History of the Washington Mills
The history of the Washington Mills is a snapshot of the textile industry in Lawrence. How to make the best use of the complex seems to be the historical question. This history includes massive investment of capital; changing yarns;changing owners; changing usage; financial failure and rehabilitation.
The original structure was the Bay State Mills, built in 1846 and put into operation the following year. They produced woolen, worsted and cotton goods. Due to the financial crash of 1857, the mills were shut down and in 1859 started under reorganization, the corporate name name being Washington Mills.
The Ayer Brothers of Lowell, MA (having made their money in patent medicines) were the chief investors. In 1885 the Washington Mills went into bankruptcy and were put up for auction. Fred Ayer bought the complex for $328,000.
At that time Fred Ayer tore down the old narrow mills (some were 9 stories tall) and sold the machinery for the sum of his purchase price! He then built a new mill complex with modern English and American machinery.
Ill-equipped to handle the textile operations, the Ayers brought in Thomas Sampson, who in turn brought in William Wood, son of Portuguese immigrants, at a starting salary of $1,800.00 a year. The board of directors had voted to abolish the cotton department and devote the entire complex to wool cloth manufacturing.
In the years to follow Wood would become part of the Ayer family, marrying Fred Ayer's daughter, Ellen, in 1888. By 1895 William Wood was the treasurer of the company. At this time Congress passed the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894 that allowed cheap foreign goods to be dumped on the American market - thus causing the nation's woolen firms to face economic ruin.
This did not deter Wood - who demanded strict financial accounting and as much output from his machinery as from his workers (for which he is justifiably better known). Wood's style caused the Washington Mills to function in the black.
By the 1890's business consolidation had grown tremendously and Wood's idea was to consolidate deficit-producing woolen and worsted mills. After an organization meeting in NY at the Waldorf Astoria in 1899, the American Woolen Co as born.
This giant conglomerate consisted of mills from not only Lawrence but also Fitchburg, Blackstone; 3 Rhode Island firms; and one New York firm - 8 mills in all. The products of the merged mills included men's clothing, women's cloakings and dress goods, fancy cashmeres, worsteds, French-spun yarns and ordinary worsted yarns. The Washington Mills was the oldest, having been established in 1858.
( Roddy, Edward. " Mills, Mansions, and Mergers: the Life of William M. Wood. North Andover, MA: Merrimack Valley Textile Museum, 1982.)
The Washington Mills, originally named Bay State Mills and one of the first mills in Lawrence, rebuilt itself by tearing down the original mill and re-building at the same location and then adding additional buildings. The mills swung with each financial rise and fall - eventually closing the doors.
Today with renewed interest in rehabilitation and historic preservation - Washington Mills is in the forefront - by preserving this hugely important structure and allowing it to remain relevant for today's citizens.
See also Washington Mills Building No.1: Preservation Award