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If these walls could have talked…


A look back at the history of the Mica building



MICA
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Crews begin the long awaited demolition of the Mica building in Bristol last week. (Courtesy Photo) (click for larger version)
March 28, 2012
BRISTOL—Central Square saw the end of one era and the dawning of a new one last week with the long awaited demolition of the derelict Mica Factory Building.

Though many found it to be an eyesore and an annoyance, or a public and environmental safety hazard in the community, the Mica Building's long and rich history will forever be a part of the town of Bristol.

Though the Mica Building was erected starting in May 1839, the history begins several years before that, when, on Jan. 25, 1894, the shoe factory belonging to Nathaniel Bartlett & Son burnt down in Natick, Mass.

According to a New Hampshire Department of Historical Resources Report, the Bartletts went "'looking for various places in the country to see what they could do to relocate their business. They may have been drawn to the Bristol area by family connections, as Nathaniel's wife nee Eliza Kendall, was born in either Hebron or Groton."

With interest in two riverfront properties, Nathaniel's shoe firm met with Bristol's Board of Trade to propose that they would want — "one building 32x80, four stories high, which they could hire for a fair rental and be exempt from taxation for 10 years. If they come they should bring a few hands with them and hire most here…"

The idea of a shoe factory that would create jobs and increase business in the town excited the community, which enthusiastically adopted a warrant article exempting taxation on Nathaniel's factory at Town Meeting on March 13, 1894.

The riverfront property that Nathaniel had in mind was, "at the head of Central Street between the street and the river, on land now owned by Chas. E. Davis and occupied by a stable, and a smaller lot just below, owned by Geo. G. brown and formally used as a grist-mill."

It was Nathaniel's plan to purchase the two properties, demolish the current buildings and build his 32-foot-by-80-foot shoe factory. The building was expected to cost around $7,500, and without the financial means, the shoe firm needed to raise money for this project and decided to form a stock company and sell their shares at $25 a share. On March 22, it was reported that except for 12, all 300 shares were purchased, and with most of the money being raised through stock, with talk of Nathaniel signing a lease in the near future, the Bristol Improvement Company was formed on March 20 to ensure "the promotion of the growth and prosperity of the village of Bristol,… the purchase and development of land and water power, water rights and other rights… the erection of mills, houses and other buildings thereon for operation by said corporation of for sale or rental… and for the carrying on any manufacturing or other lawful business upon or within the land and buildings so owned by said corporation."

On March 26, George C. Brown and Charles E. Davis signed the deeds on the riverfront properties, and by April 5, Nathaniel Bartlett & Son had signed a 10-year lease, and work could finally begin on the anticipated shoe factory.

On April 9, demolition began, and was completed by April 19. After demolition, it was decided that Wells & Fling of Bristol would be contracted to build the shoe shop, Taylor & Merril will provide the lumber and Pattee Bros. would construct the building's foundations—all companies were from Bristol.

The building progressed rapidly though the spring of 1894 — the foundations were almost completed by May 24 and the structure was framed, boarded and being clapboarded on June 28. Though, it was never reported when the building was actually completed, on Aug. 23, "the first shipment of shoes from Bristol occurred last Saturday (Aug. 18), then Messer. Bartlett & Co. shipped two boxes to New York."

During the time the factory opened its doors, Nathaniel and George Bartlett moved to Bristol with their families. Throughout the rest of 1894, nothing much was said about the new shoe factory in local papers, but the town history of 1904 said that the building took $8,000 to complete, noting that it went over its $7,5000 proposed budget.

Within two years of the factory opening, the firm ran into financial difficulty, and in August of 1896, work at the factory was stopped for a few days. On Sept. 1, 1896, the firm "made an assignment of their shoe shop business to John F. Hickman of Hickman, Bissell & Co."

On Oct. 5, the factory continued work under the direction of Hickman, Bissell & Co. Even some new management couldn't save the shoe factory, however, and on Feb. 4, 1897, it was reported that the factory had closed and workers were going elsewhere for find employment.

By July 1897, there were whispers of the shoe factory being reopened under new management — Farnsworth & Co., which consisted of W.S. Farnsworth "the promoter and general manager" and Aiden B. Sanders.

Still called the Bristol Shoe Company, Farnsworth & Co. would "commence with 25 hands and gradually increase until 125 are employed." Unfortunately, the factory's success never warranted the need for 125 employees, at best employing nearly 40 people.

In 1897, the Sanborn fire insurance map, was the first to show some details of the building's layout with "the sole leather room on the first floor, stitching and cutting in the second story, bottoming in the third story and finishing in the forth story. The factory then had water power, electric lights and steam heat, using wood for fuel."

