In 2017 the Mt. Tabor-Danby Historical Society acquired a spinning wheel that had been deaccessioned by the American Textile History Museum. This walking wheel, also known as a wool or great wheel, was made by a turner named Samuel Morison who came to Danby in 1806. Born in 1775 in Henniker, NH, he moved to Parris Hill in Danby, and he and his father and cousin joined the powerful Quaker meeting that met alternate months in Danby and Granville, NY. It is likely that the two younger men worked together to make and sell the spinning wheels that are still found in this area and in collections from Maine to California.
Danby’s Samuel married Rebecca Boyce, daughter of William Boyce and Alice Weaver and the couple raised nine children near Parris Hill. They moved to South Wallingford around 1830 and Rebecca died and was buried in the Nichols cemetery in 1849. Morison returned to Danby to live with his brother-in-law in 1850 and he died in Battenville, NY in 1862 at the home of his daughter Candace.
The wheel that is now in the MTDHS collection would have been used in the 19th century to spin the short fibers of cotton and sheep’s wool into yarn and by 1840, there were 1.5 million sheep on Vermont’s hillsides. Most families would also have had a smaller treadle wheel to spin flax into linen, and women would have depended on these wheels to provide all the socks and sweaters and sheets and towels and household cloth that a family would need. Historians estimate that a woman would have walked 20 miles a week to make the yarn she needed on a walking wheel, as well as preparing flax and spinning linen, tending crops and animals, and taking care of her children.
The 46-inch diameter drive wheel of the MTDHS spinning wheel has 12 spokes. Its rim was made of a single 13-foot piece of wood and clinched with nails. The table and legs of the wheel have been painted with dark green milk paint and it has incised horn ferrules on the spindle post. The bushings inside the hub were made of bone, likely from the Morison’s cows. It was an early example of making do with materials that were local and sustainable.
Morison’s wheels are known for their elegant simplicity reflecting the Quaker belief that clothing and possessions should be “plain”. However the paint and horn details suggest Morison wanted to make a beautiful wheel that would have appealed to those outside his Quaker community. Like their great wheel siblings, Morison’s treadle wheels have legs with pointed “toes” and ankle “bracelets”, and they too were painted and used axle bushings made of bone that withstand the heat of extended turning. It is likely that there may also be yarn reels, stair rails and other wood products in Danby’s homes that were made by him, and these objects speak of American history at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.
The MTDHS spinning wheel is one of about three dozen great wheels identified so far and there are nearly a dozen flax wheels that are believed to have also come from Morison’s workshop. There is at least one other wheel in a Danby home and there are likely treadle wheels in attics and barns in the area, like the one in the Danby library.
Morison descended from ancestors who were among the Scots-Irish that settled the Northeast in the first quarter of the 18th century, His great great grandfathers arrived in Londonderry, NH and would have been well-respected, wealthy members of their communities They founded a linen guild that introduced the first flax wheels to the new country and 100 years later, when Samuel was first settling in Danby, there would have been more than 67,000 wheels in Vermont alone – enough for approximately two wheels per household.
By the 1830s, the Industrial Revolution had spawned textile mills in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont’s Danby and it would have been cheaper to buy cloth from the store or passing peddlers. But the wheels became important again, during the Civil War, when it would have been difficult to get cotton fabric from the South and people would have pulled their spinning wheels out of the attic to make cloth and bandages for Union soldiers. After the war, few women would have needed to do the work of making the cloth for their family’s needs and the wheels would have again been relegated to the attic, but today, the revival of the craft of spinning has made it possible for collectors to learn important lessons in American history from these tools. Two hundred years after these wheels were crafted, they tell stories of immigrants and industry. Stories of families and nations. Stories of craft and use. They tell the stories of Mount Tabor and Danby, and many other places like them.
Written by Nora J. Rubinstein for the Mt. Tabor-Danby Historical Society, August 2019