Nineteenth Century Capitalism, Nelson Style

Rick Church

It is difficult not to view life in Nelson in the mid-nineteenth century as a stereotype — a bucolic farming community relatively untouched by the national issues like industrialization and immigration. Indeed Nelson was a bit on the sidelines. Its population peaked in the 1820’s. Subsistence farming had given way to farms which produced crops for sale beyond the town’s borders, and small industries were established to meet local needs from saw mills to brick yards and tanneries. Some of those had wider markets. The town did have the cotton mill in Munsonville, established in the early part of the century, and the neighboring presence of the woolen mills thriving in Harrisville at the same period.  Still, Nelson was a community whose soils were losing their productivity and whose sons and daughters went west for better opportunities. No canals or railroads connected the town to industrial America. It took a day to make a trip to Keene, which had become a rail hub. Information did travel readily: especially news of investment opportunities and jobs.

Nineteenth century America was a place characterized by risk-taking capitalists venturing huge sums of money to create enterprises of unprecedented scale. Many fortunes were made and many lost. New York City was the heart of that revolution, with men like Jay Cooke amassing huge fortunes selling bonds to finance the rapidly expanding industrial economy. Common men with courage used that financing to found new enterprises, too. Workingmen took risks with them, though their gains were small and they often risked their very lives.

Two kinds of immigrants came to Nelson in those years: investors and laborers. In the eyes of some, Nelson provided investment opportunities; to others, good jobs at wages that would support a family. The Seabury family from Brooklyn, New York, invested in Nelson’s plumbago mines, while the Devaul family from Newburgh, New York, came to work the mines. This is a story of an entrepreneurial Irish family from Brooklyn, their investment in graphite mining in Nelson, and the tragic result for one working family.  Along the way that working family got a brief taste of life as prosperous capitalists.

The Osgood Mine

In 1848 Horatio Osgood leased his 40-acre sheep pasture on the west side of Osgood Hill to Moses Carleton of Lancaster, Massachusetts, who opened a pit to extract plumbago. Plumbago, also called black lead or graphite, was used for many things in that day: lubricants, pencils, mold lining for metal casting, and as a paint additive. Carleton leased the mineral rights in 1851 to Jacob Seabury and he expanded the operation. Jacob owned a paint manufacturing business in Brooklyn. We don’t know how Seabury learned of this investment opportunity.

It was, briefly, the largest plumbago mine in the United States, employing an estimated 25 men at the height of its production. Rock containing graphite veins was blasted from the walls of the quarry and then processed to extract the graphite. The drilling was done by hand, but there was heavy machinery on site. The 1860 New Hampshire Industrial Inventory documents the use of a 25 horsepower steam engine that consumed 75 cords of wood annually. It probably powered cranes to move the rock within the pit. In one three-month period the mine is said to have produced 30 tons of ore.

In 1851, when Jacob Seabury assumed control of the mine, George Devaul moved his wife and seven children to Nelson. We do not know what house they lived in; tax records reveal only that the family resided in school district number one that included the area around the center of the village. Fifty-one-year-old George went to work as a miner accompanied by his nineteen-year-sold son, also named George. The family kept a few cows, but had few assets otherwise. We know little about George Devaul, but he may have had some special skill or experience. Nelson already had plenty of sturdy farmer’s sons to drill, blast, crush and cart. There were mines in the Newburgh, New York area where Devaul lived, so perhaps he served the absent Seaburys as their manager.

The mine itself was a study in the capitalist energy of the times. Moses Carleton had acquired the mineral rights to the forty acres in 1848 for $150 – this in a day when a 100-acre operating farm cost $1,500. Having opened the mine and operated it for a few years, he made a long-term lease agreement with Jacob Seabury to rent the same rights for a term of ten years with the rent to start at $800 per year and declining to $200 at the end of the term. Horatio Osgood continued to live in a grand house on Old Stoddard Road across the road, on the site now occupied by a smaller abandoned house. He seems not to have minded the sounds of blasting and falling rock that came from his old pasture. A few years later, Jacob Seabury bought the Town Farm and its mine on Lead Mine Road.

