The Oakes Textile Mill
The Oakes Woolen Textile Mill
In 1826, David Oakes went to train as a finisher of woolen goods in the textile mill of Joshua Smith in Orange, New Jersey. Once his apprenticeship was complete, he ventured on his own and constructed a mill in 1830 on the banks of the Yanticaw River in Bloomfield, New Jersey. The original structure measuring only twenty-eight by thirty-two feet contained one set of carding machines, which separate the wool fibers in preparation for spinning and weaving, and four broad hand looms. The mill produced yarn for country wear and colored homewoven cloth for farmers’ wives to make clothing.
While modest in its original inception, the Oakes Mill was soon competing with established local woolen manufacturers like the Duncan, Underhill and Stitts Mills in Nutley and Joshua Smith’s Mill in Orange, New Jersey.
Disaster struck just as success was appearing on the horizon. On May 22, 1836 a fire destroyed the mill building, its machinery and all of its stock. Although faced with difficulty, David Oakes used this as an opportunity to invest in the latest equipment of the time including power looms, which were increasingly popular machines that automated the weaving process and reduced the demand for skilled handweavers.
Financial difficulties also were faced in 1842, but thanks to help from prominent Bloomfield citizens, the mill received the financial backing it needed to continue operations.
Era of Increased Progress
Starting in the 1840′s, the Oakes mill began to manufacture the increasingly popular and durable Scottish fabric – tweed. It developed a strong reputation for producing tweed – sought after by the elite and burgeoning middle classes who associated it with leisurely pursuits – and thereby establishing a long standing trade with the Southern States that lasted right up until the Civil War.
Expansion continued with the construction of a new dye house in 1847 and a general expansion of the mill buildings in 1849. In 1860, the buildings were again enlarged along with the acquisition of a third set of carding machines in 1861, a fourth set in 1864, and a fifth set in 1873. The operation of these five sets of carding machines was quite impressive to visitors at the time.
Additional investments also were made in weaving from 1867 to 1879 with the purchase of 25 Crompton, two Duncan, one Furbush and Gage and six Knowles looms. These new looms helped the Oakes Mill to build a national reputation for quality fabrics used for military, policemen and firemen uniforms.
A Family Business
In May 1858, David Oakes welcomed his eldest son, George A. Oakes, into the business and the name was changed to D. Oakes & Son. His other son, Thomas Oakes, joined the family business in May 1859 with an additional name change to D. Oakes & Sons. Yet, the joys of success are sometimes met with the hardships of loss.
Only three years after being admitted as a partner in the mill, George A. Oakes died on December 27, 1861 due to typhoid fever. With his death the company name reverted back to its prior designation of David Oakes & Co.
Civil War Era
The Civil War was a prosperous time for the Oakes mill as it was almost exclusively dedicated to producing indigo blue army cloth known as “Oakes Blue.” David Oakes employed William Duncan of Franklin and Henry B. Duncan of Newark, New Jersey to assist with the manufacture of these army goods.
The dyed wool was produced in the Oakes’ Bloomfield mill, was sent to the Duncans for weaving, and then returned to Bloomfield for finishing. This arrangement allowed the Oakes mill to manufacture a significant amount of indigo blue cloth for soldiers’ uniforms at a time when this type of cloth was scarce. The Oakes mill also filled large orders of dark blue cloth for infantry coats and caps and blue twill flannel for shirts.
Shortly before the death of mill founder David Oakes on July 26, 1878, management passed to his surviving son, Thomas Oakes. The business now became known as Thomas Oakes & Co.
In the book, Bloomfield and Montclair and Their Leading Businessmen, published in 1891, the Thomas Oakes & Co. mill is quoted as employing an average of 200 workers. The products of the mill were “known the country over and recognized by the trade as being goods of superior value.”
Riding the boom of the war years, the Oakes mill continued a policy of expansion and investment. In 1882 a brick stock house was built and in 1887 the mill was equipped with a Grinnell automatic sprinkler system and a Worthington fire pump. A new Gressner rotary press was purchased in 1884, a second Houget gig in 1885 and a third one in 1888. In 1892 the largest building expenditure was made for a new carding and spinning building. Also in 1892, a new Corliss 250 horsepower engine was purchased from the Watts, Campbell Company of Newark, NJ – also known as the Passaic Machine Works. It was the largest stationary steam engine in all of Bloomfield.
In a matter of five years, from 1890 to 1895, a significant amount of money was spent on buildings and machinery at the Oakes mill in order to bring it completely up-to-date. The purchases and improvements included eight Asa Lee mules, five sets of Davis & Furber 48 inch cards, three German Kenyon Brothers fulling machines, eighteen 112 inch Knowles looms, a Delahunty dyeing machine, two wire napping machines and a Parks & Woolson brushing machine.
