Peter Dobson
August 5, 1784 - March 18, 1878

Peter Dobson
Picture courtesy of Rienzi B. Parker Jr.

The following was transcribed from the book “Textile Industries of the United States”, written by William R. Bagnall, M.A., in 1893. The entire book is available in .pdf format on Google Books.


Of the men, to who the cotton manufacture of this country owed much of the impulse which it received in the first quarter of a century after the introduction of the Awkwright system of cotton machinery and which, continued to the present time, in connection with other great industries, has contributed so much to the prosperity and happiness, individual and social, of New England, Peter Dobson, of Vernon, Conn. may well claim a place in this record, both as a peer in skill and enterprise of many of his contemporaries, whose names may be found in these pages, and as not excelled, perhaps not equaled, by any of them in native genius, in grasp of intellect,, or in scientific attainments, the latter in his case, having been such as to have received the encomiums of leading scientists of his time.

Peter Dobson was born in Preston, Lancashire, England on August 5, 1784. His father being a farmer, he was employed in childhood and early youth assisting in farm labor at home till he was fifteen years of age. He then entered the warehouse of a cotton manufactory in Preston, in which he received mercantile training, of great value to him in his future career. At the same time, having a natural taste for mechanics, he improved the opportunity, afforded to him in the mill, to acquire by close observation a knowledge of the construction of cotton machinery, which was afterwards of much service to him both in superintending the construction of machinery and in managing the mills, in which he was interested. On attaining his majority, he became a partner in the concern, his father investing capital for him. In those years of his youth and early manhood, though discharging faithfully the duties of his position and busily employed during all the hours of business, at that time greater in number than is usual at the present day in Great Britain or in this country, he devoted the evening hours, often far into the night, too, frequently spent by young men in amusement or dissipation, to mental improvement, either alone in hard study, or in company with other young men of similar tastes and aspirations. That their work might be more systematic and effective a regular society was organized, at the meetings of which, questions of interest were debated by the members, and papers prepared by them on various subjects, were read.

Having a natural taste for mathematics, young Dobson gave special attention to, and became exceptionally adept in, this branch of study. He sent various problems, some of them of great difficulty, to the “Ladies’ Diary”, also solutions to problems propounded by others in the same periodical. The “Ladies’ Diary” was a poetical and mathematical almanac, published from 1704 to 1871, of which the “Encyclopedia Britannica” says that “it contributed more to the study and improvement of mathematics than one half of the books professedly written on the subject. The articles furnished by Peter Dobson, attracted the attention of Charles Hutton, the distinguished professor of mathematics at that time in the Royal Academy at Woolwich. A vacancy having occurred in the corps of teachers in that department in the academy, to be filled by a competitive examination. Professor Hutton, learning the name of the author of the papers referred to, wrote to Mr. Dobson, suggesting that he should present himself for examination as a candidate for the position. The latter did not deem it best to accede to the suggestion: yet the fact that it was made by a person of the position and reputation of Professor Hutton, was a high compliment and a marked illustration of the mathematical attainments of one who had lacked, in a considerable degree, the discipline of the schools, mainly owing his attainments to his own native talents and self training.

Early in 1809, though, as a master cotton-spinner, his prospects at home were much better than those of most of the young English operatives who, at that period, were coming, so many of them, to America, he decided, like Samuel Slater and other mechanics of the highest skill, of that period and of later years, that, in the United States there would be larger scope and better opportunity than were open to him in the old country. Leaving Liverpool in March 1809, he landed in Boston after a voyage of seven weeks. Having a letter of introduction to John Warburton, who had been engaged some six years in spinning cotton and carding wool in Vernon, Conn., he immediately went to that place. While there and incident occurred, illustrative of the frequent practice throughout New England at that time, under a provision of the law, that, when a stranger came to a town, with the apparent intention to make a permanent residence there, if its officers should warn him to leave, the town would be relieved from the responsibility for his support in the case he should become unable to support himself. Mr. Dobson, while at the home of Mr. Warburton, received such a warning from the town officers at Vernon. He was surprised and somewhat troubled, but having received an explanation from his host, he was amused, and surmised that the letter had somewhat to do with it, as a practical joke.

