“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Long before the railroad, long before steam power or cheap reliable electricity, Agincourt made things. It was waterpower — the default approach to generating energy that came west with settlers from New England and New York — that drove the earliest engines of industry. Our low-lying southwest quarter, wedged between the Muskrat and Crisping Creek, was a natural for milling of the New England type.
By the end of the Civil War, the first Muskrat dam created eight to ten feet of drop — enough to warrant the city’s first Industrial District. Phase One of the Syndicate Mills could have been mistaken for one on the Merrimack or the Brandywine; with four “side shot” water wheels and a complex system of axles, gears and belts distributing power to three floors of enterprise, its heavy timber construction is indistinguishable from its Eastern cousins. Phase Two was complete just before the Panic of 1875.
The Syndicate’s earliest tenants milled lumber and manufactured windows; they ground local wheat into flour. But there was also a maker of wool felt (one of the earliest employers of women) used in clothing and especially for hats. The oddest product from the mill was a type of “engineered wood” made from compressed wheat straw, a process patented by local farmer Hiram Baecher—who made more reputation than money, but I shows the creativity of 19th century seat-of-the-pants engineering.
The strip of land between the original townsite and the river attracted enough industry to warrant a railway siding when the Milwaukee Road arrived. Anton Kraus and his sons relocated their blacksmithing and evolved into an iron foundry, but the scale of manufacturing in the 1880s was cramped; the West Bank offered a solution. Expansion beyond the river also removed a growing fire hazard that had begun to concern the city.
Hearthstone Manufacturing was a pioneer in that new part of Agincourt called “Industry” on the west bank of the Muskrat. David Parmelee, a businessman from Rockford, Illinois, had visited the area about 1905 and chose to expand here. Hearthstone manufactured enamel cookware and other utensils in a plant managed by his son-in-law Aidan Archer.
The Archer family relocated here for business purposes and, like many Capitalists of that time—profiting from the labor of others in an age of organized labor—they became participants in many aspects of the larger community: serving on the school board and church building committees; giving to social causes; perhaps even taking a public position on America’s entry in the First World War. Most noteworthy, perhaps, Archer was an incorporator of the Muskrat Valley Homebuilding Association, a non-profit provider of low cost loans for home construction. Families, stable thriving families, eventually require pots and pans.
In light of recent expressions by hedge fund operators and venture capitalists a century later, the notion of “Capital” has evolved considerably.