The Mill of Westerly

Author Axle - Last updated: 03.09.2012

Located just outside of Westerly in Rhode Island, this site has seen an occupation by a mill since before the American Revolution. Records date back to 1762 showing the site owned and operated by Samual Maxson and John Davis. Until about 1775 the two men operated the site as a grist, saw, and fulling mill. In 1775 the mill site was purchased by George Potter for 800 pounds Stirling, who continued grist, saw, and fulling operations along with the help of his three sons. George Potter passed away in 1794, but his eldest son, George Potter Jr, continued to operate the mill along with a general store along with his brothers. The mill continued to stay in the family even after the death of George Potter Jr in 1801. The remaining two brothers Nathan and Joseph operated the mill until 1810 when Joseph purchased his brother’s share becoming the sole operator. The newly formed Joseph Potter & Sons Co. switched over to the woolen business, upgrading the old mill to produce (according to local myth) the first pound of cotton cloth in the area. The business expanded through 1814 at a cost of $9000. In addition to cloth, the mill also constructed two gunboats that participated in the War of 1812. Joseph sold his rights the mill after the war to his son, who continued to operate the cotton spinning and dress operations until 1843 when it was sold to E&H Babcock and Co. Babcock operated the mill as a woolen operation. During this time the current mill as it remains today was constructed. Operations under E&H Babcock continued until 1870 when ownership was transferred to R&A Babcock Co. Woolen operations continued under the new ownership, but in 1885 ownership was transferred again to JP Campbell & Co. It was under the ownership of JP Campbell that the mill property was again expanded. The mill continued to produce top quality cashmere yarn and cloth. The mill at this point employed 200 men that operated 11 sets of carding machines, 56 broad looms, and 3200 spool spindles. The mill was powered by six water wheels and three boilers. From 1889 to 1902 the mill was operated by the Campbell Mill Company, and then sold off to the Pawcatcuk Woolen Mill Company. Under the new owners the mill was again expanded, a 125 horsepower boiler was installed the dam was rebuilt, and a fire suppression system was installed. In 1907 the dry/wet weave building was also constructed on the site. The mill continued to output top quality cloth that went into the making of fine men’s clothing. From 1930 to 1955 the mill was operated by the Swift River Woolen Company. In 1955 the mill was purchased by the Westerly Woolen Co, who after only three years of operations closed the mill in 1958. Westerly Woolen maintained ownership of the property until 1992 when the owner, Helen Cottrell died. Her estate attempted to sell the property. A group from the town attempted to have the mill demolished using a 1981 court order as a basis for this request, several companies were interested in purchasing the scrap from the location. But the mill was instead sold to Renewable Resources Inc. The new owner’s plans include the restoration of the hydro-electric generation capabilities of the mill to provide renewable energy for the community. But since access was returned to the mill in 2004 there have been no changes or movement to restore the historic site. A damaging winter in 2010 caused major damage to several of the mill buildings, leaving the future of the site hanging in the balance.

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