After a short time, Mr. Dobson went to Suffield, Conn., where there was a cotton-mill which had been built in 1795 by Richard Crosby, and had run for a few years, but had been idle for some time and needed extensive repairs. It had been purchased in 1808 by Colonel Luther Loomis, a merchant of Suffield, who employed Mr. Dobson to superintend the repairs and to put the again into operation. He completed this job, remaining at Suffield nearly to the close of the year. He was then invited by Chester King and James Chapman of Vernon, to unite with them in building and operating a cotton-mill at a mill privilege on the Tankerhoosen River, about a mile west of the Congregational Church at Vernon Center. This privilege was owned by Chester King, who used the power to operate a saw-mill, which at an earlier date, had belonged to Roger Wolcott, Governor of Connecticut.

On the 25th of December 1809, Chester King sold one-third of this privilege and land to Peter Dobson, and one-third, jointly to James Chapman of Vernon, and Aaron Chapman of Ellington, Conn. A partnership was formed under the style of Peter Dobson & Company. The construction of machinery was immediately commenced, mainly under superintendence, and with the personal labor, of Mr. Dobson. The erection of the mill did not commence till the spring of 1810. The mill was finished and equipped with its machinery so that spinning was commenced early in the spring of 1811.

On the 27th of July 1813, Aaron Chapman sold his interest to James Chapman. On the 26th of October of the same year James Chapman sold his entire interest, one-third, to Walter Mitchell, of Hartford Conn., who, two days afterwards, sold one-half of his interest to Ward Woodbridge, also of Hartford. The price paid for this one-sixth of the property - $1459.28 – indicates that the estimated value of the property at the time was nearly $9000. The machinery consisted of two mules of one-hundred and ninety-two spindles each, a throstle-frame of forty-eight spindles, a twisting machine of thirty six spindles – an aggregate of four hundred and sixty-eight spindles. The product of the mill consisted of stocking-yarn and yarn for weaving cotton cloth. The latter was given out to persons in the vicinity who owned hand-looms, to be woven by them, the yarn being No. 12 and the reeds forty to the inch.

The fabrics were sheetings, shirtings, stripes, checks and ginghams, the color in the latter being indigo-blue. Some of the weavers, having reeds and harnesses for weaving double work, were employed on bed-tickings, table-cloths, and other heavy fabrics. Bleaching some of the yarn and cloth, also dying of yarn indigo-blue, was done in the mill. The labor in weaving and spinning, etc., was paid in cotton cloth or yarn, as the operatives chose, little money being used, as little could be attained at that period. The articles manufactured, were sold principally to peddlers, it being difficult to sell them at any price in Hartford, which was the nearest town of any considerable importance or trade. During the War of 1812-15, the feeling of the Federal party, to which most of the merchants of Hartford belonged, was intensely bitter against the national administration and against the war, and it charged that they sympathized with England and, on that account, refused to buy or sell the products of American manufactories. Two only of the dry-goods dealers of Hartford, Nathaniel Potter and James Dodd, would take goods from Peter Dobson & Company, and they would pay for them only when sold, and in other goods from their stores, in no case paying money.

While thus engaged in endeavoring to place this enterprise on a working basis, an application was made to Peter Dobson, in the fall of 1811, by Delano Abbott, a resident of Vernon, who desired to engage in the manufacture of a fabric, similar to a sample which he brought with him. It was a piece of imported cloth, apparently woolen, which he had attained from a tailor in Hartford. Mr. Dobson, analyzing the sample, found that the warp was cotton, five threads up and one down, and a filling of woolen yarn. With a view to informing himself as to woolen machinery, that he might experiment with better prospect of success, he went, a few weeks afterwards, to Middletown, Conn., into the woolen mill of the Middletown Manufacturing Company, and there examined some machines for spinning wool. In the spring of 1812, he made a contract with Delano Abbott to build him a billy of thirty spindles and a jenny of six spindles. Those machines were set up in an outbuilding, near the house of Mr. Abbott, and two hand-looms were set up in another building. The machinery went into operation late in 1812, or early 1813. The wool was carded at the McLean Mills, then in operation at what is now Talcottville, and the cloth was fulled and finished at the clothier shop of Simeon Cooley, on the Hockanum River, at its source in Snipsic Lake. It has been claimed that this was the beginning of the manufacture of satinets in this country. The same claim has also been made in favor of a similar industry, established about the same time in Andover, Mass., a full account of which is given in our sketch of Abraham Marland. It may be difficult now to decide whether satinets were made in this country first at Vernon, Conn., or at Andover, Mass. It is certain that neither of the two places had much precedence of the other in the manufacture. But there is hardly a doubt that both Delano Abbott and Abraham Marland were anticipated in the manufacture of satinets by James Beaumont at Canton, Mass.

