Fessenden & Lowell Company: a 19th-20th Century Cooperage in Reeds Ferry, New Hampshire

This story came to pass because I was curious about two family photographs. The oldest photo, taken about 1907, shows my grandfather, Clarence Webster, standing alone with a building in the distance behind him. He was the Reeds Ferry (village in Merrimack New Hampshire) Boston & Maine Railroad agent and conductor. The Fessenden & Lowell “kit shop” was nearby, and this is the building shown behind him.

 

The second photograph is one that includes both my family and unrelated local people: (Left to Right) Anson Platts, Wayne Beard (child), Walter Provo, Margaret Webster, Mattie (Kilborn) Webster, Emma Provo, Nathaniel N. Lowell, Frank Long, and Janice M. Watkins (child). My grandfather, Clarence Webster, may have been the photographer. I will return to these photographs after I detail a bit about my subject — the Fessenden & Lowell Company.

—A History of Fessenden & Lowell Co.—
The Fessenden & Lowell Company had a history even before it moved to the Reeds Ferry section of Merrimack, New Hampshire. The History of Brookline, formerly Raby, Hillsborough Co, NH, details that “The mill of George Brooks (built by his father Capt Samuel Brooks) of Brookline was sold to Anson D. Fessenden of Townsend MA and Levi F. Lowell of Brookline on 30 Dec 1863. [George Brooks moved to Detroit Michigan]. Fessenden and Lowell took immediate possession of the purchased premises and operated the mill until 1870. In 1870 the firm sold the mill to Mrs. Diantha Peaslee of Somerville MA and removed its business to Merrimack where the firm is located at the present time (1914).”

Undated photograph of Fessenden & Lowell Co. cooperage products (from Merrimack Historical Society calendar). Colorized by blog editor.

In 1885 Hamilton D. Hurd in his History of Hillsborough County NH reported: “FESSENDEN & LOWELL are manufacturers of fish and syrup packages, cooper stock and lumber. The partners are Anson D. Fessenden and Levi F. Lowell, of Merrimack NH. This firm commenced business at Reeds Ferry in 1872 and gives steady employment to fifty men, and to a larger number at some seasons of the year. The annual product is 240,000 fish packages, 2,500,000 staves and 1,500,000 feet of lumber. Monthly payroll, $2500; capital invested $65,000.”

Fessenden & Lowell was incorporated on 18 March 1903 and dissolved on 1 March 1947. It was a General Profit Corporation in New Hampshire.  For more than 70 years it was an employer and income generator for a mostly agricultural town, and yet in most histories it only receives a nominal reference.  In its first four decades of existence, it was the town’s largest employer, and it benefited local residents through offering work, income through the purchase of their woodlots, and ease of shopping by conducting a cash grocery on the main street.  Fessenden & Lowell owners and employees, for the most part, lived in the town, participated in the local government, were included in social activities and raised families.  Descendants continued to live in the town, and to contribute to its prosperity (for example, the donation of Merrimack’s Lowell Public Library). After Fessenden & Lowell closed, the cooper & pail shop was later operated as a woodworking concern by brothers, Franklin and Edward Haseltine, grandsons of Levi Lowell. 

The Fessenden & Lowell Store (cash grocery) in Reeds Ferry NH. Colorized by the blog editor. This building burned down.  Another store was built in that location and owned by the Jenkins family. At that time the Reeds Ferry post office was located in the building (with Raymond Jenkins, postmaster).

The Granite State magazine published in 1906, included an article called, “Merrimack by the River” about the town of Merrimack in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire.  It included this about the company: “Among the industries of Merrimack, the Fessenden and Lowell cooperage at Reed’s Ferry deserves special mention. This corporation was formed originally in 1873 by co-partnership of Benjamin F. Fessenden, Anson D. Fessenden and Levi F. Lowell, all of Townsend, Mass. From a small beginning this business developed into one of the largest industries of the town, and continued under the above partnership until the death of Benjamin Fessenden in 1882, when his part of the partnership was succeeded by his son Anson D. Fessenden. In 1893 the partnership was changed to a stock company, retaining the same name, Fessenden & Lowell, as before.  At the time of incorporation the local store belonging to Mr. Haseltine was taken into the corporation, and has since been running as a cash grocery. This concern manufactures lumber, kits, pails, kegs, half-barrels and barrels. Nearly all of which are made from native pine which is bought in the vicinity of their mills. This business has now developed into one of the largest industries of its kind in the state. At the present time the business in managed by Mr. Levi F. Lowell, who is president and general manager; George P. Butterfield who is general manager of the package department, and John E. Haseltine, who is manager for the store and the mill. Alfred N. Fessenden, son of Anson D. Fessenden of Townsend, is the present treasurer.”

In 1907 this entry was found in the Nashua NH Directory [that included Merrimack]
-Incorporated Companies-
Fessenden & Lowell, Inc. 1903. Mill and Main Streets, Reeds Ferry. Mfrs. of cooperage and lumber; wholesale and retail grocers and grain dealers. Capital $125,000. Levi F. Lowell, pres. and gen’l mgr.; John E. Haseltine, vice pres.; Alfred N. Fessenden, treas; George F. Butterfield, sec.; Anson D. Fessenden other director.
[Description of Streets:  Mill Street, from head of Maple, in front of Fessenden & Lowell Mill, Reed’s Ferry // Main Street, road leading through town from Nashua N.H., north to Manchester N.H. [today known as the DW Highway].

