A quick Google search will tell you that America’s oldest cotton mill was the Slater Mill, built in Rhode Island in 1790. There’s just one slight problem with this fact – there was another cotton mill built three years earlier in Beverly, Massachusetts. This “lost” mill utilized experimental techniques and machinery (some of which were the model for the “jenny” at Rhode Island’s mill) and was praised by George Washington himself (he really got around the North Shore in the 1780s). So, what’s the story of this lost bit of history?
When built in 1787, the Beverly Cotton Manufactory was the largest mill in the United States. The mill, under the ownership of many partners, including the wealthy John Cabot and his brother, George, was incorporated in 1789 and was initially a success. In October 1789, George Washington visited the mill and was impressed with its state-of-the-art machinery and utilization of horse power. He commented that “In short the whole seemed perfect, and the Cotton stuffs wch (sic). they turn out excellent of their kind” before traveling on to Ipswich and Newburyport.
So, if the Beverly mill was such a success, why does Rhode Island get the credit for having the first mill?
We could not find a definitive answer to this question, in all honesty. Due to financial issues (most likely stemming from the costs of building such a big mill and competition from the more efficient water-run mills that popped up), the Beverly Cotton Manufactory was shut down in the early 1800’s. Our assumption is that the Slater Mill was more successful and utilized the more innovative water power while Beverly’s mill, a financial disaster, was swept into the dustbin of history.
The fact that the Beverly Cotton Manufactory building itself burned down in 1828 also plays a factor – there’s nothing to show for this historical landmark which makes it even easier to forget. Although, the Beverly Historical Society has placed a memorial stone where the Manufactory once stood.