Andover has its own rags-to-riches "Horatio Alger" story in the person of William Wood, president of the American Woolen Company.
Born in 1858 to immigrant parents, William Madison Wood grew up in poverty in New Bedford. He left school at age 12, when his father died, to support the family. Over the years he held a variety of increasingly responsible jobs. In each, his various employers found him intelligent, inquisitive, clever and hard-working.
In 1886 he was hired as manager of cotton manufacturing at the Washington Mills in Lawrence, owned by Frederick Ayer. Despite Wood's efforts, Ayer soon decided to get out of the cotton business and concentrate on woolen production. Told he was to be let go, Wood persuaded the Washington Mills management to hire him as the company's first outside salesman. In the first year his talents produced sales of over $2 million.
Impressed, Ayer in 1889 made Wood the general manager of the Washington Mills, which had been losing money. By that time, he was also Ayer's son-in-law, having married Ellen Ayer in 1888. A few years later, Wood bought a summer home, which he named Arden, on Main Street in Andover. Of the family's several homes, Arden was the favorite, and the one where the Woods spent most of their time. Eventually, this is where family settled; three of the four Wood children were born in Andover. To improve profitability at the mills, Wood encouraged innovations, invested in more efficient machinery, and developed a new bonus system which, though disliked by the workers, increased production. He assigned an assistant to every manager, so that if one person left or was promoted, there was someone ready to step in immediately. He expanded the sales force and set weekly quotas for each salesperson.
Ayer and Wood soon began buying other struggling mills and applying Wood's ideas to turn them into profitable operations. In 1899 they united the merged companies - eight mills in three states - into the American Woolen Company with Ayer as president. Wood, the treasurer, was in control of daily operations. In 1905, Ayer retired and Wood became president. The company held a monopoly in the manufacture of a coarse and lightweight, but strong, wool called worsted.
The company expanded rapidly. Among the new mills were two in Lawrence, the Wood Mill (1905) and the Ayer Mill (1908).
A Massachusetts law effective in 1912 limited the work of women and children to 54 hours weekly, instead of the 56 hours which was then common practice. Wood reduced hours for all employees, and cut wages accordingly. In protest, workers walked off the job in a strike that lasted two months, attracted national attention, and earned Wood a reputation as a heartless strikebreaker.
By early March, Wood began to negotiate with his workers, eventually granting a substantial raise and hiring back all striking employees. From that point on, Wood's attitude toward his workers seemed to change, and by the mid-1920s, he was hailed as a generous employer. Eventually, the company had 60 mills and 40,000 employees in eight states.
World War I created a huge demand for worsted wool, useful in army uniforms and blankets. Company profits soared, and William Wood, by now a millionaire many times over, began quietly buying up land in Andover's Frye Village, near his home at Arden. Between 1918 and 1924, Wood remade the area into Shawsheen Village, which still stands today as a reminder of the life and times of William M. Wood. But that is another story.
"Andover Stories" is a weekly column about interesting local people and events, told to celebrate the Andover Historical Society's 100 anniversary in 2011.