The seeds of success: Centerville Grist Mill


BRATTLEBORO — We often look for the "origin" stories that are connected with significant elements of Brattleboro's past. This week, with the help of Jane Fletcher in the Town Clerk's Office, we tracked down a good one.

In the area formerly known as Centerville, hidden away in the bend of Larkin Street, where it edges up against the Whetstone Brook, there's a rental property that sits on the footprint of an old grist mill.

According to town land records, the grist mill was built sometime between 1805 and 1810. A dam was built along the Whetstone to sluice water off to power the mill, and the mill ground various grains for many owners.

The Whetstone Brook had a tendency to overpower the dam during spring freshets. Damage caused by the freshets would need to be repaired, and grain grinding innovations would cause owners to remodel the mill. From 1810 to the 1840s the mill had been expanded and the dam repaired many times. During those 30 years there had been at least seven different owners.

In August 1843, the mill grew to three stories. Mill owners Johnathan Smith and Nathan Woodcock announced in the Vermont Phoenix that the mill had been upgraded and expanded. There was room for grain storage and also space for other businesses to rent workspace that offered water power to run machinery.

In June 1846, Samuel and Joseph Jones rented space in the Smith and Woodcock grist mill. The brothers had moved here from Winchester, New Hampshire, where Samuel had been working as a melodeon maker. The Jones brothers came to Brattleboro with two workbenches and some lumber. They purchased machinery specific to melodeon manufacturing and set up shop in three rooms on the upper floor of the grist mill. This was the beginning of melodeon and organ making in Brattleboro.

The business was called S.H. Jones and Company. The brothers produced melodeons which were shipped to the Boston area, where they were sold on consignment. While the brothers made good melodeons, selling on consignment was not profitable.

Jones joined with another musical instrument maker named Burdett and they moved their business to an old brick paper mill building in the village. Jones and Burdett operated until 1850, when Jones was bought out by E.B. Carpenter. Burdett and Carpenter moved into Jacob Estey's building, just south of where the Kyle Gilbert Memorial Bridge is presently located. In 1852 Jacob Estey bought out

Burdett and Jacob Estey's involvement with organ manufacturing began.

Estey changed the marketing strategy from relying on others to sell the instruments in far off cities to personally traveling from town to town and selling the organs off the back of a wagon; like peddlers of other goods were doing at the time. Melodeons and organs were introduced to rural and town folk as convenient home entertainment and this marketing strategy proved successful.

Estey was a plumber, but he was also a good salesman, and his organ manufacturing business grew from eight workers to almost 700 in 25 years. Estey Organ Company became the largest manufacturer of reed organs in the world and it all began on the upper floor of a grist mill in Centerville in 1846.

In November 1847, Nathan Woodcock sold the Centerville Grist Mill to William Gains. Woodcock then went into business with Timothy Vinton, and together they leased the paper mill near Estey's building where the Whetstone Brook flows into the Connecticut River. A canal had been constructed to power the mill and that is where the name for Canal Street comes from. After five years Woodcock and Vinton purchased the paper mill

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and they operated it until Woodcock's death in 1870, when Vinton took sole ownership of the mill.

Nathan Woodcock had been a successful Brattleboro businessman for many years and built a large wooden house on what was the north end of downtown. In the 1830s Woodcock sold the house and property to the trustees of the newly formed Vermont Asylum for the Insane and, what later became the Brattleboro Retreat began on Woodcock's property.

In 1847 William Gains continued to operate the Centerville Grist Mill. His brother-in-law, Edward Crosby moved to West Brattleboro in 1848 and began farming there. Crosby also began helping at the grist mill and learned the business. In 1849 the Vermont Phoenix reported that the Gains Mill had recently installed new machinery especially adapted to flouring. Edward Crosby had traveled to western New York and Pennsylvania to establish trade with farmers who grew Genesee Wheat and the grist mill, now operated by Gains and Crosby, would produce finely textured flour in consistent quantities.

By the early 1850s the milling business was profitable enough that Crosby sold his farm. For a few years the flour milling business was very successful and Gains and Crosby opened a retail flour, grain and produce store in Blake's Block on the corner of Main and Elliot streets. Unfortunately, with the coming of the railroads and cheaper, transported flour from the West, profits in local milling operations began to fall and by 1859 Crosby was bankrupt.

From this experience he learned that railroads were going to greatly influence which businesses would succeed and fail. He began another flour mill business right next to the railroad in Brattleboro and met with success. He sold his stake in this flour business and bought Eastern distribution rights for cheaper flour grown in the Midwest. Crosby Milling Company eventually became the largest distributor of flour in the Northeast. Just as the seeds of Estey's organ business had begun in the Centerville Grist Mill, so too had Crosby's milling empire.

In 1875 Henry Larkin moved to Brattleboro from East Greenwich, NY. He had worked in his father's grist mill in New York for 11 years before he purchased the Centerville Grist Mill on Brook Road. He operated the mill for the next 30 years and during that time Brook Road was renamed Larkin Street. Larkin diversified the mill and ground wheat, buckwheat, rye, oats and corn. He found niche markets that allowed him to be successful for many years. After Larkin's death in 1908 the grist mill no longer operated but other businesses continued there for many years. Mrs. Larkin sold carriages and stoves, and a silver plating factory operated there as well.

We find it interesting that an old Centerville grist mill on Larkin Street could have been the place where the Estey Organ Company and Crosby Milling Company, two of the most influential businesses in the development of Brattleboro, both had their origins.

Brattleboro Historical Society: 802-258-4957,

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