It was June of 1832 that the New Hampshire Legislature granted a charter to William Badger, Joseph L. Kimball, Isaac E. Sawyer and their associates incorporating the Gilmanton Village Manufacturing Company for the purpose of the manufacture of cotton and woolen goods. The corporation was authorized to invest in real and personal estate up to the value of $30,000. Within weeks of receiving this charter the new corporation began accumulating parcels of land including the former Fellows sawmill property and the lands belonging to Joseph Fellows Jr., thus gaining control of the water rights on the Great Brook as it was then called. These properties ran from the mill itself up stream to and including the former Sawyer Meadow where a large reservoir was soon constructed. Today this property is known as Sawyer Lake. Other preparations included laying out a plan of lots which located the mill itself on a bluff above the river, a common in front of the mill and nine house lots on the west side of what now is known as Main Street. Actual Construction of the brick cotton factory, as it was often called, took place in 1833. The structure is eighty feet long and forty feet deep and sits on a finished granite foundation which rests on massive granite blocks below. The walls are twenty-four inches thick on the ground level and gradually thin on the upper floors. Heavy hardwood girders were framed into the brick walls running from front to back and from these floor joists were mortised to run in the opposite direction. Turned wooden posts ran the length of the center of the building to provide support for the floors above. The whole building was further strengthened by iron rods which ran both from front to rear and side to side. The front roof held eight dormer windows and the belfry sat in the middle of the ridge. The roof was of slate. Quite probably the bricks were manufactured at the brickyard operated by Peter Perkins located off what we currently call Perkins Road. The floors have been replaced during the recent and previous renovations and the wooden support posts have been replaced with ones made of steel, but the other features remain much as they were when originally constructed. The site selected was chosen because water could be redirected from the river and made to flow to the factory building where it could be utilized to run the machinery. In order to achieve this goal a second major construction project was undertaken by constructing a dam which diverted a portion of the river water through a canal which crossed to the east side of Main Street joining the small stream that flows near the present telephone company building on Gale Street. These combined streams then flowed to a small pond located on the east side of Main Street which was located at the approximate location of the present Village Store. The water then flowed to the rear of the mill in a canal running from the west side of Main Street through the location of the present bandstand. On the river bank behind the mill stood a large overshot water wheel which was connected to a system of belts and pulleys which transferred the power to the mill.
The mill reportedly did not go into operation until 1835, and for some unexplained reason in 1836 a new corporation was chartered to take over from Gilmanton Village Manufacturing Company. This company known as Union Factory Company was chartered by the New Hampshire legislature in June of 1836. Capitalization of the new corporation was increased to $50,000. Ownership appears to have remained unchanged.
Union Factory company, which remained in business until 1852 was never very successful, and ultimately ended its existence in failure. One wonders how such an undertaking located far from major markets and lacking transportation other than horse and wagon could have survived at all. It was not until 1842, that a railroad even reached as far as Concord and 1848 before the line was extend as far north as East Sanbornton or Lochmere, which would be the nearest rail connection for many years. The ultimate blow to Union Factory Company came when the Sawyer Reservoir gave was in April of 1852 and the entire contents of the lake came cascading down the river wiping out mills and bridges along the way including the village gristmill owned by Governor Badger who died in September of that year undoubtedly leaving a very diminished estate. A foreclosure auction held on November 15, 1852 resulted in title to the property passing to Loring Norcross of Boston. The following year a new corporation was chartered by the name of Tioga Manufacturing Company. William Badger Jr., later commonly referred to as Captain Badger again became superintendent, a position he had held in the previous corporation. At this time Sawyer Dam was rebuilt and an additional reservoir of fifteen acres referred to as Badger Dam was constructed. The Badger Dam was later breached on December 5, 2003. It appears that the new company initially was no more successful that the previous one, but as the Civil War commenced at this time the company may have benefited from the wartime economy. According to the 1860 federal census the mill employed thirteen males and twenty-seven females and produced 210,000 pounds of yarn a year. Captain Badger left the company around this time and later pursued a military career initially with the 4th New Hampshire volunteers.
