The Brown Family sawmills:  Ayers Mills and Shewville


1868 Beers map image courtesy of Mystic Seaport
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Brothers Aaron Alvah Brown (1846-1907) and Seth Brown (1850-1907) were sons of the Ledyard farmer and wheelwright Albert Brown who owned Ledyard Up Down Sawmill site in the mid-1800s.  One of Albert’s other sons, Israel Worth Brown, built and operated the Ledyard Up-down Sawmill.

Located just a few miles north of the Albert Brown farm, Ayer’s Mill was a small complex of mill buildings in the northeast part of Ledyard on Poquetanuck Brook (on present day Shewville Road).  There was a mill there at least since the mid-1700s when Capt. Thomas Fanning built and operated a sawmill (ref. 1, pp. 705-712).  Following the death of Fanning in 1787, the mill and mill rights were owned by his brother Frederick Fanning and then several years of ownership by others; the mills were  sold by Thomas Hallet of Groton to Elisha Ayers, Sr. in 1814 (Elisha’s wife was the daughter of Capt. Thomas Fanning).  Elisha Sr. had owned the farm upon which the mill was sited since 1793.  Elisha’s sons, Elisha Ayers Jr. and Frederick Ayers, ran the mill until 1821; then a few years later Elisha Jr. and his brother George ran and expanded the mill operation which became known as “Ayer’s Mill”. (ref. 1, pp. 702-3)

Albert Brown purchased the Ayers mill complex from Ebenezer Stoddard for $1,600 in 1866 (ref. 2); Albert financed the purchase with a $1,600 mortgage from Stoddard (ref. 3).  Following Albert’s death just two years later, his sons Aaron and Seth (who was then only 18 years old) purchased the mill from their father’s estate in 1870 with help from a $400 mortgage from their maternal uncle Amasa Main (refs. 4, 5).  In addition to the old sash sawmill, there was a shingle mill, wood planer, bolting saw (a circular saw for sawing small logs), and gristmill; the Brown brothers began manufacturing yarn after building a new 2 ½ story woolen mill in 1874 (ref. 6).

An inventory from 1880 lists a "Saw mill & Upright Saw" (ref. 7).  This may indicate that in addition to the old sash sawmill ("upright saw") that Seth and Aaron had installed another sawmill (perhaps the more modern circular sawmill type).  An 1880 newspaper sale notice for the Brown brothers foreclosure auction (see below) lists as part of the machinery "One new sawmill" (ref. 8).


Among the items in the Ayers Mill probate inventory in 1880 were a Saw Mill and Upright Saw (i.e., sash saw),
shingle mill, planer, and bolting saw. (Connecticut State Library)

Hartford Daily Courant March 10 1880
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Aaron and Seth needed funds to operate and expand.  In 1877 they borrowed $2500 from another uncle, William L. Main (ref. 9), and obtained an additional mortgage loan of $3000 two years later in 1879 from John O. Peckham (ref. 10).  However, Seth and Aaron overstretched:  the young Brown brothers were forced into bankruptcy and the mills were ordered sold by the court in 1880 (ref. 6, p. 512; ref. 11).

The mill was purchased at the bankruptcy sale in March 1880 by John O. Peckham of Preston for one dollar (ref. 12).  Peckham immediately leased the mill back to the young Brown brothers for a period of three years at a rent of $275.85 per years to be paid every three months (ref. 13).  Among the conditions of the lease agreement Aaron and Seth agreed that they would:  “do no waste, and will repair all broken glass, will leave in good condition”, so evidently landlord John O. Peckham wanted to keep a tight rein on the Brown brothers; interestingly, Peckham was not only business acquaintance and landlord, but in fact a relative—John O. Peckham was married to Aaron and Seth’s sister Surviah (Brown) Peckham (ref. 6, p. 506).

The Ayers mill complex was sold by John Peckham to William K Shew in just one year later in 1881.  The complex became part of the Glen Woolen Company whose principal was Albert P. Sturtevant, William Shew’s father-in law (ref. 14). A.P. Sturtevant was a wealthy Norwich wool manufacturer who owned several textile companies in southeast Connecticut and also built and owned the Sturtevant House hotel in New York City (ref. 1, p. 708).  The woolen mill built by Seth and Aaron Brown, now part of the Glen Woolen Company, was destroyed by fire in 1883 (New Haven Evening Register, April 6, 1883, p. 4), but a new brick textile mill was built in its place (ref. 6, p. 512).
 
Seth Brown continued to be employed at the Glen Woolen Company as manager of the woolen carding and spinning departments for another 10 years (ref. 6., p. 512).  Aaron A. Brown also worked again in the milling business:  he purchased the Ledyard Up-Down sawmill from his brother Israel in 1891.  Seth and Aaron had worked together to fulfill their ambitious dreams of a woolen mill and manufacturing business at Ayers Mills in the 1870s, but the business was challenging and the their ownership of the manufactory only lasted a few years.  Seth died February 1, 1916 (ref. 16), and just a few years later in 1918 Aaron passed away (ref. 17).

The immediate area around Glen Woolen mills including a number of houses and the mills themselves became known as Shewville—the road through the valley is named Shewville to this day.
 
 

Late 19th or early 20th century photos of homes and the brick woolen factory at Shewville.  This factory is likely the one built by the Glen Woolen Co. after the 1883 fire.  The factory is no longer standing today, although some of the homes along the road are still there. Images courtesy Heather Flack

References

2. Ledyard Land Records (LLR), book 4, page 111. (located in Ledyard, CT Town Hall)
3. LLR 4, 429.
4. LLR 3, 462.
5. LLR 5, 465.
7. Ledyard Probate District, 1879, no. 179. Estate of AA. And S.L. Brown.  Connecticut State Library.
8. Hartford Courant, March 10, 1880. Classifieds.
9. LLR 4, 539.
10. LLR 4, 564.
11. LLR 4, 146.
12. LLR 5, 194.
13. LLR 6, 148.
14. LLR 5, 237.
15. New Haven Evening Register, April 6, 1883, p. 4.
16. Norwich Bulletin, September 11, 1916, p. 5.
17. Norwich Bulletin, July 20, 1918, p. 8.