From The Beginning
New England has recovered from the post-war depression; trade, shipping and manufacturing were flourishing. In May of 1824, raised the tariff to four cents a pound on tarred, and five cents a pound on untarred cordage. Plymouth Bay was no mean port in 1824, although the three towns (Plymouth, Kingston, and Duxbury) that front on that large body of water inside Saquish and Long Beach were prevented by deep embayment, intricate harbor channels, and lack of inland communication from Boston and Salem. In 1820, some 21,000 tons of shipping were registered in the Plymouth customs district, more than Gloucester or Newburyport and not far behind Nantucket or New Bedford. Plymouth-owned vessels were active in the triangular trade in sugar, iron and hemp from Boston to Havana, then to Russia and back to Boston; others traded to the Mediterranean or the West Indies; but most of them were coasters. This was before the railroad era, when anyone who went anywhere from Plymouth or sent to Plymouth for anything, generally went by sea. Vessels would bring lumber and firewood from Maine, over a hundred vessels for the cod and mackerel fisheries went out, and a few whaling ships sailed to the Pacific and back. In the interior of Plymouth County, around Bridgewater, there was a flourishing iron industry where anchors, shovels, nails, and bolts were made; and the country boasted seven woolen and fourteen cotton mills.
It took Bourne Spooner a year or two after arriving back in Plymouth before he could find backers. His brother-in-law John Russell, a local ship-owner, was one of the first to be interested. Russell in turn interested his friend Caleb Loring who was the head of a Boston firm of importing merchants. Other early backers and organizers were John Dodd, William Lovering, Jr., David Low and Charles Nichols of Boston. All except Loring were young men between the ages of twenty-five and forty years-old and all were merchants; but they had no connection, social or otherwise, with the Boston mercantile and financial aristocracy. None of them were college educated. Caleb Loring was known as a very successful man.
On June 12, 1824, Massachusetts Governor Eustis signed a bill incorporating "Bourne Spooner, William Lovering Jr., John Dodd and John Russell... by the name of the Plymouth Cordage Company, for the purpose of manufacturing cordage." This small corporation with an initial capital of $20,000 has outlasted every concern whose bonds or shares were then listed on the Boston Stock Exchange.
The by-laws of the Plymouth Cordage Company, adopted at the first stockholders' meeting, included the adoption of the corporate seal, which was a round brass plate with a figure of a ship in the center, surrounded by a circle containing the name of the Corporation. That good ship Plymouth, always depicted full rigged and under sail, has since been seen in every seaport of the world. Caleb Loring, who took thirty-eight of the $100 shares, was elected Treasurer at the second stockholders' meeting on August 22, 1824. At the same meeting his son Charles Greely Loring, a recent Harvard graduate who later became a famous lawyer, was chosen clerk. The first Board of Directors were Loring, Spooner, Dodd, Lovering, and Low. Spooner was appointed superintendent of the ropewalk under the title of Agent, and given full charge and responsibility for erecting and managing the works at Plymouth. His salary was $1100 annually. Within a year the amount of capital stock was increased by $10,000.
Bourne Spooner had already acquired the land and promptly conveyed it to the Company. Of the four or five small parcels that he purchased, the first had a 130-foot frontage on the harbor, at the terminus of one of the intricate of the channels between mudflats, so that small vessels could come up to a wharf at high water. There was just enough land for the ropewalk, together with a house lot on the main road from Plymouth to Boston where Spooner intended to make his home. When the Old Colony Railroad was built from Boston to Plymouth in 1845, it had to pass so close to the cordage property that not even a spur track had to be built. Needless to say, this was a well selected site. Other parcels of land were added from time to time; but the total area on which the plant and offices stand today is only forty-nine acres.
The principle building, was the 1050-foot ropewalk. Lumber for it was shipped from Portland, Maine, and the total cost, including the underpinning, was around $10,500.
The first machinery used at the cordage plant was very simple, consisting of a few shafts and wheels that conveyed power to the ropewalk. Spinning machines for hemp fiber had already been invented, but were not considered feasible by Spooner. The Plymouth Company, like most ropewalks of the time, was too small to make machinery pay. Spooner's first advertisement offered to make plain or patent-laid rope.
The latter simply means that water power was applied to the forming and laying processes; spinning of the fiber into yarn was done by the traditional method.
Bourne Spooner, as we have seen, was the dominant figure in the Plymouth Cordage Company until his retirement in 1870 at the age of eighty. He was succeeded as Treasurer and General Manager by his son Charles W. Spooner, who held the combined office for twelve years but suffered from bad health during all but the first five years. The Plymouth Cordage Company will go on to struggle through Wars and Depression, but prevailing through all. Bourne Spooner created a business that would employ thousands of people over the years, all based on the dream of free labor and successful rope making.
Bourne Spooner, descendant of several Pilgrim Fathers, was the founder of the Plymouth Cordage Company. Born in Plymouth on February 2, 1790, the educated young man left Plymouth for the city of New Orleans where he was employed in a rope-walk. The rope walk employed slaved, hired from their masters, for labor. Bourne Spooner was a natural abolitionist. He hated slavery as an institution, and the inefficiency of slave labor disgusted him. Consequently, after learning the rope making business, he returned to his home town determined to develop a manufacturing cordage with free labor.