Stearnsville – Present at the Creation
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the largest and one of the oldest mills operating in Pittsfield was D & H Stearns, just east of Hancock Shaker Village. Yet, today, there’s nothing except a small settlement of houses to indicate that this was Stearnsville, once a bustling, prosperous mill village, dating back to the first years of the 19th century.
The streams that flow into the south west branch of the Housatonic River had enough of a fall to serve as an ideal power source for several mills, in both directions, including the earliest Shaker flour and grist mills just upstream at Hancock Shaker Village.
When Daniel Stearns moved to Pittsfield from Connecticut in 1801, he purchased a mill on this stream that was essentially used just for dressing, fulling (cleaning) and dying the wool that had been carded (cleaned and disentangled) by hand in the homes around the town. Machinery for carding or spinning wool had not been invented.
A few years later, Arthur Schofield, an entrepreneur/inventor, left England with drawings of a carding machine and spinning Jenny. He set up shop in Pittsfield on West Street to produce these machines. One of his first customers was Daniel Stearns who purchased a spinning Jenny and 24 spindles from Schofield in 1810. A year later, Stearns had built a “New Woolen Factory” to house the operation and two of his machines. When Schofield perfected a machine to card the wool, Stearns installed this innovation in his factory in 1812. This revolutionized the industry, opening the way up for new mills throughout the county, which produced more wool than any county in the U.S. by the 1850s.
By then, though, Daniel Stearns had passed his company on to his four sons, who continued to expand the operations along this branch of the river, replacing the original wood factory with larger brick buildings and updated machinery. At its height, the company commanded five different factories, 30 dwellings for its workers on 45 acres of land and even a small church, Emanuel Chapel, affiliated with St. Stephen Episcopal Church on Park Square. By the end of the Civil War, the brothers had started selling off pieces of their settlement, and the lucrative water rights. In turn, these became going concerns established downstream on the same branch of the Housatonic under the management of J. Barker & Brothers and Tillotson & Collins. (see Barkerville) A fire destroyed one of the remaining factory buildings, but it was the increased competition and a recession which eventually proved fatal for Stearns. In 1881, D & H Stearns Company which still owned just one factory announced its failure and closed its operations. The equipment from the mill was sold and transferred to Bel-Air mills on Wahconah Street on the other side of Pittsfield.
What’s left of Stearnsville? There’s a school, Stearns Elementary, on Lebanon Avenue, which connects with West Housatonic (Rte 20.) There’s also enough of a meandering river to hint that once there were two and three story buildings dominating the landscape and calling men, women and children to its doors six days a week.