Notwithstanding the difficulty, which Peter Dobson & Company had, at the onset, in selling the product of their mill, on account of the indifference or hostility to American Manufacturers, on the part of the Hartford merchants, they had so far acquired success, in about three years of active operations, that they determined to apply to the Legislature of Connecticut for an Act of Incorporation. The Act was passed at the May session of the Legislature for 1814, incorporating Peter Dobson, Chester King, Ward Woodbridge and Walter Mitchell as the “Tankerhoosen Cotton Factory”, with an authorized capital of $150,000. The four corporators, as partners and individual proprietors, conveyed the property of the firm to the corporation, July 2, 1814, for $24,000. The business of the company was transacted under Mr. Dobson’s personal supervision, with such vicissitudes doubtless as characterized the operations of cotton-mills at that period, the most important change being the introduction of the power-looms about 1820, by which the Tankerhoosen Cotton Factory, like most similar mills throughout New England, became transformed from a mere spinning mill to a cotton manufactory, on what has since been, in essential respects, the basis of such establishments in this country.

In 1822, on the 13th of may, the company purchased from Irad Fuller two acres and one-hundred and forty-six rods of land about a quarter of a mile lower down the Tankerhoosen River than the site of their mill, at a point convenient for the erection of a new factory. On the 19th of October of the same year, Mr. Fuller sold to the company all his “right, title, and interest in and to the water-course, commonly called the Tankerhoosen, beginning at the west line of the land lately bought of me by the Tankerhoosen Cotton Factory, and running a westerly course to the head of the mill-pond, now standing in the name of Thomas Bull, and also the right and privilege of digging and excavating the earth and other materials in the line and direction of said water-course, and the whole length of the same, hereby granted, to such depth and of such width as may be necessary and convenient to conduct off the water, to be used and improved in the cotton factory which is now building by the Tankerhoosen Cotton Factory.”

This factory was of wood, one-hundred feet long, thirty-two feet wide, and four stories high. The deed, just quoted, shows that the erection of the this new factory was commenced, at least, in 1822, but the statement of the venerable Chauncey Winchell, now almost ninety-six years old, who, at that time working at his trade as a millwright, was employed by the company to make the breast-wheel for the new mill and, for that purpose, removed from Manchester to the vicinity of the Tankerhoosen Factory early in 1823, would indicate that little, if anything, was done on the mill in 1822 more than laying the foundation, and that the mill itself was not finished till the summer of 1823.

It did not then go into full operation, but the machinery being built most, perhaps all of it in the mill, as was largely the practice in those days, the factory was not put into operation except as to the machine shop till 1824 or 1825, and then gradually, as machine after machine was finished. This may be inferred from the account of the fire, by which the mill was totally consumed, contained in the “Connecticut Courant” of March 12, 1827, from which the following extract is made: “The building was new and had been running about eighteen months. The machinery had been completed about six months. The latter, for its neatness and execution, did much credit to the machinists employed. It contained sixteen-hundred spindles with forty power-looms. It was insured for $18,300. The fire took the weaving room by accident, it is supposed.” It was believed by the owners to have been the work of an incendiary. It occurred in the evening of Tuesday, March 6, 1827. The building was at once rebuilt, with about the same dimensions and capacity of machinery, as before.

