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Monday, March 14, 2016

The "The Fabric Of Lancaster: Part I" Story

This was Mill #2 of the Conestoga Steam Cotton Mill Complex.
Today it houses the Water Street Ministries for the homeless.
It was an ordinary day.  Standing in the 200 block of South Prince Street in Lancaster, Pennsyl- vania taking photos of both the east side and the west side of the block.  On one side sits the Water Street Ministries and on the other side sits the offices of the School District of Lancaster and the Carter and MacRae Elementary School.  The huge industrial style buildings were at one time filled with weavers instead of teachers, school children, administrators and homeless.  And, at one time the building on the west side was connected to the two buildings on the right with a double-decker overhead bridge at the second and third floor levels.  These three buildings were known as Mills #1, #2, and #3 and were the largest industrial complex in the city of Lancaster.  The Conestoga Steam Cotton Mill Complex was built between 1845 and 1910 and was one of the most important industries in the 19th century.  
Mill #1 which currently is Lancaster School District's Carter
and MacRae Elementary School. It stands on the east side
of Prince Street.
It was the first cotton mill in the United States to be powered by steam.  In the early 1840's steam boilers began to power steam engines which were used to power railroads and a variety of factories.  Before this new technology, water-powered mills were found throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.  A steam-power promoter, Charles James, from Rhode Island talked to a group of Lancaster businessmen who, in 1845, made a visit to inspect the steam powered factories in New England.  Wasn't long before they formed The Conestoga Steam Cotton Mill #1 and had Mr. James build a mill-complex with 6,000 spindles and 216 looms.  It took over a million bricks to build the mill.  When finished, it was the largest structure in the city of Lancaster.  
The building on the left was Mill #3 and is currently the
Administrative Offices of the School District of Lancaster.
Operations began in March of 1847 with a workforce of women who earned $1.25 per week.  By 1851 Mills #2 and #3 added 18,000 spindles and 550 looms under the name of John Farnum and Company which was based in Philadelphia.  The name Farnum is still well-known in Lancaster with a nearby street and public softball field bearing the name.  Four years later the company struggled and Mills #1 and #3 were sold at sheriff's sale to a Lancaster businessmen, but by 1862 Mr. Farnum had re-entered the scene and was sole owner of Mills #2 and #3. Then the Civil War proved to be a boon to the mills as they produced close to 80% of the tents, ground cloths, hospital sheets, wagon covers and tarps and 10% of the Navy's sail cloth.  By the 1880's Mr. Farnum's Conestoga Mills were Lancaster's largest employer with over 1,200 workers or 32% of the workforce.  
Just had to take a photo of Farnum Field.  In the distance
you can see the three Mills.  I have played on this field as
well as coached baseball on this field.  Many happy memories!
Then in the mid-1890's fabric production slowly moved to southern states due to cheaper labor and better access to cotton.  Mill #1 closed in 1895 and in 1910 was bought by Lorillard to be a tobacco company, but Mills #2 and #3 continued operations well into the 20th century.  These two remaining Mills were situated on the eastern edge of what was known as, and still is, Cabbage Hill.  The mills employed scores of German immigrants from the neighborhood which surrounded it in the early part of the 20th Century.  The equipment in the mills was technologically advanced for the time and the jobs were not overly physical with workers observing the machines as they spun, carded and wove the cotton into fabric.  Some were employed to maintain and repair the equipment.  The latest equipment had overhead shafts and pulleys with flat belts running down to looms on the factory floor.  The looms were six feet wide and covered much of the factory floor space as well as being extremely loud.  
The cupola of Mill #3 is seen as it seems aglow in the
blue sky behind it.  Beautiful rooflines add to the scene.
Those with lint allergies didn't last long.  In 1920 half of the wage-earners in the neighbor- hood worked at the mills where cotton was still king.  By now they were making $20 per week when an apartment rented for $12 per month.  Then the Depression of the 1930's hit and the mills cut back to one day a week with Farnum selling his interest in Conestoga Steam Cotton Mills to local investors and mill workers. By 1935 the plant was back to a 40 hour work week even though they were down to only 600 workers.  After WWII the mills changed ownership several times until closing in 1949 marking the end of the era of steam powered cotton mills in Lancaster.  Mill #2, after 100 years of production, was taken over by Water Street Rescue Mission, later named Water Street Ministries.  Mill #3 stood vacant until the Lancaster School District moved their District office into it.  Mill #1 is now the Carter and MacRae Elementary School.  The two-story bridge no longer connects the buildings on either side of Prince Street, but they are in beautiful shape.  Those who drive by the buildings would never guess that at one time they were the biggest industry in Lancaster City.  That is unless they had just read today's story.  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy. 

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