Samuel Williams:  An Early Entrepreneur

From Essex Events, Fall 1997

    "It was early morning on April 7, 1814 when Samuel Williams, still strong and active for his 63 years, left his home for the short downhill stroll to work.  At the head of Mill Lane, he paused and surveyed the scene before him.  "What a change the last 37 years has brought," he mused.  "I moved here in 1777 to run the small gristmill that existed next to my father's forge and ironworks.
    ""Now look at it:  my son Ezra is operating his bone and ivory shop on the south side of the dam, the gristmill is doing more business than ever, the forge of the 'island' can hardly keep up with all the orders, the sawmill seems to never stop turning out lumber for various boatbuilders around town, the retail store is selling goods locally and shipping to the West Indies, and finally, my pride and joy, the shipyard is turning out 2 to 3 vessels a year.  That ship now on the stocks, almost ready to be launched, is the largest I have ever built.  It is 344 tons and due to sail to the South Seas.  Its name is unusual:  'Osage.'"

    *****British Destroy Ships*****

    "Little did Samuel Williams realize what would happen within 24 hours.  The British would arrive and destroy the ships he was building, extremely upsetting his pre-industrial complex.  Indeed, the burnt hull of the "Osage" lay in the cove mud for over 100 years, before being salvaged.  Samuel Williams died in 1822, leaving his wife Irena (Pratt) and six sons, all of whom became important locally, in various business ventures.  As a matter of fact, a ship of 268 tons was built in the Williams "yard," named "6 Brothers," in 1822.
    "As one views the same area Samuel Williams did almost 200 years ago, he/she sees a dam, broken by the tumultuous storm of June 1982, sitting amidst a rather bucolic scene, where the Falls River enters Falls River Cove in Essex.  The pastoral nature of this place today belies the busy entrepreneurial location it once was.  The foundation remains of Samuel's house are still obvious, by both the Williams and Doane families, but business ventures have long since vanished.
    "Captain Benjamin Williams initially purchased property around a dam located here in the early 1760s.  He operated a gristmill, and subsequently a small ironworks.  In 1775/76 Benjamin got an order from his old friend Captian Uriah Hayden to produce all the "ironwork" on a new ship Uriah was building at the foot Main Street in Essex--it was to be the largest ship built to date in the Colony of Connecticut, and was named the "Oliver Cromwell."  The colony shipped 7 tons of raw iron to Benjamin for this vessel.  This event set the Williams family firmly on a new and enlarged business path.

    *****Samuel Moved Here in 1777*****

    "Samuel, the oldest son of Benjamin, moved here from Centerbrook in 1777, occupying an older house previously owned by the Denison family.  Events moved quickly (for those days), as the end of the Revolutionary War led to a demand for shipping and Essex entrepreneurs replied in a positive manner.  Initially, Samuel was content to operate the existing gristmill, but soon set up a sawmill, which fed finished lumber to the "downtown" Essex ship builders.  By 1795, however, he decided to set up his own shipyard, and did so on the north bank of Falls River Cove.
    "This operation turned out an average of 2 ships per year until its demise in 1840 (under Samuel's son David).  So, it is obvious that Samuel had a rather "vertical" business (in today's vernacular) operation, in which he was supplying the raw material (lumber and iron) and then building the finished products (ships).  This activity augmented the growth of a section of Essex known as Meadow Woods, as houses were built all around this new pre-industrial complex.  Samuel himself owned over 60 acres on both the north and south sides of Falls River Cove, and interestingly enough, considered the cove his property.  The name Meadow Woods persists today.
    "In addition to Samuel's own operations, Ezra, one of his sons, set up an ivory and bone cutting business, employing between 9 and 15 people.  It was so successful that Ezra moved to Deep River in 1817 (a new area then) and went into business with a friend named George Read.  The ultimate result of this union was the Pratt, Read, & Co., in Deep River, which of course eventually combined with the Comstock, Cheney and Co. of Ivoryton in the 1930s.

    *****Other Dams Built*****

    "The demise of this whole operation came as a result of specialization and demand.  The dam (or actually amount of water backed up) could not supply enough power to operate so many businesses at the same time.  Other dams sprung up on the Falls River which were specifically designed to power one business.  The best example is Mason Hamilton Post's taking over the bone cutting in Meadow Woods after Ezra Williams had departed, and subsequently moving it (building and all) to a site on a new dam 1/4 mile up the river, where he had an exclusive power source.  This is where the current Kuralt homestead stands today on Dennison Road."

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