A Wedding to Die For

The phone call likely went something like this:

“Crane Customer Service, how may I help you?”

“Well, we’re putting together an order for a wedding and need some advice.”

“Okay, is there something special you need?”

“Well, the papers will be engraved, but they need to be embossed as well.”

“That’s fine, we can do that. Do you need us to make an embossing die?”

“No, we have the die.”

“Well, you can just ship us the die and we’ll put it together with the rest of your order.”

“It’s Thomas Jefferson’s die.”

(audible gulp)

Jefferson crest

If you stick around long enough, events can tend to occur in circles, or at least loops. Since Crane has been around since 1801, loopy things happen quite often.

During the presidential terms of George Washington, young Zenas Crane made paper at his uncle’s Liberty Paper Mill in Milton, Mass., at his brother’s mill in Newton Lower Falls and at Isaiah Thomas’ mill just outside Worcester.

During the term of John Adams, the Thomas mill had been sold to the Burbank family, and Zenas made his first trek west to find the perfect location for a mill of his own.

When Zenas began making paper on the banks of the Housatonic, Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States.

Back to Customer Service. After much deliberation about shipping and insurance and such, the die was sent on its way by next-day service. There were more than several people – both in North Adams and Virginia – who spent the next morning in anxious anticipation of the die’s safe arrival. And there were more than several ooohs and aaahs as the package was opened and the die inspected.

Once all the pieces of the wedding order were assembled, it was off to the engraving press. I remember a conversation with engraver Ed Boudreau during production. His remarks went along these lines: “This is really an honor. I’ve engraved stationery for lots of celebrities and several presidents, but this is really really special. I had to take a deep breath to settle myself down before I started. Imagine…Thomas Jefferson once held this die.”

And so it goes, in circles, or at least loops.

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Let there be light!

During the recent open house at Crane’s new Technical Materials headquarters, Vice President Dennis Lockyer noted that Crane began experimenting with what we know today as nonwoven materials in the 1950s. But paper was the first real technical material. And the go-to mill for 19th-century innovators was Crane’s.

As a matter of fact, Crane can mark Nov. 29, 1879, as the first successful use of Crane’s papers as non-writing technical materials.

It was that day when Charles Batchelor, chief researcher for Thomas Edison, used Crane’s Parchment to create a long-lasting incandescent light. Edison would demonstrate his success to the media the very next week.

Paper, especially those made by Crane, were used in a wide variety of innovations – from observatory domes to railroad car wheels to boats to printed circuit boards. With a material so pure and so consistent, Edison and others were able to deduce and take advantage of their physical, chemical and mechanical properties for use in explorations using the “Scientific Method,” that is to say – eliminating variables.

One of the most important properties paper brought to the world of innovation is the fact that it is resistant to the conduction of electricity. As such paper could be used for resistance and insulation. Edison took advantage of both those properties.

Resistance came into play in development of the incandescent light. Carbonized Crane Parchment resisted the passage of electricity, thus creating light. It was so pure that there were no defects that would weaken the filament.

Insulation was instrumental in Edison’s creation of the first municipal electric power plant – the Pearl Street Station in New York City, built in 1881. Crane’s Bond was used to separate and

Edison Crane paper YES

insulate copper plates in Pearl Street’s “Jumbo” dynamo.

Soon after Edison made good use the properties of Crane Paper, another young innovator began ordering paper “to be made suitable for the purposes of the Electric Light.” William Stanley was about to move to Great Barrington to continue his experiments with alternating current. He would shortly demonstrate his success by illuminating downtown Great Barrington.

Stanley’s U.S. Electric Light Company would eventually become a little outfit called General Electric.

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Two Days in May

As the Liberty Paper Mill was bustling with activity, Abijah Burbank was struggling with his new paper mill, built near Worcester in 1776 to accommodate – among others – the publisher of the Massachusetts Spy – Isaiah Thomas. The need for paper for Thomas and for the good of the country, was so severe that on May 31, 1775, a convention of delegates from the towns in Worcester County convened to pass the following:

Resolved: That the erection of a paper mill in this county would be of great public advantage, and if any person or persons will undertake the erection of such a mill and the manufacture of paper, that it be recommended to the people of the county to encourage the undertaking by generous contributions and subscriptions.