Exhibitions & Presentations
At the Newark Industrial Exposition of 1872, Oakes mill exhibited its cloth to a large gathering which included dignitaries like General U.S. Grant, newspaper editor Horace Greeley and General Benjamin F. Butler. General Grant was very impressed by its dark blue cloth and commented on the excellent quality and finish.
Accolades continued at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 when Oakes cloth and that of an English mill were named ‘best shown’ and awarded medals for their achievements. Even greater recognition was received when President William McKinley, having won reelection in 1900 against William Jennings Bryan – his Democratic rival, was presented with Oakes woolen cloth for his inaugural suit.
Dawn of A New Century
The dawn of the 20th century brought new opportunities and continued growth for the Oakes mill. Now built on a firm foundation, the mill used the latest equipment and technologies to increase efficiency and productivity.
Nowhere was this evidenced more than in the Mill’s ever increasing need for power. The Corliss engine was enhanced and brought up to 500 horsepower and the boiler house was enlarged in 1902 with two internally fired boilers and then again in 1923 with three more internally fired boilers.
In 1915 a new power house was constructed and a De La Vergne solid injection 100 horsepower engine installed. A more powerful De La Vergne engine was installed in 1917 providing 450 horsepower. This proved insufficient, however, so a third engine of 400 horsepower was installed in 1928.
A Solid Reputation
In a 1924 announcement in the New York Commercial Advertiser, an evening newspaper and progenitor of The Globe, the newspaper commented, “Thomas Oakes & Co. have an unbroken record, dating back many years for producing several grades of woolen cloths. The personnel of the mills has been kept up, and on the verge of entrance upon the second hundred years the indications are for a long-continued prosperous career… The product of the mills is distributed throughout the United States.”
This announcement provides proof of the national reputation for quality achieved by the Oakes mill. Thanks to the many investments made by its leadership over the years it grew from a humble yarn producer to the creator of all types of fabrics including whipcords, khakis and overcoatings for police, firemen and other uniformed forces as well as other kinds of men’s wear in woolens, worsted, fancies and staple effects.
The End of An Institution
While the new century brought many advantages to the Oakes mill, it was not free of the challenges that many companies and industries faced in the industrial era. In a fascinating article published in the New York Times on April 28, 1916, the times reported that 100 cloth weavers went on strike for the first time in the mill’s 100 history when management refused to increase their pay 20 percent for piecework. Thomas Oakes threatened closure of the mill if the workers did not return. The strike may have been settled, but the operational pressures it revealed would continue to confront the mill.
Within the same year of the New York Commercial Advertiser announcement on June 13, 1924, Thomas Oakes died. He had been at the helm of the Oakes mill for almost 50 years. His sons, David Oakes and George A. Oakes, took over leadership and hoped to continue the same progressive policies and success garnered by their father. While relative growth was achieved in the 1920′s and 1930′s, the end was near.
Technology and progress which had always served the Oakes mill so well would eventually prove to be its downfall. With the advent in the 1930′s of artificial and synthetic fibers, like rayon and nylon, and increasing improvements in production methods, the Oakes mill could no longer stay competitive or financially feasible in light of significant losses in demand for its woolen products. Having decided to retire from his position as president, David Oakes, his brother George and an additional partner decided it was time to sell.
The Oakes mill was sold in December 1943 to Jacob Ziskind, an industrial property liquidator and mill converter, who in turn sold it in February 1946 to Circle Brands, Inc., a subsidiary of Horvath Mills – a cotton manufacturer. In June 1947, Circle Brands announced that the mill and its property were being sold on July 8th – 10th at public auction. It had determined that operations at the mill had “not been successful” and so operations needed to cease. An announcement of the auction appearing in the New York Times noted that the mill had at one time employed 500 workers, but was now closing with only 70. In regards to these workers the article noted, “Many of the employees laid off had worked in the mills fifty years and one, 82-year-old Christian Huck, had been on the job for sixty-nine years.”
The mill’s buildings, machinery and property were evaluated at 3 million dollars on the day of the auction, but it soon became clear that this sum would not be reached. Buyers from Europe, India and South America attended and bought up the machinery including looms and carding machines, but the land and buildings failed to sell. This left Circle Brands with significant debt from mortgages and other expenses. Within the hour of the gavel falling on the last piece of equipment sold, word had reached all in attendance that David Oakes, former President of the Oakes Mill, had died in a Newark hospital.
An Enduring Legacy
The story of this great institution mirrors the growth of many businesses throughout New Jersey, especially those in woolen and silk industries, which were born from humble beginnings, progressed and then waned with the changing times. Although the Oakes mill ceased operations almost 70 years ago, its legacy and the family who operated it for over a century have left an indelible mark upon the people and the history of the Township of Bloomfield.
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Additional Mill Pictures & Images (circa 1927)
Sources: The Turn of the Century: The Record of the House of Thomas Oakes and Company as Their Centennial Anniversary is Celebrated, Prepared and Printed for Thomas Oakes and Company by The American Historical Society, Inc., 1930; the New York Times Newspaper; and the Independent Press Newspaper.