On August 17, 1865 title to all mill assets passed to Moses Sargent Sr. for the sum of $10,000. Sargent, originally from Amesbury, Massachusetts had, out of necessity, because of his father's disability been forced to go to work at the age of nine in the mills of that town. He became familiar with the textile industry and being industrious eventually was able to open a small shop of his own. Eventually he move to Lake Village (Lakeport) where he operated a spinning mill, and later manufactured stockings for the United States government near the end of the Civil War.
Sargent immediately installed knitting machinery and converted the mill to the manufacture of cotton stockings. He was assisted by his sons Moses Jr. and Frank. Sargent also acquired the mills at the upper of Fellows Dam which had originally been operated by Joseph Fellows who is often considered to be the founder of Belmont Village. These mills were later operated by Governor Badger and were known as Badger's Mills. After the great "freshet" of 1852 when the Sawyer Reservoir gave way they were taken over by the Canterbury Shakers and rebuilt and operated by them until purchased by Sargent. These mills would later become part of the mill complex.
According to the 1870 federal census machines at the mill included the following: 16 cotton cards, 2000 spindles, 104 circular knitting machines, 15 footers, 24 sewing machines and 6 winders. The mill employed 15 males, 70 females and 45 children and produced 62,565 dozen pairs of ladies hose and 23, 195 dozen pairs of men's hose.
In November of 1870 Sargent sold all mill assets to Amos A. Lawrence for $40,000. Sargent had at one time worked for Lawrence in Amesbury in his younger years and the two had remained friends. Amos A. Lawrence was the son of Amos Lawrence and the nephew of Abbott Lawrence two of the so called "Boston Associates" a group of industrialists who largely developed the textile industry in New England. These were the same individuals who were instrumental in building the cities of Lowell, Lawrence, and Manchester. Many of them would later become involved in politics and philanthropy. Amos A. Lawrence as a younger member of the group eventually acquired ownership of several of the mills located on the Merrimack River and its tributaries and thus had an interest in controlling the water rights up and down the river. During this period the mill operated under the same name of Gilmanton Mills. During this time several additional structures were added to the mill complex, first with the construction of the so called dye house and boiler room around 1874, followed by the one story, so called "new mill" around 1880 (located to the left front of the main mill) and by the so called "picker house" around 1886 (attached to the left end of the main mill). The seventeen acre Sargent Reservoir (lake) was also built in 1871. Construction of a boiler room which was said to have been equipped with a steam engine of 50 horsepower provided the mill with an alternative source of power as well as a central heating system. The mill had previously been heated with box stoves and relied entirely on water power to run the machinery. Reliance on water power had resulted in periodic periods when dry conditions had forced the mill to curtail production. The overshot water wheel was eventually replaced by a horizontal turbine said to develop over 200 horsepower.
Allen J. Hackett in his history of Belmont which was published in Hurd's "The History of Merrimack and Belknap Counties" made the following comments regarding the mill in 1885: " The average number of operatives at the Gilmanton Mills is two hundred, most of which are of American birth. The annual product is two hundred thousand dozen; annual consumption, six hundred bales of cotton, and one hundred thousands pounds of wool. there are also used twelve hundred cords of wood and one hundred and fifty thousand feet of lumber, each year."
