For more than 100 years, the Dole Family ran a profitable woolen mill in Campton, making heavy pants for loggers, and socks and leggings for soldiers in World War II. The mill has been dormant since 1965, but a few years ago a young local couple bought it and transformed the mill into something unexpected.
In this first story of a two-part series, NHPR’s Sean Hurley takes us inside Dole Mill to tell us what it used to be like in its prime.
In 2017, Jessye and Sky Bartlett purchased Dole Mill in Campton, renovated the structure, and gradually turned the 15,000-square-foot building into something…unexpected, as Sky Bartlett reckons. “When I have to explain it to people, I usually say it's a big place with lots of strange things in it,” he says. “You should come see it. So that's as close as I've come.”
What the enormous red wing of a building wedged between road and river used to be is a little easier to say.
“So it was the Dole's right up from 1826 to 1965 which made it when it closed, it was the oldest family owned woolen mill, you know, continuously running in the U.S.,” Sky Bartlett says. “And they were the third oldest in the country.”
83-year-old Sally Dole Harris is a descendant of these Doles. “I'm the part of the Doles that didn't go to Hawaii,” she says. “One brother came here and started this and one brother went to Hawaii and started Dole Pineapples.”
92-year-old Roland Gooch says what began as a water wheel in the 1790s became Erastus Dole’s Mad River Mills in 1826. Instead of pineapples, Erastus Dole bought, carded, and sold wool for local sheep owners. “He ran the mill and then when he couldn't do it anymore Moody Cook Dole ran the mill and he was my grandfather,” Roland Gooch says. “Of course as a kid I used to roam around the mill all the time.”
With the purchase of looms and knitting and dyeing machines, the Mill soon expanded to help produce woolen clothing that was sold around New England.
Sally Dole Harris’ father was the principle marketer for the mill in the 1930s, traveling to Maine and Massachusetts to find outlets for the mill’s woolen goods. “I don't know if you've heard about the Dole Pants? Real heavy wool. And they made them here and they sold them all over New England and the lumberjacks used them,” Dole Harris says. “And they made socks and they made sweaters and they made earmuffs for skiing.”
90-year-old Joyce Mayhew was 16 when she got her first job at the Mill. It was 1945. “Where I worked there was a row of spindles in front of me,” Mayhew recalls, “and they were winding wool. And my job was, when they broke, to tie them up.”
Mayhew says she preferred this to the work of a friend. “All he did was turn socks inside out and then turning them back outside right side out again,” she says. “That's what he did. He used to call me ‘the leetle lovebird’! I don't know why!”
Roland Gooch says these socks were most likely used by soldiers during World War II. “During the war - course all the men were away,” Gooch says. “They made all kinds of things for the Army and Navy. Socks and sweaters and things.”
The new owners, Jessye and Sky Bartlett now host a monthly contradance on the second floor of the mill where Joyce Mayhew once tied wool and her friend turned socks inside out.
Examining the now cleared dance floor, Joyce Mayhew can’t find the spot she used to work. “I would never recognize the place. No,” Mayhew says. “Nothing like it was once when I worked here at all.”
“I remember being up on the third floor,” Sally Dole Harris says. “That's where they kept the big bales of wool. And we used to go up and - we weren't supposed to - but we'd go up and slide off the bales.
“I remember there was a great big wooden sweat box,” Joyce Mayhew says. “I don't know what they used it for but some of the kids used to come in and visit us when they weren't supposed to. If they heard the boss coming they'd hop into that box and hide...we were teenagers, we weren't worth much.”
Sally asks Joyce if she remembers the “machine that went back and forth” - but the former millworker doesn’t. “They called it a mule,” Dole Harris says, and it would go back and forth.”
But 73-year-old Dave Hiltz remembers the mule. His mother was the mill secretary from 1947 until it closed.
“I mean when you came up on this floor the whole building shook from those looms going back and forth,” Hiltz remembers. “They used to go too too too. It's a wonder the building never fell over. You know? I mean really the whole building, you knew it was moving."
The leader of the contradance band and one half of the mill renovating team — 31-year-old Jessye Bartlett — says that while a lot of hard work went into fixing up the building, she and her husband never really planned out what it would become. “It was very much not an anticipated endeavor,” she says, “but it was very much like the answer to a lot of hopes and prayers that we'd had for a long time.”
Hopes and prayers that transformed the old woolen mill on the Mad River into what Sky Bartlett calls a “big place with lots of strange things in it.”
We’ll explore what Dole Mill is now, tomorrow.