FACTORY AT ROCKDALE
The Seymour Smith & Sons Plant Oakville, Connecticut
Where the First Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines were made
THE FACTORY AT ROCKDALE
The factory at Rockdale is one which has had a number of changes of ownership and of goods manufactured within its walls since it was first built.
It is said that about the year 1725, David Scott, a brother of Jonathan Scott of early fame as an Indian captive, built a sawmill there.
In 1764 Nathaniel Arnold sold to Abraham Norton a fulling mil privilege on Wooster Brook, which is thought to be the site of David Scott's saw mill. Later Leverette Candee had a satinet factory on this site and when the building was destroyed by fire, the water privilege was purchased in 1849 by a company composed of three Watertown citizens, Alanson Warren, George P. Woodruff and Nathaniel Wheeler, who erected there a mill for the manufacture of steel buckles and slides. There are still some persons who remember how, as children, they discovered some of these goods in the rear of the "corner store", which stood near the entrance to the Taft School grounds and promptly utilized them in doll dressing, considering them real treasure.
But this factory won its greatest fame as being the place in which the Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines were first manufactured. Nathaniel Wheeler, who like all that family, had considerable mechanical genius and was quick to see the possibilities of new inventions, while on a trip to New York to sell his goods, met Allan Benjamin Wilson, who had made a model of a sewing machine, which he felt sure would work, but which he needed capital to develop. Mr. Wheeler was interested at once and persuaded Mr. Wilson to bring the machine, with a single tread, making a chain stitch and was really wonderful for those days. Among those to whom it was shown was J. Shelton French, an expert tailor of long experience before removing to his farm on the hill on present French Street. He looked it over and said: Yes, it is a good machine, but look here, cutting a stitch, he pulled the thread and the seam raveled at once. Now, he said, What you want to do is to find some way to lock the stitch so it won't ravel if the thread should happen to break. Mr. Wilson saw the justice of this and devised the rotary hook which was the distinguishing feature of the Wheeler & Wilson machine.
In 1850 the Warren, Woodruff & Wheeler Company contracted to build 2.000 machines of the "Wilson first patent shuttle sewing machine" for the New York company who were the principal owners of the patent. Mr. Wilson, meanwhile, assisted by Joseph Wheeler, brother of Nathaniel, well remembered as one of Watertown's mechanical geniuses, perfected his rotary hook machine, which was patented in 1851 and improved and patented again in 1852. Then a partnership was formed by Alanson Warren, Nathaniel Wheeler, George P. Woodruff and Allen B. Wilson, with a capital stock of about $80,000, under the firm name of Wheeler, Wilson & Co. It is said that Mr. Warren at that time remarked to his son that he would probably live to see the day when they would make and sell 25 machines per day.
In October 5, 1853 the company was reorganized as the Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing Company, with a capital stock of $160,000, Alanson Warren being chosen president and George P. Woodruff, secretary.
In 1855 Mr. Warren resigned the presidency and Nathaniel Wheeler succeeded him in that office. Those who invested in Wheeler & Wilson stock in those days became wealthy and those who refused, because of skepticism as to the success of the new enterprise, lived to regret it. The Rockdale factory was a busy place in those days. There are still a few men living who worked in it and who delight in recalling the old times there.
But in 1856 the business had grown far beyond the expectations of its founders and the need for enlarged facilities became imperative. Negotiations were attempted with the owners of the surrounding property, that a larger factory might be built. But the late Truman Dayton, who was one of the principal owners of the land needed, refused to sell. "I shouldn't have an apple, or a pear, or anything else left on my place, with the sewing machine workers tramping all over it", he said to a neighbor who was trying to persuade him to reconsider his refusal, "and they can't have any of my land for their factory". So the sewing machine factory was moved to Bridgeport and Watertown lost a business that might have brought railroad facilities to it much sooner than they came and built up the town much faster.
In 1866 the plant was sold to Seymour Smith, & Son, who started the manufacture of pruning shears, bull rings and similar articles which is still carried on there by the grandsons of Mr. Smith. In the upper story Leslie Warner had, for some time, a wire hairpin factory. So it will he seen that from the earliest days of the town's settlement, this locality has been one of importance in a manufacturing sense. The water power available before the days of steam and electric power made the site a desirable one, first for milling purposes and later for different kinds of manufacturing. It is pleasantly and conveniently located and is never likely to lose its character as a business place. Its owners live nearby, as has been the case most of the time from the first Allen B. Wilson built the gothic cottage below the factory and lived there for some time and the Smiths have always had their homes in its vicinity.
Property of the
Watertown Historical Society