Periodically, we are asked questions about the Morocco factory in South Acton. Aside from a couple of pictures in the Society’s collection, our information on it is fairly limited, so we decided to do some research into its history.
Our first question was what exactly was manufactured in a “Morocco factory.” Though the product is unfamiliar to many of us today, when the South Acton plant was built in 1892, “morocco” would have been recognized widely as a type of leather. According to Cole’s Dictionary of Dry Goods published in that year, true Morocco was made from goatskins, a firm-but-flexible leather product with a grained surface. It was a durable material that was used for high-end book bindings, seat upholstery, and boot-tops. Over time, “morocco” also came to describe an imitation product, lightweight leather made from sheep, lamb, kid, and goatskins, primarily used in manufacturing light shoes.
According to Phalen’s History of the Town of Acton, the local morocco factory (or “skin shop”) was built by Elnathan Jones and was run by his son-in-law Charles Kimball. Charles Milton Kimball (1863-1823) was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts to Benjamin Milton and Margie (Johns) Kimball. He married Carrie Evelyn Jones, daughter of Elnathan and Elizabeth (Tuttle) Jones, in South Acton on Sept. 5, 1888. Elnathan Jones was one of the owners of the prosperous and dominant Tuttles, Jones, and Wetherbee enterprise in South Acton. As Charles Kimball’s father-in-law, he may well have influenced the decision to locate in Acton, and the factory was built on Jones's land. What was not apparent from reading Phalen’s history, however, was that South Acton’s morocco business was actually a transplanted family firm from Haverhill.
Haverhill had a large concentration of shoe and boot manufacturers and associated leather businesses, among them morocco. Charles M. Kimball’s grandfather Benjamin (c. 1815-1870) was listed as a morocco manufacturer there in the 1850 census. Later, with Charles’ father Benjamin Milton Kimball (1838-1910), he formed B. & B. M. Kimball & Co., morocco manufacturers with a plant in Haverhill and an office in Boston. Charles was eventually brought into the business. In 1888, Charles received a patent for an improvement in the treating of “morocco and other finished skins” that he assigned to his father and himself. As far as we can tell, the Kimballs’ morocco enterprise was large-scale and successful. A glowing report on Kimball and Son was included in a book on Haverhill by its Board of Trade in 1889. According to the write-up, the company occupied three three-story buildings on Fleet Street and one on Pleasant Street, employing 130 people and processing 750,000 skins worth $500,000 yearly. The morocco produced was of a superior grade that would hold color. The company supplied both the local and the Boston markets. Demand was so high that it had just enlarged its plant (as had its competitor Lennox and Briggs).
The business was not without bumps, however. In August 1889, the company announced that, breaking with its own tradition but trying to keep up with its competitors, it would no longer pay its employees “by the piece” but would pay weekly wages instead. The company’s morocco dressers objected and about a hundred went on strike. We found news of the strike reported as far away as Shreveport, Louisiana. The strike does not seem to have ruined the company, but there was an incident of sabotage. Haverhill’s Daily Evening Bulletin (September 16, 1889, page 2) reported on “Midnight Scoundrelism.” The previous Saturday night, the main belt that powered the factory was cut into pieces and ruined, necessitating a brief shutdown while it was repaired.
Whether labor unrest in Haverhill contributed to the decision to move, we don’t know. So far, the only mention that we have found of a motivation for the move was in Charles’ 1923 obituary, mentioning “the business in Haverhill being incorporated into a larger concern,” implying that they sold out and started again. Whatever inspired the decision, by 1892, they were on the move. On September 16, it was reported in the Concord Enterprise that “Messrs. Kimball & Son of Haverhill will move their morocco manufactory from that city to South Acton as soon as a building can be erected for them. A building seventy-five feet long, three stories high, with an addition sixty [feet] long and one story high has been staked out and the work will be pushed forward as speedily as possible. About fifty hands will be employed in the factory.” By January 5, 1893, the factory was running. The Enterprise reported that those employed so far had come with the business from Haverhill and that the company had “bright prospects and a large number of orders.” A factory inspection report published in January 1894 by the Secretary of the Commonwealth showed that the business was at that point employing 58 men, by far the largest manufacturing enterprise in town.
By current standards, leather work was apparently smelly, hazardous, and polluting. No complaints about that appeared in the local paper. On the contrary, a drought in late August of 1894 that necessitated digging a new well at the morocco factory inspired the news that there was “A big haul of fish near the morocco factory. Low water, fish in a hole, scooped out with a rake. Result – eat fish one week.” (Concord Enterprise Aug. 30, 1894, page 8) One has to wonder about the health of the fish.
Business was still doing well in 1895 according to the Enterprise, and a week’s stoppage in 1897 was attributed to the company running out of stock due to a delay in a tariff bill, presumably the protectionist Dingley Tariff passed under President McKinley. The first indication that the business might be contracting was found in the Commonwealth’s inspection report published in January 1899 for the previous year. By that time, there only 26 men employed in the morocco business, and the sanitary conditions were graded “fair.” (It was still, however, the largest manufacturer listed in Acton at the time.)
In 1900, the company established a new time schedule. From then on, the working hours were 6:30 a.m. to noon and 12:45 p.m. to 6 p.m., with a Saturday closing-time at noon. The schedule was popular with employees for its generous half-holiday on Saturdays according to the Enterprise. The possibility that the change might have resulted from financial concerns was not mentioned. Phalen stated that as public tastes changed, the market for morocco declined. The Boot & Shoe Recorder of August 7, 1901 indicated that there was great uncertainty about what styles would be fashionable in the coming spring season, with some indications that patent leather and canvas were taking over from colored morocco. Perhaps relatedly, the Acton Concord Enterprise reported strikes in four morocco factories in Lynn, MA in November 1901. We found no explicit mention of financial strain in the Kimballs’ business, but an Enterprise article on May 21, 1902 reported that B. M. Kimball & Son, proprietors of the morocco factory, would soon retire. “During the past ten years since their business has been established in town they have done much for its improvement not only from a business standpoint but have also proved themselves true public spirited men. This change only adds to the already unsettled condition of affairs in the village and the future appears anything but clear.”
The unsettled condition of the factory continued for several years. Reports would surface in the Concord Enterprise of firms that were taking over or were looking at the factory, including The McLean Mfg. Co. of Boston (August 5, 1903), C. Brandt & Co. leather dressers (April 13, 1904), and several unnamed firms including an aluminum manufacturer (January 23, 1907). At some point, ice cream pails evidently were produced there. Finally, a viable business moved in, Moore and Burgess, (originally named the South Acton Webbing Company, later Moore and Cram), a producer of narrow woven fabrics in cotton and silk (Enterprise, January 22, 1908). It was so successful that it moved to new quarters in West Concord in 1916-17. The South Acton morocco factory eventually was torn down, and, according to Phalen, lumber, bricks and windows were taken by townspeople to incorporate into other buildings, spreading around the town a unique part of Acton’s history.
The in-progress Assabet River Rail Trail is expected to go past the factory site. A portion of the Jones land abutting the mill pond has been preserved in the past few years and is known as the Caouette Simeone Farmland.
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