The Spaulding Cooperage

The Spaulding Cooperage is one of the last remaining vestiges of a booming industrial center that once supported the largely agrarian community. In addition, its ties with several prominent individuals and their properties make it a jumping point for further research. The strongest connections include the adjacent Spaulding Grist Mill at 2 South Street, and the Conant House at 15 South Street.

Beginning in the early eighteenth century, Townsend Harbor saw development and industrialization. As early as 1733 the area around and adjacent to this site was developed for mills of various purpose. The first records indicate that a dam, and ditch were erected on the north side of the river for a sawmill which was erected by John Pratt, a carpenter, for John Stevens, a local innkeeper. John Stevens was originally from Concord and plied his trade there before purchasing land on the south side of the Squannacook River in Townsend. His land abutted that of Lott Conant, the patriarch founder of that famous local family. He likewise was from Concord and was a millwright by trade. He joined with Stevens to erect a grist mill near the saw mill in order to encourage development. Conant would ultimately come to control both mills and they would be passed through multiple generations. The original buildings were rebuilt entirely in 1757 as noted in the inventory of the estate of John Conant. By the end of the eighteenth century, the site was in possession of John Conant II and was quite developed. It included a potash mill, blacksmith shop and the original grist and saw mills. This prosperous site brought interest from outsiders. By 1790, Nathan Carlton, a clothier, was operating a fulling mill on the probable site of the sawmill building. In 1792, for a sum of 20£, John Conant II leased “a certain fulling mill together with all the running Gears, Privileges, and Appurtenances” to Silias Lawrence, a clothier from Hollis, New Hampshire. That same year, Conant leased to Lawrence the “privileges of drawing water sufficient for the purposes of carrying a fulling mill at any time out of the Mill Pond…except when there is not sufficient supply to carry the Grist Mill”. This is the first indication of the present building, which has all the building hallmarks of a late eighteenth century structure. Lawrence was also granted the option of constructing a dye house, and bridge to span the canal used to convey water to the Grist Mill.

The Mill passed through a series of owners after John Conant III fell on hard times and was forced to sell. These included Schubel C. Allen, John Butterick and finally Paul Gerrish. A native of West Boylston, he purchased the mill in 1821 for $850. He was an active farmer; town records indicate in 1840 he had 14 acres of pasture, 26 cultivated acres, and a 3 acre fruit orchard. He was also an active member of the community, serving as moderator, assessor, justice of the peace, a selectman and Townsend’s representative to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1832. Gerrish likely purchased the mill for a similar use and enlarged the building to include a carder, spinning jenny and a loom. Woolen cloth could now be produced under one roof. In 1832, he incorporated the Squannacook Manufacturing Company with an authorized capital of $200,000. Following his death in 1847, the business closed and the mill briefly disappears from tax records.

The use of the building as a cooperage begins following the Civil War, but lasts just a single decade. One of two staple cottage industries found in New England, coopering was a winter craft that produced a universal container for liquid or dry storage. Wooden barrels were the preferred method of shipping as they fit neatly in boats and carts. They were originally produced in houses but the need for more product pushed craftsmen outdoors. They often built small shed like outbuildings, known as a ten footer for its square footprint. By 1856, the trade reached its peak which 75+ buildings were documented on the 1856 Map of Middlesex County, which is the first cartographic representation of Townsend with building detail. The Townsend Harbor illustrates that the fulling mill had been converted to a woodworking shop. Jonas Spaulding, the owner and for whom the structure is named, owned several Harbor properties and improved them over many years. The “old fulling mill” was converted to a planning and turning shop. This must have been successful because he later added more equipment. Switching to coopering, he built the six sided brick masonry chimney to warm wood fibers to be shaped into water and air tight shipping containers. The adjacent Peterborough and Shirley Railroad, constructed in 1847, expanded his ability to ship product regionally. The Spaulding Cooperage was one of the first places to put multiple individuals to work in a factory like setting. By 1870, the building included two stave saws, one circular saw, a planner and the fireplaces. The shop employed 25 men a year and turned out 30,000 barrels and 50,000 kits (half barrels for the storage of fish), valued at $22,000. Unfortunately, the operation was overshadowed by the B. and A.D. Fessenden Company, one of the largest cooperages in the eastern United States. Spaulding, joined by his sons, quickly switched to the production of leather board. Operating a mill less than 500 feet from the cooperage, they were wildly successful. The Spaulding Leatherboard Company would ultimately span three states and ship internationally before ceasing operating in the twentieth century.

By 1875, the Spaulding Cooperage was converted into a store house for the adjacent Grist Mill. In 1880, it briefly found life as a changing room for those swimming in the Harbor Pond. During World War I, it was utilized as a rehabilitation facility for returning veterans. For the most part, the building went unused and unwanted. In 1931, descendants of the Spaulding Family donated the structure to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA, now Historic New England) to be operated as a museum for the coopering industry. A tea room was setup for a time, but the Spaulding’s request was never fully realized. In 1936, devastating floods all over New England impacted this building as its undercarriage on the southern façade was torn away. Repairs were made but the building’s appearance was forever altered.

In 1981, SPNEA sold the structure to the Townsend Historical Society along with the adjacent Grist Mill. Originally, the Cooperage was utilized as a retail outlet for a Maine barrel maker. The operation ceased in 1990, where after it has been utilized as an antique store. The tenants are generally long term, usually sustaining a lease with the Society for 5+ years. During that time, their income has helped fund the Society’s mission to preserve this and other buildings, collections and provide quality locally focused programs. The Society also actively interprets the building in its house tours, walking tours and school programs.