The Silk Mills in Attwoodville

Lost Mansfield > The Silk Mills in Attwoodville


The Atwood Family. William Atwood was one of the original partners of the Mansfield Silk Company that manufactured silk thread in Gurleyville from 1829 to 1839. In 1840, William Atwood purchased a small mill property on the east side of the Mount Hope River. He established his own silk-spinning business there and his sons, William H. and John Edwin soon partnered with him. Their enterprise was a success and the community that developed around the mill site became known as Atwoodville.

The early Atwood silk mill
This painting by an unknown artist shows the original silk mill in Atwoodville with its later additions. It was located on the east side of the Mount Hope River near the bridge. In 1850, the Atwoods built a larger mill a short distance downstream. Unfortunately, no images of that mill have survived. Both mills are now gone.

As the Atwoods’ business flourished, they added on to the original mill but soon outgrew the enlarged space. In 1850, they engaged local builder Edwin Fitch to construct a larger and more efficient mill a short distance downstream. When it was completed, they moved their silk-spinning operations there. Unfortunately, William Atwood, Sr. died before the 100 by 40 foot mill was finished.

In a small machine shop at the new mill site, the Atwood brothers began repairing, building, and making improvements to silk spinning machinery. This soon became their passion and the main focus of their business. In 1863, Eugene Atwood, son of John E., joined the business. The following year, the Atwoods built a larger machine shop in Conantville and sold the silk mill in Atwoodville.

Atwood silk mill machine shop
This is the machine shop, now gone, that the Atwoods built in Conantville in 1864. It measured only 24’ x 40’ and was quickly outgrown as their business became successful. As demand for their machines grew, they built a 3-story factory in Willimantic. It was destroyed by fire in 1876.

Eugene’s invention of an improved spindle, or sleeve whorl, in 1865 brought success to the new business. As demand for their silk machinery grew, the Atwoods built a three-story brick factory on Valley Street in Willimantic and adopted the name Atwood Machine Company.

The Willimantic factory burned in 1876 and the company again relocated, this time to John F. Trumbull’s stone factory building in Stonington. This location proved ideal, with ready access to both the sea and railroad and with ample room for expansion. Here the company prospered.

Atwood Machine Company factory Stonington, CT
This is a photograph of Atwood Machine Company factory in Stonington. The Atwoods purchased the old Trumbull factory in 1876 and later added the wooden addition seen on the left. They operated there into the 1940s. The entire mill complex, last owned by Monsanto, burned to the ground on July 3, 2003. At the time, the mill site was undergoing a $30 million renovation into a luxury residential and commercial complex. It was a total loss.

In the 1880s, Eugene Atwood developed a self-centering spindle that would revolutionize thread manufacture. With the new spindle, throwing (twisting) machines could be operated at faster speeds and made smaller and more efficient. From the 1880s until the late 1930s the Atwood Machine Company manufactured the bulk of the world’s silk-throwing machinery. On July 3, 2003, the former Atwood Machine Company factory in Stonington burned to the ground in a spectacular fire. The mills in Atwoodville, where it all began, are also now gone.

The Macfarlane Family: 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.

Early photograph of Atwoodville mill
This is a photograph of Atwoodville taken in 1906. The Macfarlane mill is in the foreground and, in order going up the road, are the mill’s boarding house, the Seth Hall house and the William Atwood house.

In 1861, he came to Mansfield and, in company with his sons, John G. F., George N. and James S., leased the older silk mill in Atwoodville. They began manufacturing silk thread there under the name J. Macfarlane & Sons. The Atwoods, who owned the mill, were by then operating at their new silk mill, a short distance further down the Mount Hope River. Not long afterwards, the Atwoods constructed a large machine shop in Conantville and in 1864, they relocated there to pursue their new business of building silk machinery.

When the Atwoods departed, the Macfarlanes purchased the lower silk mill in Atwoodville and moved their operations there. Lewis D. Brown, who had been manufacturing silk in Gurleyville, then purchased the older mill by the bridge. In 1871, L. D. Brown relocated his business to Middletown and sold his mill to the Macfarlanes, who then operated both silk mills in Atwoodville for several years. The senior Macfarlane retired from the business in 1875. The following year, George N. died and the business then passed to the younger son, James S. Macfarlane.

Atwwodville as seen today
This is a photograph of the same scene today. The silk mill is gone but the adjacent boarding house and the other buildings still stand. The old mill site is now overgrown with trees and underbrush.

In October of 1877, the lower mill was burglarized and set on fire. The mill burned to the ground and was not rebuilt. Some remains of its foundation, raceways, and wheel pit are still visible on the west bank of the Mount Hope River, downstream from the bridge. They are on land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that is associated with the Mansfield Hollow Flood Control Project. The mill site can be accessed by an informal fisherman’s trail along the riverside. Following the fire, James Macfarlane continued to manufacture silk thread in the remaining Atwoodville mill and made some improvements to it. The Willimantic Chronicle reported on Nov. 2, 1881, “Mr. James Macfarlane has enlarged his dye shop and is overrun with work. He is also constructing more vats.” For a while, business was so good that a second factory was operated in Willimantic at the corner of Church and Valley Streets. James Macfarlane died in April of 1917 and two years later the silk business ceased. The vacant Macfarlane mill was demolished about 1928.

Atwoodville silk mill site today
This is another photograph of the former Macfarlane mill site, taken from the west side of the river. The bridge abutment can be seen on the right. Today there is little evidence of the large mill that once stood there, other than some stones piled at the riverside or scattered among the trees
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