by David Flint
Peter Hopkins gave an illustrated talk Monday, June 4, at the Stephentown Heritage Center about the Crane paper company and its colonial roots. Hopkins is a marketing and PR consultant and also historian for Crane & Company. Crane is noted especially for its beautiful 100% cotton engraved stationery and also for its high quality currency paper. [private]He spoke briefly about the history of Crane in nearby Dalton, MA – Zenas Crane started the company there in 1801 – and about currency and currency paper because money is an attention getter for everyone. He showed pictures of a huge 1,000 lb. roll of Franklin one hundred dollar bills which when finally printed, he said, would have a value of about $1.3 billion. He didn’t bring any samples of paper money because, “the Secret Service gets a little cranky when someone tries to take samples.”
Hopkins’ focus, however, was on a predecessor company started in 1770 near Boston and taken over by Zenas’ father Stephen Crane and two partners. This was the Liberty Paper Mill situated in the town of Milton. One of nine ledgers kept at this mill has survived, and Hopkins has been intrigued by the fascinating history that can be obtained from what we normally think of as a bone dry summary of who bought what and how they paid for it. “History is a living organism,” he said, “History doesn’t change but what we find out about it does.”
From the ledger entries we can see that the Liberty Paper Mill was actively involved in the movement for independence. It is well known that patriot Paul Revere, who had a printing shop and became America’s first bank note engraver, was a big customer of the Liberty Mill – though it took him two years to pay his bill. What is lesser known, and came out in the ledger, is that he also pastured a number of horses at the mill, horses that he was keeping safe for his use and that of the Committees of Correspondence.
Hopkins said that in going over the ledger he was interested to see what other noteworthy customers there were. The first customer mentioned is Samuel Bliss, a farmer who also commanded a company of Minutemen. The mill supplied paper for newspapers, newsletters and broadsheets for a variety of printers. These included notably the Edes & Gill firm whose office got nicknamed “The Sedition Foundry” as it was the meeting place of the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Tea Party was plotted there.
William Burbeck in the early days of independence agitation was castigated by the patriots because he served the
British Army as Ordnance Officer. But the ledger shows that his bills in 1774 at Liberty Paper were paid by William Salisbury, a rabid revolutionary merchant from Worcester. Later in 1777 Burbeck is recorded as buying the best cartridge paper. Apparently by then he was making muskets in his carpentry shop and having them transported secretly in milk cans to the Militia by his wife.
Henry Knox, a young book seller, was another big customer for paste boards and printing paper. Knox of course went on to become the leading artillerist in the Militia and later the nation’s first Secretary of War.
Another customer was Caleb Davis, a merchant and member of the Sons of Liberty. Davis bought writing paper, but entries show that he also purchased at least two reams of cartridge paper for which he paid in chocolate. Cartridge paper for muskets and cannons became in these years a major product of the Liberty Mill. In 1776 when a powder mill was authorized to be built in Milton by Paul Revere and Thomas Crane, records show that there was a huge increase in cartridge paper at the Liberty Mill. Other customers for large amounts of cartridge paper for both muskets and cannon were Richard Devons – spelled “Davens” in the ledger – who became Commissary General for the Massachusetts Militia, Thomas Chaise, a close associate of Sam Adams and member of the Loyal Nine, predecessor of the Sons of Liberty. Chaise was a whisky distiller who for some reason had a need for a lot of cannon and musket cartridge paper. Chaise was on the London Enemies List and was one of 13 Liberty Mill customers who participated in the Boston Tea Party.
Another patriot customer was William Conant, Colonel in the Massachusetts Militia, who in 1775 concocted with Paul Revere the plan to alert the colonists in Charlestown about the approach of the British. Then there was Isaiah Thomas, another printer who published The Massachusetts Spy newspaper. In 1775 he moved his print shop to Worcester. In 1793 Zenas Crane and his brother Stephen built a paper mill there for Thomas, and Zenas stayed and worked there until 1799 when he struck out on his own and eventually started his own paper mill on the Housatonic River in Dalton.
The evidence is all there in the ledger. “There’s a lot of history here,” Hopkins said. It’s evidence of the active role Stephen Crane’s mill played in securing independence. Had the war turned out differently, all those entries would surely have been used as evidence of sedition and treason against the King on the part of both the Liberty Paper Mill and its customers.