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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Ames Manufacturing Company - Civil War and the New England Mill Town

(Chicopee 1856 - Chicopee Public Library)

The following is an abridged version of an article which originally appeared in North and South magazine, June 2006.

The American Civil War came to Chicopee, Massachusetts not as a battlefield, but in the form of textile mills, an arms manufacturer, and over 700 military volunteers. This community illustrated Northern Civil War experience in microcosm.

Chicopee’s most prominent family, called Ames, profited by the war, and was struck down by financial hardship as well as personal tragedy at the war’s end.
Ironically, while the Ames Manufacturing Company produced weaponry for a war to put down Southern rebellion and would bring an end to slavery, across the street and sharing the same canal for water power was a cotton textile mill that thrived on the existence of slavery to grow and harvest the cotton cheaply. It was town, and a time, full of paradox.

Correspondence which crossed the desk of James T. Ames, the factory’s owner, included this typical letter from Alfred Barbour, Superintendent of the Harper’s Ferry Armory, dated December 17, 1860.

“Dear Sir;
You will please furnish for the Harper’s Ferry Armory one hundred
and twenty tons of Marshal iron in molds or shapes suitable for
rolling into barrels; as you have heretofore furnished. The price will
be two hundred dollars per ton….” (1)

Soon, there would be no more orders from the South with the coming hostilities, and the U.S. Government due to the loss of Southern arsenals would come to depend more upon the independent manufacturer. (2) By 1864, the Ames Manufacturing Company would be the among the Union’s most important private manufacturers of side arms, swords, and light artillery, and the third largest producer of heavy ordnance. (3)

The coming war would create a maelstrom of contradiction for James T. Ames. He was already a prominent man in Chicopee, and representing an industry which was now of top importance to the United States government once the Southern states seceded, but he also turned a profit selling to the soon-to-be enemy before the embargo on such sales was enforced. As the above letter illustrates, Ames swords were purchased by the states of Virginia, Mississippi, Maryland, and Georgia as late as 1860. (4) War, by this time and to most people, seemed unavoidable, and these customers would soon be the enemy.

For James T. Ames, the coming war meant another personal conflict, with his friend James H. Burton of the Richmond Armory, a man whom he had helped to obtain the position of Master Armorer at Richmond. By June 1861, Burton had been appointed Lieutenant Colonel of Ordnance of Virginia, and in December, he was appointed Superintendent of Armories of the Confederate States of America. (5)

Another contradiction was that Ames’ factory would produce the most modern ordnance then known, yet such weaponry would tear to pieces men still incongruously brandishing as weapons James T. Ames’ most renown product, the Ames sword.

(Ames Mfg. Co., 1860s - Edward Bellamy Memorial Association, Chicopee, MA)

The Ames Company had come a long way. A family blacksmith, cutlery and tool shop begun in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, sons Nathan P. Ames, Jr. and James T. Ames brought the business to a new manufacturing village on the Chicopee River in the Western Massachusetts town of Springfield in 1829 at the invitation of Edmund Dwight, whose family owned huge textile mill concerns, land and water rights on the river. The Dwights offered Ames four years rent free, and the Ames Company continued their tool and cutlery business, and also repaired the cotton textile machinery for Dwight’s mills. It was a short step from edged tools to edged weapons, and soon Ames began the manufacture of swords for the federal government and for state militias. (6)

Two mill villages settled along the Chicopee River in northern Springfield were called Factory Village and Cabotville. Cabotville was where Nathan and James Ames eventually chose to establish their firm in 1834. The swords were stamped variously “NP Ames, Cutler, Springfield” and “Ames Mfg Co., Cabotville,” as the firm evolved, and the year the weapon was made. (7) In 1848 this most northern section of Springfield split off and became a separate town called Chicopee, and their swords were now etched with this name, just as it was on the gold presentation sword made for Mexican War figure Brigadier General John A. Quitman, presented to him by President James Knox Polk, ordered on April 18, 1848, when the new town of “Chicopee” was a week old.

By the time Chicopee became a town the Ames brothers had become leaders of the community. They made and donated the school bell for the high school. When the Third Congregational Church was built a stone’s throw from their property in 1834-1836, Nathan donated $5,000 for its construction, half his personal fortune. (8)

That was also the year fellow townsman Alonzo Phillips invented the phosphorus match, representing only one of many industries coming to life in that town and many technological innovations that sprung from that still very small community.

The Ames Company itself began a host of new product innovations based on research and experimentation. Nathan was instrumental in the experimentation in new techniques and advances in gun making. By 1844, the company was producing the flintlock, breech-loading Jenks Carbine, for which Nathan was awarded the Silver Medal by the Franklin Institute. (9)

“The nature of my invention,” Ames wrote to Burton of another experiment, “consists in the…construction of a barrel of steel or iron of a uniform bore, and exterior taper, without welding…by modes of drilling and rolling the metal.” (10)

“I fell (sic) pretty certain,” wrote Chief of Ordnance Bureau Captain Henry A. Wise, who had visited the famed Krupps works of Germany, “that your method of putting iron and steel together in truth as good, if not the same as Krupp’s.” (11)

Nathan traveled extensively on business and made several trips to Europe. On one occasion in London, a dental procedure in which was used a paste of probably silver and mercury would in time poison him and leave Nathan in hideous pain, and slowly dying. He would eventually relinquish his leadership of the firm to his younger brother, James, as his health deteriorated.

(Ames Company, date unknown. Edward Bellamy Memorial Association, Chicopee, MA)

By 1845, the railroad had come to Chicopee. The Republic of Texas was born, followed by the Mexican War, and by virtue of its government contracts for swords and side arms, Ames had a part in both events. It is interesting to note that the many of the members of the community, indeed in the state, did not support the war against Mexico. It would not the last time conscience clashed with business interests in the soon-to-be Town of Chicopee.

In the 1850s, several prominent farmers on Chicopee Street, which followed the Connecticut River northward from the village of Cabotville, were active players in secret rebellion against the Fugitive Slave Law as they allowed their homes to become stations on the Underground Railroad. These men were not the owners of the cotton mills which thrived on slave labor down South to produce their raw material, but presumably they were not more than a few pews away.

One local businessman whose conscience as regards slavery would later take a more violent turn was John Brown. He came to Springfield in 1846 to operate as a wool merchant and did business with Cabotville’s new Cabot Bank, established in May 1845. (12) John Brown owed $57,000 to the Cabot Bank from his miserably failing wool business. The Cabot Bank won a judgment against Brown. (13) John Brown left the area May 1849. (14)

While he was in Springfield, Brown received orator, author and former slave Frederick Douglass in his home. It may have been on the occasion when Douglass gave a lecture in Cabotville about his experiences, and it was with money from these touring lectures that he purchased his freedom.

Charles Dickens likewise spoke on another occasion, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was performed in Cabot Hall. (15) The last Chicopee seems to have heard from John Brown was the letter written to Timothy W. Carter of the Massachusetts Arms Company in Chicopee Falls in February 1856 from Osawatomie, Kansas, requesting more carbines and ammunition to be shipped secretly. (16) James T. Ames, pillar of the Third Congregational Church, sold arms to both free-soilers and slavers. Conscience, conviction, and commerce wove a messy alliance.

Back at the Third Congregational Church of Cabotville was held the funeral of Nathan P. Ames in 1847. He was 43 years old when he died. According to The National Cyclopaedia, published in 1936 which contained scores of brief biographies of successful men of business and science, none of whom apparently were without gentlemanly virtues, Nathan and James were “men of exceptionally fine character and during their joint lives were deeply devoted to each other.” (17) Both were certainly men of great accomplishment, and with Nathan gone, the business, its enormous undertaking as well as its inherent commercial and philosophical consequences, was left on the shoulders of his younger brother, James Tyler Ames.

By 1849, the original capitalization sum for Ames of $30,000 had increased to $250,000. (18) A company of remarkable diversification, artwork was cast as early as 1835 when bronze statuary was created under Silas Mosman, who would cast the bronze doors of the east wing of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. at the Ames Company, and would later include the “Minuteman” statue at the Lexington-Concord bridge, designed by Daniel Chester French, among his works. Along with works in brass and bronze, an iron foundry was added 1845, (19) and if the foundry was used for statuary, it was also meant for cannon.

By the Mexican War, the Ames Manufacturing Company’s main production had shifted to the making of arms, for the United States government and for foreign governments. The Chicopee Journal noted in September of 1854:

"The Ames Company of Chicopee have been engaged for
several months past in the manufacturing cannon, bombshells
and grape shot for His Most Serene Highness, Antonio Lopez
do Santa Ana. Of the last named article, two hundred tons
have been engaged, and we do not believe that the old, one-
legged humbug will have killed a hundred men after they are
all used up." (20)

Once again dictator of Mexico in between periods of exile, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s checkered relationship with his countrymen as well as with the United States did not prevent him from being a valued customer of the Ames Manufacturing Company.

It is interesting to note that though Ames had many contracts supplying weapons to state and town militias, besides the Federal Government, by the time of the political crisis of the Civil War that sent so many local civilian men into uniform, the fashion for town militia had faded in New England, certainly along with need for them. Chicopee’s Vital Records note that the Cabot Guards, their own town militia, received no appropriation of funds from the town in 1851, as they were about to disband. (21)

A few years earlier, the doomed Cabotville Chronicle took a break from lashing out at local industrialists to describe the military ball held at Cabot Hall in December, 1845 which “surpassed any thing of the kind we have ever seen in this village. The Hall was neatly and tastefully decorated…the music was the best that could be found this side of Boston or New York.” (22) The Hampden and Union Guards of Westfield also attended. Other than the community at last being seen free of Indian attack, it could also have been the distaste which many in town viewed the United States’ participation in the Mexican War which led to a mistrust and lack of enthusiasm for things with a military flare. Too, the old Yankee population with its colonial traditions was fading under new influences, like the Irish.

Most of Chicopee’s population of about 7,000, after its separation from Springfield in 1848, lived in Cabotville, and many of them were Irish immigrants huddled in the workers’ housing provided a stone’s throw from the mills by the factory owners.

"These factories employ 15,000 operators, many of whom are beautiful importations of the female sex from Erin’s Isle. The Ames Company employs 215 hands, and the Organization is second to none in Massachusetts." (23)

At the time of this 1857 Chicopee Journal article, the working day was 11 hours long, with a one-hour noon mealtime; in winter 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and in summer 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (24) The National Cyclopaedia reported of James, “As an employer, he was ahead of his time in enlightened treatment of his workers, with whom he was extremely popular.” (25) Whether or not this were true, the working conditions in his factory were certainly typical of the time.

James T. Ames lived in a brick house, also a stone’s throw away from his company. Ames’ mansion was built between 1844 and 1846. (26) It was a two-story brick house with a picket fence, built in the late Georgian style. Part of its treasures in later years when it became a museum were a bronze wall candelabra removed from the White House when gas lighting was installed, and an invitation to dinner from President Abraham Lincoln. (27)

Whether his trade was the by-product of an era or just capitalizing on it, Ames’ fortunes depended on political turbulence, and now there was plenty. With the coming political tensions in the year Abraham Lincoln would be elected President, the Federal Government passed legislation banning arms sales to states which threatened secession, but this would not go into effect until January 1861. Until then, Ames sold muskets and sabers to Southern militia, (28) but a shipment of gun making machinery sold to Virginia was diverted by Isaac Wright, Superintendent of the Springfield Armory early in 1861. (29)

When Virginia went with the Confederacy, so did James H. Burton, born in Virginia, who went to work at Harper’s Ferry Armory in 1846. In 1849, he had been promoted to Acting Master Armorer. Burton experimented with improved designs for MiniĆ© bullet. In 1854, he left Harpers Ferry and came to Chicopee to work with the Ames Company. A year later in 1855, accepted a five-year contract as Chief Engineer of the Royal Small Arms Manufactory in Enfield, England. In 1860, Burton contracted to be superintendent of the Richmond Armory, with machinery confiscated by the Confederacy from the Harpers Ferry Armory. (30)

Back in Chicopee, one of the last contacts of the days of town militia, Indian attacks and the fading Colonial veneer disappeared when Reuben Burt, soldier in the Revolutionary War, died August 8, 1860. Burt had also served in War of 1812, (31) another conflict like the Mexican War which had Whig versus Federalist coming to verbal blows and philosophical angst as to whether or not it was better or even right for Massachusetts to secede from the Union over it. Secession was apparently not so unthinkable then...


A Northern Factory Town's Perspective on the Civil War

By Jacqueline T. Lynch

Available in eBook and in paperback from Amazon and many other online merchants.


Unknown said...

This is such a good article. I've always been intrigued by the economic histotory of towns, perhaps from growing up near Bellows Falls, VT, & thus seeing what happens when a town "backs the wrong horse" in an economic sense. This is really engaging, & gives such a picture of Chicopee in the mid 19th century. Well done.