1776 Abijah Burbank Ad

A year later, Burbank took out an advertisement in the Spy to announce:

The subscriber hereby informs the public that his paper mill in Sutton is finished and ready for business. The benefit that such a work will be to this country, at this time is well known to everyone. Therefore, it is hoped they will assist the carrying it on, by saving all their Old Linnen and Cotton Rags for which cash and a good price will be given, at said paper mill.

N.B. Cash and a good price will also be given for old rags at the printing office in Worcester.

The ad is dated May 8, 1777.

Zenas Crane was born the next day.

Their paths were destined to cross.

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A Blast From The Past

A letter from Samuel G. Colt to Orville Wright in 1915 introduces the inventor to the Richmond Iron Works:

“I have honestly believed for a long time that Richmond is the best iron made here for piston and cylinder castings, where strength, close grain, and exceptional wearing qualities are so necessary as in the aeroplane motor. “

The production of pig iron In Richmond began in 1830 when Gates, Pettee & Company built the charcoal-fired, stone stack blast furnace to smelt iron ore found in open-pit and shaft mines in the nearby hillsides.

The Richmond Furnace was one of several dozen within the Salisbury Iron District, which covers northwestern Connecticut, western Massachusetts and central eastern New York, at its peak supported 55 blast furnaces, of which the remains of 11 survive. Richmond’s is the only one in Massachusetts still standing. Richmond Iron Works ended operations in 1923, by which time its production methods were severely antiquated.

Iron produced at Richmond from brown hematite ore was particularly hard, and was sold as a raw material to other ironworks and foundries.

As Colt notes in his letter:  “The iron became famous during the Civil War, when it all went into the Rodman guns, which were cast from straight Richmond, as were the guns on Erricson’s “Monitor” and since then, it has been used by the Pennsylvania Rail Road for car wheels.” 

Not a bad resume…..

A 20-inch Rodman gun


The deck of the Monitor. Note the dents in the Richmond Furnace iron.






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It Wasn’t Quite Wright….

Two years after setting the world on fire with their first sustained airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Wilbur and Orville Wright had transferred their operations to Dayton, OH. It was there that they developed the Wright Flyer III (their third powered plane, hence the name). On June 23, 1905, Orville flew the Flyer above Huffman Prairie for the first time, but a couple of months later, a serious nosedive led to major modifications to the aircraft.

The Wright Flyer III in 1905

Those structural and mechanical changes produced such amazing results that by mid-October, Wilbur and Orville were writing to the United States Secretary of War William Howard Taft offering to sell the world’s first practical fixed-wing aircraft.

To protect their intellectual property, the brothers disassembled the plane in November. By 1908, with contracts in hand to make more Wright Flyers for America and France, they returned to Kill Devil Hills, the site of their first successful flight, to make further tests.

But while flying solo, Wilbur moved one of the new control levers the wrong way and crashed into the sand. He was bruised but the plane’s front elevator was ruined, and the practice flights ended. Due to deadlines for their upcoming public demonstration flights in France and Virginia, the Wrights did not repair the airplane and it never flew again.

Enter Zenas Crane Jr. and the Berkshire Museum which he founded and endowed in 1903. Being of a scientific persuasion, Crane had taken great interest in the Wright brothers’ adventures and in November of 1911, wrote to Orville to see if the museum could display the Wright Flyer III. We don’t have copies of that correspondence, but there were several letters back and forth through 1913 that resulted in Crane purchasing a variety of salvaged airplane and glider parts from a shed in Kittyhawk.

The Berkshire Museum, circa 1911

Crane in 1914 was not in robust health, so he enlisted his son-in-law Samuel G. Colt, president of the Richmond (Mass.) Iron Works.

He first wrote to Orville to restate the case for more Flyer III parts so that the plane could be reassembled and put on display in Pittsfield. Orville kept putting him off – letter after letter – saying it would require his personal attention to find the correct parts, and his schedule would not allow. His schedule was still full when Colt wrote in March to alert Orville that he had found some mechanical parts of a Wright plane in Marblehead. “Not having heard from you, we will be forced, with much regret, to do the next best thing by getting the parts…and assembling the machine….”

Somewhere between March and May, Wright was evidently able to convince Crane and Colt not to attempt a reconstruction of the Wright Flyer III. But somewhere along the line, Colt and Crane decided to reconstruct the Wright brothers’ 1911 glider – parts from which had been scrounged earlier from Kitty Hawk. The work was accomplished in the Museum’s basement by a young man named F.H. Prentiss, and the day after visiting Wright in Dayton, Crane sent some photos and diagrams of Prentiss’ work.

The Berkshire Museum’s recreation of Wright’s 1911 Glider.

Wright responded a couple of days later: “We never had any machine of the dimensions given in your sketch. I am at a loss to understand what parts of the original machine secured at Kitty Hawk could have been used in this reproduction, because none of the parts of any machine we ever had at Kitty Hawk could exactly fit into this machine if the dimensions given are correct. We never had any glider of the design shown in the photograph. I should dislike very much to have this machine exhibited in the Museum.”

Evidently, our Mr. Prentiss had never seen an airplane and was going by the description in a book and Wright’s patent drawings.

In Wright’s letter, he did allow that perhaps he should be more helpful: “I will be very glad to cooperate with you in getting together as much as is possible of the original machine of 1905, and exact reproductions of the missing parts, if you wish to undertake it.”

Wright did find some parts and he did visit Dalton and the Berkshire Museum in the summer of 1915, but interest seems to have waned. A couple of letters went back and forth through 1917, including one from Zenas Crane Jr.’s son, Zenas Marshall Crane. But with the death of Zenas Crane Jr. in December of 1917, momentum for the project was lost.

The parts of the Wright Flyer III and the 1911 glider remained in the basement of the Berkshire Museum until 1947, when they were given to Carillon History Park in Dayton, Ohio.

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“The Pleasantest Business Letter We Ever Received”

Historians are pretty much in agreement that it wasn’t Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that started it, but no matter what the cause, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was devastating.

The fire was ignited on Sunday, Oct. 8, and wasn’t brought under control until two days later. In its wake, it left more than 100 people dead and 100,000 homeless. The fire covered 2,000 acres on a stretch from Belden Avenue in the north, to 22ndStreet in the south, and leaping over the Chicago River at the Randolph Street Bridge.

A depiction of the Great Chicago Fire crossing the Randolph Bridge after destroying the headquarters of the Western Banknote and Engraving Co.

By the time it reached the bridge, it had already destroyed much of downtown Chicago, including the headquarters of the Western Banknote and Engraving Co. and the homes of its employees.

Western Banknote, founded in 1865 by two New Yorkers – Charles Knickerbocker and Clarence C. Cheney -specialized in banknotes, stock certificates and documents of monetary value that required counterfeit protection. Western at the time was a relatively small, but important purchaser of Crane paper, aiding in the company’s westward expansion.

Shortly after the fire, Western had relocated west of the Chicago River at 10 Jefferson Street. On Nov. 22, Crane & Co. received a letter from a grateful Clarence Cheney.

Gentlemen: Your favor of the 16th is received – and we must say your action and kindness made a deep impression – not so much at what was offered (altho it was very generous) as the manner in which it was done. And I must say that the $100 for our workmen on top of the other – caused it to be one of the pleasantest business letters of we ever received.

Not having been in the habit of giving notes, we would prefer to let the account stand and shall endeavor to pay sooner than the time you are willing to allow.

Eventually settling at Madison and Michigan, Western Banknote remained a loyal customer for many years.

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Enter The Type-Writer

Edison’s Electric Pen would appear to have broken open the floodgates for “machine age” communications on paper. But even while Edison was putting the final touches on his writing instrument, others were hard at work creating a machine that would type – a machine that would change how we communicate well into the 21st century.

Needless to say, Crane benefitted greatly from the invention of the typewriter, but it wasn’t a matter of sitting and waiting for the orders to come in. The typewriter – and those who made and used them – would require different weights, finishes, sizing and a host of other characteristics to perform to emerging expectations.

From Crane’s archives, here are some of the pioneers who did business with Crane:

William Austin Burt of Michigan was the first to receive a patent for a “typographer” in 1829, signed by President Andrew Jackson. The patent gave him exclusive rights to his invention for 14 years.

Even though a neat-looking letter could be typed on Burt’s “typographer”, the basic goal to speed up correspondence was not realized, as his machine was very slow. There being no ready market for a very slow contraption, Burt lost interest in it and sold his rights to Cyrus Spalding a blacksmith from Hillsboro, New Hampshire, for $75 in 1830. He evidently didn’t have any luck marketing the machine either. The typographer was so far ahead of its time it found no takers. (Spalding’s son, Cyrus, would invent the Spalding Adding Machine in 1884, the precursor to the computer).

Typewriters must have been in the family blood, because 55 years later, in 1885, we find correspondence from “The Burt & Wood Type-Writing Company” of Detroit – Fred E. Burt, Vice-President.  Written by Lewis N. Wood – Sec’y and Treas. – the company was looking to pay cash for Crane’s Bond #18 or #21 in 30-inch rolls of 100 feet each.

In 1886, Crane received a letter seeking sample books for S.T. Smith, “Manufacturer of Carbon Papers, Type-Writer and Caligraph Ribbons,” New York City. One might think that Mr. Smith would have had something to do with the Smith-Corona typewriter that was to come many years later, but that is not the case. According to “Evolution of the Typewriter” by C.V. Oden, 1917:

 Mr. John T. Underwood, who had been connected for many years with the typewriter supply business, was thoroughly familiar with the requirements of the trade. He recognized fully the value of visible writing, as well as the many other excellent features employed in the machine, and as a result bought Mr. Wagner’s inventions and interests. Mr. Underwood associated with him Mr. D. W. Bergen, present treasurer of the Underwood Type- writer Company, and later Mr. S. T. Smith, General Manager of the company, which position he retained until his death in May, 1915.

In researching these 19th-century writing machines, arguably the most beautiful and the most admired by collectors is The Hammond Type Writer. “For every nation, for every tongue” was the slogan Hammond used to introduce the advantage of his machine over the competition: the use of different typefaces.

In 1886, Charles N. Hammond wrote to Crane: “I have been using your paper in this office for our Type Writer, and I find it far the best I can get.” There is no indication which Crane paper he was using, but from the sample submitted, it was an all-linen sheet of about 16 pounds to the ream.

The brilliance of Hammond’s designs stood the test of time through an adaptation called the Varityper. According to Typewriter Spotlights at Xavier University:

The Varityper (also known as the Vari-Typer or VariTyper) was a highly ingenious “word processor” of the pre-digital age. This machine could use over 300 different type styles and write in 55 languages; it could adjust the space between characters, and even produce right-justified copy. Even though the Varityper enjoyed a successful career of about 60 years, you may never have seen one, for the machine was not generally adopted as a standard typewriter. Instead, it found a niche as a “cold typesetting” or “office composing” machine: it was generally used to produce neat, camera-ready copy for offset printing, at a cost much lower than that of conventional printer’s methods.

The Varityper is based on one of the greatest early typewriters, the Hammond. James B. Hammond died in 1913 and willed his patents to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (an act of self-congratulation which, in my opinion, is justified!). The history of the Hammond after that point is a little obscure, but the Hammond Multiplex was produced until the mid-twenties, when the company was bought by the Frederick Hepburn Co. and renamed Varityper. This company failed in the Depression, and it was sold in 1933 to a partnership headed by Ralph C. Coxhead, a business machine salesman.

Varitypers in use at the Chicago Tribune in 1947.



Through various versions and owners, Varitypers remained in use well into the 1980’s, as anyone working in the composition room of a newspaper will verify.

In 1884, W.M. Belcher Co. of Boston wrote on behalf of the American Writing Machine Co. seeking samples from Crane. At Antiquetyperwriters.com, we learn that:

 The Caligraph was the first typewriter to appear with the double keyboard arrangement with no character shift key. A Scientific American article (March 1886) about the Caligraph, presented the perceived advantage of the double keyboard by stating ‘Up to 1881, when the American Writing Machine Company introduced the Caligraph, double case writing machines were incomplete, being so constructed as to compel the operator to shift the carriage by a gratuitous stroke for capital letters and figures. The Caligraph prints each character in both capitals and small letters at a single finger stroke.’ Many other double keyboard typewriters would follow.

Even in its relative infancy, the typewriter had already given rise to new applications and spinoffs. In 1884 W.G. Chaffee, “Proprietor of Chaffee’s Phonographic Institute. Phonography, Caligraph and Type-Writing thoroughly taught and pupils prepared to fill situations such as Court Reporters, Amanuenses, Private Secretaries, etc.” wrote to Crane:


We are educating young ladies and gentlemen as Stenographers and Machine operators and furnishing businessmen such help. Do you not need a stenographer? Miss Bissell, one of our pupils, would like a position with you. She is bright and quick to learn, can take dictation at 100 words per minute, and transcribe the same on the Caligraph (which he sells for $80) and when not engaged in correspondence will be willing to do other office work. If you cannot employ a lady we can furnish you with a gentleman.

