The Brown Family sawmills:  Ayers Mills and Shewville


1868 map image courtesy of Mystic Seaport
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Brothers Aaron Alvah Brown (1846-1918) and Seth Brown (1850-1916) were sons of the Ledyard farmer and wheelwright Albert Brown who owned in the mid-1800s the property upon which the Ledyard Up Down Sawmill is sited. 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 had been a mill there at least since the mid-1700s when Capt. Thomas Fanning built and operated a sawmill. Following his death in 1787, the mill and mill rights were owned by his brother Frederick Fanning and following a few years of ownership by several others, was sold to Elisha Ayers, Sr. in 1814 (Elisha’s wife was the daughter of 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 Mills”.

Albert Brown purchased the Ayers mill complex in 1866; following his death few years later, his sons Aaron Alvah 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. In addition to the old sash sawmill, there was a shingle mill, wood planer, and bolting saw (a circular saw for sawing small logs), gristmill, and woolen mill and they began manufacturing yarn after building a new 2 ½ story woolen mill.  An inventory from 1880 lists a "Saw mill & Upright Saw".  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". 


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

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, and obtained an additional mortgage loan of $3000 two years later in 1879 from John O. Peckham. However, Seth and Aaron overstretched: the young brothers were forced into bankruptcy and the mills were ordered sold by the court in 1880.

The mill was purchased at the bankruptcy sale in March 1880 by John O. Peckham of Preston for one dollar (the mortgage to WL Main was still outstanding). 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. 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”. The landlord John O. Peckham apparently wanted to keep a tight rein on the Brown brothers ; interestingly, Peckham was not only a business acquaintance and landlord, but in fact a relative—John O. Peckham was married to Aaron and Seth’s sister Surviah (Brown) Peckham.

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 owner was Albert P. Sturtevant, William Shew’s father-in law. 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. The woolen mill built by Seth and Aaron Brown, now part of the Glen Woolen company, was destroyed by fire in October 1883, but a new brick textile mill was built in its place.

Seth Brown continued to be employed at the Glen Woolen Company as manager of the woolen carding and spinning departments for another 10 years. Aaron A. Brown also worked again in the milling business: he purchased the Ledyard Up-Down sawmill from his brother Israel in 1891. Aaron and Seth had worked together to fulfill their ambitious dreams of a woolen mill and manufacturing business at Ayers Mills in the 1870s, but were unsuccessful. Aaron (and Aaron’s wife Deborah) died in early March 1907.

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