Innovators in industry and the arts: the Scholfields

When Everett Scholfield photographed his family’s old woolen mill in Montville, he probably felt sentimental. During his career as a professional photographer, he’d created hundreds of portraits and landscapes, but this site, one of the places where his ancestors made textile history, had special significance.

Everett worked between 1865 and 1913 in studios located at various times in Mystic, New London, Putnam and Westerly. The Mystic Seaport Museum holds an extensive collection of his work, including portraits of family, friends, customers, and charming scenes of Mystic in the 19th century. Appealing images of his home (still standing on Clift Street) show the formal Victorian mansion with cornfields, a cow, and people having fun on the front lawn. (Check out Everett’s work on the museum’s website or at a special exhibit at the Seaport that opened Saturday and runs through April.)

Everett apparently liked to experiment. For example, there’s a picture of two figures in conversation, one seated and one standing; both men were Everett. Another unusual self-portrait shows him seated with his back to the camera, gazing into a mirror while his reflection looks back at the viewer. Even with today’s digital editing software, these are hard shots to compose.

Everett learned photography from his father, Edwin, who opened a studio in Rhode Island after a textile career in Massachusetts. From the day the Scholfields first set foot in America, automating the manufacture of cloth was a big part of their family story.

During the Industrial Revolution, England rigorously guarded her manufacturing secrets to maintain economic advantage over her trading partners. Exporting documentation or blueprints of industrial designs was illegal. (Even as late into the era as 1870, a visitor from Mystic who wanted to tour a British mill, carried a letter of introduction certifying he was merely a curious sort of chap, not an industrial spy.) But ingenuity and knowledge are hard to control legislatively, so when John and Arthur Scholfield arrived in Boston in 1793, they brought with them strategically important British wool processing expertise.

The Scholfields didn’t waste any time becoming productive. By 1794, they’d built their first wool carding machine, and just one year later, they were supervisors at the Newburyport Woolen Manufactory in Byfield, Massachusetts, the first successful mill of its kind in the United States.

The brothers often traveled to Rhode Island and Connecticut on wool-buying trips, and on one of these expeditions, John spotted a site on Oxoboxo Brook in Montville that looked like an ideal place to establish a mill. In 1798, John and Arthur moved to Montville, built their own factory, and, according to Henry Baker’s “History of Montville,” started the first water-powered cloth manufacturing business in Connecticut.

In 1802, Arthur relocated to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where his company produced the first American-made broadcloth. President James Madison wore a suit made of Arthur’s fabric to his inauguration.

John went on to establish two more mills, one near Millers Pond Road in Quaker Hill, where his son Thomas operated Connecticut’s first satinet factory. (Satinet is a cotton and wool weave with a shiny finish.)

The other Scholfield mill was on the Pawcatuck River, the site of a former saw and oil mill. John expanded the facility to include a woolen mill, but then sold the property in 1831 to Oremus Stillman. Stillman established an industrial neighborhood, Stillmanville, and replaced the Scholfield building with the brick factory that you can see today on Stillman Avenue in Pawcatuck. Even though this wasn’t his ancestor’s original factory, Everett photographed Stillman’s mill for a stereoscope card.

Innovations in business and technology are essential for moving societies forward, but these drivers of progress tend to have finite lifespans. Art, in contrast, is more resilient. New London County textile mills contributed to this nation’s growth in ways that can’t be overstated, yet now they’re history. Everett’s photographs survive and continue to delight new generations.

 

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments