Ezekiel Straw was an unusual mill agent – unusual in a good way. He led the growth of the Amoskeag Millyard and gave Manchester, N.H., the look it still has today. His workers even seemed to like him.
Straw had begun working for the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company when it was a small, but prosperous, textile maker. During his lifetime he developed Amoskeag into a manufacturing powerhouse and Manchester into a city. He influenced the design of the city’s broad avenues and squares, its workers’ row houses and parks. A contemporary called him, “the ablest man in New Hampshire.”
As mill agent, Straw practiced a benevolent paternalism that won him loyalty and respect. When he retired in 1879, William Amory, company treasurer, paid him a tribute accepted by the directors:
[H]is sanguine, sunny temperament and hopeful nature…inspired confidence and infused a healthful spirit of encouragement amongst all of his subordinates.
He was born on Dec. 30, 1819, in Salisbury, N.H. Straw’s family moved to Lowell, Mass., when he was a young boy, as his father went to work for the Appleton Manufacturing Co. After studying mathematics at Phillips Andover Academy, Ezekiel Straw got a temporary job as a substitute for an ill civil engineer in the fledgling Amoskeag Manufacturing Co.
It was the summer of 1838, the year Manchester was founded. Straw was 18 years old. Not only would the job become permanent, but Ezekiel, his son and grandson would become much-admired agents, or general managers, of the Amoskeag mills. Amoskeag had only six mill agents during its entire history.
In the early days, the New England mill owners cared about the well-being of their work force, young men and women from the farms of New Hampshire and Vermont. So did Straw, their employee.
“He set the pattern for corporate paternalism,” wrote Tamara K. Hareven in her book Amoskeag. He laid out lots and streets for the new mill city. Straw placed Elm Street, Manchester’s main thoroughfare, above the mills and away from their noise and racket.
Straw also helped build Manchester’s dams and canals along the Merrimack River. He established the New Hampshire Fire Insurance Co. and the Unitarian Society. Straw’s leadership sent Amoskeag on a trajectory toward becoming the largest cotton textile manufacturer in the world.
He was named agent of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Co. in 1851 at the age of 32. He won credit for the company’s enormous success. Straw generously credited others.
When the Civil War broke out, most of Manchester’s textile mills shut down because of the lack of cotton. Ezekiel Straw kept the Machine Shop running so at least some of the employees had money coming in. He replaced mechanics who went to war with older workers who wouldn’t be called up.
After the war he traveled to England and Scotland to figure out the machinery and methods to make gingham fabric, which Amoskeag introduced to the United States. Previously, Amoskeag made coarse cloth like denim and flannel, but Straw wanted to produce a more profitable textile. He was aided by expert Scottish dyer masters and weavers, who he brought to Manchester.
By the turn of the century, gingham was the Amoskeag’s biggest selling product, providing employment for thousands of people. The company had recruited weavers and dyers in Scotland with fliers bragging about the “Wonderful conditions at Amoskeag.” A drawing showed a man coming out of the millyard carrying a wallet full of money.
Straw would later say that bringing James Reid from Glasgow to oversee dye operations was the reason for Amoskeag’s success in producing gingham.
Gov. Ezekiel Straw
Ezekiel Straw would run for state representative as a Republican in 1859 and then go on to become a two-term governor of New Hampshire. He was considered a first citizen of Manchester and even left his mark on the Seacoast. In 1872, he built the first summer house on an outcropping of land north of Rye Beach known as Lock Point, according to Cow Hampshire. Straw held a “Great Clambake” in honor of his sister-in-law in September 1871, and it was called ‘Straw’s Point’ forever afterward.
Employees liked to tell stories about Ezekiel Straw, and this one was a favorite: During the 1860 presidential campaign, Straw gave Abraham Lincoln a tour of an Amoskeag mill.
He then introduced the candidate to the workers. One of the mill workers hesitated to shake his hand, saying it was dirty from his work. “Young man,” said Lincoln, ““the “the hand of honest toil is never too grimy for Abe Lincoln to grasp.”
This story last updated in 2021.
Images: Gingham By Kent Wang – Flickr: Kent Wang pocket square, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7312843.