And speaking of stenographers, Crane received a query in July of 1884 from M.L. York, Stenographer, U.S. Commissioner and Examiner in Chancery (with business card attached):

In my line of business as a stenographer, I frequently have occasion to get up handsome pieces of work in type-writing: and being somewhat fastidious about the appearance of it, I have often failed to obtain paper to my fancy. I have lately seen one of your sample books; and it has pleased me so much that I venture to ask you to send me two copies of it. I desire two copies, that I may take one to pieces and test the different varieties of paper in my type-writer, and the other I wish to keep intact and mark upon its pages the result of my experiments.

York notes that he also serves as private secretary for “Mr. Bancroft, the historian.” He would have had to be a busy man. “Mr. Bancroft” was probably George Bancroft, author of the magisterial series:  History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent. For a further look at Bancroft’s contributions to the world, please visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Bancroft

In 1892, a year after Bancroft’s death, York became the official stenographer for the State of New York. The Public Printer for the State of New York at the time was the firm of Charles Van Benthuysen & Sons. More on that later, but this would ensure that Mr. York would type on Crane papers for years to come.

When sorting through hundreds of pieces of correspondence, there’s always something that jumps out at you. In this case, it was the letterhead of the Remington Standard Typewriter. A bright red medallion surrounds a rendition of the Remington Machine, with the slogan: “To Save Time is to Lengthen Life”

Founded in 1816 in Ilion, N.Y., Remington began as a manufacturer of rifle barrels, later complete firearms and ammunition. (More about that later).

In 1867 Christopher Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel Lewis invented their own typewriter model, which allowed substantially faster typing, eclipsing the speed of handwriting. The patent was sold to the firm of Densmore and Yost, who made an agreement with E. Remington and Sons (who had recently diversified into the sewing machine business) to manufacture and commercialize the typewriter.

Production began in March of 1873, introducing the QWERTY keyboard. The next model included upper and lower case letters via a shift key.

Correspondence from Remington’s New Haven and Washington offices sought samples and supplies, with W. H Brown, writing from Connecticut in 1885: “Owing to my connection with the Type-Writer, I have many calls for paper, both from customers and others; and I desire to make my writing paper business a specialty, for I think I can build up a good trade in my territory…”

An 1886 letter from D.C. asked: “Will you send to us four reams of paper the size and quality of sample, double sheet, four reams of same size and quality, single sheets, and two reams of cap. size single sheet, same quality. This is to supply an order that we have from one of the departments; we trust therefore, you will give us usual discounts….”.

A note on the bottom of the letter indicates that the folks at Crane would give a 20% discount.

The New York office seemed less interested in growing their business than paying less for paper. “We have your bill of the 17th inst. (July 1886) for 15 reams of onion-skin paper. We were very surprised to note the discount you allowed us, as our competitors tell us they get 25% from you, and we know of no reason why we should be discriminated against. If we are not able to secure as advantageous terms from you as other people in the same line of business, we will of course feel very little interest in the disposal of your goods.”

After some digging in their competitors’ business, the New York Remington folks learned that S.T. Smith – later to join Underwood –  was receiving a 25% discount. No word on how all that worked out.


Remington sold the typewriter business in 1886 to the Standard Typewriter Manufacturing Company, along with the rights to use the name. Through name changes and mergers the company “Remington Rand” was born – makers of the early “Univac” computers – and electric shavers. That division was purchased in 1979 by none other than Victor “I  was so impressed, I bought the company” Kiam.


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And How Will You Pay?

