At the dawn of the 19th century, Methuen was a self-reliant agricultural community consisting of mostly farmland, orchards, meadows and undeveloped woodlands. A spattering of saw and grist mills operated below the Spicket Falls, but they mainly served the needs of the town’s approximately 1,000 inhabitants. A few of the farmers also made shoes and hats in small shops on their property, but there was no mechanized industry here at that time. That began to change within a few years when prominent Haverhill lawyer Stephen Minot built a cotton mill at the Spicket Falls (also called Methuen Falls), launching Methuen’s transformation into a thriving industrial community.

The Spicket Falls was an ideal location for a mill. Its natural 30-foot drop in elevation provided the volume of water and the velocity needed to turn a large water wheel that powered a mill’s machinery. A small grist mill had been operating there since the late-1600s. The owners of that mill had built a wooden dam atop the falls to increase the flow velocity and provide a reservoir of water upstream for a steadier supply of water during the dry seasons.

After the Revolutionary War, domestic cotton and wool manufacturing became a growing and profitable industry in the newly independent American states. In 1810, Minot saw the potential for a cotton factory at the Spicket Falls and began acquiring property and water rights there. He built a wooden mill there two years later on the north bank of the river (on the site of what is now the Methuen Falls Hydroelectric building at 30R Hampshire St.). It was one of the earliest textile mills in this area. The great manufacturing cities of Lowell and Lawrence on the Merrimack River didn’t begin operating until 1823 and 1847, respectively.

Undoubtedly, another factor in Minot’s decision to build in that location was the new Essex Turnpike (built in 1805-06 – now Route 28, Broadway) running nearby, providing a faster and more direct route for freight and passengers between Boston and Concord, N.H.
Minot’s mill (likely a spinning mill) thrived in the first few years, but disaster struck in 1818 when the building was destroyed by fire. He rebuilt it soon after and resumed operation. In 1821, he sold the mill, the land and water rights to three Boston traders. They, in turn, incorporated the business as the Methuen Company.

Along with the success of the cotton mill came employment opportunities and an influx of people to the Spicket Falls area. Other types of manufacturing mills were soon operating in several locations downriver. New homes, churches, stores and other businesses were built to accommodate the growing population. From 1810 to 1830, Methuen’s population grew from 1,181 to 2,006 – an increase of about 70%. During that period, the area around the falls was transformed into the new and bustling center of town known as the Methuen Falls Village, or simply as the Village.

Before the cotton mill was built, there were only six homes in the area around the falls. The town’s center of activity was at the Meeting House/First Church Congregational building on Meeting House Hill (at the top of East Street opposite the present Holy Family Hospital). That was where the town meetings and church services were held. In 1823, the church congregation recognized the demographic shift to the village and moved the building to the site of the present stone church on Pleasant Street.

The cotton mill flourished under the direction of the Methuen Company’s owners and the local agents in charge of day-to-day operations. In 1826-27, the company built a new five-and-a-half-story brick cotton mill on the south side of the river across from the older mill.
Production at the Methuen Company came to a standstill after 1861 during the Civil War when cotton from the southern states became unavailable. In 1864, Methuen-raised merchant and industrialist David Nevins Sr., purchased the company along with the buildings, the land and water rights. David was very familiar with this property. His mother’s ancestors (the Swans) built the first grist mill at the falls and owned a vast amount of land upriver. He grew up on his mother’s ancestral farm on Hampshire Street.

It was a well-timed and very profitable investment. Under David’s direction, the company prospered greatly in the post-war industrial boom.

Joining him in this and his many other profitable business interests were his sons David Jr., and Henry C.

Over the next several years, he added several large additions to the original brick mill building and greatly increased production. To power all of the new mill machinery, he replaced the old wooden dam at the falls in 1880 with a larger one made of granite blocks cut from his quarry in Salem, N.H. The blocks are believed to be held in place with Civil War cannonballs placed in round holes carved into the spaces between the blocks.

In addition to producing high-quality cotton ticking, the Methuen Company was said to be the largest maker of jute fabric in the country in the 1870s. Jute was used to make burlap sacks and other products. The company also made a very profitable and in-demand product called Duck cloth. Duck was a durable canvas material made from cotton. Methuen Duck was used on circus tents and awnings throughout the country as well as on the masts of sailing ships around the world.

The Methuen Company was the town’s largest employer for many years. When David took over the business, the mill employed 150 workers. By 1875, there were 650 people working there. Many of them were Irish and French-Canadian immigrants, bringing a new ethnic and religious diversity to Methuen’s mostly English Protestant population.

The company was also largely responsible for a significant increase in manufacturing production in the town during that period. In 1865, the value of all manufactured goods in Methuen was $766,872. In 1875, that figure reached $2,115,942. The other types of manufactured goods made here in large quantities at that time included shoes, boots, hats and woolen textiles. By 1896, the Methuen Company produced 8 million yards of cotton fabric annually.

David Sr., died at the Nevins Homestead on Hampshire Street in Methuen in 1881. His sons succeeded him in running the business. Henry died in 1892. David Jr., died in 1898. They had no children to carry on the family business, but the Methuen Company remained in operation for many years after.

The New England textile industry struggled after World War I. The old factories with outdated machinery were unable to compete with modern domestic and foreign competitors producing the latest and more popular fabrics. Cheaper labor and operating costs in the Southern states’ factories were also factors. Some local factories were briefly buoyed by lucrative government contracts during the war, but many of them later went out of business. The Methuen Company closed its doors in 1926, idling about 250 workers. The property, buildings and machinery were sold at auction the following year.

Arlington Mills (later Malden Mills), located downriver just over the border in Lawrence, bought the main buildings, the dam and several acres of land along the river upstream from the falls. They had no expressed plans for the buildings at the time. Their main interest was maintaining the water rights to the Spicket River up to their reservoir and dam at Arlington Pond in Salem, which was vital for their operations.

The demise of the heavy manufacturing industry in Methuen coincided with the demise of the town’s agricultural industry. By the mid-1900s, many of the farm properties had been sold for housing development. The last dairy cows in Methuen at Rotondo’s Farm on Forest Street were sold in 1984. Methuen today is mostly a residential or bedroom community.

After the Methuen Company closed, the buildings were occupied by a mix of retail, commercial and light manufacturing businesses. The property was sold in 2000 and converted into the Mill Falls Apartments.

Ken Doherty is a lifelong resident of Methuen. He served on the Methuen Fire Department from 1980 to 2010. He is the Fire Department historian and a former member of the Methuen Historical Commission. He wrote “Á History of Methuen and its Fire Department” in 1996. He is retired and still living in Methuen with his wife, Paula.