When David and Levi Slade went into business with their father at his Slade mill in 1837, they had an idea. In addition to grinding corn and tobacco, why not grind spices – which were mainly sold in bulk and had to be processed at home?
The boys ground a test batch – a half a barrel of cinnamon – and carried it to the markets in Boston. Turned out people liked the labor saving convenience of having spices preground and delivered in small amounts, and the Slades were in a new business.
David and Levi came to the spice business via their father Henry. The Slade’s Mill was on the border of Chelsea and Revere, and it was the surviving portion of the original mill built in 1735 at the request of the citizens of Chelsea. Over the years, the mill changed hands several times and was destroyed by fire, but it always fulfilled its initial mission of standing ready to grind the corn of any citizen of Chelsea. In exchange for grinding the corn, the mill owner received a “Miller’s Dole” – a percentage of the corn he ground.
The Slade Mill
The mill was one of several tide mills dotting the New England coast – an innovation that some say originated in the area. Tide mills worked by using a set of flood gates. When the tide surged in, the flood gates swung open to allow the ocean water to fill the marsh and mill pond. When the tide turned and began to exit the marsh, the gates closed, trapping the water. From this impounded water the mill drew off a steady stream to turn its machinery – similar to the way a mill on a river used the flow to drive its works.
In 1775 the mill provided a footnote to the American Revolution. One of the earliest naval engagements of the war took place near the mill, and its gates prevented the British from sailing up Mill Creek and coming within firing range of Chelsea.
Henry Slade had bought into the mill in 1827, and the innovation introduced in his time was the grinding of tobacco into snuff to supplement corn. As Henry’s children David, Levi and Charles took an interest in the business, they – especially David – wanted to let their new ideas and ambition increase the business.
For one year, Henry turned the mill over to the hard-working David, who increased the mill’s profits to $500 until the older generation stepped back in. But soon David took charge again, creating the D & L Slade Co. with brother Levi. It would for more than 100 years turn out spices for New England home and professional kitchens.
In popularizing the grinding of spices, Slade actually introduced into the spice trade an expanded opportunity for crooks to begin selling fake spices. Counterfeiting was long a problem with spices, as the legend of the Connecticut nutmeg highlights, because they commanded such handsome prices.
Spices already ground afforded counterfeiters an easier way to profit. Rather than having to fake an actual spice, the counterfeiters could simply adulterate the spice with a filler or other substance when they processed it and boost profits this way.
Slade, with his insistence on purity, turned this practice to his advantage. He used the dependability of his mill and his family’s reputation for honesty as a marketing tool to set the company apart from competitors. From 1850 to the mid-1900s Slade became the largest spice company in New England with trading partners around the world and a factory and offices in Boston.
And Then, Bell’s
In 1918 Slade would make the investment that keeps its legacy alive today. It bought out the Bell’s Seasoning Company. In 1867, William Bell had begun selling his blend of poultry seasoning through his market in Boston. Bell had started as a grocer in Lowell, Mass. before moving south to Boston where he could buy spices directly off the ships arriving in port.
Over the next 40 years Bell continually expanded the popularity of his Bell’s Seasoning – a blend of rosemary, ginger, oregano, sage and marjoram – until his sudden death at age 76. Sensing opportunity, Slade purchased the brand, but wisely did nothing to change the name or formula. Instead, he incorporated Bell’s into his own lineup, which had expanded to baking powders, cumin, pepper and a wide range of spices. The company promoted them in its own cookbook.
The Slade name finally disappeared from the grocery shelves in the 1970s when the Slade family sold the company. Only the Bell’s brand name remains today – touted by a wide range of cooks as still the best poultry seasoning for a Thanksgiving turkey.
The Slade Mill, though, still lives on. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, its owners converted it to apartments in 2004.
Hat tip to: The Spice Mill on the Marsh by Thomas P. Smith. This story was updated in 2021.