Items of barter and equivalents in British pounds.shillings.pence at the Liberty Paper Mill

One Barrel of Rum (33 pounds):                 19.16.0

One Barrel of Ginger (100 pounds):         18.15.0

Two dozen Almanacs:                                    1.10.0

25 Pounds of Chocolate:                               9.7.6

25 Pounds of Tobacco:                                   7.10.0

One Bolt of Russian Duck:                            31.0.0

Seven Bottles of Snuff:                                 4.14.6

One Loaf of Sugar:                                           3.15.0

One Bible:                                                           2.5.0

One Beaver Hat:                                               11.5.0

50 Lemons:                                                         0.12.0

14 Dozen Crown Soap:                                   26.5.0

One-half Cask of Raisins:                              3.15.0

12 Cases of Knives and Forks:                     15.0.0

One Pound of Tea:                                          1.7.6

Comb and Razor:                                              0.1.10

Shovel and Tongs:                                           0.13.0

One Stock Lock and Hinges:                         0.3.0

80 Bushels of Oats:                                          72.0.0

10 ½ Bushels of Salt:                                       283.10.0

23 ½ Yards of Linen:                                        29.7.6

450 Hoops:                                                          9.15.0

3,000 Nails:                                                         6.12.0

Two Pails:                                                            0.10.0

46 ½ Pounds of Feathers:                             24.8.9

Bed Cord:                                                            0.15.0

One Pair Truck Wheels:                                 4.2.6

One Ledger Book:                                            13.10.0

Three Pounds of Indigo:                              1.1.0

One Horse Collar:                                             0.13.6

29 Gallons of Molasses:                                 2.19.0

267 Pounds of Flax:                                         6.13.6

Two Ounces of Nutmeg:                                 0.3.0

Three Geese:                                                        0.6.0

One Cask of Madeira:                                    13.10.0

Six Bushels of Rye:                                          36.0.0

One Dozen Books: “Manual Exercise:”   4.10.0

One-quarter Cask Tenerife Wine:             45.0.0

One Gallon of Port Wine:                             0.4.6

Two Bushels of Corn:                                     3.0.0

60 Bottles of Snuff:                                         30.0.0

2,000 Bricks:                                                       480.0.0

Two Barrels of Flour:                                      5.7.0

5 ½ cords of Wood:                                         5.10.0

Silver Watch:                                                      4.10.0

Two Cases of Gin:                                            2.8.0

One Warming Pan:                                          0.13.7

16 Barrels of Apples:                                       4.16.0

Two Ounces of Onion Seed:                        0.0.9

One Cart Whip:                                                 0.0.9

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On July 9, 1771, Jeremiah Snow of Springfield arrived at the Liberty Mill complex with two casks of raisins and left with three pounds of indigo, 25 pounds of tea, a yard and a half of Russian duck, two reams of paper and 12 pounds of chocolate. This marked the first chocolate transaction in the mill ledger; it would be far from the last.

One can only surmise why Snow purchased such relatively random items. After all, he was a goldsmith and silversmith, and would become an important maker of swords for the colonial armies during the Revolutionary War. However, he was known to be a customer of Worcester merchant Stephen Salisbury, so one could imagine Snow being asked to pick up a few things since he was going to Boston anyway.

As we have noted, there wasn’t a lot of cash to be had in these early days of America, so barter of various goods such as chocolate was the norm. That was especially true in and around Boston, which played host to dozens of chocolate-makers and retailers.  Not only did chocolate and cocoa taste good, serving cocoa was seen as a patriotic protest against taxes on tea and other such intolerables instituted by the British. As with other industries at the time, the source of horsepower for chocolate-grinders was mostly limited to the fall of water. But some, literally, were powered by horses, allowing them to operate in the middle of Boston.

Prior to the ascendency of the Baker Chocolate Company of Dorchester (more on that in a moment) chocolate-making  was a sideline – in many instances being carried out in part of an existing slitting, fulling, four or paper mill. All that was required was a special set of grinding stones and a chocolate kettle.

Early chocolate-makers who were also customers of the Liberty Paper Mill included Caleb Davis, General Joseph Palmer and George Leonard (a Loyalist who had to leave town when things got hot for the British….) Davis paid for a supply of writing paper with 25 pounds of chocolate in the summer of 1771. Leonard paid for paper with more than 100 pounds of chocolate in 1771 and 1772; and Palmer paid for paper and other goods with almost 250 pounds of chocolate in 1773.

The history of chocolate-making in Milton in the mid- to late-1700s is a bit cloudy, and centers around a mysterious man named John Hannon.

The story goes – mostly – that Hannon, an out-of-work Irishman, approached James Boies, Edward Wentworth, and Henry Stone who owned a saw mill on the Neponset River in Milton. He was certain that if given space and horsepower, he could commence making chocolate almost immediately. Supposedly, James Baker – a store owner across the river in Dorchester – took an interest in Hannon’s idea and financed the refit of the mill.

