Brought a Historical Story to Union County Indiana
Part of Union County Indiana history began in an area in the southern part of the county. The land is hilly and unlike most of the northern section of the county has unique characteristics. There are caves, an area where salt was found and many fast running streams. It was a place for early industry. The Cockefair mill employed 25 to 30 employees; there were two gristmills, a sawmill, a furniture factory and a pump factory.
The pioneers of the area when coming from South Carolina followed the East Fork of the White Water River to an area along the river between Brookville and Brownsville and made their home there for many years. Their settlement began in 1805. The territory had been settled about twenty years before the arrival of Elisha Cockefair.
Elisha Cockefair was born about 1798 in the state of New Jersey. At an early age he was apprenticed to a dyer in Pennsylvania. He knew secret formulas for dying the wool. He asked for a higher wage but was refused. He attempted to run away but was caught and returned to the work place. However, in a second attempt he escaped and walked to Philadelphia. He worked in dye houses in different places in Pennsylvania. He later walked to Pittsburgh and presumably using the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and arrived in New Orleans.
Here he hired on to work on a boat, a boat that turned out to be a pirate ship. While at sea the boat had an encounter with a merchant ship and the pirate ship was badly damaged. However, Cockefair escaped and returned to New Orleans.
Again using the route he used going south he headed north and stopped at Cincinnati. He liked the area to set up a dye house but because of potential flooding he headed north up the Miami River, then up the east fork of the White Water river to the source of Elder and Eli’s Creek. Here were springs that would not go dry in summer. He knew he had found a site that would give him an unfailing supply of power. Letters and ledgers in the mill gave the earliest date as 1821 so when he first arrived in the area it would have been in Franklin County, Indiana but soon Union County was formed and would remain the home for the Cockefair Woolen Mill.
When first arriving in the area Elisha built a log cabin and set up a dye house.. Business was profitable and he built a four story brick home. The brick was burned on the farm and it was finished in poplar lumber cut on the farm. The doors were of solid walnut. A local blacksmith made latches for the doors by hand. The contractor who built the house worked for fifty cents a day and he paid his help twenty-five cents a day. The cash cost of the house was $650.
In 1827 a three story wooden factory was built. This mill, which stood on Big Eli’s Creek, had the distinction of being the first woolen mill west of the Allegheny Mountains. As the dying business grew, Mr. Cockefair became aware of the possibilities in spinning and weaving, and he put in a stocking yarn machine. Later he added the pickers, carding machines, jacks, breakers and weavers. In the old mill were four immense machines, one of which was double. They were brought down the river from the east to Cincinnati and from there were transported by wagons and brought over the mud roads and over steep hills to their destination. One of the looms was known as a “fancy loom” and stood three stories high.
In the beginning nearly all of the business was custom work. The farmers brought in their wool to have it made into cloth, and the miller took his pay in a certain percentage of the wool. He made his share of the wool into cloth, which he sold in Cincinnati. Nothing but virgin wool was used. From this some wonderful cloths were produced. There was a big trade in “jeans” for men’s clothing. If the cloth did not wear for one year, the mill replaced it free of charge. There was a big blanket business.
During these years Mr. Cockefair came into possession of a large acreage of land. Some of it he bought outright and some of it came to him as a result of his acting as banker for many of the settlers. He loaned money on their land. It is said that in case a man could not pay for his land, Mr. Cockefair never put him off the farm, but would always tell him to stay on the land and pay when he could. However, some of them simply moved off the land, leaving the farm to Cockefair to take over. At one time he owned some 3,000 acres. He raised hogs and cattle, driving them to market at Cincinnati and he carried the money back in saddle bags.
Mr. Cockefair continued operating the mill until the Civil War, when it was his intention to close the doors of the mill because of the scarcity of work. It was at this time he received a letter from the government ordering suits for the Union soldiers. This rush order called for work night and day. It has been said that the foreman did not leave the mill for six months, and he had time to change his clothing but once a week. There was one man who worked at one loom for twenty years. Several of the workers lived in the Cockefair home. At least two of the workers were from England, coming from the Manchester area which was known for its weaving industry.
In 1864 Union County lost an exceptional citizen and businessman. Elisha Cockefair died. However his son Sylvanus had, in most part, been in charge of the mill since 1854 succeeded his father as owner. Sylvanus ran the business until competition of the big eastern mills caused him to close the mill in 1888. Sylvanus was sentimental about the old mill, and he left the structure just as it was when he close the sluice gates for the last time. He hated to close the mill but he saw the futility of trying to compete with the methods of modern business. He was disgusted because the old-time manufacturer who made a good product out of virgin wool was being driven out of business.
Sylvanus looked after the farm until his death in 1911. In 1928 the Indiana Farmer’s Guide Vol. 84 of Huntington Indiana ran an article about the mill and the occupants of the Cockefair home. Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Masters operated the 570-acre farm. Mrs. Master’s was the granddaughter of Elisha Cockefair. The four-story home was in good repair but the mill was falling into ruins.
In a report from The Henry Ford Museum dated 12/16/1991 we know the fate of the mill and contents. “In 1930, Charles T. Newton, an agent of Henry Ford, dismantled the flood damaged mill and shipped to Henry Ford Museum some of the machinery from the mill, but not the mill itself. The remains of the mill were stacked neatly and the machinery given as a gift to the Henry Ford Museum. Some of the machinery is in the collections of the museum, but the mill itself never left Indiana. The carding engine is in Greenfield Village and operational. It is currently in the Plymouth Carding Mill.”
According to an article from a local paper the mill fell into ruins August 19, 1930.
The brick home stood sturdy yet when the Brookville Lake invaded the surrounding land in the 1970’s. It was sometime afterwards the home also met its demise.
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