In the early colonies, families were required by law to either raise sheep or grow flax to meet their basic clothing needs. The seeds of the flax plant were even used as currency by some. But colonial flax fabric was coarse and couldn't compare with the fine linen then being imported from Europe.
At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, most businessmen turned to cotton, a fiber more easily adapted to the first mechanical machines. And so it was with John Smith.
Smith was born in Brechin, Scotland. Arriving in Medway at age 20, he obtained employment as a journeyman machinist. There meeting Joseph Faulkner and Warren Richardson, the latter being from Andover, the three established a business for themselves as manufactures of cotton machinery. In 1824 they moved to Andover, purchasing an unoccupied mill privilege in Frye Village.
By 1833, both Faulkner and Richardson had died. Joining the business were Smith's brother, Peter, and John Dove, also native of Brechin.
Dove, having worked in flax mills in their native heath, convinced the elder Smith that there existed in America a market for high quality flax products. Dove was sent to Scotland to obtain drawings for flax machinery, and on his return, had these new designs built in the existing machine shop. In 1835, with the new machinery installed, the Smith, Dove & Company began the first manufacture of flax products by machinery in America. These products included flax yarns for carpet weaving, sail twines, and shoe threads.
Early acceptance was not easy. In one edition of Massachusetts Industries, a note was made that "when they (Smith & Dove) sought to market their first consignment of shoe thread, (they) encountered the factor of rank prejudice in favor of the imported article at the hands of both merchant and consumer." Eventually, and after almost a decade, "their tried and unimpeachable integrity, the quality of their products, and their optimism and courage" won over the market. The three founders were, indeed, a "triple threat:" John Smith in finances, Peter Smith in management, and John Dove as the creative inventor. With the success of the flax manufacture, John Smith gave up the machine shop.
Continuing to grow, Smith & Dove added water power and the buildings in Abbott Village in 1843. In 1864, a joint stock company was incorporated as the "Smith & Dove Manufacturing Company." By 1896, roughly 2,750,000 pounds of flax were annually consumed and some 300 operatives were employed.
The success of their business made the founders the wealthiest men in Andover, and, from that, the town's most notable philanthropists. All three exhibited a strong sense of commitment to community service. John erected in Frye Village a town hall that included a lecture room and a library. John and Peter Dove became ardent abolitionists and helped found the Free Christian Church in 1846. Peter Smith remained loyal to West Parish Church, where he contributed an organ and generously gave to the building fund. All three were early purchasers of government bonds and gave freely to Phillips and Abbot Academies and to the Theological Seminary.
And perhaps best known is the Smith family pledge that made possible the town's Memorial Hall Library, an amount that totaled nearly $50,000.
In the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin, the straw that was spun into gold most likely referred to flax, as fibers from the flax plant are often as bright as sunlight and just as valuable. In the 1800s, it was the Smith brothers and John Dove who seemed to have the magic touch to turn their flax into gold!
"Andover Stories" is a weekly column about interesting local people and events, told to celebrate the Andover Historical Society's 100 anniversary in 2011.