Most local history buffs know that we had a lavish mill in Ferry Village, but may not know many details about it. The site, now home to the RiverPlace Apartments off Mussey Street, has long been home to an industrial complex. Most people referred to this complex as the old “bicycle factory” where the John P. Lovell Arms Company manufactured its popular Lovell Diamond bicycles.
We’ll take a closer look at the Lovell Arms factory next week, but this week we’ll take a look at the plush factory that was the first company to occupy this site.
The idea of creating a fluff mill can be traced back to the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890. After that act was passed, this led to a significant increase in import duties, and there was a corresponding increase in the cost imported lint used in the manufacture of upholstered furniture, car seats and other products.
Enter Portland businessman Isaac C. Atkinson, president of the Atkinson House Furnishing Company department store on Middle Street in Portland. The department store sold a wide variety of furniture, including upholstered furniture covered in silk seal plush, faux fur fabric. Atkinson knew Walter Ackroyd who ran a stuffed animal factory in Bradford, England, which made silk seal stuffed animals. Knowing that Ackroyd would have the skills to operate a luxury factory here, Atkinson embarked on a grand plan to: 1.) line up investors to raise capital; 2.) construct a large factory building in the Portland area; and 3.) buy the machines from the factory in Bradford and move them to the factory building here to create a plushie manufacturing industry.
The area he identified for the mill was the point of land known as “Mussey Farm Point” at Cape Elizabeth (South Portland). On November 25, 1891, he purchased much of what was known as “Mussey Farm” from Margaret Sweat (daughter of John Mussey) and her husband LDM Sweat. The land on which the mill would be built lay to the west of what is now Mussey Street and at that time was just a large, open marshland.
Atkinson then said that if capital could be raised, he would donate 80,000 square feet of this land (nearly 2 acres) to the new mill business, along with 6,000 yards of stone needed to build the foundations of the mill. , as well as dock privileges. He attended many private and public meetings to publicize the plan and inspire local people to invest in the factory and in the local manufacturing concept.
On March 5, 1892, the company was officially organized as the Portland Plush Mill Company, with a capital of $200,000, divided into 2,000 shares. The first elected officers included: former Maine Governor Frederick Robie, President (Robie was the 39th Governor of Maine, in office January 3, 1883 – January 5, 1887); Charles A. Tilton, founder of the CA Tilton & Co. hardware store in Ferry Village, was elected treasurer and clerk of the company; and Isaac Atkinson was elected as one of the directors of the company.
Construction work on the facility began immediately. At the end of March, a pile driver arrived to start work on the quay. The pilings for the wharf are said to come from the woods of Cape Elizabeth. The logs would be delivered to the old Knightville shipyard where they would be shaped, finished and floated through Mill Cove to the new wharf.
Isaac Atkinson did exactly what he promised – on April 13, 1892, he transferred 80,000 square feet of his land to the Portland Plush Mill Company (he would also transfer more adjacent land to the company in August of that year ). Also in April 1892, the company awarded the contract to build the mill foundation to JH Flannagan of Portland. The masonry contract was awarded to James Cunningham in May. Spencer Rogers of Portland was awarded the contract for the building in May.
By September 1892, the construction of the factory building was nearly complete. The boiler and chimney, which had been manufactured by the Portland Company, were towed across the River Fore to the factory. Walter Ackroyd, now officially employed as the General Manager of Portland Plush Mill, was overseas with former Governor Robie, where they lined up the purchase of the B. Wright Plush Mill’s manufacturing equipment & Co. in Bradford, England. This factory had closed due to the Tariff Act. Equipment began arriving in South Portland in October and installation has begun. In November, steam was turned on for the first time in the mill.
According to an article from Portland Daily Press January 30, 1893, “The fluff mill produced its first piece of fluff last week and since then two looms have been in continuous operation. All 26 trades are expected to be at work this week.
On February 2, 1893, the plush mill held a celebration that was reported in the Portland Daily Press the following day: “Yesterday, in a splendid mill, to the sound of the buzzing of the looms, under the glare of the electric lights made by a Portland company, and in the brilliance of the expansive smiles of dozens of Portland affairs, Mr. Atkinson recounted how the lecture series at the school paid off. As he spoke, the stuffed animal was being made within 50 feet of where he was standing, and the delighted men, matrons and servants of Cape Elizabeth feasted on the process.
The machinery in the building allowed for the production of seal fluff or car fluff, so there were certainly no problems with the facilities. Rather, it was a problem of insufficient funding that sounded the death knell for the company so soon after its inception. Even during the opening celebration, Atkinson remarked to attendees that they still needed to raise an additional $25,000 in working capital. Treasurer Charles Tilton commented on the skill of Walter Ackroyd and other workers, but that “a little help in the form of working capital” was needed.
Unfortunately, after investing in the construction of the factory building, as well as the purchase and installation of machinery, there was not much left to finance the purchase of raw materials and labor expenses. labor necessary to manufacture the finished product. Even though they had a lot of backorders, the company couldn’t make ends meet. Facing insolvency in April 1893, the company made an assignment for the benefit of creditors and former Governor Robie was named assignee. An attempt at an auction by the company later that year failed as they were unable to receive the minimum bid. The factory remained vacant.
We’ll continue the story of the lint factory next week, when we see how a Portland inventor’s patent for a motorized bicycle led the great John P. Lovell Arms Company to come to South Portland.
To note: The South Portland Historical Society offers a free online museum with over 15,000 images available to view with keyword search, and we add new content regularly. You can find it at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com and if you like what we do, please donate using the donate button on the homepage. If you have any photos or other information to share about South Portland’s past, we’d love to hear from you. The South Portland Historical Society can be reached at 207-767-7299, by email at [email protected]or by post to 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.
Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society. She can be reached at [email protected]
Residents invited to complete housing survey