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THE MILL VILLAGE OF TARIFFVILLE

Frank Haviland

The village of Tariffville, on the Farmington River in the Northeast corner of Simsbury, takes its name from the Tariff Act of 1824 and the Tariff Manufacturing Company, which built the first carpet mill in America there in 1825. That area had been known as The Falls, after the river rapids there, whose potential for waterpower was long recognized. From 1812 to 1825, the few buildings clustered there had been known as Griswold Village, after the owner of most of the surrounding land, G. Arthur Griswold.

This new protective tariff law unintentionally created a special opportunity for weaving wool carpets in America. Congress was only trying to protect both sheep farmers and woolen mill owners when it raised the tariffs on raw wool to 30% and on woolen goods to 33 1/3%. There were no domestic makers of woven wool carpets at that time. Sheep farmers raising the new Merino sheep for high quality wool were helped by this tariff. However, raising tariff rates for both raw wool and woolen goods had little net benefit for existing mills, because they made woolen cloth from high-quality wool, now made more expensive either domestic or imported. Carpets, however, could be made from low-quality wool, even scrap wool, available cheaply, so the new tariff on woolen goods greatly increased the incentive to make domestic woolen carpet.

There were three founders of the Tariff Manufacturing Company. Nathan Allen had owned a factory at the Falls for over a decade, drawing iron bars into wire and hand-making cards for combing wool fibers, but he could not compete with the new machine-made cards from Hartford. He needed a new business to manage. Henry Ellsworth was a lawyer and the son of very wealthy and politically connected Oliver Ellsworth. He was looking for attractive investment opportunities. William H. Knight was an experienced mechanic who understood waterpower and textile machines. He needed partners with capital and management skills. Together, they constructed a mill that used waterpower to card and spin wool and handlooms to weave carpet. They brought weavers and their families from Scotland and built housing for them. The carpet was sold wholesale to dealers in New York and elsewhere.

The business prospered, but Ellsworth moved away, so other investors were needed for growth and they soon displaced the founders. The new owners changed its name in 1836 to the New England Carpet Company. However, credit problems after the Panic of 1837 hurt the company, so it could not afford to install the new powered carpet looms, or continue to compete without them. In 1841, Orrin Thompson, who had established a carpet mill in Enfield in 1828, took over the Tariffville mill, named it the Tariff Manufacturing Company again and expanded it greatly with power looms. The business became large enough that the Canal Railroad built a spur into the village in 1850. Many new homes and shops were built in the village, plus churches and hotels. The village was thriving.

Unfortunately, Thompson went bankrupt in 1852 and had to close the mill. Two-thirds of the village residents moved away. In 1859, Thompson was able to reopen the mill on a much smaller scale as part of the Hartford Carpet Company, and it continued until a fire in 1867 destroyed nearly all of the mill buildings and some of the village as well. The present mill building was erected in 1868 by the Connecticut Screw Company, but that business never succeeded. Many different companies in different industries have used the site since then.

There is debate about the effectiveness of the protective tariffs of the early 19th century in nurturing new manufacturing industries. In some industries, high tariffs were not imposed until after the factories were already competitive. In others, success might have been assured with or without tariffs because of other circumstances. For the carpet industry, however, it appears that the 1824 Tariff Law made all the difference. No carpet mills were founded before then, and the tariff remained very high until after Yankee inventors had been encouraged to develop power looms for carpets, which made American carpet mills the best in the world. The mill founders acknowledged the importance of this protective tariff in choosing a name for their company and village. Custom would have led them to name the town "Ellsworthville".

Although the Tariffville mill itself did not last, Orrin Thompson’s other mills eventually became part of the giant Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Company. Most of the original mill village buildings have survived, and the village of Tariffville is now recognized as a National Historic site.

September 3, 1998

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