From there, historians have differed about who made chocolate for whom, where it was made, who owned the business, who owned the mills.

The ledger from the Liberty Paper Mill adds even more uncertainty.

On Oct. 6, 1772, John Hannon purchased a ream of foolscap writing paper. Between then and September 1774, Hannon would buy more than 50 reams of paper, along with bed cord, indigo, blankets, horse collars and other sundries. Over that same time frame, he paid with more than 350 pounds of cocoa shells and chocolate.

Straightforward enough, but there appear to be some anomalies. In January 8, 1773, Vose, Lewis and Crane lent Hannon a chocolate kettle. On Jan. 30, they sold Hannon 2 two bags of cocoa and (the entry is sketchy) more than 150 pounds of chocolate. The kettle was returned in August, at which time Hannon also ground up 200 pounds of chocolate for the mill.

The last Hannon entry is in early 1774, when he sold the mill 14 pounds of chocolate.

  • So, why was Hannon buying so much paper?
  • Where was he making his chocolate?
  • Why did the Liberty Paper Mill own a chocolate kettle and why did John Hannon need one?
  • Where was Hannon grinding cocoa and making chocolate?
  • Why did the mill sell chocolate to Hannon?
  • Where did the Liberty Mill get the chocolate to sell to Hannon?
  • What happened to Hannon between September of 1774 and 1779 when he set sail for the West Indies and was never heard from again?
  • From late 1774 until 1781, no chocolate is listed in the ledger as being bought or sold at the Liberty Paper Mill. The trade in chocolate resumed then through 1790 and ends once again. What happened during those seven years?

What is most likely at play here is the nature of business ownership in the mid-18th century. From our perch in the 21st century we like to have such matters crisp and clean. But such was not the case back then. Buildings could be owned by one person; the water privilege owned by another; the business operating on the property by another; sales and distribution by another still. We know there were at least nine ledger books, and assorted day books and shop books associated with the mill on the Neponset, so it is easy to imagine that a good deal of the comings and goings during its time have been lost to history.

There are several written accounts that say James Baker rented part of the Liberty Mill in the late 1780s, but corroborating records don’t exist. Remember James Boies, one of the original mill owners sought out by Hannon? He was the brother-in-law of Liberty Mill partner Daniel Vose. He was also son-in-law of Jeremiah Smith, who sold his share of the mill to Vose in 1769.

So much history; so many coincidences; so few records.

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Staring Into the Eye of the Tiger

March 5, 1776, was not a good day for British General Richard Howe.

He awoke, on this anniversary of the Boston Massacre, to stare up at 60 or so of his own cannons -brought from Fort Ticonderoga by Henry Knox, loaded with Crane powder wrapped in Crane paper -pointed directly at him from Dorchester Heights.

It certainly must have been a great day for General George Washington. One can envision him looking down at his defenseless enemy with a wry smile of satisfaction. On the 26th of February, he wrote to the Massachusetts colonial government, apprising them of his intentions:

“I am preparing to take post on Dorchester Heights, to try if the enemy will be so kind as to come out to us.”

“I should think, if anything will induce them to hazard an engagement, it will be our attempting to fortify these heights, as on that event’s taking place, we shall be able to command a great part of the town, and almost the whole harbor, and to make them rather disagreeable than otherwise.”

General Howe is reported as saying: “The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.” Writing to Lord Dartmouth back in England, Howe noted: “It must have been the employment of at least 12,000 men.”

With no alternative, a messenger under white flag delivered a plea from the Boston Selectmen to allow the British to withdraw without harassment, as this would result in the destruction of the town. No formal pact was agreed to, but the British made preparations for its soldiers and resident Loyalists to pack up what they could – which wasn’t much – and on the 17th of March, all set sail for Halifax.Actually it only took about 2,000 and among them were at least eight Crane men, according to Revolutionary War records.

The War for Independence, which had just been formally joined, would now leave Massachusetts for points south.

But Colonial soldiers would carry a little bit of home with them the next seven years – gun powder wrapped in paper from the Liberty Paper Mill. The mill’s ledger book shows purchases of hundreds of reams of cartridge paper  – the last at the end of 1782.
(In another ironic twist of history, the monument which now stands atop Dorchester Heights was completed in 1902. In 1900, the cornerstone was laid by Massachusetts Gov. Winthrop Murray Crane, great-grandson of Stephen Crane.)

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