It was hard and dangerous work. We know at least two men died in Nelson’s mines. There was no government safety investigation and no workman’s compensation insurance. Their families’ circumstances were drastically altered. Nehemiah Flint, the first, died when killed by a falling rock in 1850. Then, on October 6, 1861, there was an accident at the Town Farm lead mine, and the elder George Devaul was hit by a rock and killed. He was buried in the Nelson cemetery alongside several of his children.

Young George married a local girl, Semantha Atwood, the youngest daughter of Phillip Atwood and granddaughter of Josiah Atwood, one of Nelson’s founders. The Reverend Adonijah H. Cutter married them in the Congregational Church in the village center on May 3, 1859.  He and Semantha leased a 51-acre farm in school district number five and welcomed their first child, Helena Seabury Devaul, in November of the following year. Helena seems to have been named for the mine owner.  Following the death of his father, the younger George continued to run his farm, and he had an important relationship with the mine owners as well. He would later be the New Hampshire agent transferring real estate from the Seabury estate to business partner Hamilton Waddell, on Jacob Seabury’s death.

It was the time of the Civil War. Many Nelson men of George’s age went off to war; a number died in the Union cause. George’s name does not appear in enlistment or draft lists nor did he pay $600 to hire someone to go in his place. Graphite had an important military use. Molds lined with the material cast a smoother cannon ball that could be hurled straighter and farther. The war effort had many other uses for graphite. It is just possible that Seabury applied for an exemption because of Devaul’s importance at the mine.

Perhaps inspired or encouraged by the mine owners, George risked everything to become an entrepreneur, leaving his working class roots for a life of relative prosperity. He decided to buy a disused gristmill near the Village and convert it to saw lumber.

Nelson had three gristmills in the early days. Daniel Wood built the first at the outlet of Silver Lake in 1771. The second mill was established near the village center by Henry Melville in 1796, followed by one operated by Asa Stone in Munsonville in the early nineteenth century. Asa Wilson acquired the Melville Mill in 1828 and operated it for the next quarter century; the mill has been known as the Wilson Mill ever since. It was eventually purchased by Caleb Goodnow, who also operated a gristmill in East Sullivan.

Wilson’s was the only surviving gristmill in Nelson by 1840. Local industrialists, Edward and Silas French (they also operated the Gad Newell graphite mine at that same period) bought it from Wilson in 1851 and operated it up until the Civil War. New Hampshire hill towns were growing little grain for flour. They grew grain crops to fuel their work animals, but refined flour was increasingly imported from the Midwest. Customers also demanded a better product. The mill at East Sullivan had been established as a gristmill in the late eighteenth century. When Caleb Goodnow bought the mill in 1846, he invested in a bolting machine that produced a product superior to that ground only between millstones. He hedged his bets, adding a sawmill on the floor above the milling operation. It was the only bolting mill for miles around and Caleb intended to keep it that way.

The declining market for flour grinding was reflected in the price paid for the old Wilson Mill. Having purchased it for $1200 in 1828, Wilson sold it for $400 in 1852. It changed hands two more times before Goodnow bought it ten years later for $160. He probably idled the mill and moved the customers to his mill in Sullivan. Two years later, in 1864, he sold it for $200 to George Devaul with an important restriction: Devaul could use it for any purpose “except the right to keep said gristmill in repair for the purpose of grinding any kind of grain which right and privilege is forever revoked” Goodnow’s sons were still grinding flour at their mill in 1887.

In 1864 George Devaul bought and refurbished the Asa Wilson Mill just north of the village.  All this was done with mortgage financing provided by Noah Hardy, Benjamin Watts and Hamilton Waddell, a Brooklyn business partner of the Seaburys. Devaul borrowed the whole purchase price from Noah Hardy in 1864 and invested an additional $300 to convert the works to saw wood. He then refinanced the whole thing with Benjamin Watts for $500. It was a risky time to start a sawmill. The market for building material was depressed by the war; Nelson was largely covered in sheep pastures and second growth trees thirty years old at best.  What timber there was had risen in price owing to the demands of the textile mills in Harrisville and Munsonville.  The Davis Mill on Bailey Brook failed at this time.