11-hour workdays-- no wonder my mother always said "idle hands are the devil's workplace"!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, John. I was afraid it was a bit long for a blog post and that I'd lose people halfway through. You've shown admirable perseverance.

Mother was right about idle hands. On the other hand, busy hands for 11 hours a day gives you carpal tunnel syndrome. Nobody ever seemed get carpal tunnel in the 19th century. They either dropped dead at their cotton looms or else quit the factory and headed west, eventually dropping dead of something else. But no carpal tunnel.

Unknown said...

I like long posts, tho I imagine some don't. Sometimes I worry about that on RFBanjo, but I just go with what works. There was no wasted space or filler in this.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Your RF's Banjo posts are always well thought out. I like the "day out" photos.

Anonymous said...

Thank You for this! Very informative! Do you happen to know if Ames Manufacturing Company is the same as Ames True Temper? My grandfather is a sword collector and i am wondering if one of the swords with the imprint of NP AMES is the same origin as a shovel we bought from Home Depot by Ames. Just curious!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, brickandbrack, and thank you so much for your kind words. How wonderful that your grandfather has an Ames Sword. However, I don't believe Ames True Temper shovels are made by the same firm (which is now a regalia company in Ohio). Thanks again for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Love this post. Could you tell me if Ames made the 1833 Texas Dragoons Saber? My father purchased one at an auction and he is trying to find out more about it. He either thinks that Ames made it or possibly S & K. Also if you have any contacts you could provide me to get an appraisal, that would be great.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome. Ames did make the 1833 Texas Dragoons Sabre, and there is a photo of one on page 30 of John D. Hamilton's book "The Ames Sword Company" mentioned in the footnotes in the article. Unless the blade is very worn, it should have "MP Ames/Cutler/Springfield, the year, and Texas Dragoons etched into it.

For more detail on the Dragoons Sabres, I recommend Mr. Hamilton's book. As for where to get an appraisal of it's worth, I'm afraid I can't help you there. But I'm sure if you do an Internet search for sword or antique weaponry appraisals, you'll find some contacts. Good luck.

Dwight said...

Hi Jacqueline,

Don't know if you're still keeping up with an older post, but wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your history of the Ames company. I am currently helping the daughter of a late friend dispose of his tools, one of which is an Ames lathe that I believe was used to make cannon barrels.



Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Dwight. How interesting that items from the Ames company are still to be found in private collections. Fascinating history there.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Dwight, I've recently been contacted by a party interested in those tools and the Ames item you mention. If you are still involved in the dispersal of that collection, please contact me through my email:, and I'll forward the message along.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating article. I grew up in Chicopee and traveled past the old Ames Manufacturing Co. on my way to high school every day. I learned so much from your well documented article.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Mrs. LaFlamme. It's always nice to hear from Chicopee folks.

Thomas Fowler said...

Thank you so much for this well researched and interesting article on the Ames family and its swords. We are a Southern family near Danville, and have an Ames non-commissioned officer's sword...captured, of course. This is beautiful research, well presented. Thos. B. Fowler

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Mr. Fowler. Congratulations on preserving a piece of American history in your family. How interesting that it came your way by capture during the war.

My Own said...

Hi, I loved your article. Very informative and well executed. I have 2 Ames Swords and was wondering if you know what year the business was sold to Ohio and who the company was it was sold to? Thanks! Still enjoying your article many years after it was written.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Yuki. Congratulations on owning two Ames swords. The Ames Sword Company faced bankruptcy after the stock market crash of 1929. The Ohio company, called M. C. Lilley Co., were buying sword making machinery from Ames and co-producing some items such as swords and badges with Ames through the 1920s. The business was sort of split up between Ohio and Chicopee, Mass., and the total operations were finally shifted entirely to Ohio by 1930.

In the 1950s, the Lilley Co. was then bought out by another company, so that is also out of business.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Regarding the above comment about the possible link between the Ames Manufacturing Company and the modern firm of Ames True Temper which makes shovels, I was contacted by Mr. Scott Wise of the Ames True Temper company who affirms that it was Nathan P. Ames' brother, Oliver who started what became the Ames True Temper firm. My thanks to Mr. Wise for adding to our knowledge about the Ames family and their firms.

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