For many years Indian corn was the staple food of New England since wheat suffered from blights and never did well in the New England soil and climate. Bread was commonly made from a mixture of cornmeal and rye flour. Indian corn and other grains must be broken up, before it becomes edible. Pounding corn by hand is very laborious work and does not produce a fine cornmeal. Grinding between millstones, however, produces a fine-textured cornmeal and so, almost as soon as New England was colonized, grist mills were constructed in every settlement. A map of the Parker River mills from 1807 shows that there were four grist mills along the stretch of river between the falls at Central St. and River Street in Byfield.
The first mill on the Parker River was built by Richard Dummer and John Spencer in 1636, one year after the settlement of Newbury. This first mill was a sawmill, but in 1638 Richard Dummer made an agreement with the Town to "make his mill fitt to grynd corne." It was also agreed that"there shall not any other mill be erected within the said Toune." Gristmills were so important to the early colonists that it was common practice to give a monopoly to someone like Richard Dummer in order to get the gristmill built at a location convenient to the townspeople.
Fall was the time when farm families began to weave the wool and make the clothing for the family. Many of the childhood memories of Sarah Smith Emery, who was born in 1787 and grew up on a farm on Crane Neck Hill in what is now called West Newbury, Massachusetts can be found in a book written in 1879, when Sarah was 92 years old, by her daughter called Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian. Here is how she described the production of cloth and clothing in her family:
"In September ... the weaving of woolen cloth was begun, in order that it should be returned from the mill where it was fulled, colored and pressed in time to be made up before Thanksgiving. This mill was in Byfield, at the Falls, on the site of the present mill, and was owned and run by Mr. Benjamin Pearson. The winter's stocking yarn was also carded and spun, and the lengthening evenings began to be enlivened by the busy click of knitting needles.
"After the cloth had been brought from the mill, tailor Thurrell [Thurlow] from the Falls village appeared, goose in had, remaining several days, to fashion my father's and uncle's coats and breeches. Mother, a manteau-maker before her marriage, had her hands more than full, as she was not only called upon to make the gowns for our family, but to fit the dresses for her own mother and sisters and others in the vicinity."
In Sarah's time fulling mills were common in almost every New England village. When handwoven wool cloth is made on a loom, the cloth is not very compact and the separate threads are quite distinct and the wool still contains excess grease and oils. The fulling process involves beating the cloth in a wooden tub with some water and detergents. Fulling removes the oils and the beating felts the fibers of the treads together to form a denser, more compact cloth. In a fulling mill a waterwheel powered a pair of wooden mallets which beat the cloth in the tub, often for days. This process shrinks the cloth to perhaps 1/2 its original size.
You may have heard someone say that they "were on tenterhooks." This old expression comes from a piece of equipment used at the fulling mill. The fulled cloth needed to be stretched and dried and this was done on a tentering frame. The tentering frame consisted of a long framework of horizontal bars which were covered with little L-shaped nails called the tenterhooks. The point of the nail was driven into the frame and the other end held the edge of the stretched cloth. When the fulled cloth was dried, it was often further processed by having its nap raised by stroking with teasels and then sheared smooth with heavy shears. The fuller also often would dye cloth as well and by the 19th century might also have a water-powered carding machine as well.
The fulling mill referred to by Sarah was probably located at the site of the present Pearson Snuff Mill off of Main St. in Byfield. This mill was operated until 1986 by Mr. Benjamin Pearson, a direct descendent of the Benjamin Pearson referred to by Sarah. This mill site has a history stretching back to the late 17th century. In 1687 the town of Newbury granted 50 acres of land on the Parker River to Peter Cheney "on the condition that he build a corn or grist mill within two years and a fulling mill within three years, at the upper falls. Between 1705 and 1709 Benjamin Pearson (the grandfather of the man referred to by Sarah) purchased these mills from the Cheney family and shortly after built a house, near the fulling mill, that still stands today.
Unfortunately, although these mills provided important services to the communities in which the were located, they also had a significant impact on the rivers and streams next to which they were located. The rivers were typically used as a dumping ground for both human and industrial waste and the dams blocked the migration of anadromous fish that came into the rivers each spring to spawn.
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Copyright ©1996 David C. Mountain
(Most Recent Update: 30-Sept-00)