The Vagabond: Nichols and the Dwight Manufacturing Company


Recently at the Jerry B. Jones Library in the Elliott Community Center in Alabama City, a photo of Charlotte Peabody Kimball Nichols, mother of Howard Gardner Nichols, was found.

Charlotte was born on April 24, 1839, in Bradford, Mass., and died on Aug. 4, 1908, in Newton, Mass. In 1870 she married John Howard Nichols. In addition to the only son Howard, the couple had three daughters – Eleanor Hunnewell Nichols, Grace and Charlotte N. Nichols.

Charlotte’s husband, John Howard Nichols, was born in Kingston, New Hampshire, in 1838. At the age of 19 while working as a clerk in a wholesale grocery store in Boston, he attracted the attention of some China merchants. In 1857, Nichols was sent to China by John L. Gardner and Company as supercargo of one of their ships. He decided to stay in China as an agent buying tea, cloth, straw hats, and other dry goods for his employers and ship them back to America for resale. Nichols worked closely with several other companies involved in China trade, including Augustine Heard & Company, Olyphant & Company and Russell & Company. In December of 1873, he returned to America.

In January of 1876 Nichols was offered the position of treasurer for the Boston

textile firm of Dwight Manufacturing Company. He also served as treasurer of the Great Falls Manufacturing Company and as president of the board of directors of the Lyman Mills and the Manchester Mills. Nichols invested in property in Galveston, Tex., which his brother Frank Nichols managed, and in Kansas City, Mo. He died in Newton, Mass., at the age of 67 on September 15, 1905.

The eldest child and only son of John Howard and Charlotte Peabody Nichols, Howard Gardner Nichols was the first superintendent and builder of the Dwight Manufacturing Company and the mill village in Alabama City, where he also served as mayor.

Nichols had received the best educational advantages and had traveled extensively in this country and abroad. After graduating cum laude from Harvard University in 1893, young Nichols joined his father in the cotton manufacturing industry in Massachusetts. Devoting his energy to mastering the technology and the operation of the mills, the young man became renowned for his shrewd business judgment. To his business associates, Howard was considered to be a prodigy who plunged into his assignments with an intense zeal that resulted in exceptional achievements.

The post-Civil War years saw unparalleled growth of the textile industry in the United States. While still struggling to overcome the ravages of the war and reconstruction, the South in the 1890’s remained primarily agricultural, with cotton as the dominant crop. Mills in New England and Europe were the South’s most important cotton markets.

By 1890, many New England cotton mills already had begun considering southern investment opportunities. In December 1894, the Dwight Manufacturing Company announced that the company had selected a mill site in northeast Alabama in Alabama City. The location was at the foot of picturesque Lookout Mountain, which covered a rolling stretch of woods near the rushing mountain stream of Black Creek.

Howard Gardner Nichols made the final decision of the site for the mill. The scenic beauty of the area especially appealed to him, as he was a lover of nature and a student of ornithology. Nichols scouted the area and established an immediate affinity toward the Black Creek gorge and the Noccalula Falls. He noted the interesting bird life, the enchanting woods and wildflowers, the high ground, and the absence of swamps that could threaten the area’s health.

Nichols possessed a paternalistic attitude toward his employees. His proudest achievements were the planning and construction of a mill village to provide comfortable, attractive homes and garden spaces. The streets of the village extended from the north side of the mill in the design of spokes of a wagon wheel into the wooded rolling foothills of nearby Lookout Mountain.

Each Victorian cottage was built in a different style and each was painted a different color. Employees rented these houses for one dollar per room a month. Nichols proudly declared that the mill village would be a model one, with no concealed weapons, no saloons, ample public schools, a public library, a handsome Union Church, a bowling alley, a recreational park and bandstand, a baseball field, lakes and bathhouses, and an emergency first-aid station staffed by a nurse and two doctors who would also make house calls in the village.

Before the village was completed, many people who had been recruited for employment at the mill moved to Alabama City in covered wagons and resided at the Camp House until the mill houses were completed. These families brought sickness and epidemics with them, and since a resident physician had not yet been acquired, Howard Gardner Nichols worked night and day as physician, nurse and undertaker. His interest in their welfare quickly endeared Nichols to the village residents.

Nichols was a devout Christian concerned about the spiritual welfare of his employees. Church and Sunday school were held in the Cloth Room of the mill, and Nichols usually attended these services following his attendance at the Holy Comforter Protestant Episcopal Church in nearby Gadsden, where he served as vestryman. At the Episcopal Church, Nichols often sang in a quartet or played his violin.

