Last week we talked about Isaac C. Atkinson’s plush mill which was built in 1892, then opened and then beached in 1893. We continue our look at this old mill complex that existed off Mussey Street , in the area that is now home to the RiverPlace Apartments.
When the lavish mill first opened, the mill consisted mainly of a 226-foot-long building. After the company closed and an attempt to auction off the building and machinery failed, the site remained dormant, but there were still interested parties who could see its potential. The masonry factory building was located on the waterfront with a wharf, which would facilitate the transportation of finished products.
It was only a matter of time before the right company came along.
In the 1890s, bicycles were all the rage. Especially in more populated areas, owning a bicycle made getting around very easy. A large company that sold bicycles was the John P. Lovell Arms Company of Boston. Founded in 1840, the company was a retailer of sporting goods and firearms. Its original and impressive main store was located on Washington Street in Boston, but by the 1890s the company also operated branches in Boston, Worcester, Providence, Pawtucket, and Bangor.
The company opened a branch at 180 Middle St. in Portland on May 16, 1894. In all of its stores it offered a wide variety of sporting goods, uniforms, fishing tackle, cameras, guns, revolvers and ammunition. The company will be best known for the quality of its brand of Lovell Diamond bicycles.
Of course, bicycles are normally powered by their own energy, however, a Portland man came to prominence in the 1890s with his invention to make travel even better.
In 1894, Willard Twombly of Portland, applied for a patent for a motorcycle. A common power source in those days was steam, but the space needed to store water and the fuel source made it an impractical choice for a bicycle. Twombly came up with the idea of a bike that would instead be powered by ether. Ether has a significantly lower boiling point than water (about 94 degrees Fahrenheit versus 212 degrees). A small gas tank would be located on the bike and a small pump would spray hot gasoline under ether. After the ether transitioned to its gaseous state, it would pass through a condenser, creating a closed circuit by reusing the ether.
It was an interesting idea on paper. A news article at the time claimed that the bike would be able to go 100 miles on a single tank of gas and reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.
Colonel Benjamin Lovell, president of the John P. Lovell Arms Co. in Boston, expressed some interest in this new invention, but the idea needed to be tested. With demand for the bikes so high, Twombly was unable to find an existing manufacturer who would commit to building a prototype in a reasonable timeframe. So he decided to test his ether engine idea on a boat instead. A 16-foot boat was launched in August 1894; Mr. BA Jacobs built the hull and Henry R. Stickney made the machinery. When tested the boat reached a speed of 8 mph but the engine piston had rubber components and since ether eats away at the rubber a leak formed around the piston and it was clear that d Other adjustments were needed.
On April 30, 1895, a second boat was launched with an ether engine. Named Minnie S., this 30ft boat was also built by BA Jacobs with machinery from Henry Stickney. The engine had been redesigned, based on what they had learned from the previous failure, and the boat could reach speeds of 12 to 14 mph. Building on this success, the John P. Lovell Arms Company pledged financial support for a new venture that would manufacture boats and bicycles with ether engines.
In a May 1895 press release, it was announced that a new company in Maine would be formed with Colonel Benjamin Lovell as president (Lovell was the president of the John P. Lovell Arms Co.) and Willard Twombly as director of the society. director. The John P. Lovell Arms Company had also negotiated the purchase of the idle fluff mill. They announced a tentative plan – in addition to making bikes and boats with ether engines, the company would erect an additional building on the site for a large bike factory. Until now, John P. Lovell Arms contracted out the manufacture of its bicycles to the Iver Johnson Company of Massachusetts. On June 1, 1895, John P. Lovell, himself, purchased the plush mill property for $15,000.
On July 3, 1895, the new company was formed, the Lovell Cycle and Ether Motor Company, with Benjamin Lovell as president and HL Lovell as treasurer. On September 23, 1895, the new company purchased the plush mill property from John P. Lovell for $25,000.
While the media was talking excitedly this summer about the potential for the forthcoming production of horseless carriages at the factory, all of those plans had changed by the time a news story was published in October 1895. By then, the Lovell Cycle and Ether Motor Company had taken over the plush factory, parted ways with Willard Twombly and made the decision to convert the existing building into a bicycle factory. About 25 men worked in the factory at the time, working to install equipment and make the tools needed to make bicycles. The factory manager was Frank Curtis. He indicated that the company’s goal was to have 200–300 men employed by January 1896 and that they would produce 10,000 bicycles which would be needed for the coming 1896 season.
After Curtis gave the reporter a tour of the facility, the question of ether engine plans arose. Curtis said the company purchased the patent from Willard Twombly, but had no plans to make boats or bikes powered by ether engines. According to the article, “The Lovell Arms Company owns the patent, but is not yet satisfied enough with its practicality to move forward, especially since it has so many bicycles to make.”
In November 1896, Lovell Cycle and Ether Motor Company had changed its name to John P. Lovell Company (which helps distinguish the Maine company from the Massachusetts company that had “Arms” in its name).
We’ll continue the story of the Lovell bicycle factory next week, as well as the story of the factory’s next interesting superintendent, inventor Lyman H. Cobb.
To note: The South Portland Historical Society offers a free online museum with over 15,000 images available to view with keyword search, and we add new content regularly. You can find it at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com and, if you appreciate what we do, feel free to donate using the donate button on the homepage. If you have any photos or other information to share about South Portland’s past, we’d love to hear from you. The South Portland Historical Society can be reached at 207-767-7299, by email at [email protected]or by post to 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.
Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society. She can be reached at [email protected]
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