Return to the River Part 2: Creating A Mill City
Concord Monitor | Elodie Reed |May 07, 2017
Eighty-five-year-old Franklin native Andy Nadeau calls himself an “original river rat.”
He grew up on River Street, in the Three Rivers City, a short walk from the water-powered mill where his parents manufactured hosiery. The workers and machines of Sulloway Mills are long gone, now converted to the Franklin Falls apartment building.
As a young man, Nadeau remembers his home city as vibrant, well-off and full of familiar faces – now he sees it as a center for renters and a downtown full of decaying storefronts.
Developers, city officials and volunteers are attempting to change that, and they are gaining traction after years of effort. Franklin is just beginning a $400,000 downtown facade renovation.
Nadeau wonders, though, if the mill city can ever recapture the wealth of its industrial past.
It comes from humble roots. Like much of New England, the first white settlers harnessed the wilderness around them.
They cleared tall pine trees for crop fields, raised farm animals, built homes and occasionally came into conflict with Native Americans. The History of Franklin author Alice Shepard describes these newcomers establishing Stevenstown in the 1740s, at what is now Webster Farm.
To create their community, the settlers used water to power their first sawmill in Punch Brook, beginning a centuries-long history for Franklin’s mill activity.
“Most of the grist, lumber, cider mills – if you’re settling an area and creating homes, you have to create the materials you build your homes with,” said Leigh Webb, president of the Franklin Historical Society. “And you have to feed yourself.”
The Pemigewasset River would become choked with logs as a highway for the timber industry, Webb said, and the Winnipesaukee River’s drop toward the Merrimack River headwaters would grow particularly valuable as the population increased.
Six paper and pulp mills were eventually built in the Winnipesaukee, with dams redirecting the water flow at six points along the river.
“It created a current that was year-round – that was the attraction for the mills,” Webb said. “Franklin wouldn’t exist (if not) for the confluence of the rivers.”
Nadeau was born at the tail end of Franklin’s prosperity as a mill city, in 1931.
As the author of Papermaking Industry of Franklin, New Hampshire: The Rise and Fall of the Mills, Nadeau said the rise of Franklin began in 1821 with the first paper mill, “The Old Vat Mill.”
“It gave a lot of people (the) chance to go to work,” he said.
In addition to paper mills, wool and hosiery mills came into town, including Sulloway Mills, where Nadeau’s parents made socks and stockings.
The textile operations lasted longer than the paper industry. Four decades after Franklin was incorporated as a city in 1895, the paper and pulp mills were all shut down due to labor strikes and the Great Depression, Nadeau said. In 1934, the dams were damaged by spring floods, then dynamited.
As a child, Nadeau still experienced the benefits of Franklin’s industrial success.
“Main Street was full – Central Street if you will,” he said. “Every Friday night was a shopping night. You could hardly walk on the sidewalks.”
Webb said that in the city’s “gilded age,” Route 3A – the road to the White Mountains at the time – was busy, too. Gas stations, restaurants and souvenir shops lined the way.
In warmer seasons, Nadeau said, there was always a weekend baseball game in Odell Park, and in winter, he would go ice-skating on a pond that used to be there. At one time there was even an in-ground public pool.
“It was a very, very busy community,” he said. “I think everybody in the community was happy because they all had a job.”
The mills meant vitality for the Franklin community. Yet for the waterways, they created obstruction and filth.
That was something Nadeau witnessed in his time. “Everybody was dumping into the river,” he said. Sewages, chemical waste, dye – anything undesirable.
“My father-in-law came to visit from Indiana,” Nadeau said. “I took him down to the Merrimack. He’s standing there fishing, and he says, ‘I’ve never seen a river with an asphalt bottom.’ ”
It wasn’t asphalt, but sludge and slime.
“You couldn’t see through the water except near the shore,” Nadeau said. “It smelled no matter where you were along it.”
Some people did swim in the Pemigewasset, Nadeau said, including his mother and father and their families.
“I say, ‘Oh dear lord,’ ” he said. “ ‘Course, back then, they never tested it or anything.”
Sulloway Mills closed in 1953, and from there, Nadeau said, his father went right to the wool manufacturer, Stevens Company Mill. By 1971, that shut down too, emptying Franklin of its last operating mill.
Since then, Nadeau has watched his home city change, from the struggling storefronts to the loss of the skating pond in Odell Park to the renters now filling the mill building where his parents once worked.
“Today there are so many strangers,” Nadeau said.
Webb, the historical society president, said Franklin’s decline is typical of any city losing its prime industry.
“The demographics changed drastically,” he said. “There’s a significant portion of Franklin that struggles to pay taxes. It became a city that struggled to meet its bills.”
One thing that has improved is the rivers. The water now runs clear, is unobstructed by the mill dams and no longer has raw sewage and industrial waste pouring into it.
As the Three Rivers City looks for opportunities to revitalize its economy, the fast-flowing Winnipesaukee River is an attractive resource. It’s a whitewater paddler’s paradise, and, if everything comes together just right, it could mean an influx of desperately needed tourism dollars.
Nadeau isn’t sure that will happen, but is rooting for his home city.
“I’d like to see it,” he said.