Usually after Sunday school services, Howard Gardner Nichols’ love of nature beckoned him to his favorite realm, Lookout Mountain. He would dine at the famous Bellevue Hotel and then stroll through the area, enjoying the forests, wildflowers and scores of assorted birds and writing of them in the diary that he kept. Nichols’ favorite meditation spot was located on the eastern brow of the mountain that overlooked the country for miles around.

In writing a letter to a friend, Nichols emphasized the beauties of Gadsden. He glowingly wrote of the awesomeness of nature while sitting on a ledge overhanging a precipice several hundred feet above Owl’s Valley. In his letter, Nichols described watching an approaching storm from the north, sunshine in the west and a beautiful rainbow before him arching across the sky.

“What a difference it would make in our lives if we could always live on the top of hills,” Nichols wrote. “Our ills would seem less wearisome and we should always be hopeful, no matter what business worries hung over us in the office. Whenever I am tired out, an hour spent on Lookout Mountain makes me feel like another fellow. Well, the nighthawks are flying about, and whippoorwills are calling from the valley:

Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh Shadows of the evening, Steal across the sky. If I don’t take advantage of what light is left, I shall have a difficult ride home.”

In May of 1896, a crew at the mill was installing a new electric generator, and young Nichols joined them. When making the final move to put the machinery in place, the scaffolding timbers broke and the machine and Nichols fell together, pinning him beneath the machine. He suffered severe internal injuries and remained unconscious during the morning as local physicians attended him. A surgeon was called from Chattanooga and operated on Nichols in his cottage. The doctors were not hopeful for his survival, but he rallied and a doctor was summoned from Atlanta to assist in his treatment.

A special train moved Nichols to a sanatorium in Atlanta, Ga., where he arrived in good spirits and sent greetings to friends in Gadsden and instructions for continuing the work at the mill.

Despite the best medical care of the time, Nichols died in June of 1896. Nichols’ death devastated Alabama City. The Gadsden City Council appointed Mayor R.A. Mitchell and T.S. Kyle to accompany the body to Newton, Mass. After the funeral in Newton, Nichols was buried in Mount Auburn.

Subsequently, the Dwight Manufacturing Company in Alabama City observed a memorial to Nichols each Wednesday at noon, when the bell in the tower tolled.

In 1897, the Howard Gardner Nichols scholarship was established at Harvard University. The scholarship gave preference to boys from north Alabama.

At a meeting of the President and Fellows of Harvard College on Jan. 25, 1897, the treasurer at Harvard submitted a letter from Mr. J. Howard Nichols:

“To the President and Fellows of Harvard College:

“I hereby ask your acceptance of the sum of five thousand dollars ($5,000) as the foundation of the Howard Gardner Nichols Scholarship for undergraduates, in memory of my deceased son, who graduated at Harvard College with the class of 1893.

“My son’s death resulted from an accident at the cotton mill [that] he had constructed in northern Alabama – and where he was greatly beloved – and it is my wish that a student from North Alabama, if of good character and scholarship, shall have the preference over others in the assignment of the income of this scholarship. If in any year no such student shall, at the usual time, apply for the income, of this scholarship. If in any year no such student shall, at the usual time, apply for the income, it may be assigned, at the discretion of the President and Fellows, to some other student in the undergraduate department of the College.

“Yours very truly, J. Howard Nichols.”

It was voted that Mr. Nichols’s gift be gratefully accepted on the terms named and that the Howard Gardner Nichols Scholarship be established with an income at present of two hundred dollars.

In 1892, the town of Newton, Mass., voted to build a public library. In 1894, the library was opened in the selectmen’s room of the town hall building. In 1898, J. Howard Nichols erected the present library in memory of his parents Nicholas and Mary Barstow.

In 1900, two final structures of Howard Gardner Nichols planned model village were completed and dedicated as memorials to him. One was the distinctive white columned Howard Gardner Nichols Memorial Library, which became the first public library building erected in Alabama. The colonial-type structure, with its circular porch and white Ionic columns, was built in 1899 as a memorial to Howard. It was designed by a Boston architect, with most of the materials coming from the Boston area. The Grecian columns in front, as well as all the woodwork inside, are all hand-carved. Nichols’ portrait was donated by the Gadsden’s Women Club.

The library was used for 25 years, and then served as a day nursery for mothers who worked for the mill. The library was then sold to a family when the mill and houses were sold. The Northeast Genealogical Society bought the building for $6,500 in 1973.

The other building built in Howard Nichol’s memory was the lovely Union Church, which featured unique Alpine architecture. His sister placed a stained glass window in the church as a memorial gift. When the Union Church was dismantled years later, the window was moved to a special place of honor at Nichols’ beloved Holy Comforter Protestant Episcopal Church in Gadsden.

The library is located behind Canterbury Shopping Center on a triangle at the intersection of Cabot and Dwight avenues. It is opened every Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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