Squire Bagley and Amesbury’s Mills
Editor’s note: This article was contributed by Courtney MacLachlan, volunteer researcher on the Amesbury Carriage Museum's industrial survey team.
Lowell Bagley (1784-1863) lived in Amesbury his whole life, and he kept a diary for about 40 years. A copy of his diary, which still exists, is in the Amesbury Public Library. His house still exists at 277 Main Street on the way to Amesbury’s Ferry District, the oldest part of town. By reading the diary and touring the house (open by appointment), one can really begin to catch the flavor of early nineteenth-century life in Amesbury – how Bagley felt about living here, and how he felt about the growth of the new mills in the Mill District.
Like many in New England, Bagley earned his living in several ways. He was a farmer, so much of his diary records the weather and the growth and sale of his crops from year to year. He also kept a neighborhood general store, either next to or attached to his house. The neighborhood along the river at that time was a booming little area, with shops, churches, taverns and small businesses and boatbuilding enterprises. Lastly, he was a lawyer. In that capacity, Bagley wrote wills and deeds for Amesbury residents. Because of his law background and sense of civic duty, he served on numerous town committees and spent several terms in Boston as Amesbury’s representative to General Court. Lowell Bagley was a busy man, and it seems that he knew or was related to everybody in town.
Amesbury was changing in the 1820s and 1830s. The industrial revolution was making itself felt by the construction of textile mills along the Powow River. The Ferry District (along the river near today’s Larry's Marina) concentrated on boatbuilding and river trade, and the Mills District (today’s Market Square area) had always had small mills and a nail factory. But the Mills neighborhood was growing fast because of the construction of large brick textile mills, one of which is the current Amesbury Industrial Supply. It was changing the fabric of the town, and it is interesting to see these changes through Lowell Bagley’s eyes.
In 1823 and 1824 Bagley commented several times about the number of buildings being moved from the Ferry District up to the Mills. “Daniel Long hauled his barn up to the Mills”, he commented in December, 1823. A few days later he reported that, “Thomas Bailey moved his hall up to the Mills”, and a few days after that, “Thomas Bailey hauled two pieces of his house up to the Mills.” Next month “the widow Bagley’s house and the Gale house [were] hauled to the Mills today” and “John Blasdel, jr. hauled Saunder’s shop up to the mills.” It seems like the Mills District was the “happening” place in town, and the Ferry District was being left behind. Finally he voiced this opinion: “The house that John Goodwin built is hauled to the mills today thus everything centres to the mills, this is the last house that has been built in this street and is not finished yet. Everything is crowding into the mills, and manufactories are all the rage, but I am inclined to think that it will prove like the Merino Sheep Drama and it will last but a short time. Let commerce revive and manufactures will decline.”
Because the population was shifting, Bagley found himself heading to the mills more frequently since more activities were centered there. Fourth of July celebrations were now celebrated at the Mills. The 1825 Independence Day festivities were “celebrated at the mills in great stile. One party at T. Young’s and another at D. Long’s – a great deal of riding in all directions.” At the 1833 Fourth of July celebration, Bagley reported that, “In firing a cannon at the Mills this morning, Archibald Lewis got his thumb and one finger blown off. Another person got his hand injured.”
People came to the Mill District to see the curiosities as well. In 1827 Bagley noted that “about 20 Indians came up in their canoes and encamped at the mills – a great running to see them.” The next day Bagley “carried my wife and Sarah up to the mills to see the Indians. The other children [are] going after school. The Indians are of the Penobscot tribe.” In June of 1832 the circus came to town, and Bagley “carried all my family but Sarah to see the Circus riders at the mills by invitation of the manager, free of expense.”
Bagley may have felt uncomfortable at first by the creation of the textile mills, but the new mills were fast becoming an integral part of the town. They carried both opportunities and risks. Local people took advantage of the opportunities, as Bagley did when he wrote in 1824 that he was “employed at the mills taking invoice.” Risks existed too, as when as on August 9, 1826, “two men were blown up at the mills today where they were blowing out [dynamiting ground for] the new factory. One is dead, the other’s life is despaired of. There has [sic] been 3 or 4 wounded before, but recovered. It is a tremendous undertaking and very expensive.”
Lowell Bagley also knew and was friendly with many of the people involved in the creation of the textile mills. When accidents or troubles happened there, he often knew who the people were and he offered what help he could. “Captain William Colby fell some distance at the Factory last evening and injured him very much,” he wrote. “I sat up with him all last night.” In 1829 “young Rand at the Mills burned his face with powder. I applied some spirits of turpentine, which is an excellent thing for a burn.”
Ezra Worthen of Amesbury, a well-known designer of textile machinery and textile mills, was a valued friend of Bagley’s. When Worthen died suddenly in 1824, Bagley wrote sadly, “Died this morning at Chelmsford Factory, Ezra Worthen, agent [superintendent] of said factory. He was standing conversing with a person in the street when he fell and expired instantly. Mr Worthen was an original genius, without more than common education, he became one of the most useful and inventive men that our country can boast of. Perhaps there was no man of equal advantages of education that can be compared to him for quickness of perception and boldness of original design. Mr Worthen was also a most benevolent man… He was a warm-hearted kind Friend, sincere and lasting in his attachments.”
Amesbury, along with many other small New England towns, had entered a new economic phase with the coming of the textile mills. The mills were part of the town and they also changed it. Through Lowell Bagley’s diary we can see what some of these changes meant on a daily level.
A typed copy of Squire Bagley’s diary is in the local history room at the Amesbury Public Library. The original handwritten diary is at the Longyear Museum, Chestnut Hill, MA. The two images of Squire Bagley are from The History of a House: Its Founder, Family and Guests by Mary Beecher Longyear, second ed. revised, pages 8 & 18. Brookline, MA: Longyear Foundation, 1947.