Though the building seemed to have an organized and efficient layout, by February of 1898, according to the town history, "the company was hampered by its 'small financial resources', which ultimately led to its failure."

On March 1, 1899, the firm failed and the business was turned over the C.W. Fling and finally on March 3, all work in the factory stopped and, "the Bristol Shoe Company seemed to have ended in financial disaster for all involved."

With the large empty mill, stockholders of the Bristol Improvement Company voted to "lease the shoe factory at $500 per year for cutting and grinding mica" in June of 1899. It is not clear if a mica grinding company occupied the building in 1903, but in June of 1900, the Bristol Improvement Company allowed the Bristol Electric Light Company to lease part of the building to store its supplies.

Though part of the building was being leased as storage, a large photo of the factory ran on the front page of the paper in July of 1902, saying that the Bristol Improvement Company was looking to sell or lease the property.

By Oct. 8, 1903, stockholders in the Bristol Improvement Committee met to discuss a new possible tenant for their building. Frank E. Merrill from Farmington wanted to use the factory as a shoe factory.

In early November, the Bristol Electric Light Company moved out and in mid November, "train car loads full or equipment were shipped from Farmington to Bristol." By the end of the month, Merrill and several employees arrived, and machinery was installed.

Merrill used the name White River Shoe Company, and it was reported that this was the longest lives shoe firm to occupy the building from 1904 to 1908.

The use and owner of the building changed once again and in June of 1910 the Monarch (-Standard) Mica Mining Co. had purchased the property, to use the building for the purpose of cutting mica. Mica, was used of various things in the early and mid 1900's. "Ground mica is used in wall papers, and very extensively in the manufacture of lubricating grease and for other purposes."

The Monarch Standard Mica Mining Co. was short lived, only operating from 1911 to 1913 because the company was unable to keep up on mortgage payments for the factory. The property was seized and returned to the Bristol Improvement company on august 1, 1916.

The building didn't stay empty for long, as General Electric had become very interested in the mica mining business because it could be used for insolating purposes and purchases a "mud mine" near Alexandria.

General Electric announced on Aug. 16 that that same week, the factory building would undergo extensive repairs. The repairs spanned from August through September, and on Oct. 22, work at the factory began with five employees. Since there was so much mica at hand, by mid November, General Electric had increased its work force to 30 employees.

The mica mill was idle in the 1940's, when Robert Patten visited and his grandfather, who was the former superintendent of the factory, was caring for the unused factory. It is found that there was no mica manufacturing from 1937 to 1943, but there may have been a brief stint where the factory reopened in 1944 to help with wartime needs.

General Electric sold the factory to Nathan H. Morrison of Bristol in 1963, who in turn sold it in July of 1970 to Dan Ames of Bristol. Ames owned the property for two years and sold it to Alban and Marie Landry. "During the Landry ownership, Ernest Adams set up a woodworking shop in the building. The shop was used to make educational kits, notably the wooden parts for a mathematics kits sold through the McGraw Hill Company."

The Landrys repaired the building while it was under their ownership, installing a new roof, fixing any broken glass windows and repairing the elevator and electrical system. They then sold the building in August of 1977 to Richard and Patricia Leclercs of Bristol and Marcel and Mary Leclercs of Manchester.

The Leclercs family moved their auto parts store into the factory. They did some minor renovations including installing a woodstove and an oil burning, forced hot air heating system for the first floor rooms. It was stated that the building was still in good repair when the Leclercs owned it.

In August of 1984, the Leclercs sold the building to Richard Abbott of Boston, who talked about using the building as an antique consignment shop, but in 1995, it was found to be used only as storage, with "a small area for living quarters when he was working in the building."

In March of 1998, Abbott sold the building to John J. Suldenski of Sunrise Properties in Franklin. "Suldenski planned to renovate the building for condominium housing units. He did receive a building permit for eight two-bedroom units in 2005. But he was unable to obtain sufficient financing for the complete project."

Suldenski did raise funds for some renovations to the building, including removal of window sashes, the chimney, interior sheathing and walls. He also repaired parts of the roof, ceilings and floors and rebuilt part of the south wall. Despite his efforts, there roof partially collapsed on Feb. 11, 2009.

In May 2010, the Bristol tax collector took the property and deeded it to the town of Bristol for unpaid taxes, which is how the building came to be demolished.

"Overall, despite the hopes of the builders of the Mica Mill, the role of the building in the development of Bristol must be considered a limited one," states the town's history.

For more information, or to access the complete New Hampshire Department of Historical Resources report, contact the Bristol Historic Society.

Martin Lord Osman
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