—Questions and Answers—
What kind of wood was used?
Exactly what are “kits” or “packages”?

My research answered several questions I had about the company, but also raised  additional questions.  One item of note is that this latter article mentions nearly all of the cooperage items produced are made “from native pine bought in the vicinity of their mills.”  This is important because I had thought they would be using white oak.  The article also mentions exactly what was made: “This concern manufactures lumber, kits, pails, kegs, half-barrels and barrels.”  Other product notices mention kits–fish kits and syrup packages. I researched for a long time and almost gave up trying to figure out what these were.

I give Rick Holmes and the Tales of Old Derry article he wrote in the Derry News of 8 October 2009 for uncovering what these kits were. In that story Rick details how cooperage kits are “loose barrel staves bundled together. Each ‘kit’ when reassembled would make one barrel.” Of course fishing boats are not roomy so every bit of space counted. Much easier to have the barrels in ‘kits’ that could be assembled when needed. Syrup kits or packages would be to hold maple syrup or any other kind of sweet syrup such as corn syrup.

—Local Competitors—
As for the competitors–Fessenden and Lowell definitely had several.  There must have been a good demand for these products, along with an excellent supply of pine wood in Southern New Hampshire, as my research shows several cooperages existed in the area. This story only mentions two.

Proctor Brothers & Company
The Boston Globe of 1 August 1913 included an obituary of Ira H. Proctor, “operator of the largest New England manufacturers of fish barrels and kits and cooperage stock, senior member of the firm of Proctor Brothers, died at midnight at his home on Prospect St. (Nashua NH)….he was born in Hollis NH Aug 27, 1843 and was educated in the schools of Hollis and the New Ipswich Academy. He and his brother, Nathaniel H. Proctor, began the manufacture of barrels in their native town, moving to Nashua in 1881, where they built a large cooperage. They also established a cooperage in New Jersey and sawmills in different places. Ira H. Proctor served in the Legislature and City Government, being a consistent Democrat of the old school. He was a 32d degree Mason, an Odd Fellow, a Knight of Pythias and a Red Man. He was never married.”

The History of Nashua NH states: “Proctor Brothers and Company, In 1881 they purchased several acres of land in Nashua and built a large steam mill, cooper shops, and storehouses, and greatly increased their business [the factory was built on Marshall and Hollis Streets in Nashua NH, and in 1882 other large factory buildings on Tyler Street]…. From time to time additions have been made to the mill, several large storehouses have been built, also twenty-one tenements have been erected for their workmen. Their business has steadily increased and improvements have been made until their plant covers an area of ten acres located on three side tracks of the Boston & Maine railroad. At the present time their business facilities, located as they are in one of the best shipping points in the east, are not excelled by any manufacturer of the kind in New England. In the spring of 1896 their plant on Hollis street was damaged by fire to the extent of $12,000.” Nathaniel H. Proctor’s sons, Clayton B., and Roscoe F., were taken into the firm. The business manufactured kegs,barrels,pails and kits,and also wholesale and they were retail dealers in building materials. [See Nashua’s 75 years of progress 1853-1928]

–Coburn and Sanders Barrel Factory–
In 1875 this establishment was built in Derry New Hampshire. According to an article in the Derry News, the first year in business they produced 1800 barrels. James F. Coburn bought out his partner and then increased the business, producing 75,000 barrels by 1881, with 40 employees. That same year they began making kits in addition to barrels. The factory burnt twice. When the factory was burnt to the ground the second time, in 1891  with a total loss, it was never rebuilt. [See story for details.]

The Fitchburg Sentinel newspaper ran an obituary that included this information: “James F. Coburn died in September of 1922 at his summer home at Canobie Lake in Salem NH of heart trouble. “He was born in West Townsend MA in December of 1852, attended the local schools there, where his father had a store. In 1874 he married a local girl, Miss Hattie Taft, then moved to Derry NH….He was representative to the general court at Concord NH as a Democrat, and a member of the I.O.O.F. He left a widow, Mrs. Hattie Coburn; two daughters, Anna Coburn and Mrs. Frank Cover of Lowell; a son George Coburn who conducts a general store near Canobie Lake NH; several grandchildren; two sisters, Mrs. William F. Neal of Derry NH and Mrs. Lutie Osgood of Needham.