It is believed that, in digging for the foundations of this mill, Peter Dobson made the observations, which led to his suggestion of what has been called “the glacial theory”, in explanation of certain marks and appearances on the surfaces of large stones, found in various places on both sides of the Atlantic, - a theory which has been adopted generally by geologists in Europe and America. The suggestion of this theory was first made by Mr. Dobson in a letter addressed by him to Professor Benjamin Silliman, under date of November 21, 1825, and was published in the “American Journal of Science” for July 1826. In this letter Mr. Dobson wrote: “I have had occasion to dig up a great number of boulders of red sandstone and of the conglomerate kind, in erecting a cotton manufactory, and it is not uncommon to find them worn smooth on the under side, as if by their having been dragged over rocks and gravelly earth in one steady direction. On examination, the exhibit scratches and furrows on the abraded part. I think that we cannot account for these appearances unless we call in the aid of ice along with water, and that they have been worn by being suspended and carried in ice over rocks and earth under water.” Referring to this letter, Sir Roderick I. Murchison, one of the most eminent scientists of this [19th] century, in an address he delivered before the Geological Society of London, February 18, 1842, spoke of it as “a short clear, and modest statement, which, though little more than a page in length, contains the essence of the modified glacial theory, at which we have arrived after so much debate.” He added: “I take leave of the glacial theory in congratulating American science on having the original author of the best glacial theory, though his name had escaped notice, and in recommending to you the terse argument of Peter Dobson, a previous acquaintance with which might have saved volumes of disputations on both sides of the Atlantic.”

In 1830, an addition of the same form and size with the old mill of 1810, was made to it, the dimensions of the whole mill, as enlarged, being eighty feet long, thirty-two feet wide, and three stories high. The two mills of the Tankerhoosen Cotton Factory were operated successfully under the management of Peter Dobson till the financial revulsion of 1837, which proved so disastrous to the manufacturing as well as the commercial interests of the whole country. The company suffered heavy losses by the failure of parties indebted to it, and was compelled to make an assignment. Its machinery at that time consisted of spinning machinery and preparation, of twenty-two-hundred and forty-eight spindles and forty-eight looms in the west mill, and eleven-hundred and eighty-eight spindles and forty looms in the east mill. A settlement having been made with its creditors, a new corporation was organized under the general law of the State, April 21, 1838, the subscribers to the stock being largely shareholders of the former company, The new corporation took the name of the Centerville Company, its maximum capital being fixed at $50,000, in two-thousand shares. Of these shares, eighteen-hundred and thirty-eight, representing $45,950, were taken at once. The officers of the company elected at its first meeting were Oliver H. King, president, and Peter Dobson, secretary, agent and treasurer. The assignees of the old company, Ralph Talcott and Oliver H. King, conveyed its property to the Centerville Company, April 30, 1838. At the annual meeting, 1841, Peter Dobson was elected president, agent and treasurer of the company, and John S. Dobson was elected secretary. The latter was identified from that time with his father in the conduct of the affairs of the company.

John Strong Dobson was the son of Peter Dobson by his second wife, Sophia Strong Dobson, and was born in Vernon, May 18, 1817. His education, in addition to that furnished by the school district near his home, was obtained at the Wesleyan Academy, in Wilbraham, Mass., and at the Academy in East Hartford, Conn. Having finished his academic studies, he entered the store of the Tankerhoosen Cotton Factory, and continued in the service of that company till its reorganization as the Centerville Company. Having attained his majority less than a month after that event, a share of the responsibility of its management was devolved on him, and on the 8th of January, 1839, he became the owner of twenty-nine shares of the capital stock. From that date to the commencement of the Civil War in 1861, there was little change in the company, its history being marked by much of the vicissitude incident to similar industries. The business was wholly under the charge of Peter and John S Dobson, their interest in the stock gradually increasing till, in January, 1852, they together owned fourteen-hundred and thirty-five shares, more than three-fourths of the whole number of shares which had been taken.

At the opening of the Civil War, the principal product of the mills was cotton sail-duck. Seamless bags of cotton were also made, being woven, not only without a seam lengthwise of the bags as in those made in many other mills in New England, but with the additional feature, and great improvement of being closed at the bottom in the weaving. Both of these fabrics required a large amount of material, and when the price of cotton advanced, in 1862 and 1863, to more than a dollar a pound, it was found that the mills could not be run to profit, and it was determined to shut them down when the stock of cotton on hand should run out. At that time, Peter Dobson had nearly attained the age of eighty years.

