently dot the Berkshire landscape.

"Textile mills have looms bearing heavy equipment," Drew said. "Those buildings are built like fortresses because they had to support tons and tons of equipment. They wanted a durable building."

But the textile industry changed dramatically during the late 1800s when business owners began to seek new markets in the South that were located closer to the sources of their raw materials. By 1895, Pittsfield's woolen goods accounted for just 25 percent of all goods made here.

"We began to lose out," Drew said.

Manufacturing in general still remained a big part of the Pittsfield economy. According to the 1895 state census, Pittsfield alone had 221 different manufacturing establishments that employed nearly 4,000 city residents, and produced $6.1 million of goods.

And, the good times for the textile mills weren't quite over yet. As late as 1948, the Berkshire Cotton Manu facturing Company in Adams employed 11,000 people at its 11-mill complex.

But things had definitely changed. Most of the county's remaining textile mills closed in the latter half of the 20th century, including the Monument Mills complex, which shuttered its doors in 1956 following a series of labor issues and declining costs. The A.H. Rice Silk Mill hung on the longest. The mill was sold to two South Carolina businessmen in 2001, who moved the company to their home state in 2005.

The Berkshire paper industry, however, remained a viable part of the local economy until 2008 when four South County mills closed taking 170 jobs with them. Only three paper mills continue to operate in the county, and one of those plants is only half open.

But there are still uses for these properties. At the beginning of March, Niagara World wide of St. Louis announced that it planned to buy three of the paper four mills that closed in 2008, with plans to use them for a mixture of industrial and residential uses.

Those massive buildings continue to contribute to the Berkshire economic landscape one project at a time.

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:,
or (413) 496-6224.
Twitter: @TonyDobrow


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