Macfarlane Cane Comes Home to Mansfield

2020 Republished Article Series > Macfarlane Cane Comes Home to Mansfield

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 39, No. 1, January 2003

The Historical Society has purchased a handsome gold-topped presentation cane that belonged to John Macfarlane, a silk manufacturer in Atwoodville. 

John Macfarlane, his wife, and their eight children emigrated from Scotland to the United States in 1848.  With experience as a silk manufacturer in Glasgow, he soon found employment in the American silk industry.  He worked successively at Foss & Jenks in Camden, NJ, Cheney’s in Manchester, CT, William Skinner’s silk mill in Haydenville, MA and at the silk factory of his son, William Macfarlane, in Yonkers, NY.

MacFarlane Silk Mill
Macfarlane Silk Mill in Atwoodville

In 1861, he came to Mansfield and, in company with his sons, John G. F., George N. and James S., leased the silk mill in Atwoodville, owned by William Atwood.  Two years later the Macfarlanes purchased the other Atwoodville mill, downstream from their previous location, and Lewis D. Brown moved into their old mill. When he relocated his business to Middletown in 1871, L. D. Brown sold his mill back to the Macfarlanes who then operated both silk mills until 1877 when the lower mill was burglarized and burned.

The senior Macfarlane retired from the business in 1875 and henceforth the company was managed by his sons and known as “Macfarlane Bros.”  They continued to manufacture silk thread in the remaining Atwoodville mill into the 1920s.

Our newly acquired cane was presented to John Macfarlane not long after his retirement from the silk business.  It is very well documented in The Commemorative Biographical Record of Tolland and Windham Counties, Connecticut (J. H. Beers & Co., 1903).

“Mr. and Mrs. John Macfarlane were treated to a surprise party on the Golden anniversary of their Wedding, Nov. 19, 1876, by their children, grandchildren, and Mr. Macfarlane’s fellow silk manufacturers of Mansfield. Among other valuable testimonials, he received a gold-headed cane bearing this inscription: “Presented Nov. 19, 1876, to John Macfarlane, by the Silk Manufacturers of Mansfield, Conn.” The names of the donors also appear: Emory B. Smith, Orwell S. Chaffee, L. D. Brown, Philo G. and G. R. Hanks, C. L. Bottum, and Ashael Hammond, who lived in Putnam.”

MacFarlane Cane
The engraved gold head of the Macfarlane cane

 It is interesting to note that John Macfarlane was so pleased with the gift of this cane that it apparently established a precedent.  Five years later, the silk manufacturers of Mansfield presented a similar cane to George R. Hanks, also on the occasion of his Golden Wedding anniversary.  It was reported in the Willimantic Chronicle of Nov. 23, 1881:  “One of the pleasantest events which has occurred in the social circles of Mansfield for many a year was the celebration of the golden wedding of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Hanks, of Hanks Hill, which happened on Tuesday evening of last week…. The company which gathered to greet them on this wedding day numbered about sixty-five, and consisted of relatives and friends from home and abroad….The presents were numerous and consisted of heavy gold spectacles, gold vases, gold coin and many other useful articles. The present which will, perhaps, be most appreciated by the host, was the gold headed cane presented to him by the silk manufacturers of Mansfield, and on which was inscribed their names… The silk manufacturers who were present were Messrs. L. D. Brown, E. B. Smith, J. D. Chaffee, W. E. Williams, James Macfarlane and E. P. Conant.  Mr. Hanks is the oldest sewing silk manufacturer in America now living and is the son of Rodney Hanks, the first man who manufactured silk thread by machinery in this country and who built the first silk mill on this continent [in 1810]…”  Perhaps someday this cane will also resurface and find its way back to Mansfield.

Although it was an expensive purchase, we are thrilled to add the Macfarlane cane to our collection.  An antique dealer in North Carolina had contacted us in October, offering us the cane for $1,500.  This was well beyond our reach and we regretfully turned it down.  However the cane was then auctioned on eBay in January and thanks to David Yutzey’s astute bidding, we were able to acquire it for $500 – a relative bargain. 

We rarely purchase items because of our limited budget, but this was an unusual opportunity to acquire a well-documented artifact associated with Mansfield’s silk industry. Thanks to the generosity of our members, enough funds were raised to cover the cost of the cane.

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