Samuel Mayall didn’t just bring the first woolen mill to America. He gave Maine two of its first businesswomen, and a statesman who took a principled stand on slavery.
Mayall built his woolen mill in Gray, Maine, in the late 18th century with ingenuity, hard work and a little industrial espionage.
Born in 1761, he came to New England from old England, in Yorkshire. Technology was beginning to emerge that could mechanize the centuries-old craft of processing wool into cloth. The woolen guilds were wary of the technology, fearing it would cause them to lose control of the woolen trade. They did their best to keep it to themselves.
English craft guilds dated back centuries, and dyers, fullers and weavers all had roles to play in the production of cloth. They were tightly regulated. Substandard products could get you fined, and apprentices and journeymen were not free to move from one master craftsman to another. The oppressive nature of the guilds prompted many to look for ways out.
The First Woolen Mill
Mayall, seeing the opportunity in unregulated America, smuggled some English trade secrets out of the country, bundled in cloth destined for sale to the Native Americans. Once in New England he set up shop, first in Boston with a horse-powered carding operation in 1788 or 1789. But he soon moved to Gray, where he built his mill on the Collyer Brook, which powered his wool carding and cloth dressing operation in 1791.
Mayall took in wool from farmers and brought it to his mill where he made it into cloth. The news of Mayall’s success was not well received by the English craft guilds, and they twice threatened him. Once they shipped him a hat threaded through with needles dipped in poison. The second time they mailed him a box containing pistols intended to detonate when opened. (They didn’t.)
Mayall prospered, however, serving for a time as town selectman and running his mill until 1831. After his death, two of his three daughters, Mary and Phanela, took over and ran the mill. At the same time, one of Mayall’s five sons, also named Samuel, entered politics. He served in the Maine Legislature and then represented Maine in Congress as a Democrat from 1853 to 1855.
‘Shaken off the lethargy’
Mayall broke with the Democrats over slavery, however. He switched to the Republican Party after Democratic President Franklin Pierce opened the door to expanded slavery in the Midwest. Mayall left the party in no uncertain terms delivering a fiery speech on the floor of the House:
The people of the free states are aroused. They have shaken off the lethargy which has so long rested upon them. They are prepared to grapple with this question of slavery and to wipe away the stain from the Federal Government. No magic wand will again pass over them, lulling them into quiet repose, while southern oppression shall wind its meshes about the limbs of the northern giant. Our Sampson will not be seduced to sleep on the lap of effeminate servility, while she shaves from him the locks in which his great strength lies. No sir, this federal government must be divorced from all support of the “peculiar institution.”
In 1855, the younger Samuel Mayall moved to Minnesota and later served in the Civil War. The Mayall Mills, meanwhile, under the leadership of his sisters, did a booming business supplying woolens for the Union troops, among other customers. They expanded and built a new mill to add to the output from the first. At its peak, Mayall Mills employed 20 people and produced 30,000 yards of woolen cloth in a year.
Samuel Mayall lived out his life after the war in St. Paul, Minn., where he died in 1892. His sisters sold the mill in 1879, and it closed for good around the turn of the century.
This story last updated in 2022.
[…] Gray at the outbreak of the Civil War had about 1,700 residents and a woolen mill, the first in America powered by water. The town also had sawmills, a brickyard and prosperous farms. […]
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