During this period the mill was managed by Moses Sargent, the son of the former owner, who held this position for over forty years. It was around 1890 that major renovations were undertaken which resulted in the removal of the original roof on the main mill building and the construction of the full top floor along with the front tower to the top of which the bell and belfry were moved. At this time the canal and its ponds ere done away with and a wooden penstock was built to run the upper or Fellows Dam. This greatly increased the amount of power which could be derived from the water because of the greatly increased head. The mills at the Fellows dam had burned in 1885 and therefore no longer needed the power. The wooden penstock, however, did not perform well and had to be replaced with one made of steel around 1910. (remains can be seen today from Main Street) It was around 1909 that ownership passed to a corporation by the name of Ipswich Manufacturing Company. The mills were then general referred to as the Gilmanton Mills Division of the Ipswich Manufacturing company. At about the same time William Phillips succeeded Moses Sargent as Superintendent. It was 1921 that ownership again changed when Belmont Hosiery Company was organized. the principle owners of this corporation were George and Walter F. Duffy. Allen M. Agle took over as Superintendent at this time. Renovations to the mill complex which soon took place included the construction of a new boiler room located closer to the river (still standing) and renovation of the old one for other uses. The 1920's were prosperous years for the new owners who in 1928 presented the town with a new public library building. According to a 1932 advertisement the mill produced silk, lisle and woolen hosiery. Just as the 1920's had been a period of prosperity, the 1930's proved to be a period of weak demand, cost cutting and declining prices for goods produced. According to a letter from the company to the Board of Selectmen seeking tax relief dated March 1, 1932, the company was seeing a major decline in sales of seamless hosiery and stated that the future hopes of continued operation of the mill depends on replacing this machinery with full fashioned machinery. The letter also reminds the Selectmen that the company paid approximately one-sixth of the town's taxes. Despite the untimely deaths of George Duffy and Allen Agle the company was able to survive through the 1930's. In large part this success can probably be attributed to replacing older machinery with new more productive machines. The auction brochure which was produced when the company was liquidated in 1956 lists nine Karl Liebernecht Full Fashion Hosiery Knitting Machines each capable to knitting thirty-two stockings at a time. Belmont Hosiery Company was famous for its silk and nylon women's hosiery which was marketed under the names of Grace Mae (the names of the wives of the Duffy brothers) Robert Lawrence and Dainty Dot.
Walter Duffy died in 1953 and although Ralph E. Duffy, the son of George Duffy continued the operation for two more years, it was concluded that operations could no longer effectively compete with southern manufacturers. Belmont Hosiery ceased operation in August 1955. All company assets including buildings were sold at auction on October 18, 1956.
One more knitting company would occupy these premises. The buildings were purchased at auction by the principals of Fenwick Hosiery Mills. The company had previously operated in the mill located at the beginning of Shaker Road in Belmont in the former Lucier Mill. The company was engaged in the manufacture of socks unlike the Belmont Hosiery Company which manufactured women's hosiery. Operations were moved from the former location and continued until 1970 when operations were consolidated with others in Laconia.
Thus ended a hundred and thirty-five year history of textile manufacture in Belmont. In the following years several small industries would occupy the space in the mills, but during this period the property lacked adequate maintenance and suffered from deterioration. The mill complex suffered what appeared to be its final blow on the night of August 14, 1992 when the equivalent of a five-alarm blaze ripped through the complex. Following the fire the property remained in a state of ruin pending acquisition of the property by the Town of Belmont through tax deed which was accomplished in July of 1995.
Although at the time opinion was far from unanimous, the property was saved from final demolition through the efforts of a group of citizens and with the help of several concern individuals who realized the historic nature of the property. Preservation efforts were further advanced by a visit to the site followed by a weekend work session conducted by the group "Plan New Hampshire". The group made up of architects, engineers and planners pointed out the possibilities for further use of the property and encouraged the town to consider apply for a Community Development Block Grant for the purpose of building a community center in the mill. At the town meeting in March 1996 the Selectmen were authorized to make application for these funds and the following November, after many anxious months, the town received notification that funding had been approved. Therefore, the mill was restored and given back to the community in 1998. On August 29, 2001, the mill stack was taken down fearing it was unsafe. Fortunately today the mill lives on through former restoration efforts.
Sources: Belknap County Land Records, Allen J. Hacket Belmont portion of Hurd's "History of Merrimack and Belknap Counties 1885", New Hampshire State Archieves, Various Insurance Surveys compiled by Barlow's Insurance Surveys and Associated Mutual Insurance Co.'s, History of Gilmanton by Capt. William Badger published in 1976, Various Newspaper Clippings.