—The People Involved with Fessenden & Lowell—
There were several families instrumental in the success of Fessenden & Lowell Co.  Among those individuals and their families that I will be writing about in separate articles are:

Anson D. Fessenden, and his descendants (and ancestors)
Levi Lowell, and his descendants (and ancestors)
Anson Alfonso Platts (a Lowell cousin, but will include him separately)

—ADDITIONAL READING ABOUT COOPERAGE–

Article: New Hampshire Folk-life, Craft Traditions — Cooperage
Article: Country Ecology: White Oak (The Conway Daily Sun, Aug 2019)

Book:  Cooperage — A treatise on Modern Shop Practice and Methods: From the Tree to the Finished Article, profusely illustrated, compiled and written by J.B. Wagner, 1910

Video: Ramona Vogel, Journeyman Cooper – making a colonial barrel
Video: Barrel Making 101

Historical Marker: Spaulding & Frost Cooperage, Fremont NH

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11 Responses to Fessenden & Lowell Company: a 19th-20th Century Cooperage in Reeds Ferry, New Hampshire

  1. Amy says:

    It’s so interesting to think about these industries that once employed so many—who makes barrels now? I know they’re still used in wine-making (though from oak, not pine, I assume). I remember pickle barrels, but can’t think of anything today that’s sold in barrels. Mostly I see them halved for planters!

    I assume you’re not the Janice in the photo?

    • Janice Brown says:

      Amy, thanks for reading my blog, I appreciate you for doing that and commenting. There are a few coopers left around, but none in New Hampshire that have a large business. Many of the alcohol brewers make their own barrels these days. The Janice in the photograph is my 1st cousin. Her mother and my father were siblings. I was named after her, and another cousin, Janice, on my moms side of the family (with that Janice, her mother and my mother were siblings). I am planning to write about one of the people in that photo–Anson Platts, in a future story, as he was a cousin to the owners of that cooperage in Merrimack and worked there, and my grandmother lived with he and his wife. Adding the genealogy portion to that long story about coopers in New Hampshire would have made it just too long!

      • Amy says:

        Thanks for explaining the Janice connections. Was there an ancestor named Janice for whom you all were named?

        I look forward to part 2!

        • Janice Brown says:

          Amy, there is one more Janice, a cousin by one of my mother’s nephews. And no, I’ve researched pretty far back in time on both sides, and the name Janice does not show up until all of us (cousins) do. It will be part 2, 3 and 4 🙂

  2. James Cummings says:

    In West Concord NH, on Rattlesnake brook just below my house there existed in the 19th century a box mill that made wooden boxes to pack salt codfish in. Those boxes were shipped flat by canal boat, I think, down the Merrimack and by canal from there to the Boston Fish Markets where they were assembled and packed with the fish which were shipped to cities all over the world to provide protein for the workers. I know how hard it is to ferret out some information and then by inference try to draw some conclusions as to how it all went together.

    • Janice Brown says:

      James, Is this the mill you mean?
      History of Concord New Hampshire by City History Commission, James Otis Lyford, 1896, page 652. “For years there was another industry somewhat peculiar to West Concord,–the making of mackerel kits. Moses Humphrey started this business in the forties [1840s] and carried it on successfully for many years, or until the water power passed into the hands of the city. This mill, said to be one of the oldest of its kind in New England, was situated at the foot of the hill east of the old Renton flour mill, and gave constant employment to many workmen. The output was some seventy-five thousand kits a year, and the amount of pine necessary to make this number brought many dollars into the pockets of the lumbermen.” [Moses Humphrey was born 10 October 1807 in Hingham MA, son of Moses Leavitt & Sarah (Lincoln) Humphrey. He married 1) Lydia Humphrey, m2) Adaline J. Clark. By 1860 he is shown living in the West Concord NH area, a “Kit Manufacturer. He died in 1901 in Concord and is buried in Hingham MA.]

      • James Cummings says:

        I believe that is the one. Thank you, that fills in some of the blanks for me. The information on the salt cod was given to me by an elderly resident of the area. I have a codfish box labeled as Profile Brand Codfish, The Dickerman Woodworth Co. Distributors Concord New Hampshire. There is no name of the manufacturer of the box but there are directions on how to soak the fish to make it edible.

  3. Roy Wallen says:

    Thanks for another interesting article.

    There is a long history of the Fessenden family here in Brookline. The original mill, called the Capt. Samuel Brooks Sawmill, was located in the southwest part of town, not far from what is today called Fessenden Hill. The mill, as noted in Parker’s history, changed hands several times after Fessenden and Lowell moved their business to Merrimack. The original mill ended up in the hands of Orville D. Fessenden but, in the spring of 1900, the mill dam was swept away and the mill remained vacant until it was burned in 1912. To this day, the Fessenden family plays a prominent role in Brookline history, including a member on the Board of the Brookline Historical Society.

    For the Proctor family, the main road from Hollis to Brookline is Proctor Hill Road, both towns using the same name for that east-west route. Proctor Hill was a major impediment to travel between the two towns – horses strained to make the ascent – and eventually contributed to the separation of Raby (now called Brookline) from Hollis.

  4. Heather Wilkinson Rojo says:

    Ships used to carry unassembled barrels and a cooper. He could assemble and take apart barrels as the voyage progressed. The Mayflower carried John Alden as a cooper.

  5. Pingback: Cooper and Partner of Fessenden & Lowell Co: Anson Darwin Fessenden (1839-1907) | Cow Hampshire

  6. Pingback: Cooper and Businessman of Reeds Ferry NH: Levi Franklin Lowell (1839-1916) | Cow Hampshire

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