Historic Harrisville

P.O. Box 79
Harrisville, NH 03450
603-827-3722

Erin Hammerstedt
Executive Director
ehammerstedt@historicharrisville.org

 


 

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In the Shadow of Cheshire Mills

By Ron Trudelle

In the fall of 2010, Historic Harrisville marked the 40th anniversary of the closing of Cheshire Mills. I couldn’t make the meeting but I heard a lot of people who worked in the mill talked about their experiences there. Though I never worked in the mill, it was a big part of my life growing up in town.

Harris Tenement/Trudelle’s
Photo from the HHI Archives

My story starts around 1920 when my grandmother Anna (Memere) Trudelle came to work at the mill in Harrisville. She emigrated from Canada some years before and first worked at the sprawling Amoskeag mill in Manchester. After a few years, Memere got tired of the big city life and moved to the quiet of Harrisville to raise her family.  She ended up buying a former mill tenement at the end of Kadakit Street, close to Mill #6. This is where my wife and I now live. My Mom and Dad bought the house from Memere in the 1950s, so it has been in the family for more than 90 years.

Without the mills, I probably never would have grown up in Harrisville. I might have lived in Canada or the French-Canadian section of Manchester and learned French the easy way. A lot of my family worked in the mill. Besides Memere, my grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s side worked there. My grandmother was a bobbin winder and my grandfather was a night watchman. My older brother Bryan worked there for a while in the summer when he was in high school. Aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors worked there at one time or another. Everybody knew or was related to someone who worked in the mill.

Cheshire Mill No. 1, 1953
Photo from the HHI Archives

In good times and bad, the mill kept running. The looms’ clickity-clack sound wove itself into the fabric of the town. In Ernest Hebert’s book The Dogs of March, he called this sound “work for pay, work for pay.” The looms were the last thing I heard at night and the first thing I heard in the morning. When the mill shut down in 1970 and the looms stopped running, I had trouble getting to sleep because I was so used to the rhythm, that white noise.

My mother worked nights at the mill a few times on the 3-11 p.m. shift. Dad didn’t work there on a regular basis since he had a job in Keene, but he filled in for the night watchman once in a while on the weekends. My brother Bryan and I went to work with him sometimes, going on the “winds,” walking around the mill at night and sleeping on the rolls of cloth. The winds had to be done every hour to keep the clocks wound. Dad would put a crank in a metal box on the wall in various parts of the mill and spun it around a few times. The winds would ensure that the night watchmen were making the rounds and keeping an eye on the mill. The biggest trouble I remember is a raccoon knocking down some garbage cans in the finishing room.

Boiler House chimney coming down
Photo from the HHI Archivesn

When he was on watch, Dad kept things running in the boiler room. This room was where Harrisville Designs’ shipping dock is now. If the mill was the heart of the town, this building was the heart of the mill. There was a big furnace in the room which heated water and supplied steam to the main part of the mill. There used to be a tall chimney attached to the building which got taken down when the boilers started using oil for fuel. Originally wood was used, 1,000 cords a year, I read, and then coal was used. The boiler room ran with a hum that was something short of deafening and you had to shout to be heard when you were in there. By the furnace, there was a little porthole where you could look in and Dad gave my brother and me a turn taking a peek. I remember it was all glowing brick inside and the walls seemed to waver from the heat. “That’s what Hell is like,” Dad told us, and if that’s true, I want to go in the other direction.

For a few years and for some extra money, Mom ran a lunch cart business inside the mill. She sold sandwiches, hot dogs and hamburgers, and slices of homemade pies and cakes. When I had vacation from school, I used to go with her on her rounds and got to see the mill when it was running. I will never forget the smell when we opened the big doors to the carding room. It was a wooly smell, earthy and musty, and the smell hung in the air like the fuzzy lint cast off from the machines. We walked from the picker room where my uncle Don loaded the raw wool into the back of the picker to the room where the bolts of cloth were inspected before going out the doors to their markets. I remember the faces of some of the workers: Dot Winters from Eastview with tattoos on her arms, some guy from Keene my brother and I dubbed “Outer Limits” and there were quite a few Finnish workers. I remember John Colony, Chick’s dad, walking the aisles wearing a white shirt and black tie, sleeves rolled up and stopping to talk to everyone. He always bought something from the lunch cart.

Cheshire Mill No. 6 2nd floor, 1950’s
Photo from the HHI Archives

I remember watching with awe as Johnny Johnson rode the spinning mules across the floor with the leather belts squealing, the mill hand running the machine or vice versa? Mom and I took the elevator up to the weave room; this was probably the most active part of the mill and definitely the loudest. While Mom took care of customers, I stood and watched the rows of looms whack a wooden shuttle back and forth while harnesses flew up and down to make the patterns in the cloth. This action made the whole room vibrate, and you got the feeling that if the mill wasn’t built on stubborn Yankee bedrock, the machines would probably have shaken the mortar from the bricks. Your ears rang for a few minutes after leaving that room and I was glad to get out.

There was a room in the basement of the Granite Mill, I don’t remember what it was used for, but it was below the level of the mill pond and you could both feel and hear the water rush by with a dull roar, under the mill and out the other side on its way to Peterborough and beyond. I heard that someday soon, the same head of water that spun a turbine in the 1800s will once again generate power for the mill.

Cheshire Mill No. 6 with water tower (left)
Photo from the HHI Archives

There used to be a green water tower on top of Mill #6, right above where the steel I beam projects out over the upper doors. This tower was home to hundreds of pigeons who roosted on the wooden walkway that circled the tower. They would sometimes all take off at once to some unknown spot and then come back in small groups to keep watch on the town. When I was rebuilding a porch two houses down from where I live, I pulled out some thick pieces of oak, painted green, which must have been part of that tower. They didn’t fit into the new porch plan so I used them on some other project in town, the tower lives on but I haven’t seen a pigeon in Harrisville for years.

The mill lives on, too. Its space is now home to craftspeople and businesses. The oil has been scrubbed from the floors and I think the wool smell has finally faded. The looms are back, small hand looms made by Harrisville Designs that don’t make a racket. Through the preservation efforts of Historic Harrisville, the exterior of the mill has never looked better; the roof on the Granite Mill has been straightened, the windows puttied and painted, the bell tower rebuilt. Up the hill, the Temple sports a new roof. All these things will add years of life to these buildings which hold so much history and on whose worn floors walked generations of workers. They would be rightly proud.