On the close of the war a reduction in the price of cotton having been made which warranted a resumption of operations, and the mills were once more started. The senior Mr. Dobson was not disposed, at his age, to resume business affairs, and it was decided to close up the affairs of the company and to sell its property. On the 27th of March 1866, the west mill, the larger of the two, was sold to John S. Dobson and Alfred R. Goodrich of Vernon, and J. Woodbridge White and William H. White of Hartford, who organized a firm under the style of Dobson, White & Company. Alfred R. Goodrich was the husband of Charlotte, daughter of Peter Dobson by his second wife and had been from his early manhood a physician in successful practice in Vernon and its vicinity. The Messrs. White were brothers-in-law of John S. Dobson, their sister, Julia being his wife. J Woodbridge White retired from the firm, November 20, 1866, on which date he conveyed his interest to his brother, William H. White. Dobson, White & Company operated the mill till the fall of 1879, when the ill health of the senior partner [John S. Dobson] made it necessary that he should retire from the active management of the business, which had devolved solely on him, his partners having only a pecuniary interest, without the personal devotion of time and labor. This necessitated the closing up of the business. The mill was sold, October 21, 1879, to Elisha E. Hilliard, of Manchester, Conn., by whom and his son, since his death the mill has been operated till the present time.

The eastern mill, having been rebuilt in 1852, at a short distance from the original mill, was sold, also on the 27th of March 1866, to Rienzi B. Parker, who operated it on his own account till July 1, 1873. It had received considerable damage in the great flood of October 4, 1869, and had been rebuilt. On the first day of July, 1873, Mr. Parker sold the mill to the Ravine Mills Company, a joint stock corporation, organized on that date, of which Rienzi B. Parker, his father, Lucius Parker, of Manchester, Conn., and James Campbell, also of Manchester, became stockholders. The management of the mill since that time has been solely in the hands of R. B. Parker, who has owned one-half of the stock, the remainder being held equally by the other two gentlemen.

Peter Dobson, who at the date of his retirement from active participation in the business of the mills, was nearly eighty years of age, continued some fifteen years longer in the enjoyment of his mental faculties in undiminished vigor, and of physical health to a remarkable degree, except for lameness requiring the use of a cane and that his eyesight had become impaired by his life-long habit of reading and study, often at night, in the hours which most men, unless of dissolute lives, give to sleep. His sickness was brief. A cold, taken in March 1878, developed into pneumonia which after three or four days, proved fatal on the 18th day of that month, his age being ninety-three years, seven months, and thirteen days. The “Hartford Times,” in an obituary notice, said of him: - “Physically he was a man of large and powerful proportions; mentally, he was a vigorous, deep, and wholly original thinker and a clear and independent observer, with a decidedly mathematical mind, and a talent for practical mechanics. He received at the hands of his friends and neighbors many marks of their esteem and trust. The town and district, in which he lived, were always strongly opposed politically to the party with which he acted, or he would, no doubt, have been better known throughout the State, in both branches of the Legislature. As it was, he acquired a far higher and wider recognition in the walks of science. In many respects, he was an uncommon man, and he leaves few in Connecticut or in the Union, who were his superiors in natural mental force, particularly in the lines of thought in which he was best distinguished.”

John S. Dobson was not actively engaged in business after the dissolution of the firm of Dobson, White & Company, in the fall of 1879. He died of apoplexy, December 15, 1882. We quote from a brief notice of his character, also published in the “Hartford Times: - “He was a man of great honesty and decision of character, and of unusual mental power, and inherited some of his father’s characteristics, and became a marked and respected man in the community. In politics, he was a very pronounced Democrat. Though he never sought office, it was owing to the circumstance that he lived in a town which, for a long period of years, was the most thoroughly anti-democratic town in Connecticut, that he did not appear oftener in such elective offices as representative in the State Legislature. He was, however, elected to various and responsible town-offices notwithstanding his party politics, and, in 1852, was elected to the Connecticut Senate from the old Twenty-first District, - an eloquent compliment to his ability and integrity and the esteem in which he was personally held.”

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