House on the Village Common.

Still, the mill must have made a promising start. Devaul bought the large house on the west side of the village common for $500.  He borrowed the whole purchase price from the seller: Benjamin Watts, the owner of the brick store in the village. There was an odd provision: “the use of the barn for N. Rand to stable two horses also for hay and grain for three years. Possession given June 1, 1869. Also said Watt reserves the manure now on the premises and what said Rand’s horses will make hereafter.” The Devaul family planned to move into their new home in June.

A Tilbury.

George Devaul’s home furnishings reflect his recent rise to prosperity. He had comfortable settees, stuffed chairs, a center table and chairs, a chamber set, three bedsteads, bureaus, a secretary and rugs. The family heated their home with three cooking stoves, two other stoves and a franklin fireplace. He drove a Tilbury and had a buffalo robe to keep the Tilbury passengers warm on cooler outings.  A Tilbury was the latest thing in elegant, horse drawn conveyances, having been invented in England only a decade earlier. It was the fashion in personal travel at the time. He owned a fine fishing rod, too.

George Devaul, his wife, and their two daughters never moved in. He died a horrible death, cut in two by a saw at his own mill on April 10, 1869.  The Devaul family’s move from Cornwall, New York, for a job in the lead mine had ended in death in industrial accidents for both father and son. The real estate, the mill and some of the assets were sold to pay off the substantial debts, and Semantha was left with a few hundred dollars. The elaborate furnishings, his Tilbury and other things are among the list of some $230 worth of possessions. His business ledger reflected bills owed by his customers and notes and bills he owed locally. He is buried in the Nelson cemetery with his father and the rest of the family.

Semantha lived as a widow in Nelson until 1873, when she married William Robb, a widower from Harrisville who worked as a mechanic in the mills there. Their blended family had six children. Semantha died of pneumonia in Brattleboro, Vermont, at age sixty-nine. At her death a large stone was erected in Keene’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

 

Going Home.

Gone Home
George W. Devaul
September 20, 1832 — April 10, 1869

Semantha A. Atwood, His Wife
March 15, 1833  — June 9, 1887

Jacob Seabury died in 1865 intestate. He left an estate in excess of $25,000. Hamilton Waddell, his business partner and fellow Irishman, bought the company from the heirs and bought the Watts house that was to have been the Devauls’ new home. The Seabury Mine ceased operation in 1865. Waddell moved to Nelson, taking over the fancy home on the Common. He acquired the Town Farm lead mine from the Seabury estate and made a deal with the New York Black Lead Mining and Manufacturing Company to continue operations at the mine for a price several times what he’d paid for it.

The heady increase in the value of industrial assets couldn’t continue and didn’t. In a crash very similar in both cause and effect to our recent recession, the Panic of 1873 brought everything down. Average wages fell by nearly a quarter; thousands of American companies defaulted on over a billion dollars in debt, the stock market shut for ten days, nine out of ten U.S. railroad concerns failed, and the country faced double-digit unemployment for over a decade.

Both Jay Cooke’s and Hamilton Waddell’s empires came down with it. Jacob Seabury’s widow sued to get the Town Farm and mine back, and a mortgage holder repossessed the beautiful home in the village. Threatened with jail, Waddell sold all and fled back to New York. The Elliot family bought the old Town Farm and turned the lead mine into a beautiful rock garden – a fitting memorial to the senior Devaul.

The newly converted saw mill lived on. It was bought by Edmund Barton, also of Brooklyn, New York, who moved to Nelson to operate it. He avoided the “curse” of the fancy house by living where Asa Wilson once did in the home occupied today by Bert Wingerson. The mill sawed its last board in about 1890. The Goodnow mill in Sullivan ceased milling flour but continued as a sawmill until 1921.