William Wood and the American Woolen Company

William Wood and the American Woolen Company

The American Woolen Company, established in 1899 under the leadership of William M. Wood and his father-in-law Frederick Ayer through the consolidation of eight financially troubled New England woolen mills, at its height in the 1920s owned and operated sixty woolen mills across New England. A clear product of the era of trusts, American Woolen’s business was routinely protected by Congress with the passage of high tariffs to keep foreign competition at bay.

An American businessman and the younger brother of patent medicine tycoon Dr. James Cook Ayer, Frederick Ayer, (born December 8, 1822, died March 14, 1918) was a successful Lowell, MA merchant. Ayer also purchased the Tremont and Suffolk mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. When he purchased the Washington Mill he hired his son-in-law, William M. Wood to run it. Wood had already successfully turned around a bankrupt mill in Fall River. With Ayer’s financial backing, Wood eventually brought together over fifty under-performing mills to reduce competition and increase prices for his products.

William Wood was born in 1858 in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. His parents, Grace (Emma) Wood and William Wood Sr., were Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. His father was a crewman on a New Bedford whaling ship from 1853 until his death from consumption in 1871.

William Jr. was 12 years old when his father died, and had to drop out of school and find a job to provide for his mother and younger siblings. In 1923 he told an American Magazine reporter “I started to work. That was where my good fortune began. Work is whatever you make it: hardship or happiness, a punishment or a pleasure. I have worked practically al my life and I love it. A man who doesn’t work not only shirks his duty but misses the greatest satisfaction” (in Bruce Watson, Bread and Roses, p. 21). One wonders if he’d taken such great pleasure out of working 60 hours a week in one of his own Lawrence mills?

Wood eventually secured employment with a wealthy New Bedford textile manufacturer named Andrew Pierce. Wood worked his way up to the manufacturing department, where he learned cost structures and figures. At eighteen, he moved to Philadelphia and worked in a brokerage firm where he learned about stocks and bonds. He eventually returned to New Bedford and worked at a bank. According to the Dukes County Intelligencer, when a Fall River textile company went bankrupt, its new manager hired Wood as paymaster.

By 1899, William Wood had convinced seven mills to join what he called ‘The Woolen Trust.’ In April of that same year the company was incorporated as the American Woolen Company. In a sort of ‘rags to riches’ story Wood was a multi-millionaire at the age of forty-one. He built some of the largest mill complexes in the world, and became known as the symbol of expansion and profit. However, financial success did not buy happiness and on February 2, 1926 William Wood had his chauffeur take him for a drive. On a deserted road, he got out of the car, walked out of his driver’s sight, and with a revolver ended his life.